Malankara World Journal - Christian Spirituality from a Jacobite and Orthodox Perspective
Malankara World Journal
Theme: 4th Sun After New Sunday, Discipleship
Volume 7 No. 416 May 19, 2017
 
II. Lectionary Reflections: Luke 9:51-62

Counting the Cost of Discipleship

by Brian Evans

Gospel: Luke 9-56-62

Introduction

So far in the ministry of Jesus on earth things have gone pretty well. He has travelled and healed, worked miracles, and been able to teach and preach the message of the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the people's Messiah. Probably at this point His biggest challenge was the crowd. The Bible tells us that He was limited in where He could go because the crowd was always there, always wanting more. The crowd and His disciples followed Him wherever He went.

Jesus also knows that the tide is about to turn. From here on out being a follower is going to require an unprecedented amount of loyalty and sacrifice. Being a disciple will have an extreme amount of cost for the would-be follower.

Jesus has never painted a rosy picture for His disciples but has told them the truth about their commitment to Him. He continues, in this text, to share with them what they are about to get into. He's not trying to discourage them from following, but He does want them to know up front what the cost will be. He wants everyone on the same page as far as requirements of discipleship. He isn't trying to make following Him sound like a walk in the park.

Do you know what the cost is? Have you considered the cost?

We live in a day when Christianity is often viewed as something that will make you feel better about yourself. It's as if its some sort of therapy for your self-esteem. Many people want to go to church so they feel better about themselves.

We also live in a day when the church is to open its doors to any and everybody. In today's world we are to be seeker friendly and water down the gospel so as not to be offensive. Pastors and church leaders will come up with various schemes to try and make the church more appealing to lost people so that the lost will want to come and enjoy themselves with everyone else…is this loving? Is it loving to manipulate and sell someone something? Is it loving to sugar coat sin and the requirements of Christ so that they will be easier to swallow? Jesus didn't.

I think it's time the church started acting like the Lord in terms of being the true church and not some social club. It's time we start examining the Scriptures to see even what we are to be about and to do. It's time pastors and church leaders stop trying to sell people a bill of goods simply to stroke their own egos. It's time we start looking at Christianity not as the title to a social group but the name of followers of Christ.

Jesus gives us a reality check here in this passage. Here again are His terms of discipleship. Please don't think this is Pastor Brian on a soapbox, this is Jesus not me. If you wish to disagree and complain, take it up with Him…

In our text today, we are going to see some misunderstandings concerning following Christ.

Please hear God's Word…

Luke 9:56-62

56 And they went on to another village.

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go."

58 And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

59 To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."

60 And Jesus said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

61 Yet another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home."

62 Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Father, grant us the commitment needed to be followers of Christ.

1. Being a Christian Requires Switching Kingdoms (9:57-58)

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, "I will follow you wherever you go."

58 And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."

Our text begins with a man who approaches Jesus with a statement about being one of His followers… I will follow you wherever you go.

This man's desire is admirable. This desire exceeds the trivial ideas of being a follower of Christ today. This man had some level of commitment and interest in being a disciple.

Jesus does not want anyone to come to Him and be a disciple under false pretenses. He's not like the army recruiter who paints the glorious picture and promises everything only to get you to sign on the dotted line. Jesus is truthful and wants everyone to understand what they're getting into before they sign up.

So He tells this man that following Him will require significant commitment and struggle. Jesus says that the wild animals in the woods have dens and nests. He on the other hand doesn't have a home or even a place to lay His head. Jesus' point to this man is that if you want to follow Me, don't think your physical life is going to improve. Don't think comfort is awaiting you.

He wasn't discouraging this man, but telling him the truth. Jesus was causing this man to consider the fact that following Him would require commitment and cost.

Matthew 8 we see that this man is a scribe. He addresses Jesus with honor, calling Him teacher. This man, no doubt, had earthly ambitions. He saw the miracles, crowds, and enthusiasm. He wanted a part of the good things. He thought being a disciple was going to be a benefit to his earthly life and that He might gain something in the process.

Jesus wants this man to understand completely that He is going to the cross and there is no wealth involved, in fact, Jesus as the leader doesn't even have a place to lay His head.

This man didn't realize what was ahead of him and what he was getting himself into.

Lk 18:18 And a ruler asked him, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Lk 18:19 And Jesus said to him, "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

Lk 18:20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.'"

Lk 18:21 And he said, "All these I have kept from my youth."

Lk 18:22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me."

Lk 18:23 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich.

This ruler's stuff was more important to him than Jesus was, so he was denied permission to inherit eternal life.

Understand that following Christ as a disciple will cost you some of your material goods. Jesus probably will not ask us to sell our homes, or give all our possessions away. He will ask us to give away some. Are you willing to be a Christian under these circumstances?

2. Being a Christian Requires Switching Loyalties (9:59-62)

59 To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, let me first go and bury my father."

60 And Jesus said to him, "Leave the dead to bury their own dead. But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

61 Yet another said, "I will follow you, Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home."

62 Jesus said to him, "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."

Next, we read about two individuals that were asked by Jesus to follow Him. Remember when Jesus called His original disciples? He looked and Peter, James, John and the others and said, come follow Me. The Bible tells us that immediately they dropped everything and became followers. Their loyalties were different. Their loyalties were still being conformed to Christ along the way.

Here we see two people who have conditions on following Christ. They are not going to chase hard after Jesus but are going to on their timetables and in their way…so they think.

Both would-be followers on the surface seem to have a good reason to delay their discipleship. Jesus shows them and us that He must take priority over all things…even things that are good.

There is a pattern.

The next two vignettes appear in parallel form: Invitation/petition to follow + proposal to delay discipleship until something is accomplished (first) + reference to the kingdom of God included in the rejection of the proposed delay. –Joel Green (NICNT Luke 407)

We see a very similar example again, like last week from the example of Elijah and Elisha.

1 Kgs 19:19 So he departed from there and found Elisha the son of Shaphat, who was plowing with twelve yoke of oxen in front of him, and he was with the twelfth. Elijah passed by him and cast his cloak upon him.

1 Kgs 19:20 And he left the oxen and ran after Elijah and said, "Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you." And he said to him, "Go back again, for what have I done to you?"

1 Kgs 19:21 And he returned from following him and took the yoke of oxen and sacrificed them and boiled their flesh with the yokes of the oxen and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he arose and went after Elijah and assisted him.

There are many parallels between the ministry of Christ and Elijah. That's why some, when asked, said Jesus was Elijah. When Elijah calls Elisha to be his follower, Elisha is allowed to return home first and say goodbye to his family.

Here in our text today, Jesus draws a line and says no.

I searched for the answer from many theologians and have heard many options as to why this was the case. I remained unconvinced.

In the case of the first man, Matthew calls him a scribe, he wishes to go home and bury his father and Jesus refuses to grant him permission.

Now to bury one's father seems like a legitimate reason to delay following Jesus. Some scholars say, his father wasn't dead but elderly and what his request really was about was to go home and care for his father until he died and was buried and then he would follow Jesus. Others think that this was really an excuse because, in Jewish tradition a body had to be buried within 24 hours of death. They go on to say why was he in the crowd if his father had died, he would have been home caring for the burial.

As far as the second person is concerned, it was a seemingly understandable request to desire to go home and say your goodbyes. After all, Elisha was given permission. Again, Jesus says no.

Why did Jesus deny these requests?

Again, some theologians say that He is sovereign and in both cases knew that these were simply excuses to delay following Him and so they were denied.

I really think there is a simpler answer. I believe these were real requests. I believe the man desired to go and bury his father and the other desired to go and say goodbye.

I think we're told why their discipleship could not be delayed…

Lk 9:51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.

Notice, the days were drawing near for the Ascension. This would be after the resurrection when Jesus would go back to heaven. Jesus had a divine schedule to keep. He had to be in Jerusalem at a certain time because in God's plan the events were decreed from before the foundation of the earth. When the Bible says, he set his face to go to Jerusalem, there was nothing even Satan and his army could not stop the King from keeping His promise to be the Savior.

The reason that Jesus denied these requests was because He had to leave and leave immediately to keep His destiny with the cross.

His call was to follow immediately, just as He had required of His original followers.

The other part of the call was to follow, not only immediately but without conditions.

The call today for us is the same. Jesus may not call us to leave family and friends behind but He very well could. Would we follow?

3. Our Cost of Discipleship

We are to understand our obligations as Christian followers/disciples today…

The disciple of Jesus is a person who is being continually conformed to the image of his Master (Rom. 8:29). He is the one who is constantly changing, growing, knowing. He has not yet "arrived," but he is continually striving for the goals set by the Master (Phil. 3:13). He is a serious and responsible person in his relation to others. The disciple has a mission to the world. He knows who he is, what he is to do, and how he is to do it.– BIBLICAL VIEW OF MAN The Basis for Nouthetic Confrontation* by ED HINDSON

We don't know what became of the three in our text today. Once the first man heard that Jesus had no home and if he was to follow, he wouldn't either, did he turn back or did he drop everything and follow. Did the second man let the responsibility of burial fall on those who were not followers of Christ? Did the third person realize the cost of following Jesus and like Christ, set his face to go to Jerusalem? We're not told. Luke leaves this open-ended. Perhaps he does so because we are those in the story. Perhaps he doesn't tell us what they did because we are to hear and obey the same call.

Is Jesus calling us to follow Him? I believe He is. We are called to be Christians, little Christs. We are called to model our lives after His. Sometimes there is a huge cost, sometimes the cost isn't as big, but there is always a cost.

The call to follow Christ is ringing out, will you follow unconditionally or is there something else you feel you need to do first?

Mt 16:24 Then Jesus told his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 

Choices: Letting the Dead Bury Their Own Dead

by Dr. Janet Hunt

Gospel: Luke 9:51-62

"Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

Given this coming Sunday's Gospel, it strikes me that there is profound irony in the fact that for the first time in four years I am a day late in getting my post up because I have been about the business of 'burying the dead.' Indeed, the words of Jesus have been playing as a kind of background soundtrack in my mind over these last days as I have struggled with where I needed to be and when. Oh, I have had cause to wonder a the meaning of Jesus words for my life today. For while many of us can recall pivotal moments when we have turned to follow Jesus with all that this means, it seems to me that it is also so that we do this with our choices every day.

So let me give you a window into these last days and then let me offer some possible ways of thinking about Jesus' words before us now.

Early last week the word came that Norma, a beloved family friend of more than fifty years, had died. I live close enough to the town where I grew up that such news always presents the opportunity to return and to be present to and for and with those who grieve. This was one time when I felt a real need to be there for Norma's gifts to me and many were so very grace and faith filled. For many years I have acknowledged my gratitude for her kindness to me and for the ways her walk of faith served as model and guide for my own.

So it was early on Tuesday morning I heard that she had died. Later that day I heard the funeral had been set for the following Saturday. On Wednesday I was asked if I would speak at her funeral.

I knew where I felt I needed to be, and yet, there was this. Our Annual Synod Assembly would still be in session then. Perhaps there are years when one would not miss much if they were to miss out on being part of the last day of this annual business meeting of the larger church. However, this was not one of those years for with the retirement of our bishop, we would be discerning the call of the one who would follow in his stead. And as if this were not enough, I was quite certain that some of my closest friends would be in the mix of our collective deliberation over this call. (It turns out I was right on target as to how that played out.)

So, right or wrong, the words of Jesus kept rumbling around in the back of my mind.

  • What does it mean to let the dead bury their own dead?
  • Was my decision to return home to share in the grief of these precious people doing that?
  • Or was it more likely that there was a way in which either choice would be following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God and it was simply up to me to decide in the best way I could?

In the end, it was with no hesitation that I agreed to attend Norma's funeral and to speak. It was an honor to be able share who she had been for me and for many. And I knew it would give me the chance to show kindness to her very precious family. (Although it became evident that others knew I had made a choice as well when I leaned over to speak to Wally, Norma's husband of 62 years. He scowled at me and told me I should be at our Synod Assembly. Respectfully, I told him I was right where I needed to be. And this was so.)

So I tell you the truth now when I say that I do not entirely know what to do with Jesus' words about 'letting the dead bury their own dead.'

On the one hand I am almost tempted to say that he is telling some kind of joke - or at the very least, speaking in metaphor for literally speaking, those who are actually dead certainly cannot bury others who are dead. Indeed, Jesus is clearly speaking to something basic in one man's priorities and motivation when he tells him that to go and bury his father is to turn his back on another call. Oh yes, Jesus is talking here about making monumental choices. He is speaking to the essential truth that the choice to follow him means precluding other options - even those which are rooted in our most fundamental familial obligations.

So here is part of my struggle today. In both my personal life and in my ministry it has always been so that I have made time and space for the funerals - for 'burying the dead.' I have done so because these are occasions when I have always felt called to follow Jesus in ways of kindness and caring and proclaiming powerful promises of hope. For as long as I can remember I have had a real clarity about that. In my estimation, this is all the more important in a culture which habitually and perpetually tends to deny and even run from death and grief and loss. To me, these do not seem to be occasions when the 'dead are burying the dead,' but when those living in faith and hope are doing so. This way of thinking is so much a part of me that I find myself concluding that it surely could be dangerous, or at least profoundly irresponsible, to receive these words of Jesus as some kind of black and white expectation of you and I who follow him. For surely one of the places we must be called to 'proclaim the kingdom of God' is when and where people are hurting the most. On the other hand? The choices he points to now must always contribute to our deliberation - and not only one time, but again and again and again. Oh yes, we hear today that this very important conversation acknowledges that the choice to follow Jesus does mean that some things one might normally do automatically may simply not get done. Some things will not happen if this does. We hear today that this choice may well take priority over what others in the culture would say is most important. Indeed, it is altogether likely that faithful choices will defy the expectations of this world now.

Oh yes, the words of Jesus push us to wonder at whether our choices are about remaining with or joining the 'dead' - however that may be defined - or about moving ahead with the life of the Gospel for the sake of the world. The outcome of this ongoing conversation may likely look a little different for each of us. As for me, I have found that that this not about making only a one time choice. Rather, it means wrestling with such choices almost every day. Or several times a day. Like I did again just last week. And yesterday. And just this morning. And as I likely will again tomorrow.

  • What do you think Jesus is saying when he says to "let the dead bury their own dead?" How do you understand him?
  • When in your life have you found yourself making precisely this choice? For you is it a question you struggle with often, even every day?
  • Can you think of times when you have given yourself over to 'burying the dead' in a way that was less than faithful in terms of your walk with Jesus? What did that look like for you? Did you know it at the time or only as you looked back on it?
  • Can you offer a time or times when you chose to leave 'burying the dead' behind and chose instead to be about "proclaiming the kingdom of God?" What did that look like for you?

Source: Dancing with the Word

Following Jesus?

by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm

Gospel: Luke 9:57-62

We live in a results-oriented world. Everything from education to performance reviews at work to government projects are evaluated based on so-called "objective measurement." That's not necessarily a bad thing. We need more accountability these days, and the tools that measure results can help with that. But we seem to think that everything in life can be measured by objective outcomes. I fear that if we approach the Christian life from the perspective of looking for results, we may be setting ourselves up for a serious disappointment.

The famous Catholic priest, professor, and author Henri Nouwen warns us against that approach. He insists that our ability to continue to serve others is not based on the results we see, but rather on the hope that is firmly grounded in Christ's victory over death itself, which demonstrates "that there is light on the other side of darkness."[2] On the other hand, Nouwen warns that many of those who base their Christian lives on the search for visible results "have become disillusioned, bitter, and even hostile" to the faith "when years of hard work bear no fruit."[3] In fact, I would say that most people who lose their faith were expecting some kind of tangible results from following Jesus in discipleship.

I think our Gospel lesson for today has a lot to say about our expectations regarding what the decision to follow Christ means for us. It's a story about three would-be disciples who encountered Jesus. The first volunteered, saying "I will follow you wherever you go." Sounds like the ideal candidate. But Jesus seems to be aware that he doesn't fully know what "I will follow you wherever you go" means. It means "not having a place to lay your head," like Jesus. It would appear that he had some kind of expectation of a payoff for following Jesus, and Jesus rather bluntly confronts him with the truth that his expectation is unrealistic at best.[4]

The second would-be disciple is one whom Jesus invited to follow him. But he asked Jesus to first be allowed to bury his father. It would seem to be a reasonable request. In that day and time, the obligation to see to the proper burial of parents was part of fulfilling the commandment to "honor your father and mother."[5] But Jesus responded in a way that seems quite harsh. He said, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Although there is significant debate about what Jesus meant, it would seem clear that the commitment to the seek first God's Kingdom that is inherent in the decision to follow Jesus outweighs all other priorities.[6]

The third would-be disciple also volunteered to follow Jesus, but asked permission to first go and say farewell to his family. Again it seems a reasonable request. Even Elijah allowed Elisha to say good-bye to his parents when he chose him to be his disciple while he was plowing his field (1 Kings 19:19-21). But Jesus will have nothing of the sort. Echoing the incident with Elisha, he says, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."[7] Perhaps this would-be disciple was looking for some kind of recognition from his family for the fact that he was going to be a disciple of the Messiah. It's hard to say. What seems clear is that all three would-be disciples decided not to follow Jesus

The message of this unusual story is that following Jesus means the Kingdom of God takes priority over everything else in your life.[8] Following Jesus means giving yourself away without thought of reward or recognition. It means serving the purposes of compassion, justice, peace, and freedom simply because it's the right thing to do, not for any payoff.[9] And to all who approach the task looking for a reward, or a payoff, or recognition, it would seem that Jesus warns them to do themselves a favor and not start something that is going to result in the kind of disillusionment and even bitterness that Nouwen warns us against.[10]

One reason why I mention Nouwen is because he knows whereof he speaks.[11] After his ordination as a Catholic priest, Nouwen began to study the connection between pastoral care, psychology, and theology in Holland. He finished those studies at the prestigious Menninger clinic. Along the way, his message of acceptance and compassion earned him quite a reputation and a following to match.[12] For twenty years he taught Pastoral Care at some of the most distinguished universities in the U. S.--Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard.[13] But he left it all behind to become the chaplain at the Daybreak community in Toronto.[14] It is a part of the world-wide network of L'Arche homes where the mentally handicapped and their caregivers lived together with others in a community.

Nouwen's story illustrates the kind of sacrifice following Jesus demands. It means that the Kingdom of God takes priority over everything else. It means working for compassion, justice, peace, and freedom simply because it's the right thing to do. It means giving yourself away in service to others without looking for a reward. Giving something away without expecting anything in return isn't very popular these days. But it is the heart of Jesus' call to follow him.[15] The question is whether we will follow, or simply walk away like all the other would-be disciples

References:

[2] Henri Nouwen, in The Wounded Healer, reprinted in Ministry and Spirituality, 155.
[3] Nouwen, Ministry and Spirituality, 156
[4] Cf. the perspective of Karl Barth, Church dogmatics 4.2:535-36, where he insists that this would-be disciple "does not realise what it is that he thinks he can choose. He does not know how terrible is the venture to which he commits himself in the execution of this choice. No one of himself can or will imagine that this is his way, or take this way. What Jesus wills with His 'Follow me' can be chosen only in obedience to His call."
[5] Cf. John Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 544: "In Jewish tradition this obligation was so sacred as to override any other obligations of the OT law. Jesus' words do not deny the normal claims of the pious duty to bury the dead, but, in a way that is harsh and even shocking, they insist that this man has a more pressing duty."
[6] Cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke I-IX, 836; Nolland, Luke 9:21–18:34, 542.
[7] Cf. Fitzmyer, Luke I-IX, 834: "Plowing for the kingdom means sacrifice; it can tolerate no distractions." Cf. similarly, Barth, Church dogmatics, 4.2:536, where he says, "It is clear that this man, too, does not really know what he thinks he has chosen. It is certainly not the following of Jesus. This is commanded unconditionally, and therefore it cannot be entered upon except unconditionally."
[8] Cf. Fred Craddock, Luke, 144; Nolland, Luke 9:21-18:34, 543.
[9] Cf. Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 101, where he calls it, "the way of downward mobility, the descending way of Jesus." Cf. also Luke Johnson, Learning Jesus, 201 "The imitation of Christ in his life of service and suffering … is not an optional version of the Christian identity. It is the very essence of Christian identity."
[10] Cf. Søren Kierkegaard Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard, 89: Christ "never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for." Cf. also R. Alan Culpepper, "The Gospel According to Luke," New Interpreters Bible IX:218, where he says, "the radical demands of discipleship require that every potential disciple consider the cost, give Jesus the highest priority in one's life, and, having committed oneself to discipleship, move ahead without looking back."
[11] Perhaps the most fitting epitaph to Nouwen's life was written by Carolyn Whitney-Brown, a former member of the Daybreak community. She said, "When I think of Henri, I think of two ‘books': one is the book that Henri wrote 40 times, yet couldn't quite live; the other is the book the Henri lived for almost 65 years, yet couldn't quite write." Cf. Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet: A Portrait of Henri Nouwen, xv.
[12] cf. Ford, Wounded Prophet, 16-17 on Nouwen's writing career. Cf. ibid., 100-102, 105 on his growing following.
[13] Cf. Ford, Wounded Prophet, 95-97, 103-104, 135-36
[14] On his transition from teaching to serving at Daybreak, see Ford, Wounded Prophet, 145, 149-56
[15] Cf. Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 283, where he puts it more succinctly by saying that following Jesus means that "I am learning from Jesus how to lead my life, my whole life, my real life."

©2013 Alan Brehm. Source: The Waking Dreamer

Setting Our Face Towards Paradox

by Andrew Prior

Gospel: Luke 9:51-62

9:1 Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. 3He said to them, 'Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. 4Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. 5Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.' 6They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere…

21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, 22saying, 'The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.'

23 Then he said to them all, 'If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it…

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (exodos), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem…

49 John answered, 'Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.'50But Jesus said to him, 'Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.'

51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, 'Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them? 55But he turned and rebuked them. [Other ancient authorities read rebuked them, and said, 'You do not know what spirit you are of, 56for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.'] 56Then they went on to another village.

57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, 'I will follow you wherever you go.' 58And Jesus said to him, 'Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' 59To another he said, 'Follow me.' But he said, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.' 60But Jesus* said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.'61Another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.' 62Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'
Luke 9:1-6, 21-31, 49-62

Pilate washes his hands to excuse himself of the violence he has condoned. Jesus gives us "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases" but calls us to shake the dust off our feet where we are not welcomed. (Luke 9:1-6) As Lady Macbeth showed us so clearly, hand washing does not make us clean.

Shaking the dust off our feet signifies a great disapproval. In one sense it is entirely symbolic; who will see us as we stand of the edges of the town? It does no violence. But the symbol is grounded in a concrete reality: it involves walking away. (In practical living, there is, here, a letting go of hurts done to us, so that they cannot hold onto us.)

Jesus teaches this to his disciples, but only a few verses later, when a village does not receive him, the disciples express the extreme violence of wishing to rain fire down upon it. Jesus rebukes them.

There is an addition which was made at this point in some early Lucan manuscripts:

He rebuked them, and said, 'You do not know what spirit you are of, 56for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.' Then they went on to another village.

Daniel Clendenin says

… those words … clearly express the broader Jesus tradition about which there's no debate. They sound like something he would say and have the ring of truth. The authentic Luke 19:10 sounds suspiciously similar to the non-verse (which is one reason why textual critics reject [the 9:56 variant] as spurious): "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." So does John 3:17: "God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world." There's even a similar and spurious textual variant at Matthew 18:11: "The Son of Man came to save what was lost." So, the interpolation might not be authentic, but its sentiment is….

The option of violence is forbidden us. It is of a different spirit from the spirit of Jesus. He does not criticize those who use his name but were not among those of the disciples; "for whoever is not against you is for you." (Luke 9:49) He walks away from those who are hostile.

Understand that hospitality was (is!) a sacred obligation. Not welcoming, and not receiving, do not imply mere disinterest. They are not neutral. They are hostile. I've always remembered a missionary given a bed with my parents' characteristic welcome when I was about 10. I liked him; he taught me to play chess. In my teens there was some comment made about him, and I was shocked to find my Mum thought he was a dill, and had no interest in his message. That's disinterest; it has no connection to the obligation to make welcome. Not receiving a person, in the context of Jesus' travels, is to leave them to the mercy of whatever comes. It is a violence.

So our text is a reinforcement of what has already been said about being welcomed and received, or not, at the beginning of Luke 9. And it comes as Jesus "stiffens his face" (the literal translation, according to Fiztmyer pp 826) towards Jerusalem. It is the time "when the days drew near for him to be taken up." This nonviolent walking away from not being received, and beyond that, toward Jerusalem is the spirit of his exodos, his whole purpose.

Exodos is the word translated as departure in the Transfiguration story of Luke 9:28-36. In this story Luke reminds us Jesus is right up there with the giants of the Faith, Moses and Elijah, and then shapes the story to show that Jesus is superior to them all. They discuss his exodos which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Like Moses, he is to take the people out of their Egyptian slavery; that seemingly good bounty which had turned bad.

We have been alerted to Elijah already. Luke 1:17 says of John the Baptist.

With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,

Malachi 4:5-6, in the last verses of the Old Testament, is waiting.

Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.

And then, when Jesus meets opposition at Nazareth, he invokes the memory of Elijah. (Fizmyer notes the parallel between Chapter 4 and here in Chapter 9 at pp 827. Both the ministry in Galilee, and then on the journey to Jerusalem, begin with a rejection story.)

They said, 'Is not this Joseph's son?' 23He said to them, 'Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ' 24And he said, 'Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.'

God's favour and love is for all people.

But when Jesus is not received in Samaria, he walks away from the example of Elijah. Elijah was known as the one who rained down fire on the soldiers of Ahaziah when that king of Samaria did not receive Elijah and his God, but sought advice from Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron. (2 Kings 1)

Indeed, when Elijah called his disciple Elisha, (1 Kings 19) he gave him time to say farewell to his parents. Jesus said to a similar request, 'No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.' (Luke 9:62)

So how do we hold together the urgency and harshness of Jesus' sayings; e.g., let the dead bury the dead, with his almost irenic call, immediately beforehand, to simply walk away from those who are unwelcoming, and go on to another village? I ask this question because I so often observe, and have been guilty of, zeal and urgency which slides into violence which the perpetrators do not even recognise as violence.

I find two inescapable conclusions from my reading of the Gospels. One is the universal love of God— no one is condemned, for Jesus did not come to condemn the world. And if God's love cannot forgive my sin unless I repent, then this "love" eventually becomes some violence which rains down fire on Ahaziah's soldiers. It is not the love of a good God. What kind of monster forbids the sacrifice of children in the Old Testament, but then sacrifices his only son? Not a God of love.

I know that in the same breath in which John says (3:17)

Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned,

he says

but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

But the final outworking of understanding that Love is at the back of all things, is to see that God does not condemn. We are called to grow beyond Elijah's' calling down violent fire (1 Kings 18:36-40, 2 Kings 1:1-16) and Elisha setting bears upon children, in proof of his having the spirit of Elijah. (2 Kings 2:15, 23-4) Just as we already recognised that Jesus would not spitefully kill children, contra The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and left such writings out of the Canon.

But my other conclusion is driven by the last parable in Matthew. This is the parable of the sheep and the goats. (Matthew 25: 1a, 31-46) How can sin be overlooked? There is a profound inhumanity in us. When we do as the goats did— and we all do— which is to unwelcome and to leave hungry and naked the one fully human being, we are unforgivable. Penal substitutionary atonement is as right in its apprehension of the gravity of sin as it is wrong in its making God a monster.

I can find only one way out of this: accept what seems to be a contradiction as, instead, a paradox which it is not for us to resolve. If I accept that the love of God is supreme over all things, I can accept that is supreme over sin, and trust that it covers me.

If I will not accept paradox, but must solve the contradiction, I will do one of two things. I will make sin a small thing (ignore Matthew 25, for example,) or I will inevitably make sin the ultimate power.

Ignoring sin seems to me to be the preferred option of we who are rich. Sharon Welch says

… the temptation to cynicism and despair when problems are seen as intransigent is a temptation that takes a particular form for the middle class. "The despair of the affluent, the middle class, has a particular tone: it is a despair cushioned by privilege and grounded in privilege. It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort to merely enjoying it for oneself and one's family... Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs" (Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 15).

Alyce McKenzie quotes this in a piece focussed on the need to keep our hand to the plough and not give up, but we same middle class rich who give up so easily, can also easily ignore sin, especially corporate sin, because it so often benefits us! We need Matthew 25 like a burr in the sock of our conscience.

But making sin the ultimate power, even if I couch it in language about the "justice of God," means I make God not-God. I begin the journey not to Jerusalem, but the journey toward calling down fire.

Jesus "stiffens his face" toward Jerusalem. It is unwavering commitment. It might call to mind Isaiah 50 where it says, "… therefore I have set my face like flint," but this is no hardening of face and heart towards enemies, but a bearing of them.

I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.

7 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near.

Notice the end of the song:

11 But all of you are kindlers of fire,
lighters of firebrands
Walk in the flame of your fire,
and among the brands that you have kindled!

Those who call down fire live in the flames.

I started ploughing in primary school. We do not walk behind the plough, but drive a tractor ahead of it. So we must look back! I spent many hours sitting with my left hand to the wheel, twisted around to the right to make sure I was leaving no unploughed strips, or ploughing over already turned soil; watching to keep the depth right; scanning to spot any sign of a dropped shear. To this day, I can twist more easily to the right; twisting to look behind to my left, is an effort! I have a slight deformity in my spine, and wonder if those long childhood hours of keeping the plough straight were baked into my bones. (I should say that as a solitary child, I loved it. And I treasure the ability it gave me to be contemplative.)

The most important thing we can do is set our face to Jerusalem, and all the pain that may bring us. This discipline saves and heals us. It bakes the spirit of Jesus into our bones. But if we cannot walk away from those who will not receive us; if we must bring down fire on those who beat our backs, we are only half baked Christians. We scapegoat Samaritans; we project our awareness of our own sin onto them, because we have not felt the full love of God.

There is only one way to fully embrace love. It is to walk away from sin, and from unwelcome; it is to wipe off the dust. We let God take care of the paradox or we become the sinner.

© Copyright, Andrew Prior

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