Apparently Jesus did not know that he was supposed to take the long way around Samaria. That was a rule of thumb observed by the Jews in his day to avoid all contact with those Samaritan “lowlifes” who had the temerity to believe, among other silly things, that they could worship God just as well from their temple as from the big Temple in Jerusalem. For their part, the Samaritans were happy to return the favor in taking the long way around Jerusalem when they traveled as well as being perfectly happy to have folks like Jesus and the disciples take the long way around so that they likewise would not have to encounter any Jews.
In framing this story the way he does, Luke is clever on many levels. First, he makes clear that Jesus has a growing sense of his destiny. When verse 51 famously tells us of Jesus’ resolute faceward turn toward Jerusalem, we know as readers that this is far more than some little itinerary detail from Jesus’ travels. Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem to save the world through his own sacrifice. Knowing that, we as readers likewise sense that the trek through Samaria is not merely a matter of expediency. Yes, Jesus has no time to take the long way around but it’s more than that. Jesus also needs to head through Samaria because his purpose includes those folks, too. How odd it would be if Jesus were to sense afresh his divine vocation only to skirt Samaria.
Think of it this way: if a white man in the early 1960s sensed a divine calling to help eradicate radical racism in the American South, wouldn’t it be odd if the first thing this man did was to avoid eating at an integrated restaurant that served also “colored folks”? You can’t fight racism and buy into its worst practices at the same time.
So for Jesus: he could not set out for Jerusalem and the salvation of the world and then buy right into one of the tensions of this world that was tearing it apart.
But, as the gospels make everywhere clear, the world that needs saving does not necessarily hanker for that same salvation. So the Samaritans treat Jesus and company rather shabbily. Unbeknownst to them, their Savior was in their midst but, as John put it right up front in the prologue to his own gospel, the world that Jesus made in the beginning and the same world that Jesus came to save “received him not.” It’s sad but not unusual.
It’s a fair bet that the disciples did not share the fullness of Jesus’ divine vocation or the purpose that was summoning him to Jerusalem. At best they had foggy and messed-up ideas of a political messiah and a politicized kingdom of Israel. In any event, what ticked them off about the Samaritan treatment of Jesus was not their failure to recognize the Savior in their midst but what was to their minds the altogether too typical rudeness of those Samaritan idiots. Like most folks in their day, the disciples did not need any excuses to despise Samaritans just generally. Given that their disdain was on simmer all the time anyway, it didn’t take much to crank up the heat a bit and bring it all to a full boil.
And so here James and John, seeing the Samaritan disrespect, immediately become furious and ask Jesus if they should call down judgment on these folks. Who knows what made them think they could call down “fire from heaven” and get it but apparently they did conclude that if Jesus told them to call down fire, fire would come. Not to put too fine a point on it but this was not exactly what Jesus had in mind.
Indeed, once again Luke was clever in composing this account. Notice that in verse 51 Jesus senses that “the time approached for him to be taken up TO HEAVEN.” Now, not 3 verses later, James and John want to call down fire FROM HEAVEN. Just what did James and John think heaven contained? Jesus was headed toward heaven to become the ultimate cosmic decanter of grace and mercy unto salvation. THAT is what the heavens were soon to become thanks to the gracious work of Jesus through his sacrifice. James and John saw the heavenly realms as anything but gracious. Indeed, they saw it as a kind of divine arsenal to fry greasy sinners like the Samaritans.
It seems like in the Church today something of this same tension exists. As preachers, we need always to wonder what conception of the divine realm we inculcate into our people. Do people see the God of heaven as a gracious and compassionate God in Christ? Or do they see God as the one holding up the rolled-up newspaper ready and eager to swat every little infraction that occurs? True, we don’t want the extreme of God as a kindly old softy who is incapable of being perturbed (much less angered). In a world of genocide and terrorism and starving children, we need a God with spine. But what is the fundamental disposition of our God in Christ?
We know what James and John thought. But we also know that Jesus rebuked them.
Therein lies a truth to savor.
Questions to Answer / Issues to Address
In Luke 9:54 Jesus rebuked James and John for their Rambo-esque desire to fry off a few Samaritans. As noted elsewhere in these sermon commentaries, the reason for that was clear enough: Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem to save all people (including Samaritans, therefore) and so it made no sense for Jesus to kill in judgment the very people for whom he was soon going to die in mercy and grace.
Given that, it may seem a little odd to see this same Jesus immediately pivot from that to verses 57-62 in which Jesus seems downright off-putting when it comes to the kingdom of God. The same Jesus who was deferentially kind toward rude Samaritans who refused to welcome him now seems a bit rude toward some folks who seem eager to hop onto his kingdom bandwagon. Two people volunteer with earnest zeal to follow Jesus and a third person is directly called at Jesus’ initiation. Their reasons for being rejected—or at least seriously put off—by Jesus vary a little but none of the reasons seems outlandish.
Why would Jesus scare off one man by promising him a homeless existence? Why would Jesus seem so brusque toward a man whom he himself called at the same moment the man was sunk deep in grief over a dead father? Why would Jesus refuse so much as a familial farewell for the final fellow? It all seems rather over the top. Surely we are not to conclude from these verses that followers of Jesus may not sleep in their own beds at night. Surely we are not to take away from Luke 9 the idea that funerals (if not grief over dead loved ones just generally) are forbidden to followers of Christ. Surely we are not to conclude that loving our families and having normal attachments to them count as disqualifying looks back from the plow when it comes to kingdom work.
If the cost of following Jesus is to lead an itinerant life free of family obligations and attachments, it’s fair to wonder just how many believers across the millennia have really, therefore, followed Christ at all. Luke 9:57-62 is, therefore, one of those hyperbolic gospel passages that tempts people to cash out the passage completely, chalking it up to mere metaphor or overstatement that we are free to translate into kinder, gentler ideas. Jesus said to be homeless. So we take this to mean that, like the Puritan idea of “weaned affections,” we are to have homes but not be too attached to them. Jesus says to let the dead bury their own dead and to not be so attached to loved ones that we feel the need to say good-bye to them before taking a mission trip. So we translate this to mean that we have to love God MORE than spouses and children and parents but we can and will still love spouses and children and parents a very great deal indeed.
Is Luke 9 a reminder of gospel commitment in the midst of our ordinary lives or a call to quit our ordinary lives in favor of a gospel-focused ministry that will shove aside all the usual trappings of life?
Because it is historically clear that God can and does work through people who own homes and who love their families and who attend the funerals of their loved ones, we cannot deny that something of the “translation” of this passage mentioned above is inevitable. But let’s not translate it too quickly or too glibly.
Fred Craddock once delivered a sermon on “The Gospel as Hyperbole.” In this message he pointed out that the gospel is loaded with statements that are, on the face of them, ridiculous. We’re told to remove the logpole from our own eyes before criticizing others. We’re told that if we have even a smidge of faith, we can move mountains into the sea. We’re told a shepherd would abandon 99 sheep in favor of searching for just one that wandered off. We’re told that if everything Jesus did were written down, the whole world could not contain the books that would be written. We’re told stories like the one about a man who was forgiven a debt of a million gezillion dollars who then turned right around a about choked another man to death for the 50 cents he owed him. Ridiculous. Over the top. Who can take such hyperbole seriously?
But as Craddock went on to point out, it’s all a little less ridiculous once you come to realize that the kingdom of God Jesus came to announce—and whose arrival and presence he calls others and us to likewise announce—really does contain the cosmic power for salvation unto all people and all creatures. If the kingdom of God is anything close to what we think it is, we really cannot overstate its power or beauty. We cannot exaggerate enough to convey the punch of this kingdom and of the God of all grace who through our Lord Jesus Christ has saved us from darkness into light.
So let’s not as preachers take the radical language of Luke 9 and too quickly render it pedestrian after all. No, not all believers are called to leave family and home behind, but some are. William Willimon says that while he was Dean of the Chapel at Duke for many years, he received any number of complaints from parents but many of those complaints all boiled down to just one complaint. His phone would ring and the parent on the other end of the line would say, “What did you all do over there at Duke? Our daughter went to school to become a research scientist but now she says she is going to become a medical missionary to Haiti. You ruined her life. Why did you do that!?”
Well, why indeed? But whether we are called to leave behind kith and kin, we are all called to a radical commitment to the gospel. And if in the midst of our lives that sometimes mean turning down a promotion, saying hard things to our children, denying our families the dream vacations taken by others, or any number of other sacrifices both great and small in service to the power and beauty of the gospel . . . well, we ought not be surprised.
In fact, the only thing that should be surprising is the presence of all those people in the pews each week who seem to think that being a Christian makes so little dent in their lives at all.
For folks such as this the Lord has a word from Luke 9. Will we speak it?
Note the wider context of the Lectionary reading from Luke 9:51-62. There are so many crosscurrents here. This lection is preceded by the story of Jesus’ welcoming a little child as well as by the brief coda to that of John saying they saw a non-disciple driving out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus there says that if they are not against Jesus, they are for him. Kingdom workers are, apparently, everywhere whether they formally associate with Jesus’ band of disciples or not—even little children get special mention! This lection is then followed by Jesus’ sending out 72 people to do more work. So there are workers all around, both known and unknown. In the midst of all that, we can see the Samaritan opposition—as well as Jesus’ radical words on the cost of discipleship—in a different light. Yes, some oppose Jesus. Yes, the true depths of following Jesus require radical sacrifice. But hope abounds, too. The work goes forward both in ways predictable and in ways totally unpredictable.
Do we understand the radical, quite total demands of the gospel? Sometimes a sideways illustration reveals how neatly we are able to sequester some parts of life after all. Barbara Brown Taylor once said that if a man in the church loses his job, the pastor may well call this person to offer sympathy and prayer.
But suppose that a pastor one day got wind of the fact that a certain member of his congregation had gotten a big promotion at work along with significantly more pay. And suppose the pastor then called this person and said, “Charlie, I’ve heard your news and so was wondering if it would be OK if I came by sometime to pray with you about this. I’m concerned about the temptations this new venture may throw your way as well as what it may do to your ability to serve here at church. So I’d like to pray for God’s strength for you in the face of this new success.”
Probably we’d be taken aback. But as Brown Taylor notes, that is only because we do cordon off parts of our lives from the total claims Jesus makes on us. We act as though we are our own after all and so why would the church have anything to say to us so long as life is chugging along smoothly? If we ask that, however, we reveal that we, too, quietly resist the same self-denying sacrifice that seems so offensive to some outside the church.
It looks as though the only way you will ever see this self-denial as a source of comfort is if you die and are reborn. You need to kill off ordinary ways of defining value and bring to life a whole new set of values. The place to start is by admitting that without God, you are lost in sin’s wilderness and unable to find your own way out. Once you know that, you are wide open to the call of the one who hopefully says, “Follow me.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 26, 2016
Luke 9:51-62 Commentary