In the early 20th century, there was an English philosopher named Alfred Whitehead who said that, “Apart from religion, expressed in ways generally intelligible, populations sink into the apathetic task of daily survival, with minor alleviations.”
That’s basically the highbrow approach to what the Canadian 80’s rock band Loverboy were saying in their hit Working for the Weekend: “Everybody’s working for the weekend. Everybody wants a little romance. Everybody’s going off the deep end. Everybody needs a second chance.” It’s a deceptively profound song and a lot catchier than what Alfred Whitehead said, but it’s the same idea and both hit on something true, that life is a struggle. Does your own life ever sink into “the apathetic task of daily survival?” No matter where you work or what you do all day, being alive can often feel like treading water. Chances are, today has its own list of things to get done so that you can start tomorrow with your head above the surface.
And, to be sure, the minor alleviations help. We need things like weekends, birthday parties, vacations. My family and I are going to Maine this week and I feel like it’s a major alleviation that is coming in the knick of time. And yet these special occasions are exactly that – special. They’re not the norm. They’re just little breaks from the task of daily survival. With all of its compartments – work life, family life, social life, love life, spiritual life – it often feels like life itself is impossible to keep balanced. Everyone’s plight these days seems to be work/life balance. This notion is brought to life by the story in The Onion with the headline, Man Still Trying To Find Right Work-Anxiety-Life-Anxiety Balance. Written in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the article reads, “Lamenting that there are only so many hours in the day to devote to his various stresses, local sales manager and father of two Dale Humphrey told reporters, “It seems like I’m always so busy dwelling on the countless dilemmas that come up in the office that I barely have any time to stress over the problems facing me at home. I just wish I had the time to freak out about both my job and my personal life without feeling like I’m neglecting the other.”
This might be so close to home that it doesn’t read as satire. Last month The Atlantic wrote an article about work/life balance and they interviewed Brigid Shulte who just wrote a book about the topic and, looking back on a certain point in her life she said, “I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I felt like work was totally demanding. I always felt behind, that I wasn’t doing enough. At home, I felt like I couldn’t be the kind of mother that I thought I should be. I felt like I was falling apart at the seams.” Unfortunately, experience shows that even trying to achieve work/life balance can throw things into turmoil. The journalist who wrote the article said that she once took up baking because she thought it would be a nice balance from her busy work schedule but then realized she was too tired to bake after a 12-workday and now she just hates baking. Trying to solve the problem just made it worse.
Today, in this passage from Luke, we see how Jesus approaches our “tasks of daily survival.” Three very eager men approach Jesus and express a desire to follow him. “I will follow you wherever you go!” says the first. And Jesus’ response is a little rude. He basically says, “I don’t think you know who you’re dealing with.” All of creation has a home, he says – foxes have holes and birds have nests, but I have no place to lay my head. Is that what you’re signing up for? Are you really willing to give up everything you have? To quote Loveryboy again, Jesus says, “You want to be in the show? Come on, baby, let’s go” (it sounds lame when I say it, but when Mike Reno sings it, it’s amazing). And we don’t know how the man responds to Jesus, but we also know that we don’t hear from him again. Jesus keeps going.
Then two other men approach Jesus for a job interview. Jesus says, “Follow me.” The first of the two men says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” The other says, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Both requests are completely reasonable, but Jesus basically laughs at them. He’s not sympathetic in the slightest. He says, “Let the dead bury their own dead;” not exactly a shining example of pastoral care to a man who’s grieving the loss of his father.
But, let me give you a little context: burial at this time in Judaism often involved a year-long period from the time when the body was first buried until a year later when the bones of the deceased were placed in an ossuary box. So, it sounds cold-hearted, but Jesus sees that this man is using his father’s death as an excuse to put off following Jesus just a little bit longer. “I’ll follow you Jesus, just let me first just take care of business – you know how it is.” As the old Yiddish proverb goes: “We always keep God waiting while we admit more importunate suitors.” In both cases, the men say, “Lord, first, let me do this.” And Jesus basically says, “You know what, you don’t really get it. Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”
When Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” he is talking about spiritual deadness. He’s saying, “You think you’re treading water right now – keeping everything in your life in place – but you are actually lying at the bottom of the ocean. You’re not even alive. You’re moving around frantically, but inside you’re dead.”
This passage shows that God is an all-or-nothing God. He doesn’t want a piece of you. He doesn’t ask how your “spiritual life” is going (as if that were a thing). He wants your entire life and everything it entails. If that sounds extreme, it’s because it is. Jesus is not big on moderation. When asked what the most important of the 10 Commandments was, Jesus said, “The most important one is this: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30).
When Jesus later says to the third man, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the service in the kingdom of God,” he is saying, “Unless you’re completely focused on me, you’re going to veer off.” It’s a fitting analogy because, apparently, you have to keep your eyes fixed to keep a plow straight. For the record, I’ve never used a plow and I don’t ever intend to and most of you look like you’re in the same boat. So the modern day equivalent is probably texting while driving (which, don’t worry, I’m not going to preach about that).
Jesus’ words are harsh, but what he says is true. He’s saying, “Look, nothing else in life is going to keep you afloat, at least for very long. Even the good things in life – family, work, serving others, being disciplined – those are all good things and they serve a purpose, but they are not enough to save you. In fact, their collective demands may be what ultimately drags you down.
Jesus is making a direct attack on life as we know it, as something we think belongs to us, something we need to protect and to balance and to hold together. Notice that both of these men claim ownership of the things they’re caring for. “My father,” “my family.” Of course, I’m not blaming them. This is a technicality and more of a side-note. I’m not suggesting we do away with possessive pronouns, but what I am saying is that when we are able to recognize that Jesus is Lord, we suddenly realize that the lives we live are not even our own. God alone says “Mine” of everything that exists on the grounds that He made it.
Jesus Christ is Lord of all. So what does that mean for you? It might sound like a bad thing – you might ask, “If he’s Lord of all then why is my life such a mess?” – until you realize that he is the Lord of love. He is a Lord that says, “Here, let me take that. I am strong enough. Follow me and suddenly everything feels lighter.” It suddenly becomes good news as he looks at you and he says “I want it all. Not just your righteousness, not just the church-version of you, not just what you’re good at, but the parts of your life that aren’t all together. I want the estranged relationships. I want your addiction. I want your failures. I want your doubts. I want your fears. I want the things left undone and I want them now, not when you’re ready.” This might sound intimidating – you may want to say, “Jesus, can you give me a little personal space” – but it’s good news. He wants your entire life because he cares about your actual life and he is the one that can actually help you. He doesn’t need you to have it all together because He already does. The Book of Colossians says, “He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.”
We are all prone to put our hands to the plow and look back and because of that none of us are fit for the kingdom of God. And yet, while our eyes wander to all of the various areas of our life that are out of control, this passage states that Jesus’ eyes were set. It says they were set toward Jerusalem. In other words, even at this point in his ministry, his eyes were fixed on the Cross, where he was to die on our behalf. And on his way there he never looked back. Jesus alone is fit for the kingdom of God, but through his death and resurrection, we are invited into the kingdom, as we are. So, yes, our God is an all-or-nothing God, but the gospel proclaims that while we gave nothing, Jesus paid it all. How’s that for balance?
And here’s the thing: when this message of God’s grace penetrates your heart, it can infuse itself in every part of your life. Because Jesus is Lord of all, he is Lord of whatever you are going through right now – at work, at home, with your boss, with your family, with your children, with your roommate, with yourself. If you’re given eyes to realize that, you will know that the pressure is totally off of you because it’s all on the Cross.
Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac offers a story about how hearing the gospel affected the life of the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy. Keillor writes, “He was 52 years old, and his two greatest novels, War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), were behind him. He had found himself in a crisis—he was famous, had a family and land and money, but it all seemed empty. He was unable to write, had trouble sleeping, contemplated suicide. He read the great philosophers, but found holes in all of their arguments. He was amazed that the majority of ordinary Russians managed to keep themselves going every day, and he finally decided that it must be their faith. From there, it was a short time until Tolstoy took a walk in the woods and found God. He wrote: ‘At the thought of God, happy waves of life welled up inside me. Everything came alive, took on meaning. The moment I thought I knew God, I lived. But the moment I forgot him, the moment I stopped believing, I also stopped living.’”
“The apathetic task of daily survival” is ultimately a losing battle. We can’t win the battle. So I’m not saying that the answer is to rip up your to-do list and quit your job and move to Thailand (although maybe you should, I don’t know). The answer is that God broke into the world with all of its struggles and won the battle on our behalf. And He breaks into your life today – with each of your unique struggles – to give you rest. Thanks be to God that Jesus is Lord of all and that through him we may have life – not just something to survive; not just a set of apathetic tasks – but a life to the full. Amen.