In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was served him, I carried the wine and gave it to the king. Now, I had never been sad in his presence before. So the king said to me, "Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This can only be sadness of the heart." Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, "May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my ancestors' graves, lies waste, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?" Then the king said to me, "What do you request?" So I prayed to the God of heaven. Then I said to the king, "If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favour with you, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my ancestors' graves, so that I may rebuild it." The king said to me (the queen also was sitting beside him), "How long will you be gone, and when will you return?" So it pleased the king to send me, and I set him a date. Then I said to the king, "If it pleases the king, let letters begiven me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may grant me passage until I arrive in Judah; and a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king's forest, directing him to give me timber to make beams for the gates of the temple fortress, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall occupy." And the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me.
As they were going along the road, someone said to Jesus, "I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."
To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
In career terms, Nehemiah reached his pinnacle as personal valet to the Persian king, Artaxerxes I (464-423 B.C.). An incidental detail indicates his rank at court as the one who first tasted the king's food and drink, to save the king from poisoning. He was in the inner royal retinue every day, and therefore in a position to make requests on behalf of others. As a Jew he was sad to see the city of his ancestors so run-down. Even though the temple had been rebuilt at the urging of Haggai and Zechariah, it was clearly open to hostile invaders. The great prophecies of Ezekiel and Second Isaiah, spoken during the Babylonian exile, may have seemed to Nehemiah like visions without substance, mere whistling in the dark.
His gloom at his people's prospects was so visible that the king asked what ailed him. Nehemiah first prayed for guidance and then asked King Artaxerxes for permission to go to Israel and speed up the rebuilding and fortification of the Temple. He was practical enough to get letters of introduction to local governors along the route of his return and to have Asaph, the royal park-keeper, provide wood for the city gates, the temple-citadel and his own residence. Nehemiah's account ends with a reference to the favour God had shown him.
Few can face risking their lives for a cause, on a continuous day-by-day basis, nor should life be planned that way. But risky moments of initiative moments can challenge us all at times, and then we need to remember some of Jesus' warnings, such as, "Take up your cross and follow me," "The Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" or "Whoever puts his hand to the plough but keeps looking back is unfit for the reign of God." Today's gospel also sets a pattern for being prepared for risking change and facing adversity. For this day's challenge to us, we need to discern which of these readings best applies to our present circumstances.
Three people show interest in becoming followers of Jesus in today's Gospel, but they seem to lack an awareness of what in involved or any sense of urgency. Two of them claim they have important duties to attend to first. One would think that burying one's father and saying goodbye to people at home were indeed important. But Jesus insists that following him straight away is the more urgent duty. This is one of several gospel texts that most of us find difficult. Jesus seems so demanding and following him, becoming and remaining his disciple, is a tough challenge. It is never going to be an easy or a soft option.
Yes, Jesus asks for a level of allegiance to himself that is greater than the allegiance owed to family, even though it is not in any sense incompatible with our family allegiances. There may come a time when our fidelity to the values of the gospel will put us at odds with those closest to us. Today's gospel brings home to us that walking in the way of the Lord is a serious business, asking for everything we've got!