The naive enthusiast

As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus replied, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. Luke 9:57-58

There’s an old saying: “One volunteer is worth ten pressed men” – a “pressed man” being, of course, somebody forced against their will to serve in the navy.

Well, Jesus certainly never forced anyone to follow him (how could he even if he had wanted to?). But he did “call” people to do so, and it seems that usually they found that call very hard to resist.

But Luke here tells us about an unnamed man who, as far as we can tell from this very brief account, was a volunteer. Without any prompting he told Jesus, “I will follow you wherever you go”. What happened to him, after Jesus’ non-committal reply, we aren’t told. But the encounter highlights a couple of themes which are still important today.

First, naive enthusiasm.

I don’t think we should criticise this man: there is no reason to doubt his sincerity. Probably he has been watching Jesus from a distance. He has listened to his words and seen his miracles. Above all, he has felt the magnetic draw of his extraordinary personality. And there is a stirring inside him: “Yes, this man is worthy of everything I have and am! How could I possibly spend my life better than by following him?” Enthusiasm is a vital thing – nothing worthwhile in the world, or the church, is achieved without it.

So… I like him, don’t you? I can see his shining eyes and his glowing face.

But enthusiasm by itself is no foundation for the serious business of following Jesus. Elsewhere in the gospels Jesus talked about the need to “count the cost” of following him. And so here, by talking about his own homelessness, his own outcastness (if I may invent a word) in comparison with even the wild animals, he gently forces him to think a little.

Those of us with any kind of experience in the Christian life need to be aware of the naive enthusiast, because he or she is still around. Let’s be thankful for the enthusiasm, of course, and do all we can to foster and channel it; but let’s not be blind to the naivety – it could very easily rebound on both the person in question and upon the church also.

The second theme: Christlike honesty.

Jesus neither encourages nor directly discourages the man. He simply states a fact, with his talk of foxes and birds. He says, in effect, “Following me will make demands on you that you can’t imagine right now. There may well be times when you regret ever having met me. Your enthusiasm will cool. Your suffering for me may be great. Are you really sure about this?”

In our desire to bring people to Christ we can sometimes be guilty of offering false expectations. Come to Jesus and all your troubles will be over! Jesus heals – all you need is faith! These claims are, of course, true in the long run; but there may be a long hard road to tread first. Honesty demands that we make this clear.

In Matthew 16:24 Jesus spoke as blunt a word as you could imagine: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Make no mistake: taking up your cross was no mere figure of speech – the disciples would have been well familiar with the sight of pitiful, bloodied, broken wretches lugging their crosses to the execution place. (Me next…?)

We meet another naive enthusiast in Mark 10:17-23, the so-called “rich young ruler”. He shows his enthusiasm by running up to Jesus (how unseemly!) and falling on his knees before him (making a spectacle of himself!): oh, he was keen, all right. But when Jesus tells him he must sell everything he has and give the money to the poor, he “goes away sad”.

The interesting thing is what Jesus does next – or, better still, what Jesus doesn’t do. He doesn’t go running after the young man: “Wait a minute! Let’s talk about this! Perhaps we can negotiate some kind of agreement, a bit of a compromise…” No: we are left to imagine him standing there, sadly watching the young man’s receding back. One thing is sure: Jesus refuses to lower the bar for anyone. With him, it’s all or nothing.

It would be great to know what happened in the end to these enthusiastic would-be disciples. But the Bible doesn’t tell us. Why not? Well, we can’t be sure. But perhaps it’s because that would distract us from what really matters: not “What did they do?” but… “What will I do?”

Dear Lord, forgive my half-heartedness and give me, I pray, a red-hot enthusiasm for you – but tempered with wisdom and maturity. Amen.

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