II. “What Comes First?” – Stewardship means Priorities (Luke 9:59-62)
Additional Bible Texts/Themes: First-fruits
Focus: Stewardship means Priorities
Application: time management
The potential disciples in this text had an interest in Jesus’ ministry but were not willing to make it a priority. This plays out particularly with reference to the urgency of his work. For instance, two of them simply wished to take care of important family business first, and then they would join the cause. Jesus asks for immediate response, implying that one’s priorities are played out in temporal sequence. The things we do first are of first importance. In our lives, we must place God first not just in principle but truly in practice by placing time with him and for him at the forefront of our schedule.
Whether you are the disciplined type or not, you probably write to-do lists. Type A personalities might systematize and organize theirs on their palm pilots, while Type B personalities scribble “pick up dry-cleaning” on their actual palms. Yet both make to-do lists. I suspect that if you reached in your pocket right now, a great many of you would find one. It may have gone through the laundry a few times, but there it is.
The biggest problem of to-do lists is that there is always at least one thing on them that does not get done. We seldom do all the “dos” on the list. The lists are often misplaced before they are completed. When one list expires, the unfinished dos often make their way onto a fresh list. I once cleaned out a drawer to find three separate to-do lists all containing the phrase “write thank you notes.” Needless to say I wrote that same phrase on my latest to-do list. In the time it takes to write the phrase “write thank you notes” four times, I could have finished that “do.” And then I could have had the satisfaction of taking out my to-do list and placing a little check next to that task!
We all have ways of dealing with unfinished tasks. My wife and I have one such technique. We call it the “accordion principle.” Let me explain. On the one hand, some tasks require a set amount of time. Driving to the store takes twenty minutes. Cooking the chicken takes fifteen minutes. Reading a chapter in a textbook takes forty. Watching the news takes thirty.
On the other hand, some tasks have an elastic time span. They can be done either quickly or slowly. In other words, we have some control over the time they take. How long you spend at the store could be anywhere between five minutes to an hour and a half. Preparing the chicken “just right” could take over thirty minutes. Cramming for the exam could take five minutes or last hours. Watching the news channel can last all day. My wife and I call a task of this second sort an “accordion.” Like an accordion, it can be stretched way out or pressed in real close. The accordion principle is very simple: do the set time activities first, and do the accordions second. If you get done with the set time activities quickly, then you can take your time with the accordions. If not, the accordions will just have to be rushed.
Now let’s be honest with ourselves. Time spent with God and for God is an accordion. Just think about it. The Bible does not set some exact amount of time you should spend praying, worshipping or serving. There’s no memory verse that one of the kids could stand up and recite saying, “Thou shall dedicate fifteen minutes a day to the Lord thy God, III Colossians 5:38.” There is no set minimum, and there is certainly no set maximum. Clearly we could and may even desire to give all of our time to divine tasks. But alas, life gets in the way. Time spent with and for God is the greatest scheduling accordion out there. So we treat it like one. Whether you have heard of the accordion principle or not, you probably practice it at least in this area. We all want to give God our best. We don’t want to hurry through our time with and for God. So we hurry through our other activities first and give him the rest. But the rest isn’t always the best. Most of the time, the rest never comes.
The potential disciples in today’s Gospel text encountered this very issue. Two men who desire to follow Jesus lift up a simple request to take care of important family business first. One of them needs to bury his father. His own father has passed away and the time has come to grieve his death and celebrate his life. Most of us know from personal experience that a funeral means “drop everything.” It is certainly not an accordion event. It takes a bulk of immediate time. It simply comes first.
However, Jesus looks this potential discipline in the eye and says, “Let the dead bury dead.” Jesus draws a line in the sand at this rather sensitive spot. Jesus challenges the immediacy of a father’s funeral with the immediacy of his message and ministry. I can see how the Gospel trumps a funeral in principle. But does it really have to play out that way? Does Jesus truly require us to abandon our family values in service to him?
The other man makes a seemingly less urgent request. He asks to say goodbye to his family. Jesus sharply replies that once you put your hand on the plow, you can’t look back. This small farming parable would ring true for Jesus’ hearers. They knew that your plow-line would be crooked unless you kept you eyes on a fixed point in front of you. For those of you who take lawn care seriously know this still applies. If you want those nice stripes in your lawn, just mow with your eye on a fixed point. Don’t look back, down, left or right. Just keep your eye fixed and the lines will stay straight.
But Jesus is not just being cute here. Those in earshot of Jesus would have heard a lot more than a farming fable. They were not just farmers; they were also Jews. And Jews know their Bibles. They would have recognized Jesus’ allusion. Jesus was not the first prophet in Israel. And this man was not the first would-be prophet apprentice. In I Kings 19 we read that Elisha was plowing with his oxen when Elijah called him into service. Elisha asked if he could go and say goodbye to his family. Elijah sharply grants his request. Elisha kisses his parents, burns his plow, sacrifices his oxen on it and gives it to the community. Then he joins Elijah’s ministry.
Unlike Elijah, Jesus does not grant this man’s simple request. Rather, he calls for immediate response. So Jesus not only lays a trump card on a father’s funeral, he even trumps the prophetic tradition that precedes him. So for those in earshot, Jesus is not only an insensitive prophet, he may very well be a false prophet.
I must admit that I sometimes wonder about Jesus. How can we abandon the responsibility to our families? Doesn’t the Bible teach us to honor our parents? If I require you to dishonor them, am I not a false prophet? How can all our earthly responsibilities simply fall by the wayside for the sake of serving God? Are not these very responsibilities a service to God?
These questions and caveats must be granted for what they are. But we cannot soften the thrust of Jesus words to us as potential disciples. Jesus does not present time with God and for God as an accordion in our schedule. He puts it at the top of the to-do list. The time we dedicate to him is not just first in principle, it is first in practice. Jesus demands we do it first, and deal with other things second. And if those other things don’t get done, so be it. In the light of his message, all other tasks become accordions.
However, this may not be so difficult a demand after all. For starters, notice the text does not tell us anything about the response of these men. We tend to picture these potential disciples walking away in self-pity, kicking a stone down the road all the way back to a Podunk Palestine village. But the Bible gives us no hint that such was the case. For all we know, these potential disciples became kinetic disciples. Maybe these very disciples are the ones who remembered and wrote down these words. I have a sneaking suspicion that we picture these men negatively because that way we are let off the hook. We like to see that not everybody is a super-disciple, not everyone leaves it all in reckless abandon for Jesus. But the text leaves it open. So the story is full of conviction yet also full of hope. We are both convicted to follow and hopeful that following is possible. Perhaps Luke left their response out the story precisely to set this hopeful challenge before us. If so, then these words are not about those disciples at all, but about us.
The open-ending to this story may give us hope. But how do we practically follow these words of Jesus? How do we go about putting him first not just in principle but in practice? The answer lies in the nature of the requests. There is a word in both requests that serves as the clue. They both say they will follow Jesus, but first they must do this or that. First. I suggest this little word is what triggered Jesus’ curt response to these two men. First. I can imagine Jesus’ thoughts the moment he heard that little word. “First,” he thinks to himself, “Nothing comes before God!” I honestly don’t believe Jesus is coming before us today to reject all our family values. Yet he does challenge them. Jesus challenges anything that comes before his message and ministry.
Although this word “first” sounds a bit abstract and rather picky, it is actually the clue to unlocking the practical power of Jesus’ words. Think about it. In what sense do these disciples use the word “first?” Do they mean first as in best? Or first as in most? No. They are not talking about withholding their quality time or quantity time from Jesus. Actually, in their minds they will give Jesus the best quality time and a whole block of quantity time. What use will the one man be if he does not the have emotional closure that will come with burying his father. And think of all the time the other man can give if doesn’t have to repeatedly circle back to visit his parents but rather says goodbye once and for all. These two men are offering Jesus their “best” time and their “most” time.
Yet they are still withholding something. They are offering Jesus their quality time and their quantity time, but not their priority time. You can give God your best and you can give him the most. But what God really wants is your first. Give him your first time. You may already do this. You worship him on the first day of the week. You pray to him in the first minutes of the day. You pray first before a meal. The key to being a good steward of your time is determining which tasks come first. The thing placed first in the schedule is the thing that always gets done. Any time management specialist will tell you that. What is unique for the Christian is that time with and for God is given that first place on the to-do list.
You see this prioritizing at work in the Old Testament law regarding first-fruits. The people gave the whole first harvest to God. This was a great sacrifice and a great act of faith. Yet the ironic thing is they get to keep the rest and the best. The first harvest is not necessarily the best harvest. And it certainly is not the whole harvest. The people of God actually get to enjoy the quality and the quantity of the harvest. God is generous with quality and quantity, but jealous about priorities. God desires the first. But when you seek him first, all these things will be unto you. Don’t be afraid that you are just “getting it out of the way.” God knows the way we humans function and sets up his laws to work with the grain of our created rhythms. So go ahead and “get it out of the way.” You will be amazed at how the Spirit will move in the everyday aspects of your life, provided they are preceded by time with him.
I sometimes wonder whether Jesus would have sent the one man to bury his father and the other man to kiss his mother if they would have simply said, “I will follow you first.” Surely he knew their hearts. Surely he wants what is best for all his creatures. But Jesus could not accept such things taking the place of God as first in our lives. The practical ordering of their time revealed the principled ordering of their priorities. What does your schedule say about you? What might you be doing first that ought to come second to your time with and for God? Will you rearrange your schedule to concretely display your priorities? Will you stop making God an accordion and start giving God a set time? Just as we do not know the rest of the story about these two disciples, we do not know the rest of the story about you. It is my prayer that yours is a story of hope, a story about the possibility of making God a priority in your life.