Though this is “Year C” of the Revised Common Lectionary, and that means a focus on Luke’s Gospel, no one should feel alarmed at occasionally losing the thread of the narrative. Like maybe this week.
This week Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem. The push to the Passion is on, and he’s still reaching out, calling new disciples to follow him.
The text is Luke 9:51-62. We were in this chapter before, way back just before Lent began. That was the Sunday of the Transfiguration, and I pointed out that it was a major turning point: Jesus in full divine splendor talked with Moses and Elijah about the new “Exodus” that Jesus would bring in Jerusalem.
The new focus was emphasized in the next passages of the chapter with Jesus making two predictions of his coming Passion and Resurrection.
And now, with those conversations behind him, the talking is done:
…he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51 NRSV)
So in the Church year we are done with the Passion and Resurrection, but in the Lectionary we see Jesus just getting ready for it.
Disorienting or not, this sense of being at the major turning point of Luke should be front and center in our minds to make sense of the otherwise somewhat random moments of our passage.
1. The Welcomer Rejected
The first thing that happens when Jesus begins his journey to the Cross is that he is rejected.
In Luke’s Gospel more than anywhere you see Jesus reaching out with God’s welcoming love to the outsider and the outcast. But when “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” the first stopover was going to be in Samaria. They turned him down.
Why? We only know one detail: his destination for his most important work was the capital of Samaria’s not-well-loved neighbor state.
I wonder if the Samaritans wanted Jesus’ love, his presence, his attention, only so long as Jesus wasn’t also loving those people across the border.
Jesus stays centered. He knows that to do what he has to do for the world he has to focus on Jerusalem.
Is he bothered by being rejected by the people of a Samaritan village? I don’t think so. The story unfolds as it has to. Jesus doesn’t complain about it.
After he did what needed to be done in Jerusalem, and before he ascended to heaven he told the disciples to be witnesses not only in Jerusalem and Judea, but also in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Samaria rejecting Jesus wasn’t the end of Jesus’ work in Samaria.
One of the hard things in leadership is letting some people be disgruntled at the moment so that you can do what is good, even for them, in the long run.
2. The Restraint of New Power
On the other hand, the disciples were really ticked off by Jesus’ rejection in Samaria. James (a.k.a. Mr. “Show Your Faith by Your Works”) and John (a.k.a. Mr. “Love Your Neighbor”) both ask if they can call down the wrath of God on the village.
Lord, do you want us
to command fire
to come down from heaven
and consume them?” (Luke 9:54 NRSV)
These guys were like the prophets of the familiar modern military strategy. Sweep in with superior air power and wipe a human community off the map.
What got into them? Power. They went out on one mission trip, they saw a few miracles happen through their hands, and they thought they could act like judge, jury, and executioner.
Jesus, Luke tells us, rebuked them.
Probably something along the line of
Oh for pity’s sake you guys. Haven’t you learned anything about my priorities? I mean, how long have you been following me now?
I wish the conversation were included, but presumably the two chastened disciples didn’t want to talk about it much afterward.
Jesus just moved on.
3. Continuing to Call
The rest of the passage is what Luke seems to present as the Cliff’s Notes version of the next stage of Jesus’ ministry. He gives three vignettes about his ongoing work calling people to follow him.
It is easy to see these interactions as if they all end with the prospective follower walking away, head hung in shame, having missed the chance to be a disciple. That, however, is not in the text. None of the three vignettes include a conclusion. We have no idea how they responded to Jesus’ words.
And that has to be intentional. These are like quick video cuts, or sound bites that end with Jesus saying something pithy and challenging. We, the readers, are left hearing the words of Jesus as if they were spoken to us. We will have to write the end of our own stories.
I. The Volunteer: Face the Cost
The first encounter is not someone Jesus calls but someone who takes the initiative to seek Jesus out:
As they were going along the road, someone said to him,
‘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.’ (Luke 9:57-58 NRSV)
Jesus tells all of us who volunteer that we should think ahead to the cost. There is no ‘prosperity gospel’ in Jesus Way.
Jesus himself lived in poverty, homeless, wandering, serving. Those who would volunteer should know that their life might look just that way too.
What did this person feel when Jesus said that?
What did this person do next?
I wonder if they decided following Jesus was worth the cost?
II. The Invitee: Focus on the Mission
The second encounter is not a volunteer, but rather someone Jesus sought out:
To another he said,
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.’” (Luke 9:59-60 NRSV)
This is the hard one, I’d say. This poor guy — Jesus calls him, but he’s worried about his dad, who is dead or dying.
Jesus says the mission is more important than the funeral.
Following Jesus, he seems to tell this person, is more important than family relationships.
And it is not the only time Jesus makes such a point. Later in Luke he will speak of counting the cost of being his disciple and say, among other thing,
Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26 NRSV)
Of course there is a differently bad way to read this. It is too easy for pastors and other church workers to take these passage as an excuse for being shoddy parents or shoddy spouses. Let’s not go there.
But the conversation surely continued offscreen. Surely the man asked for an explanation. Surely Jesus fleshed the point out a little bit.
But we are given just the sound bite.
I wonder if it functions for us as a call to more allegiance than we are comfortable with. It’s a kind of a Hegelian dialectic as a rhetorical strategy:
- Thesis: I mean, sure, we want to follow Jesus — maybe to a level of “5” on a scale of 1 to 10.
- Antithesis: Jesus says “Actually I’m looking for a 10.”
- Synthesis: The raw presentation of what a “10” would look like shocks us into saying, “Okay. maybe I can do a 7?”
I wonder if he got to go to the funeral. I rather hope so.
I wonder if he got to go and proclaim the kingdom of God. I rather hope so.
III. Negotiator: Choose the Path
The final vignette is neither someone promising to follow Jesus nor someone being called.
This one is more a negotiation of terms.
‘I will follow you, Lord;
but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’
Jesus said to him,
‘No one who puts a hand to the plough
and looks back
is fit for the kingdom of God.’” (Luke 9:61-62 NRSV)
“Why,” this person must have asked, “must I not even say goodbye? Surely it can’t always be that way…”
If this person had gotten to know the Apostles, perhaps he or she might have pointed out that back in chapter 4 Peter got to return to his home and see his wife and his sick mother-in-law.
I wonder what this person thought about what Jesus said… about following Jesus… about his beloved family back home…
I wonder if this person ended up as a follower of Jesus.
I suspect he or she did. But he or she would be chastened by Jesus’ words. He or she would know that being fit wasn’t a possibility — but following was.
I think if I were in this guy’s sandals I’d have said
Well, now we know. I’m really not fit for the kingdom of God. I don’t think anybody is. I still want to follow you. Back in a minute…
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