The lectionary reading for Trinity 2 in Year C is Luke 9.51–62. It consists of a brief narrative of rejection of Jesus, following by a collection of three sayings about the challenge of discipleship—but the significance of this passage also derives from its place within Luke’s overall narrative.
Luke 9.51 signals the beginning of Luke’s central ‘journey’ narrative in his gospel, which continues until Jesus’ arrival on the outskirts of Jerusalem in Luke 19.44 at the moment of Cloak Sunday (in the other gospels Palm Sunday; there are no palms or branches mentioned in Luke). Luke doesn’t appear to be telling us anything literal or historical about Jesus’ journeying, since many of the geographical references within this narrative are either rather vague, or in fact don’t really make sense; for example, long after Jesus leaves Galilee and enters Samaria in this reading, we read in Luke 17.11 that he is journeying ‘through the region between Galilee and Samaria’. (Joel Green, NIGTC commentary on Luke, p 398)
The focus, then, is on journeying as a way of understanding what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Right at the beginning we have heard that the ‘dawn from on high’ will break upon us to ‘guide our feet into the way of peace’ (Luke 1.79), and in Acts we learn that those in the early Jesus movement were known as people of ‘the Way’ (Acts 9.2, 19.9, 23, 22.4, 24.14, 22). The two disciples in Luke 24 meet Jesus on the way to Emmaus, and in this section discipleship is summarised as following Jesus on the journey he is taking. But this journey is not just about the process; it also focussed on the destination: Jerusalem. This is yet another aspect of the focus on Jerusalem in Luke’s gospel and in Acts, the central place in God’s actions from which the gospel then goes out to all the world.
The journey to Jerusalem is a new exodus, by which Jesus forges a redemptive path to the glory of the Father. The way of Jesus becomes paradigmatic for Jesus’ followers… (Mikeal Parsons, Paideia commentary on Luke, p 163).
The material in this long section does include an account of Jesus’ mighty words and deeds—but the main focus is actually on Jesus’s words, his teaching, and in particular his parables. Much of the material unique to Luke is in this section, including the parables of the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son and the rich man and Lazarus, and, as elsewhere in Luke, the overall shape is carefully structured, with 12 parables before and 12 parables after the central parable of the wedding guests in Luke 14.7–11 (Parsons, p 164). This in turn highlights a consistent theme in Luke, which was first expressed in the Magnificat: the great reversal, by which those included become excluded and vice versa, the rich become poor and the poor blessed, the proud humbled and the humble exalted.
Although many English translations begin our passage with language of ‘the time approaching’, Luke’s language actually talks of the ‘days being fulfilled’. This implies a sense not just of time passing, but also the fulfilment of prophetic anticipation. This could be understood as a reference back to the anticipations of the birth narratives in the gospel, but also a sense that this is the fulfilment of the longer purposes of God set out in the scriptures of our Old Testament. After all, earlier in this chapter, in the Transfiguration, we have heard the (uniquely Lukan) language of Jesus completing his ‘exodus’ in Jerusalem; and when his journey has been completed, he explains to those on the road to Emmaus what ‘Moses and all the prophets’ say about him (Luke 24.27).
The fulfilment will be accomplished by Jesus being ‘taken up’; English translations add the qualifier ‘to heaven’ by way of explanation. The word here only occurs at this point in the New Testament; although it might seem vague at first, it appears to be one of several allusions to the story of Elijah, and his being taken up to heaven in 2 King 2.10–11. Luke is quite clear that the Ascension marks the completion of Jesus’ own ministry, which is then continued by the apostles once the Spirit has been poured out—so we have (as typical in Luke) an early anticipation of how the whole narrative is shaped and concluded.
Jesus then ‘sets his face to go to Jerusalem’, a (Semitic?) metaphor for resolute determination. Again, ETs tend to translate this colloquially, though this means that we might miss the way that this phrase percolates through the following verses: in the next verse, he sends messengers ‘before his face’; the Samaritans reject him because ‘his face was going to Jerusalem’; and the 72 are sent out ‘before his face’ in Luke 10.1.
The rejection by the Samaritans assumes knowledge of the historical animosity between Samaritans and Jews, an assumption that is revisited in Jesus’ teaching about loving one’s neighbour in the next chapter. That animosity did lead to actual violence, which makes the question of James and John less surprising—and their mention of calling down fire as a form of judgement is another allusion to the Elijah narrative, in which he calls down fire on Mount Carmel in 1 Kings 18. But within Luke’s narrative, it highlights how far the disciples have still to go in their understanding of Jesus and his ministry; though Luke does indeed focus on issues of power, the power of Jesus is used in quite a different way. Jesus’ willingness to accept the rejection of the village, and move on to somewhere that will accept him has already been seen in his willingness to leave the Gerasene region in chapter 8, and anticipates his instruction to the 72 in chapter 10.
The three sayings of Jesus that follow take the form of chreiae, useful sayings included to make a point, often gathered together in the context of teaching material, in which a brief saying is attributed to someone in the context of discussion with another. Luke is once more demonstrating his knowledge of ancient literary conventions.
The first two of these exchanges is found in the other synoptics, but the third is found in Luke alone. The three are arranged carefully, so that the first and third involved a person offering to follow Jesus, but wanting to qualify their commitment, whilst the middle one starts with Jesus’ own challenge or invitation to follow.
In response to the apparent willingness of the first person, Jesus highlights the cost and inconvenience of being a disciple; it involves embarking on a journey which will involve being unsettled and experiencing rejection—precisely as Jesus himself has just experienced. In the second saying, it is Jesus who takes the initiative, but the respondent points out the important commitments he has which might limit his ability to follow. There does not appear to be any specific Mosaic command to be responsible for burying one’s parents, but this could certainly be seen as fulfilling the command to ‘honour your father and mother’, and there would at least be a social expectation of this duty. But Jesus now adds that following him might not only be inconvenient; it might also involve disregarding common social conventions, and risk causing offence. His saying here is often interpreted as meaning ‘let the [spiritually] dead bury the [physically] dead’, in other words, leave these conventional responsibilities to those who have not taken up the demanding invitation to follow Jesus as disciples. Joel Green (p 408) notes that the Jewish practice of interment followed by reburial of bones in an ossuary would allow a more literal interpretation: let the dead (already in the tomb) bury the other dead who arrive after them. This is, of course, literally impossible, but makes the similar point that these mundane duties cannot be allowed to distract from the demands of following him.
In the third saying, Jesus is quoting a well-known proverb in the ancient world which is based on the real demands of ploughing a field, and serves to summarise the message of the previous two. If you are ploughing a field with oxen, then (as with riding a bicycle, or driving a car, at least in the early stages) you need to have your focus ahead on where you are going in order to plough a straight furrow. If you become distracted, and look around or to one side, the furrow you plough will also veer to the side as you fail to steer the team in a straight line. This metaphor then connects back to the opening verse, where Jesus metaphorically sets his sights on Jerusalem, and will not allow anything to distract him from his goal. Jesus is ploughing his own faithful furrow in line with the purposes of God.
So much for the details of the texts; what we are left with is a bigger question about why Jesus makes discipleship so hard. If his aim, in his ministry, was to make the grace of God known, and to invite as many as possible in, why does he appear to put obstacles in the way of those who seem to want to follow, even if that is in a qualified way? If God ‘wants all people to be saved’ (1 Tim 2.4), why does Jesus make it so difficult? (Saying that ‘all’ here simply means ‘all kinds of people‘ is a bit of a poor cop-out.)
First, it is worth noting that the idea that the kingdom of God is difficult to enter is a consistent theme of Jesus’ teaching, which we find in the language of the ‘narrow gate’ in Matt 7.14 and the ‘eye of the needle’ in Matt 19.24 and parallels. Jesus is not simply in the business of creating an inclusive social community, where all belong and are included in order to make them feel better; he is concerned with inviting people into the demanding journey of entering and growing in the kingdom of God, because that alone is the way of life. The journey is demanding because it is a journey with Jesus, and he has followed this demanding path himself.
Secondly, the idea of refusing to conform to social norms becomes a key issue of discipleship once this Jewish gospel begins to make its home in gentile culture. We live in a world where religion and social convention still do have some connections, but don’t go hand-in-glove as they did in the ancient world. To refuse to worship the pantheon of the gods was to risk causing social offence, and would even bring economic hardship, since practising your trade usually depended on this element of social conformity. We see this throughout Acts, and we find it as the issue behind a number of ethical discussions in Paul. We need to read the apparently ‘conservative’ social ethics of the NT letters in the context of this issue.
Thirdly, we need to reflect on the relationship between Jesus’ obvious attractiveness to the crowds along with these challenging statements. There was clearly something compelling and inviting in Jesus’ ministry, in the way he responded to people with dignity and compassion, which meant that people of all backgrounds were drawn to him. I wonder if it is only when people find the contemporary church similarly attractive that we are free to make similarly demanding statements—and of course we need to model living out the reality of these demands ourselves.
Lastly, it is worth noting that including these challenges is not something we find easy, or for most of us comes naturally. But it appears to be a vital part of healthy preaching and teaching that leads to healthy church growth, particularly amongst men. The invitation of Jesus is an invitation to healing and wholeness, forgiveness and community, but it is also an invitation to challenge and adventure, and to embark on a journey whose destination might well be unexpected and surprising.
Look out for the video discussion in the following post.