Jesus came to proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God, and in Luke 10 he is authorizing a wider band of disciples to go out and do the same thing. He’s not sending them out to be door-to-door salespeople hawking magazine subscriptions or lawncare services. He doesn’t want them to look like moochers or give off even a whiff of being profiteers. He is telling them to go and bring peace, Shalom, to all who will receive it and the rest of their message is pretty straightforward and simple: “The kingdom of God is near you.” They are proclaiming a whole new way to live, a whole new way to look at life and this world, a whole new way to orient not just this or that sideline feature to one’s life but the whole ball of wax, every jot and tittle of one’s existence.
Because at the end of the day you cannot be in the kingdom of God just sort of or kind of. You don’t dabble in the kingdom. You don’t treat the kingdom like a salad bar at which you’re free to choose just some items to put onto your salad but leave be all the ones that look not quite to your liking (or those items that might challenge your palette to experience something new—something new but perhaps also something necessary and good for you).
In short, the kingdom of God and proclaiming the message of that kingdom are serious matters. Life and death and all that. And in the middle of the first part of Luke 10, Jesus makes that seriousness clear by saying that the consequences of rejection of that kingdom are on the serious side too.
But the Revised Common Lectionary doesn’t want us to see that. And let’s be honest, maybe folks in the wider church would prefer not to look at it either. But that is a mistake.
If you are Steven Spielberg, then you always shoot more scenes than can fit in the finished movie and it’s only after you see how they all turned out that you can determine which scenes slow the movie down, end up being extraneous, or just didn’t turn out that well. So you cut them. You sit with your film editor and begin selecting and slicing. Back in the day, real pieces of celluloid were cut and tossed aside. Today it’s all digital, of course, with the deleted scenes getting saved somewhere else on a hard drive, perhaps only to be revisited some day in case they decide to release an “Extended Edition Director’s Cut” on BluRay.
That’s all de rigeur if you’re Steven Spielberg. Because then, of course, the thing you are editing is your movie. But the Bible isn’t my book or a committee’s book and so just because in the middle of Luke 10 Jesus begins to sound some definite notes of judgment and condemnation for those who reject the message of the Kingdom’s approach, that doesn’t mean we can edit that out, skip it, pretend it’s not there. This wasn’t just a hiccup in Jesus’ teaching at this point—he hadn’t had a bad pizza that was coming back up on him for a few moments before he returned to the kinder, gentler Jesus the Lectionary tries to create by sequestering the other stuff.
At this point in Luke’s Gospel Jesus has now made his famous turn toward Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) and toward all that awaited him there in the balance of Luke’s gospel narrative. The cost of following Jesus was just detailed at the end of what we call Luke 9 and there it is clear that we are dealing with matters of eternal moment and import. Jesus is no hobby enthusiast helping people fill in the cracks of their lives by doling out how-to tips on fly fishing or rock climbing. He did not come to this earth—and is not now in Luke on his way to Jerusalem—to make suggestions for self-improvement or provide tips on how to grow one’s business prospects (despite how much contemporary preaching makes it sound like all of that somehow is the Gospel after all).
All of which brings me back to the Lectionary’s little jump over verses 13-15. The kingdom is serious business. Rejecting it has consequences that are on the grave side. And the simple fact is that those who had long been part of God’s covenant community—those, in other words, who had been given a gracious advantage in anticipating the kingdom and understanding its contours based on everything God had been revealing to Israel for so long—may well be held to a higher standard of judgment on such matters than people without those grace-laden advantages.
It’s not pleasant. It’s definitely not what people in the twenty-first century want to hear when the preference of many—including not a few inside the church—is to assume that getting saved is easy, that God trends toward being a softy, that we humans should never presume to know whether God has any particular standards when it comes to religious faith and so we should assume that any faith is good and that even those with no faith—but who are good folks—may well be just fine, too.
“Woe to you” is something only pastors on the lunatic fringe of the church ever say anymore and we surely don’t want to associate with those folks as they picket in front of a gay man’s house or protest at some military funeral. So if we happen to catch Jesus saying “Woe to you” to or about anybody or any place, we’d prefer to pretend it didn’t happen.
But listen: just beyond this lection we find Jesus being full of the joy of the Holy Spirit as he rejoices in the grace of God that has revealed his truth to the disciples and to so many others. Soon after that he tells everybody’s favorite parable of the Good Samaritan. But the point is that you cannot understand the joy of Jesus in Luke 10:21ff and you cannot understand Jesus’ perspective in the subsequent parable that everybody is your neighbor who deserves love and ministry unless you also understand that for Jesus the joy is deepened and the need to reach out to neighbors in love is heightened precisely because he’s not talking about a game of tidily-winks here.
Take away the prospect of judgment and the need, perhaps, to say the word “Woe” now and then and what you’re left with is shallow and generic joy and some lowest common denominator take on something like the Good Samaritan (which morphs into some DIY tale of public morality instead of being something deeply rooted in the very kingdom of God).
Now with all that said . . . it’s true that we must not be hateful and spiteful people, and if some of the people most prone to say “Woe to you” today tend to come off that way, most of us in the Church are right to want to put some daylight between them and us. But one can still be morally, theologically, and biblically serious enough to know that there is judgment, there is a difference between right and wrong, between being in the kingdom or dwelling outside of it and still be radiant with grace and mercy and love. We don’t have to check out the ethnic, moral, or religious credentials of the robbery victim at the side of the road before reaching out to him in love.
Even when Jesus tells his disciples to wipe the dust of the rejecting town off their feet, he still tells them to conclude their comments with yet one more reminder that “the kingdom of God is near” and who’s to say that we cannot speak those words through tears of love and compassion? Jesus does not tell these people to placard their message on signs that say “God Hates You!” but to speak the truth in love and to do it urgently and perhaps emotionally seeing how high the stakes are.
Luke 9 ends with joy even as the whole gospel does. But you can’t get to the truest and deepest joy of the resurrection by bypassing the cross and in Luke 9 you cannot get to the fullness of Holy Spirit-induced joy by bypassing some of the more difficult things Jesus has to say.
The question is whether we preachers today still have the courage to say just that.
Some while ago—I believe this was in a snippet included in Martin E. Marty’s newsletter “Context”—someone wrote of a conversation he overheard at some East Coast upscale party. The topic turned to morality and at one point a martini-sipping woman proclaimed, “Oh, those terms: adultery, fornication! Isn’t it a shame that people still talk that way in this day and age?!” To this another partygoer replied, “No, I think that what’s a shame is that people still do those things in this day and age.”
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 7, 2019
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20 Commentary