Pentecost 6: 26 June Luke 9:51-62
At this point in his gospel Luke has been reworking Mark’s gospel and has reached Mark 10:1, where Mark tells us that Jesus set off for Judea. One chapter later in Mark Jesus enters Jerusalem and the temple. Not so in Luke. Ten chapters later Jesus reaches Jerusalem! Luke does not return to Mark until he reaches 18:14. In between Luke brings a wide range of stories and sayings not found in Mark, but either shared with Matthew (so from Q) or from his own unique sources. Together they become teaching which Jesus gives on the journey. They are also like teaching for the journey upon which all disciples embark.
Our passage deals with the beginning of the journey, especially the call to discipleship and what it means. But first Jesus must make his way through Samaria. Given the mutual hostility, it is credible that in some Samaritan villages Jews would not be welcome. Racism, whatever inspired it, catches up Jesus and his followers. Luke’s story also knows that Samaria was the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel, where Elijah and Elisha had been active. Its king, Ahaziah, had sent two sets of 50 men to arrest Elijah. Elijah had called down fire from heaven to destroy them (2 Kings 1:10,12). In the story James and John want Jesus to repeat the dose. Let’s stamp out racism! Let’s hate those who hate us! Jesus will have none of it.
It is an odd story. Is it being critical of Elijah’s act? This is less likely than that the author wants to show that Jesus is like Elijah but also someone more than Elijah. That theme will return in the following verses. Nevertheless violence is being set aside as a solution. Hating those who reject you is also a major religious theme, including a frame of reference for many in thinking about God and God’s future. The cycle of violence easily becomes a devout response. James and John loved Jesus. That was a problem - for them and others.
The next section has three encounters between Jesus and would be followers. Jesus did all the wrong things from a growth perspective. He was in danger of losing everyone if he carried on like that. Hanging alone on a cross is not success. ‘Son of Man’, the odd expression which the Greek foists upon us, means something like ‘the human being’ in Hebrew. So we have a contrast between this human being and the animals. ‘This human being’ seems closer to what is meant here. Jesus is speaking of himself. Daniel 7 also contrasts animals and one like a human being. Against that background, laced with political allusions, the saying of Jesus belongs in the context of the journey upon which he is embarked, a journey that will end on a cross - and then victory! It is the path of suffering which Jerusalem’s inhabitants knew when Antiochus Epiphanes crushed their spirits in 167 BCE and which only through the exploits of Judas Maccabeus carried them to deliverance and glory in 164BCE, the setting for the book of Daniel. To join Jesus is to join the march for freedom, the journey for liberation, the path through danger to hope.
The second encounter shocks our sensibilities and sounds like the counsel of fanaticism. It is extreme, it seems deliberately so. It makes us want to wheedle our way out of its embarrassment and embroider some hidden motives into the man’s request. Maybe his father was still alive? Hardly likely. Shock tactics can be offensive. This is doubtless meant to be offensive. It does not want to be explained and certainly not as a new way of treating parents. Its violence challenges family values with a higher claim of allegiance. It is not founding an institution or setting up a principle, but wresting control from cherished values so that we see another perspective. It asserts God, the reign of God, not as a manipulation of fanaticism, but as the highest value. Again, this is skewed if it is seen as a distraction from love by a self indulgent god, claiming rights to be adored. In that case we would be back with James and John's theology. Rather it can make sense as a call to radical compassion which may challenge all other calls to caring. Mostly it will generate all that caring in family which is so central, but love remains and sometimes it must break established priorities. Less dramatically, but just as relevant, people’s dedication to ‘family values’ frequently blinds them to real caring and at worst inspires hate and discrimination.
The first two encounters appear also in Matthew (8:19-22). The third encounter is unique to Luke and functions as a counter piece to the introductory story based on Elijah. For in 9:61-62 Luke is reminding us of Elijah’s call of Elisha (1 Kings 19:20). Elijah allowed Elisha to bid farewell to his folks. Not so Jesus! The image of the crooked furrow is graphic. A modern image might be what happens when people drive with their eyes glued to the rear vision mirror - the consequences are often more disastrous than crooked furrows.
Jesus is not driving a wedge between family and the kingdom of God, but he is indicating a conflict of interest. He often does so. Many people suffer because they need this kind of liberation, whether through external pressures or through internalised ones. Churches have often reinforced the values which have prevented people from growing up. It is not just a therapeutic issue for individuals - and that alone is worth a sermon about liberating grace and some exorcism. It is also what it does to our community and our world when local family values, systems and loyalties, even local racial and national loyalties, lead us to betray other people, usually those much worse off than ourselves. What are the shock tactics of today to free people from such seductions or simply to lift them beyond the limited horizons of their own legitimate caring? The point is not the tactics but the invitation to a new kind of journeying, a new way of setting one’s face for Jerusalem.
Epistle: Pentecost 6: 26 June Galatians 5:1, 13-25