“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”[i] This is the line that Jesus gives to a would-be follower. I think this is interesting, because there are three would-be followers in this story today. The next two seem reluctant, and Jesus speaks plainly to them about the need for a total commitment. But this first one is very committed. So is this line, this statement that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head, what is it? Is it an admonition, in the same way the other two would-be followers are admonished? Is it a lament on Jesus’s part, as in other places in the gospels where he is frustrated by an insistent crowd? Maybe. To me, today, though, this reads more as a warning. An eager (perhaps overeager, starry-eyed, not quite sure what he’s getting himself into) but nevertheless eager would-be follower approaches, proclaiming his devotion, and Jesus sees fit to speak of the constant homelessness, alienation, and inability to rest that comes with this call. It seems meant to be sobering.
And there has long been within the Church a sense of unease at things being too comfortable. If things are going fine, without complication or difficulty, that suggests perhaps we’re not struggling where we need to be. The first few centuries of the Church, this struggle wasn’t difficult to come by. Blood, and tears, and prayer flowed in equal measure. But with the legalization of Christianity in the Roman Empire in the early 300s, much of the Church’s martyrdom, struggle, and witness stopped. Or, rather, it wasn’t obvious where it would come from. It’s long been pointed out that monasticism only rose to prominence in the Church right around this time, right around the time Christians were seeking greater difficulty, intensity, and challenge. The fact that any of us are here right now is in debt to this ancient pursuit of struggle.
Every summer my parents would bundle me and my two brothers and my sister into the car, and we would set off on holiday to the other end of England. I remember on the way we would keep seeing enticing signs: turn left – a castle just a mile along that road – or 2 miles on the right to the beach. O let’s go see the castle we’d say – or let’s walk on the beach! But my father would keep driving. We can’t stop – we have to keep going or we’ll never get to our destination before dark.
When I read the Gospels I encounter Jesus with a clear purpose and destination. Indeed he would rise a long time before dawn to spend time with his Father in prayer, in order to refocus on that destination, to keep going straight and unswervingly along the road which his Father had set before him.