(A sermon preached on Luke 9:51-62 at All Saints' Littleton NH on June 27th, 2010)
Preachers are told, time and time again, that the thing that listeners want to know concerning scripture is what does this mean for us today. Help me understand what I’m supposed to do with these somewhat confusing biblical accounts.
This morning’s Gospel reading must have something for us today: after all, it’s full of people coming up wishing to follow Jesus...that’s like us today, right? It is hard, however, to relate this Gospel passage to our own lives at its face value.
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up” makes it sound like it’s near the end of the story: Holy week perhaps. However, in Luke’s Gospel, it marks only the halfway point of sorts. We’ve only just passed the Transfiguration. “Turning his face towards Jerusalem” signifies that Jesus is now shifting his focus on the cross that is to come. It is, however, quite some time before he will reach Jerusalem.
To get there, Jesus decides to cross Samaria. This is the most direct way, but it was often avoided by first century Jews, who had a relationship with Samaritans that was full of hatred. They all worshiped the same God, but had many different customs, along with past episodes of violence. One major point of contention was the Jewish focus on Jerusalem, something the Samaritans rejected. It’s not surprising then that the text tells us “(The Samaritans) did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”
The reaction of James and John, to command fire to come down, may seem not only extreme, but to come out of nowhere. This thought, however, comes from numerous places in Hebrew Scripture. Most relevant is in the First Book of Kings, just a little before this morning’s reading, in the 18th chapter, where Elijah calls down fire to rain on the prophets of Baal. James and John, moments before on the mountain witnessing the Transfiguration, saw Jesus with Elijah and Moses. They heard the voice from the cloud “Listen to him.” No wonder that they assumed that it would be proper to rain fire down on those who did not listen to Jesus. They had Biblical precedence. The fact that they were hated Samaritans just made it easier.
This is the very first of Jesus’ encounters with Samaritans. The Good Samaritan, and the healed Samaritan leper who alone comes back to thank Jesus, are all stories still to come in Luke’s Gospel. All the reader has, at this point, is the traditional knowledge of bitter hatred between Jews and Samaritans. It is in this context that Jesus sharply rebukes James and John’s suggestion.
As they continue along the road, Jesus has three interactions with would be followers. His reactions to them reflect the changing mood of “setting his face towards Jerusalem,” or to put another way, changing his focus to what the cost will be for proclaiming the Kingdom of God.
To the first who asks to follow, Jesus replies: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus seems to be stating that a significant cost to following him is the sense of homelessness. Moments of hospitality and rest are the best that can be hoped for. A sense of permanent home, and the safety provided by such a place, is not part of the picture.
Next, after Jesus suggests to someone to follow him, the person reasonably replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” First thing to note is that, unlike in modern language, we cannot assume that the man’s father is already dead. “Bury my father” likely means the caring for an aging parent and seeing to his needs up to and including burial. It is fulfilling the commandment to honor one’s mother and father. Jesus’ reply “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” is as harsh as it sounds. There is no question here that following the time honored, and even worthwhile commandments and traditions are secondary to answering the call to proclaim the Kingdom of God. This again, is in context of Jesus “turning towards Jerusalem.” Nothing will deter Jesus from his faithful promise.
Finally, we have the one who says: “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” This echoes Elisha’s words in our Hebrew Scripture reading this morning, and it is a request granted by Elijah. Jesus, however, replies, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” A farming reference that suggests that when a farmer takes his eye off the plow and field, the work is lost. Another harsh saying with similar reason behind it, and again, marking a change in tradition and custom.
So, we are back to the original question: what are we supposed to do with these teachings? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer. The three sayings in response to the “would be followers” are realities certainly true for Jesus, as he “turns his face towards Jerusalem,” and what he is going to do there. For Jesus, nothing is more important than bringing the Kingdom of God.
So: do the sayings apply to our own lives as well?
Well, I certainly think that the Kingdom of God is our priority. Our duty, privilege, and thankfully, our great joy, is to share the Good News of the Kingdom of God.
The sense of homelessness is likely true as well. No matter how comfortable our home may be, it does not ultimately address our place of belonging. Where as an animal rests in its nest or den, the place we are to rest is in God.
As far as caring for parents, or saying farewell to friends, I don’t think the message is that we need to drop our current commitments and relationships to follow Jesus. I think that we must put these sayings in the further context of the direct call to “Follow Jesus.” Going back to “bury my father” or to “say farewell to those at my home” suggests that these would be followers think that they must first detach themselves from people in order to follow Jesus. It is the tradition and custom of primary focus on the care of immediate family and friends that is called into question by Jesus, for in truth, following Jesus requires us to be concerned for everyone as our parent or as our friend. The kingdom of God brings us towards this place of seeing everyone as honored parents and friends.
This, finally, brings us back to the Samaritans. For Jesus and his followers, Samaritans were the ultimate outsiders. Jesus, throughout the second half of the Gospel of Luke, will be bringing himself and his disciples into relationship with them. They are, at Gospel’s end, to also be seen as family and as friends.
This Gospel lesson starts this work with a quick and powerful lesson: in the new revelation of the Kingdom of God, revenge, violence and oppression are to be rejected, even if there is Biblical precedence or tradition. Jesus’ ministry has no place for raining fire on enemies, because in the final analysis, there are no enemies in the Kingdom of God. It doesn’t matter that the Samaritans refuse to receive Jesus, or that the authorities seek his destruction, or that the crowd turns against him. Jesus’ constant refrain in the Gospel of Luke is “Father, forgive them.”
I’m not sure if there’s a more powerful, and more relevant message anywhere in the Bible than this one:
Forgiveness is the way to proclaim the Kingdom of God.