Most scholars agree that this passage is yet another instance of Jesus communicating the difficulty of discipleship. In fact, this passage is often included at the beginning of Lent, since it so clearly marks a transition point in the gospel of Luke as Jesus sets his face to Jerusalem.
But here we are, in Ordinary Time. It is a good reminder that attentioned discipleship (can I make up a word?) matters all the time. Or to put it another way, what Jesus espouses here is that distracted discipleship will not suffice.
Notice how Jesus himself is described as resolute in verse 51: his face is set toward Jerusalem so that he might be taken up. Luke does not just mean taken up to hang on the cross, but the whole grand set of events from the cross to resurrection and finally ascension to heaven. (This is part of the reason why this story feels so akin to Elijah’s narrative arc; see the Textual Point below.) Jesus is so focused on his own path of obedience to the will of the Triune God that it is even understood as the reason why the Samaritan town rejected him (see verse 53).
In fact, their experience in this town makes up our first lesson about distracted discipling—especially underscoring how easy it is to let other realms of discipleship creep in. As you might already be aware, there was “no love lost” between the Jewish and Samaritan people. So when John and James ask Jesus if they should call down some vengeful judgement on the town that has rejected them, it is very likely that their motivations were not purely holy. In other words, their national discipleship framed the way they wanted to respond as a disciple of Jesus.
Obviously—yet much more difficult for us to practice and spot “in the wild” of our own lives—it should be the other way around: our discipleship to Jesus should transform how we express our national identity. Our Christian identity and calling to the way of Christ trumps any national identity, and the influence is meant to be much more uni-directional than it is for most of us. I am not arguing here for a context-less discipleship, but trying to make a point about which way influence on values, practices, and worship should flow.
If James and John had been less distracted by their national biases—aka their national discipleship—then they would have been able to follow the example of their rabbi and remember what he has already taught them in word and deed: by making a Samaritan woman an evangelist (John 4) Jesus has shown that he does not hate this people group; nor has Jesus ever spoken hatred or immediate judgement and wrath on any human being(s) for rejecting him—he has left the judgement to come. You’ve got to wonder if these points were part of Jesus’ rebuke (verse 55).
The text moves then from the disciples modelling distraction to would-be disciples proving the difficulty of separating ourselves from the discipleships that already have a hold on us: as humans we are already distracted and need to unravel ourselves from the things of this world in order to truly follow Jesus the Christ.
Jesus uses these anonymous encounters along the road (verse 57) to prove the point about the difficulty of discipleship. They are open-ended vignettes; we have no idea whether any of them actually came around. This open-ended nature undergirds their invitations to consideration today.
The first person seems ready and willing, saying, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Jesus’ answer is that the going will never stop: others have a place to rest and call home, but the Son of Man does not. It is a word about constantly facing rejection, never feeling truly at home in any culture or place, of being so very aware of being different (as it should be, since discipleship to Christ is often counter-cultural).
For the second and third persons, the distractions to becoming a fully devoted disciple to Jesus are front and center. The second person is invited to come and follow by Jesus, but the person responds with the need to complete some cultural duties (burying their father). Perhaps this person thinks that they are wrapping up their cultural duties in order to be able to let them go; in reality, they are showing how tied to them they actually are (not to mention how they are keeping the link to belonging and identity because they have kept in step with expectations). It’s a “Yes, but let me just quickly…” answer to Jesus’ command—a distracted response.
To be fair, it is quite difficult to let go of the cultural and familial values that have been given, taught, and drilled into us. Often, they have even been closely tied to our Christian identity. An example of this syncretic discipleship is the sort of rhetoric that says a woman’s highest calling is to become a mother by bearing children. Granted, this may be an act of discipleship for some women, but even higher than this calling is the calling to Jesus’ discipleship and life in the Spirit. The high calling of bearing the fruit of the Spirit as a disciple of Christ leads a mother to fulfill her calling as a mother differently, as an expression of her own discipleship, not as a precursor or mandatory activity of her discipleship. (This is that uni-directional flow of Christian discipleship’s influence upon our worldly vocations.)
From the very beginning, because of the way that we’re wired as individuals and societies, we are distracted disciples in need of clarity—in need of keeping our eyes clearly fixed on Jesus the Christ, the resurrected and ascended Lord.
Likewise with the third person, who wants to do a very respectable thing and say goodbye to their kin before following Jesus. Jesus likens this person’s actions to the farmer who, while plowing, turns the head to look behind. By doing so, the famer is going to make a mess of the rows because it will be impossible to walk a straight line forward while looking backward.
How much of the church is struggling to look forward to where Jesus is leading because they are looking backward to a reality long gone?
The person looking backward is in clear contrast to Jesus, whose face is set to Jerusalem as part of his own obedient discipleship to the will of the Triune God. With our distracted discipleship, we are constantly proving Jesus’ warning true: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” We need the Spirit to put Christ in us if we’re going to try to do this thing undistracted. And, we need to continuously examine and keep on guard for how our discipleship becomes distracted (or is being pressured to become distracted and entangled with something that is not the main thing).
We are always along the way, with no place to rest and feel like we’ve completed the journey of discipleship. We will get distracted and veer away and will need the grace of God to pull us back. We can repent and turn our faces back towards Christ. Thankfully, we have an ultimate, utterly undistracted faithful one who counts us as his own.
Many of the commentaries you read will point out how this passage links Jesus very closely with Elijah in 2 Kings 1-2 by allusions to:
- being taken up (into heaven)
- calling fire down from heaven
- a new would-be follower/apprentice/disciple
These connections underscore Jesus as the Prophet.
We all know well the dangers of distracted driving. And yet, most of us are still picking up our cell phones to read the text, change the song, enter a new address into our maps… More studies have proven that we can’t do these two things at once: in order to be safe for ourselves and others, we need to be a driver or we need to be a phone user.
I wonder if we might think about Jesus’ words on discipleship in a similar way: we can either be his disciple, or a disciple of our… nation, …culture, …family, …etc. When we try to follow Jesus but still keep national views, cultural values that might keep us from seeking the kingdom, or placing more importance in how our family will view us above how Jesus does, we are discipling distracted. The one who resolutely set his face to Jerusalem will have none of it.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 26, 2022
Luke 9:51-62 Commentary