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The enemy of the best

One of the most confronting sayings by Jesus can be found in Luke 9:57-62:

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” And Jesus [1] said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Yet another said, “I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

The people to whom Jesus speaks here are, it seems, willing disciples. They are ready to follow him; they just have a few important family matters to attend to first. Their requests are quite reasonable by any standard you might care to name. Yet Jesus forces them to make a choice. Effectively, he says to them, “Follow me, or do the right thing by your family. You can’t do both.”

It’s important to understand the context of this passage. Just a few verses earlier, Jesus predicted his coming death and resurrection. In Luke 9:51, we read that the days of his being “taken up” are drawing near. From this point on, Jesus resolutely sets his face to go to Jerusalem. He is on a journey from Galilee in the far north to Jerusalem in the south. This journey is not a leisurely stroll through the countryside, it’s a journey of vital importance and urgency. In this context, we can understand a little more why he gives these ultimatums to his would-be disciples. Jesus will not wait for them to bury their dead or say goodbye to their family. If they linger around in Galilee even for a moment, Jesus will be gone. The fulfilment of the kingdom of God is about to take place in his death and resurrection; they must follow now or miss out entirely. Jesus requires radical, wholehearted commitment from those who would follow him.

We’re not in exactly the same situation as these would-be-disciples. Nevertheless, Luke spends a great deal of his Gospel (roughly 10 chapters) on this ‘travel narrative’, recording the actions and especially the teaching of Jesus on his journey. Here’s a message, it seems, for all would-be disciples in any age. What might this radical, urgent and rather unreasonable teaching of Jesus have to do with us?

Somebody wise once said, “The good is often the enemy of the best”. That is, often in life there are things we can do or relationships in which we could be involved that are good in and of themselves, but which, in the end, distract us and take away our energies from other things or people that we really need to be investing our time or energies in. These ‘good’ things or relationships can easily become the ‘enemy’ of the ‘best’ because it’s very hard to ignore something that is good. If you do try to ignore the ‘good’ for the sake of something better, you may well feel guilty and highly stressed, and you will be criticized. People will say, “But you can’t stop doing that! It’s such a good thing to do!” But sometimes you just need to give it up—bite the bullet—take the flak—wear the blame—let go of something good so that you can do what is best.

This is the case here in Jesus’ teaching. Attending the funeral of your dead father and saying farewell to your family is good, right and proper. The fifth commandment says honour your father and mother. This is reflected in the New Testament as well: for example, Matthew 15:4-6 and 1 Timothy 5:8 contain strong injunctions against those who ignore the needs of their parents. Yet in Luke 9, Jesus comes very close to teaching his disciples to disobey the fifth commandment. (At the very least, he seems to be commanding them to disobey the vibe of this law!) Why? It’s not because Jesus doesn’t believe that proper respect for your family is good. It’s because, in this case—in this circumstance—the good is the enemy of the best. The kingdom of God matters more than parents and family and attending funerals. The would-be disciples had to choose.

Discipleship is about following and proclaiming our King Jesus as we await his imminent return (e.g. 1 Thess 1:8-10). We may not be literally walking south through the Promised Land with him. Nevertheless, there are times when we need to make tough choices to neglect what is good so that we can concentrate on what is best for his kingdom. It’s easy to see when we have to give up doing what is wrong to follow Jesus. However, it’s often far tougher to give up what is right and good to follow him. But there are times when this is exactly what we need to do.

How often have you been convicted (perhaps from a talk or a Bible Study or a friend) that you need to “spend more time” doing something? Perhaps you need to spend more time praying, reading the Bible, instructing your kids from the Bible, or (as was the case with the would-be disciple) proclaiming the kingdom of God. How often have you taken the next step and asked, “What, therefore, do I need to spend less time doing?” The answer to this latter question may be very difficult because it may involve giving up good things. Maybe you will come up with a solution that enables you to do both the good and the best. But you won’t always. Sometimes you just have to give up what is good because it’s the enemy of the best. Perhaps, for the sake of proclaiming the kingdom of God, you do need to ignore your current friends, even though you really enjoy their company, so that you can make new friends. On the other hand, perhaps you need to give up making new friends because you must care for your family. Maybe, for the sake of the kingdom of God, you will need to give up your job, change careers, move house, not go on that holiday or choose less-than-optimal schooling for your children.

Maybe you will even need to neglect aspects of your church family in order to focus on proclaiming the kingdom of God better. Maybe you need to stop attending that really enjoyable Bible Study group to give yourself more time with outsiders. Perhaps you need to reduce your expectations of the quality of your church gathering, children’s programme, youth programme or seniors’ program so that your leaders can spend more time with outsiders. Perhaps not. But the question has to be asked. The answer will be different for different people. What is there in your life that is good, but not best in your circumstances for the sake of the kingdom of God? And what are you going to do about it?

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