I dare to preach to you in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Luke in this passage is telling us that Jesus has begun a sure and certain journey to a destination of pain and passion. He also reveals to us why we might take it that Jesus is acting a little cranky, like he got up on the wrong side of the bed as we say today.
With the verses we’ve heard, Luke begins a new section of his Gospel – a section that will continue through the middle of the 19th chapter. With this new section, Jesus’ ministry in Galilee comes to an end and Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem begins. This journey is sometimes referred to as Luke’s “travel narrative.” It’s not so much a geographical journey toward Jerusalem since the itinerary is impossible to reconstruct. It’s more a theological or editorial discussion in which Luke shares something of what it means to follow Jesus. And while scholars debate exactly what Luke may have had in mind with this section of his Gospel, what gets clearly communicated is this: The life of discipleship is a journey, a steady pilgrimage to a cross, and those who follow Jesus on that journey can expect that what happens to him will happen to them. After all, Jesus has already told those who are interested in following him that they’re to deny themselves and to take up a cross daily. He’s already told them that real life is found by losing life for his sake. And in one way or another throughout this ‘travel narrative’, Luke tells us that following Jesus involves nothing less than a complete overhaul in understanding and behavior. It involves a complete letting go of any former relationship and a complete falling in behind the one whose ministry is the centerpiece of the reign of God.
Luke wants us to be clear at the outset that Jesus will not change his mind. He will not waiver from this task because this is more than just a trip to Jerusalem. This is nothing less than the fulfillment of the plan of God. That’s why Luke is careful to point out, that Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, which echoes what the prophet Isaiah had said hundreds of years before about the servant of God. “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint (Isaiah 50:7).
The journey is on, and it’s too late to turn back. And so as he begins his journey to pain and passion, Luke says he sends some messengers ahead of him into a Samaritan village. It’s interesting that the first stop on the way to Jerusalem is a Samaritan village. There are different opinions as to why the Jews and the Samaritans hated each other so bitterly, but they did. And the hatred between the two groups went back at least 700 years before Jesus was born. Luke tells us that these Samaritans wanted nothing to do with following Jesus, precisely because his face was set toward Jerusalem.
James and John want to punish the Samaritans – to rain some fire down on them. Jesus is not interested in that. He’s told them before, and he will tell them yet again, that if people won’t listen to you – if they will not welcome you – just shake the dust of that town from your feet and move on. When Jesus sent the disciples into the village, he was extending a hand of friendship to a people who were enemies. There is no passage in which Jesus so directly teaches the duty of tolerance as this one.
Many years later, when Abraham Lincoln was criticized for being too courteous to his enemies and when he was reminded that it was his duty to destroy them, he gave the following answer: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
And so the messengers Jesus sent move on. As they were going along the road, Luke now introduces us to three people, who unlike the Samaritan villagers seem genuinely interested in following Jesus. In today’s language, one says to him, “Jesus, I’ll follow you wherever you go.” “Fine,” Jesus says. “I have no home. I have nowhere to lay my head. Any bed I have is because someone let me use theirs. You still interested?”
Jesus spots a second person. “Follow me.”, he says.
And the guy is willing. He doesn’t say no. He just has something else he needs to do first, and it is an important something else. “Let me go and bury my father.” In that society, burying one’s parents was a solemn obligation. It was a part of being obedient to the commandment to honor father and mother, and no one was exempt from honoring that commitment. On the list of excellent excuses, this man’s excuse ranks so high that very often even religious obligations could be laid aside for this purpose. But Jesus’ response is harsh: “Let the dead bury their own dead.”
In all probability the man’s father was not dead, his response most likely meant ‘I will follow you after my father has died.’ Jesus tries to teach this man what he has taught all along. If you are not on the path I am on, for whatever reason, you may as well be dead.
The third would-be follower also has important business to wrap up before he can fall in line. He wants to go home and say good-bye to his loved ones. And there’s precedent here. Elisha had requested of Elijah that before he followed him he be allowed to return home and kiss his parents, and Elijah apparently consented. And after that, Elisha followed him.
Jesus is not interested in that precedent. “If you’re looking back,” he says, “you can’t plow a straight row.” There are some whose hearts are in the past. They walk forever looking backwards and thinking of the good old days. To this man Jesus did not say either ‘Follow me’ or ‘Return’. He said, I accept no lukewarm service and left the man to make his own decision
That’s tough stuff. Again these stories might lead us to think that the stress of the upcoming journey is making Jesus cranky. I guess when your face is set like flint it’s hard to be impressed even with excellent excuses. Even the best excuses pale in comparison to Jesus’ journey. Psychologists tell us that every time we have a good feeling and do not act on that feeling at once, the less likely we are to act at all. The emotion becomes the substitute for the action. It is Jesus’ insistence that we must act at once when our hearts are stirred within us.
Let’s be honest. You and I are sometimes like those Samaritans. There’s not a single one of us who at one time or another has not flatly refused to go with Jesus. There are times that we hear his call in our lives, we know exactly what he asks us to do, we know exactly what he asks us to refrain from doing, and yet we persist in our rebellion and in our disobedience. The truth be known, there is an unwilling Samaritan villager in every one of us.
And, then, there are times when we genuinely want to follow Jesus. The apostle Mark in the tenth chapter of his gospel relates my favorite story of people wanting to follow Jesus. It is about a young man who we believe is very rich and has many possessions. When asked how he might have eternal life, Jesus tells him to go and sell all that he has and give the money to the poor. Scripture tells us that he was shocked and went away grieving. The reason I like this passage is that one interpretation of this passage, the one that I favour, is that the young man went away grieving because he had so much that it was going to take a great deal of time to sell it all and he was convinced that he needed to follow Jesus now – not later.
I suspect that most of us know Jesus to be the way – we know that he leads us to life, we know that he’s worth following – but we have other things to do. Other people to see, other commitments to honor. Jesus, I’ll follow you, but may I take care of this first? Jesus, I’ll follow you, but may I bring this grudge along on the journey? Life is just so busy now. Jesus, I really do want to follow you with all that I have, and I want to give my possessions to you, to whom they all belong in the first place, but may I get my kids through school first?
There are many good reasons for not complying with Jesus. But Jesus is impressed with none of those good reasons.
Whatever we do with this passage, we cannot dull its edge, and without exception, there are no bargains, no loopholes, no discount prices, in the call to discipleship. Following Jesus toward his destination of pain and passion costs us all that we are and all that we have, and Jesus wants us to know that either we are following him all the way or we are not following him at all. And Jesus is able to make this claim precisely because of who he is and where he’s headed.
Bishop Michael Curry of the US Episcopal Church wrote in his book “Crazy Christians”, “Jesus shows us the importance of our interdependence, no matter how different we are in nationality or race or culture. Jesus inspires us to make disciples who will make a difference in the world. We try to follow his example, to walk in his ways, but we are not yet all the way there. And we’re not completely sure how to get there. We often fall short of what God would have us do, both as the Church and as the human family”. Bishop Curry continues, “I think Jesus, though, would tell us that that’s all right. The first disciples of Jesus fell short too. And in spite of their shortcomings, the day of Pentecost happened anyway”.
Jesus’ face is set. He is on his way to Jerusalem where he will be taken up. He asks us to follow, to realize that nothing is more important than that. I have to think that because he loves us he will patiently continue to call us to follow him completely until one day by his grace and our pale efforts, we who belong to him will at last find our home in the light of his radical claim, and our lives will come to be finally as rich as his.
Let us pray.
Lord Jesus, thank you for who you are and where you’re headed. Thank you for calling us to follow you in the way of the cross. By the light of your journey continue to show us how to follow you with all that we are and all that we have. Amen.