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30 June 2019
Luke 9:51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52 And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53 but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54 When 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?” 55 But he turned and rebuked them. 56 Then they went on to another village.
Luke 9:57 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, first let me go and bury my father.” 60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61 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 a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
With this passage, we have reached a key moment in the narrative of Luke’s Gospel. In all the Gospels, of course, Jesus makes a final journey to Jerusalem. However, in Luke it is underlined in a strong way and the journey to the Holy City becomes a major theme, just as the journey out from the Holy City will likewise be a theme in the Acts of the Apostles. Thus the gospel divides the ministry into 5:1-9:50 and 9:51-24:53.
The series of scenes in today’s excerpt underlines the focus on the journey and the determination of Jesus. The first part of the journey narrative, 9:51-13:21, located in Galilee, deals with the expansion and training of disciples.
Kind of writing
This is part of the drama of Luke’s telling, with its focus on Jerusalem, the place of salvation, and a consequent delineation of what discipleship means in light of the destiny of the Messiah. The first part of the journey to Jerusalem, 9:51-13:21, has itself an introductory section from 9:51-10:37, framed by the contrasting mention of Samaritans.
Writing always very consciously and carefully, Luke invites us to read together the framing stories, that is, 9:51-62 and 10:1-37 (themes: sending, commission, reception and reaction, followed by Jesus’ teaching on the reactions and outcomes).
Old Testament background
(i) The Holy City as a place of salvation: Blessed be the Lord from Zion, he who resides in Jerusalem. Praise the Lord! (Psalms 135:21) If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. (Psalms 137:5–6)
(ii) Fire from heaven echoes themes from Elijah, always important in Luke’s presentation: Then the king sent to Elijah a captain of fifty with his fifty men. He went up to Elijah, who was sitting on the top of a hill, and said to him, “O man of God, the king says, ‘Come down.’” But Elijah answered the captain of fifty, “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” Then fire came down from heaven, and consumed him and his fifty. (2Kings 1:9–10 cf. 2 Kings 1:11-12)
(iii) The duty to bury the dead is sacred in all cultures and beyond dispute: My father made me swear an oath; he said, ‘I am about to die. In the tomb that I hewed out for myself in the land of Canaan, there you shall bury me.’ Now therefore let me go up, so that I may bury my father; then I will return.” Pharaoh answered, “Go up, and bury your father, as he made you swear to do.” (Genesis 50:5–6)
(iv) Son of Man = Jesus’ own self-designation: I was watching in the night visions, “And with the clouds of the sky one like a son of man was approaching. He went up to the Ancient of Days and was escorted before him.” (Daniel 7:13 NET translation.)
(v) Looking back: But Lot’s wife looked back longingly and was turned into a pillar of salt. (Genesis 19:26)
New Testament foreground
Most of this passage is pure Luke, with only a little shared with Matthew: A scribe then approached and said, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 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.” Another of his disciples said to him, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matthew 8:19–22)
After this Jesus went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” (Luke 5:27)
When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “There is still one thing lacking. Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22)
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:12–15)
Verse 51 A solemn start, echoing the language of the Greek Old Testament; “taken up” is also used of Elijah and the fiery chariot and in this context is a reference to the ascension of Jesus, twice recounted, at the end of this Gospel and again at the start of Acts.
Verse 52 Preparatory messengers resume the role of John the Baptist and resemble the preparations for the Passover. Samaritans are important in Luke, being portrayed sympathetically.
Verse 53 Somehow, they intuit his purpose and set aside the everyday duty of hospitality. More important “everyday” duties will be set aside shortly.
Verses 54-56 This shows that the disciples have not grasped the kind of Messiah Jesus will be. Elijah does call down fire but Jesus is not that kind of prophet. Luke intends a contrast here between the mission of Jesus and the Church and the mission of the Baptist (see 3:9, 16-17). There will be fire—not the fire of destruction but rather the transforming fire of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1-2).
Verse 57 Luke, as always, has a double focus: the ministry of Jesus and the time of the Church. The focus here is on people drawn to the Christian proclamation and their various levels of preparedness. There are no examples in the Synoptic Gospels of someone coming on his down initiative and “successfully” becoming a disciple. The problem lies in the “wherever you go”.
Verse 58 The homelessness of Jesus is part of his end time (eschatological) world view. A condition of discipleship is disengagement from an earthly home.
Verse 59 The standard calling by Jesus. It is not clear if the person’s father is actually dead. More likely, he is asking for a postponement of discipleship, until he is free from family duties, a not unreasonable request. The son’s duty to bury his father is most sacred in all cultures.
Verse 60 The response is prophetic and enigmatic. Here, “dead” means no longer just a physical reality but an existential one. A condition of discipleship is disengagement from future responsibilities.
Verse 61 This person makes a more modest request, apparently having heard Jesus’ call but the uncompromising response is the same. Being in the Christian movement means joining another, much more important family (the so-called “fictive kinship” of early Christianity).
Verse 62 The interior attitude is that of single-minded commitment and focus: nothing else will “do” in the project of the Kingdom of God. The metaphor is sharp: a ploughman who looks back will make a crooked furrow. A condition of discipleship is disengagement from past relationships.
1. In the opening verse, Jesus is portrayed as having a new sense of clarity about his life that enables him to set out on the road ‘resolutely’. Perhaps there have been such moments in your life, moments of insight and clarity about the road ahead. Recall such moments and what they were like for you.
2. As he walked the road, Jesus found that not everyone supported the journey he was making. Some of his friends were angry and wanted to hit back, but Jesus restrained them. What has helped you to cope with opposition you have met in your life and to continue your journey.
3. The response of Jesus to prospective followers seems harsh. He lets the first man know that discipleship is not a path to a comfortable nest. It is a way in which we never know what is going to be asked of us next. The disciple must be ready to move on. Where have you found good news in being open to change confident in the presence of Jesus with you?
4. Jesus also demands commitment. Being human it is easy for us to start thinking about times when our commitment was less than perfect. But can you also recall the times when you realised the truth of this story – that commitment brings its own fruits and blessings. What specific blessings can you bring to mind?
Sovereign God, ruler of our hearts, you call us to obedience and sustain us in freedom.
Keep us true to the way of your Son, that we may leave behind all that hinders us and, with eyes fixed on him, walk surely in the path of the kingdom.
Grant this through Christ, our deliverance and hope, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, holy and mighty God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Thought for the day
In our day, it seems to be hard for people to make and sustain life-long commitments. We think we can always press undo and we like our freedom. But there are different freedoms. Specifically, there is freedom of choice and freedom of choosing. Freedom of choice contemplates the options; freedom of choosing concretises and makes real some specific option. There is joy in freedom of choice; there is greater joy in freedom of having chosen and having made a decision. There is no contradiction between freedom and commitment: “for freedom, Christ has set us free” as St Paul says.
We need your guidance, Lord, to discern our path in life. We need your support to sustain us on the way. We need your joy to keep us joyful. Amen.