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."
Nehemiah reached the social pinnacle of his career as personal valet to the Persian king, Artaxerxes I (464-423 B.C.). His job at court was as the one who first tasted the royal food and drink, to save the king from poisoning. He was with the king every day, and therefore in a position to make requests on behalf of others. As a Jew he hated to think of the city of his ancestors so neglected and desolate. 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 misfortune was so visible that the king asked what ailed him. After praying for guidance, Nehemiah asked King Artaxerxes for permission to go back 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 what needed to be rebuilt. His account ends with a reference to the favour God had shown him.
Few can face risking their lives for a cause, on a day-to-day basis, nor should life be planned that way. But risky ideas of initiative can challenge us all at times, and then we need to remember Jesus' words to "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 invites us to prepare for risk, change and adversity. Perhaps we can discern how these readings may apply to our personal circumstances.
In today's Gospel three people show interest in becoming followers of Jesus, but they seem unaware of what in involved or any sense of urgency. Two of them claim they have important duties that hold them back. We may indeed agree that burying one's father and saying goodbye to people at home were vitally important. But Jesus insists that following him straight away is their urgent duty. This is a point that most of us find difficult to accept. 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 really does ask 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 be times when our fidelity to the values of the gospel puts us at odds with those closest to us. Walking in the way of the Lord is a serious business, asking for everything we've got!