Anyone who plows a field must be completely focused on plowing. And following Jesus is no different, “My disciple has to be utterly focused on me.” By the way, “fit for the kingdom” is an unfortunate translation; the word there means “useful.” You might think he’s saying, “Unless you’re totally committed, you don’t qualify for my kingdom.” Of course no one qualifies for Jesus’ kingdom. It’s all by grace. He’s saying: Unless delighting Jesus, resembling him, serving him, and knowing him is your highest priority, the healing power of the kingdom of God will not be flowing through you. You will not be a useful vehicle for it.
The second and more cryptic line is, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” Obviously physically dead people can’t dig graves, so the first noun must refer to the spiritually dead. To be spiritually dead means to be as blind and insensitive to spiritual reality as a physical body is to physical reality. You may be saying, “Well, I believe in Jesus, but I can’t put him first right now. I’ve got my career; I’ve got to wait till my parents die, because they would be unhappy if I became a Christian… I see who he is and what he’s done, but I’m not going to put him first just yet. Someday I will.” When someone says, “I understand Christianity. I’m just not ready to put it at the central place in my life,” then that person really doesn’t understand it yet! Jesus says: Putting anything before me reveals spiritual deadness. Let the dead bury their dead. If you put your father before me, there’s a spiritual deadness in your life.
Talking this harshly is not my style, but I’m afraid to mute the smelling–salts-ness of Jesus’ message: Let the dead bury the dead! No one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God! Foxes have holes, birds have nests… But “I have to be the first priority in your life, or you’re not a disciple; if you don’t put me first in your life, it’s not that you’re just uncommitted or lazy, disorganized or undisciplined. No, you just don’t get it! You don’t really see who I am and what I’ve done; you don’t understand the meaning of my life and work. You need to wake up!
Let me illustrate. In 1971 I heard a talk—two illustrations—that changed my life. The woman, named Barbara Boyd, said, “If somebody says to me, ‘Come on in, Barbara, but stay out, Boyd,’ it’s a bit of a problem, because I can’t separate them. It’s not like the top half of me is Barbara, and the bottom half of me is Boyd. So if you won’t have Boyd, you can’t get Barbara. If you’re going to keep the Boyd out, I can’t come in at all!” She continued: “To say, ‘Jesus, come into my life, forgive my sins, answer my prayers; do this for me, do that for me—but don’t be the absolute master of my life; Jesus, Savior, come in; but Lord, stay out,’ how can he come in at all? Because he’s all Savior, and he’s all Lord. He’s Lord because he’s Savior. He’s Savior because he’s Lord.”
I remember her second illustration: “If the distance between the Earth and the sun, which is 92 million miles, was the thickness of a piece of paper, the diameter of our galaxy would be a stack of papers 310 miles high. And our galaxy is less than a speck of dust in the part of the universe that we can see. And that part of the universe might just be a speck of dust compared to all the universe. And if Jesus is the Son of God who holds all this together with the word of his power, is this the kind of person you ask into your life to be your personal assistant?” Then she asked us all to go outside and for one hour say nothing. “Just think about what this means to you.”
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