This Sunday’s lectionary passage is from Luke 9:51-62. My favorite commentary on the Gospel of Luke is by Dr. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, in the NICNT. Just about everything I have written here borrows implicitly and explicitly from Dr. Green’s work.
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. 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 Jesus1 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.”
Green thinks the focus in this passage is that God’s purposes are so important they relativize all other commitments and considerations. There is no doubt that we have to realize that this orientation will likely engender some hostility. When Jesus “sets his face” toward Jerusalem, the phrase suggests a sure and certain determination and resolve that cannot be waylaid by any distraction. Jesus has been spreading his Kingdom message in the bush-leagues of Galilee, but now he has his sights set on the “big show.” How will the radical character of his message play on that stage?
So the disciples are sent, like latter day “John the Baptists” to prepare the way of the Lord, fully participating in the mission and purposes of God in spite of their lack of full understanding. Interestingly, they are sent to Samaria, with all of the cultural tensions between the Jewish and Samaritan cultures. The Samaritan villagers, however, will not accept Jesus for whatever reason. Why might this be? It makes me think that there is no privileged place (insider or outsider) from which to hear and respond to the Gospel.
In Luke 9:5, Jesus had told his disciples how to respond to rejection, “Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.” Yet here, the disciples have different plans asking Jesus if they could command fire to come down and burn up the Samaritans. They had seen this movie before, after all, when Elisha called down fire to burn up the representatives of Ahaziah, King of…you guessed it…Samaria! Interestingly enough, the disciples who wanted to bring down lightening and thunder, were James and John – two of the disciples closest to Jesus – two of those who were allowed to see Jesus Transfigured on the mountain. They still need a few more miles under their belt on the journey to catch up with what Jesus is doing. How many more miles do we need to go to understand that same message?
Finally, they get a volunteer. Yet, even at this show of enthusiasm, Jesus made this person fully aware that calling of God was pretty tied up in rejection – relying on the hospitality of strangers. He reminds her that even animals have a place to live, but we’re out under the stars most nights. I will refrain from any well-worn United Methodist humor about parsonages at this point.
Jesus then calls another, “Follow me.” This person replies, “I have to go back and take care of my father until he is respectfully buried.” Perhaps this isn’t a weekend funeral, as we’ve often suspected, but a request to fulfill the family obligations required by normal conventions. To this request, Jesus, whom they refer to as “Lord,” exposes the way that their language fails to match up with their willingness to prioritize his role in their life.
He responds, “Let the dead bury their dead,” which many assume to mean, “Let the spiritually dead bury the physically dead.” Yet, Dr. Green believes this might just refer to the bipartite funeral practices in which the corpse was placed in a sealed tomb, followed by a second burial after a twelve month decomposition period after which the remains would be placed in an ossuary (bone box). On this reading, Jesus was saying “Let the corpses rebury the bones…” or something similar. On any reading, this showed a diminished priority for certain customs as they were subsumed under the authority and priority of Jesus’ mission and work in God’s Kingdom.
If you commit, Jesus suggests, you had better well be committed for good. Put your hand to the plow and don’t look back. The fuel for this kind of commitment is the strong call of God. Anything less simply won’t sustain a full day’s work, let alone a lifetime of changing seasons, rough weather, and failed crops. You need to know you’re a farmer for good, or you’ll be in the city selling insurance by the end of the week.