Daniel Webster was apparently quick with words from a very young age. One day Webster’s father, who was to be absent from home, left Daniel and his brother Ezekiel specific work instructions. But on his return he found the task still undone, and questioned his sons about their idleness. “What have you been doing, Ezekiel?” he asked. “Nothing, sir.” “Well, Daniel, what have you been doing?” “Helping Zeke, sir.”
Making excuses goes all the way back to the very first days of humankind. The Lord asked Adam, “‘Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’”
Sometimes, the reasons we give for certain actions are nothing more than glammed up excuses that have no merit. Yet, there are times when even our best reasons are still not acceptable. Our Gospel provides examples of both.
As Jesus and the disciples are walking along the road, they encounter three different individuals. The first says that he will follow Jesus wherever he goes. We do not know whether or not he did, but Jesus response to him was, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Essentially, Jesus is saying to the man, “You do not know what you are asking to do. Do you really have what it takes to be my disciple?”
I’ll come back to the second man. When Jesus asked the third man to follow him, the man responded, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus responded, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” It is easy to see the man’s point, “Just let me go say ‘bye’ to the family,” yet Jesus’ response makes it clear that the man is following the call of the world and its needs, which distract him and draw him from his true calling. It seems harsh, but not nearly as harsh as what is said to the second man.
“Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” In Jewish understanding, the burial of parents is such a sacred duty that all other obligations of the Law may be set aside in order to complete the task. Even so, Jesus said to the man, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” For many, this is too much. How could he be so insensitive? Surely this isn’t some passing excuse, but a true reason for delay? Jesus’ answer says otherwise. Jesus answer clearly states, what could be more important than following God and proclaiming the Gospel.
Jesus calls them all to follow him and to proclaim the Good News, yet the needs of the world pull them from him. They saw what needed to be done, probably even what they truly wanted to do, but once they had their eyes on it, they looked up and were carried away by the concerns of the world and of the flesh.
Henri Nouwen writes in Creative Ministry about the time he was visited in Holland by a Vietnamese Buddhist. “He was a thin, slender man whom you would be afraid to touch. But his clear, fearless eyes radiated an insight so deeply impregnated with affection that the only thing you could hope for was understanding. While he looked straight into my eyes, he said: ‘There was a man on a horse galloping swiftly along the road. An old farmer standing in the fields, seeing him pass by, called out, ‘Hey, rider, where are you going?’ The rider turned around and shouted back, ‘Don’t ask me, just ask my horse!’”
Nouwen went on to say, “The monk looked at me and said: ‘That is your condition. You are no longer master over your own destiny. You have lost control over the great powers that pull you forward toward an unknown direction. You have become a passive victim of an ongoing movement which you do not understand.’”
“You have become a passive victim of an ongoing movement which you do not understand.” The world, or as Paul referred to it in our reading from Galatians – the flesh, is that horse that carries us along. And when Jesus comes and says, “Follow me,” we would like to start or we would like to follow him more faithfully, but that horse, the world, carries us along to wherever, and so when we do not follow, we make excuses. Some of those excuses are fairly lame: “I’m just not into organized religion.” “I’m a spiritual person, but…” “Sunday is the only day I get to sleep in.” Other excuses sound more like sound reasons: “My job is very demanding.” “I don’t have the time to commit right now, especially with family obligations.” “The Christian faith is too restrictive. Too many rules.” Yet to these, Jesus says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Jesus is not dismissing us or invalidating our personal needs, but he is saying there is something that is far more important. There is something that is worth our time, worth our involvement, and worth setting as our highest priority, there is something that begs us to set aside our reasons and excuses: following him and proclaiming the Good News.
In chapter seven of Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing, Sören Kierkegaard writes, “For like a poisonous breath over the fields, like a mass of locusts over Egypt, so the swarm of excuses is a general plague, a ruinous infection among men, that eats off the sprouts of the Eternal.” Our excuses articulate our reasons for not following Christ as we should, and they diminish our faith; however, these excuses are not the true problem, they are only a symptom or side effect. The true problem is the horse and our passive approach to following Jesus.
When I was trying to understand our faith (I still have a long ways to go!) I always viewed God as this massive river and that I was carried along by God to the places he wanted me to go. That works in some ways, but then I came across a passage from G.K. Chesterton in the Everlasting Man: “A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it…. A paper boat can ride the rising deluge with all the airy arrogance of a fairy ship; but if the fairy ship sails upstream it is really rowed by the fairies.” No longer did I want to see myself as passive. It doesn’t mean that I always do, but I wanted, I desired to actively pursue my faith.
When we are engaged only passively in our faith, we are carried along by the world and its whims, therefore we must be actively engaged, and the language of scripture supports this: Keep watch. Seek. Knock. Take up your cross. Follow me. Make disciples. Pray without ceasing. Go and proclaim. Those are not passive activities, but ones that require action.
To this I would add one final thought: even if you do not become actively involved in your faith, don’t make excuses for your inaction. Instead, admit it to yourself and confess it to God — “I want to, but I’m just not ready to commit.” “It just isn’t that important to me.” “I struggle with seeing the point.” — and then in your prayers, ask Him to make you more faithful in following Him. If you don’t even want to pray this, then in the words of Archbishop Michael Ramsey, pray that you could pray, but don’t make some excuse and do nothing. If it is something you want or even something you think you may, then actively engage in your relationship with God instead of waiting to see where the silly horse may take you. Put your hands to the plow, keep your eyes forward, and actively seek God.
Let us pray: Father in Heaven, You have blessed us with many gifts. You chose us before the world began, To be Your adopted sons and daughters, And to live through love in Your Presence. Give us wisdom and insight to know Your purpose; Give us courage to follow where Your Spirit leads us, Give us generosity to serve You in our brothers and sisters. We make this prayer through Christ Our Lord. Amen.