These are three sayings on discipleship, replies that Jesus makes to those who seek to follow him.
We have seen earlier that Jesus would make two categorical demands of those whom he called: first, give up your family completely; and second, give up all your earthly possessions. Both family and personal wealth give us a sense of who we are, and link us to society. Jesus demands that we sever these links and commit ourselves entirely to the work of the reign of God. He knew how well family and personal possessions can distract from the main task.
Because he has no family, Jesus has no home – “nowhere to lay his head”. Is his disciple prepared to share such austerity ?
One disciple asks Jesus: “Can I fulfil my filial obligations before I join you? Can I bury my dead father, as a son is expected to?” The reply plays on the word ‘dead’: “leave the spiritually dead to bury the physically dead.” In other words, do not confuse yourself with family obligations and rituals which only take you away from your call to serve God.
Yet another requested: “I will follow you, but let me make my goodbyes first.” Jesus replies with an allusion to Israeli history. The prophet Elijah came upon Elisha ploughing his field, and threw his mantle upon him, a sign that he had chosen him as his assistant. Elisha begged Elijah time to go home and say farewell to his parents, and Elijah permitted him. But, Jesus says, not here ! The tasks of the kingdom demand dedication and constant attention, and do not allow for any turning back.
Were all Jesus’s disciples similarly committed to the tasks of God’s reign ? The Gospels do not say more, but these instances show us how radically Jesus expected his followers to live.