John Michael Gutiérrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to Luke
51 As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; 53 but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. 54 When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” 55 But Jesus turned and rebuked them. 56 Then he and his disciples went to another village. 57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” 59 He said to another man, “Follow me.” But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”Luke 9:51-62
The Gospel of the Lord
Close readers of Luke’s Gospel, and I’m including Theophilus and us, have long recognized the strategic importance of this morning’s first sentence “… as the days were being fulfilled for his ascension, he set his face on Jerusalem”. It’s a “game changer” to use our language. Everything from this point will be focused on Luke’s recognizable “Journey to Jerusalem” serialized story. Once there, Jesus will fulfill his messianic mission by crucifixion, resurrection and ascension.
Geographically Jesus leaves the Galilee and for the next ten chapters heads south to Jerusalem. Theologically two themes will dominate the long, deliberate journey. Unquestionably one issue explores what the messiah’s approaching suffering and death looks like in kingdom theology. And for would be and close followers, the travel narrative focuses on discipleship and community in kingdom theology. So in year C, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is placed near the beginning of our Trinity lessons to focus us on our discipleship journey.
Previously Jesus twice cautioned the disciples regarding his impending suffering (9:21-27, 44-45). And the disciples confessed their faith in him as Messiah (9:18-20). And three of them saw him transfigured with Moses and Elijah (9:28-36). Still, they cannot, as yet, begin to imagine the horror of Jesus’ last days. But Jesus knows. And still he “sets his face” toward Jerusalem (vs. 51). The idiom “sets his face” is understood here as “fixed purpose” or “resolute determination” expressing an unwavering trust in the LORD. And Lord knows, he will need it!
One of Luke’s focusing features is the frequent weaving of Old Testament characters and themes into the journey. The insertion of the phrase, “… as the days were being fulfilled” turns the reader back to the prior scene, the Transfiguration and to Israel’s prophetic tradition. Remember, Moses and Elijah, prophetic models, discussed with Jesus his redemptive Exodus. I’m suggesting Luke positioned the Transfiguration as the opening set piece for the “redemption journey”. And keep this in mind, Luke will have a prophetic bookend when Jesus explains to two disciples on the Emmaus path what ‘Moses and all the prophets’ said about him (Luke 24.27).
The new/old redemptive Exodus of Jesus will become, as the narrative unfolds, a paradigm for Jesus’ followers. Luke repeatedly sets up ‘training sessions’ and ‘immersion experiences’ in mission. The Gospel’s study guide for “would-be” disciples involves some instruction in prophetic preaching (6.17-35) and parables (15.1-32), – some fieldwork about prayer, healings and exorcisms (9.1-6), – some “table talk” in their eating, drinking with each other (22.14-38).
Please note today’s lectionary has arranged four immersion experiences. There will be a brief narrative scene as Jesus passes by a Samaritan village. This is followed by Jesus’ three responses highlighting the challenges to discipleship. A would-be disciple voices a willingness to join in with Jesus (vs. 57). To which Jesus points out the inconvenience of being a disciple. Discipleship is a journey involving being unsettled as well as experiencing rejection. A second would-be disciple takes a different approach (vs. 59). He lists the important commitments he has limiting his ability to follow. And to a third would be disciple (vs. 61), Jesus makes use of Israel’s wisdom tradition. Proverbially, if you are plowing a field, you need to focus ahead in order to plow straight. If you look around or to one side, you will fail to steer the plow in a straight line. The proverbial connection sends Theophilus and the reader back to vs. 51 where Jesus “sets his face” plowing straight toward Jerusalem and the LORD’s purposes.
So let’s look more closely at the beginnings of this “journey to Jerusalem”. Beginning outside a Samaritan village, advance “messengers” — one might call them the “Hospitality Committee” — went “before his face” into a village to do their job (vs. 52). Luke implies the ‘hospitality committee” made the arrangements, put out the welcome mat but never got the opportunity to welcome Jesus. Luke tells us for a second time, vs. 53, Jesus had “set his face toward Jerusalem” passing by the Samaritan village. He decided to stick with his decison.
Now it’s surprising to me how many folk routinely point out it’s the Samaritans turning Jesus away. Close reading of this narrative suggests something different. Luke’s focus is not on what the Samaritans did or did not do. But on what Jesus decided to do – stick with his determination. Now notice Luke shifts the scene’s tension to two disciples. It seems they “read” Jesus’ staying with his original plan as Samaritan rejection. Mistaken, they want to pin the issue to the Samaritans. “Samaritans”. For heaven’s sake, they’re historic “break-aways”, with a competing Temple, Torah and monarchy. So into this scene, simmering with imagined inhospitality, James and John fresh off their transfiguration experience with Elijah, mix in some of Sodom’s legendary inhospitality. Voila! Both Elijah and Sodom had pyrotechnic solutions (Gen. 19; 1 Kgs. 18; 2 Kgs. 1). So “ Hey, Lord, do you want us to give them the “fire-from-heaven” treatment and bump ‘em off”? (vs. 54). “Pyro-theology” and they’re the ones to administer it! Luke says simply Jesus rebuked them.
As I’m pointing out, a close reading of the Lukan “journey narrative” focuses us on discipleship training. So may I suggest Luke has a purpose for Elijah in the transfiguration different than shock and awe. It seems to me Luke’s theological focus is discipleship mission. Having trained his disciple Elisha, Elijah is taken away and his mission is passed to Elisha (2 Kings (2: 9-15). And remember both Moses and Elijah transferred their leadership at the end of their ministry and a greater than Moses or Elijah is here. So in like manner at the end of his exodus journey Jesus’ mission will be passed on to his disciples (24.45-49).
Reading Luke’s discipleship training theme this way highlights Jesus’ rejection of the violence expressed by his disciples. Jesus’ crucifixion mission will not involve a misdirected action. Further his rebuke of the disciples’ knee jerk bias against Samaritans-at-large will come into sharper focus soon enough when He tells the parable of a Samaritan “neighbor” (10:25-37). To read this text in the manner in which I am suggesting, is to more properly feel Jesus’ censure of his disciples for having resorted to a visceral act. Luke’s instructive point regarding discipleship, it seems to me, is this: Violence is the loss of a moral capacity to love one’s imagined enemies. So the overreach for violence is an insidious impulse to a dangerous power. In the end, violence is alien to the kingdom’s capacity for justice in judgment. And Jesus will have nothing to do with violence.
After Jesus and the disciples passed by one Samaritan village, setting off toward another on their way to Jerusalem, three persons approached Jesus wanting to be among his disciples. And you would expect Jesus might say, “Come on then”. But consistently Jesus does not encourage just anyone to become his disciple. Actually He seems to discourage them. He points out to them the radical call he is making. And the study guide point: disciple-ing takes a greater commitment than some may be willing to give.
In Luke’s discipleship theme, these episodes at the start of his journey to Jerusalem become striking illustrations of the cost of discipleship – anywhere, any time. Jesus’ response to the first two cut right across normal social expectations of the Second Temple Period, while the third response underlined the calvary road, once chosen whether by Jesus or by any of his followers, should not be sidetracked. He chides those who have excuses for not immediately following him. Here is yet another connection to the Elijah-Elisha story where Elisha was allowed to return home to settle his affairs. Jesus is so much more than Elijah – so more is required. Luke highlights the person’s desire to observe burial customs (vs. 59). Note the irony the journey to Jerusalem entails – death, dying to self with every step. Nevertheless, the journey must be made by Jesus and by his disciples because this is the only journey that leads to life. There will be no escape clause for Jesus in this unfolding story. And there might not be one for those who follow him.
Broadly, Jesus is saying a disciple can’t fence off parts of their lives from the total claims he makes. People have houses, says Jesus, even animals have burrows and nests, but a kingdom-seeking person must be ready to have “weaned affections”. A home is a blessing, indeed, but a kingdom-seeking person needs to recognize it is a blessing and not a right. In first-century Palestine, it was customary for the eldest son to stay home, manage the property of his aging parents, and finally see to their proper burial. If that is the situation here, Jesus’ reply is not a command to skip a parent’s funeral. Rather it is a challenge to leave home now—not some thirty years hence—to join in the Kingdom’s mission. To look back from the plow, whether to family living or dead, was to risk cutting a crooked furrow and thus ruining the work altogether. There is no place for looking back or sideways. Rather, a would-be disciple must be single-minded in purpose, setting their face like Jesus on the task at hand.
No one is forced to make this journey with Jesus. Lukan discipleship is a choice to be seized. Jesus’ responses can be interpreted as recognition that important things are happening every day in my life. So opportunities must be acted upon while they are still available. Today’s opportunities will never return. There is wisdom in identifying those things impeding the mission, understanding sometimes I have to walk on to the next village.
When Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, he turned his back on Nazareth, on the Galilee, on his life as a contractor, small town teacher and preacher. When Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, he knew he was going to his death, he knew he was, from that very moment, walking to the cross. In the urgency of the story, I as a reader and a “would be” disciple am invited to discover the urgency of what discipleship entails. I am to learn from this beginning, Jesus encounters obstacles both from his closest followers and from those who want to postpone commitment to a more convenient time. In these interactions Jesus is calling me, a would-be disciple and us, a believing community into question and that’s never easy, fun, or comfortable. Many folk are ardent for their families, hobbies, talents, professions, favorite sport teams. They need reminders about priorities. All of us do. Jesus is calling into question the direction of my life, the values I claim to hold, and how I am living and embodying those values. All earthly anxieties must be evaluated as part of the total call to discipleship. Discipleship can involve rejection, personal sacrifices, foxes and birds, family alienation, a funeral but most certainly always involve single-mindedness. Often opposition and conflict enable me/us to clarify goals, strengthen convictions, and increase courage in kingdom ministry. This lectionary lesson is most obvious when I/we see the obligation to follow Jesus as first priority. Only then will I/we be able to follow his resolve to our Jerusalem. Once there, only then will we recognize how what we learned along the way prepared us for the challenge of the cross.
So Jesus’ would-be disciples need to look ahead rather than sideways or backward. Discipleship in community is a challenge, an adventure to healing and wholeness, forgiveness. Setting out on this redemptive journey, the destination might well be unexpected and surprising. We will need to let go of familiar patterns, social requirements, and relational certainties and most certainly, violence. Jesus’ intent is for us to see family and obligations in a new light – to love, but love without possessing, to own but without greed, to save but to give generously, and to care for loved ones but willing to break out of patterns standing in the way of kingdom ministry. Jesus’s kingdom is not some inclusive community, where all belong in order to make them feel self affirmed. Rather his kingdom community involves a redemptive exodus journey of transformation. That alone is the way to live. The journey is demanding because he walked this demanding path himself. Discipleship means living in Spirit-transformed ways we would not otherwise experience. Once a disciple comes to realize the kingdom Jesus came to announce does contain the cosmic power for salvation for all people and all creation, then we cannot overstate the claim its call has on someone’s life. We cannot exaggerate enough the demands of this kingdom and the gracious Father who through our Lord Jesus Christ has saved us from darkness bringing us into light. That’s a message for our times.