If you watched any of the U. S. Open or any other golf tournament since then or any other sporting event that might appeal to middle-aged men (Hello, Baseball?), you’ve seen the Avis car rental commercial that features Steve Stricker. If not, you can watch it here.
Steve’s on his way to a tournament, and Avis has given him just the car he needs to get “pumped for victory.” There’s a “serious stereo to blast pulse-pounding music that turns me from a man into a beast.” (Cue soft, soothing music.) He gets “so pumped that nothing slows [him] down. (Cue car of octogenarians passing him in the left lane.) As he pulls into the course, he claims, “I’m more than in the zone…I’m a savage.” (Then he fights with the valet about who should carry his clubs.)
Without the funny undercurrent, that kind of focus seems to be what Jesus has in this week’s gospel lesson. Luke mentions that “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” not once but twice. It’s the defining characteristic. He’s in the zone. He’s hyper-focused. Like an athlete prepared to take the field, Jesus has only one thing on his mind, and nothing is going to get in his way.
“May I follow you, too?” a man asks. Jesus gives a tough, bleak, uninviting portrayal of the road ahead: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another potential follower, Jesus says, “Come on! Let’s go!” But that man needs to fulfill the religious obligation of burying his father. Jesus has no time for that: “Let the dead bury their dead.” Onward. No stopping him now.
I’ll bet a lot of preachers will spend time talking about how controversial this last statement was—“let the dead bury their dead.” I’d be tempted to say the same. As Luke builds this mini-story, it’s the climax. Although we have social sensitivity to the need to allow someone to bury his family member, I don’t think we intuitively understand how exclusive this duty would have been. Contact with a dead body was absolutely forbidden, yet the importance of a holy burial not only to respect the dead but also to prevent anyone accidentally touching the corpse was paramount. As a result, only the family member would be allowed to perform the ceremony. But not with Jesus. Jesus says leave him rotting—there are more important things to do.
The point for us, though, isn’t to stay focused on the abrogation of the ritual law. It’s to stay focused on the focus of Jesus. Nothing can get in his way. Nothing else matters. And anyone who is going to follow Jesus must share his hyper-focus. No one who stops to say goodbye is fit for the kingdom. Only the kingdom matters.
When was the last time we approached our faith like a national championship game? As a fan, I don’t spend a lot of time watching “game tape,” but, as a southern American man, I schedule my fall obligations around football. Weddings, meetings, church picnics—they are all put on the calendar according to the goings-on of the SEC. No one—not even the clergyperson—does it the other way around. We are supposed to have Jesus’ attitude. Retell this story in a contemporary context: “I want to follow you, but Alabama is playing Notre Dame!” or “I’d love to come to church, but my daughter’s travelling soccer team is in Atlanta this weekend.” I’m afraid someone as focused as Jesus doesn’t have a lot of time for my excuses.