Pivotal. That’s what it is. Pivotal. This unremarkable little passage in Luke’s gospel is the fulcrum on which Luke’s narrative turns.
It’s kind of hard to see if you don’t know what you’re looking for. But think for a moment about what’s going on with Jesus in Luke’s story.
Up to this point in Luke, Jesus meets a variety of people, heals some of them, and infuriates others. He’s calmed storms, done some teaching, cast out demons.
All in all, Jesus’ ministry to this point has been eventful by almost any standard. The only thing lacking, at least according to the way Luke tells it, is direction. Jesus has been wandering about—if not aimlessly, then certainly without any particular regard for a destination.
At the beginning of our chapter for this morning, Jesus sends out the twelve; we don’t know where, but like children turned out of the house on a nice summer day, Jesus wants the disciples to get outside a little.
“It’s nice out there. You’re not spending your summer in here watching TV and playing Nintendo. Go on. Out!”
“Take nothing for your journey,” Jesus tells them, “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them” (9:3-5).
When the disciples returned, Luke says, Jesus fed the five thousand, predicted his death, and was—with Moses and Elijah—transfigured on the mountain. He then proceeded to heal a boy with a demon, foretell his death yet again; by which time, of course, we are just about where our text for this morning picks up.
Now, I say that our Gospel lesson this morning is different from all that precedes it in Luke because formerly in Jesus’ ministry there was no apparent direction toward which he was headed. But in verse 51, Luke tells us—with no small amount of dramatic presentiment—that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”
After all these years, we know what happens to Jesus in Jerusalem. Like the creepy music in a scary movie that indicates things are about to get complicated for the frightened coed who goes into the cellar to check the fuse box to see why the power has all of a sudden gone off, Luke sets the stage for all that is to come after this point by mentioning Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem—where he will “be taken up.”
Everything from this point forward in Luke derives its meaning from what is ultimately going to happen to Jesus on the cross.
Jesus is headed toward his death. So all the parables he tells, all the healings he does, all the questions he answers have his impending crucifixion as their backdrop. Luke intends for his readers to see the remaining accounts through the prism of the cross.
Our text today begins with the momentous change of direction toward Jerusalem, and once again Jesus sends his disciples out—this time to a Samaritan village—to make preparation for his arrival.
Remember, Jesus has already instructed his followers how to respond when entering a city on his behalf: “Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.”
But what happens when the disciples get to the Samaritan village? The village doesn’t receive Jesus.
How do the disciples respond? They ask Jesus if he wants them “to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them.”
How are they supposed to respond? Shake the dust off their feet. But they figure a symbolic move isn’t good enough in this case. They need to make a stronger statement, something with a hint of retributive justice.
“These nasty Samaritans can’t treat our Rabbi this way. We’ll show them.”
Is Jesus gratified by their show of loyalty?
No. He rebukes them.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if my righteous indignation is aroused on behalf of somebody I care about, the last person I want rebuking me is the one over whom I’ve got my ire stirred. If I’m sticking up for you, don’t call me out for doing it.
But doesn’t our response to being rebuked by Jesus point up the very problem Luke raises by having Jesus on his way to Jerusalem?
The irony is that Jesus is traveling to Jerusalem to give one final smackdown to eye-for-an-eye justice—while all the while his disciples are trying to keep that same kind of justice alive on his behalf.
They want what we all want: a little control over what it means to follow Jesus to Jerusalem—and if they have to get even with somebody to get it, so be it.
Why do I say that the disciples only want what we all want—to have control over what it means to follow Jesus?
Look what happens immediately after Jesus’ rebukes the disciples for trying to retain control of their lives and their dignity on the road to Jerusalem. Jesus is approached by some would-be disciples. They want to follow Jesus—only they want to do it on their own terms.
The first person starts out right: “I will follow you wherever you go.”
Where is Jesus going?
Jesus realizes right away that this potential follower may have bitten off more than he is prepared to chew.
“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
Of course, we know what happens in Jerusalem, so we know that laying your head anywhere while wearing a crown of thorns is more pain than most folks are willing to endure.
Jesus looks at another one and says, “Why don’t you come with me?”
“Well, I would but, I’ve got to bury my father.”
Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Again, we’ve seen what happens in Jerusalem, so we know that even the Son of Man doesn’t get a family burial—just one cobbled together by a stranger with a donated cemetery plot.
Overhearing this exchange, another potential disciple says, “I will follow you Lord, but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”
Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
We’ve read the last chapter of this story. We remember how the story goes after Jesus spends a few days in Jerusalem. When it’s his turn to say goodbye before setting off on his journey into the land of death, Jesus looks around and just about everyone he’d say goodbye to has already hit the bricks. Almost all of those who’ve followed him to Jerusalem, who’ve promised to follow him to the bitter end, have taken the red-eye to the other side of nowhere.
When we first read this passage, it’s tempting to think that Jesus is hard, too demanding. Because, I mean, for the most part—I think you’ll agree—these are folks who may not have it all worked out, but their hearts seem to be in the right place.
“Give us a chance, Jesus. We’d like to follow you, too.”
And Jesus says, “You don’t have any idea what lies ahead of me. I’m on my way to Jerusalem, and all hell’s about to break loose. Are you prepared to die following me? Can you drink the cup I drink?”
Quite frankly, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out why Jesus died alone—all his followers laying low until things cool off a bit. He’s not very good at the whole recruiting thing.
Far from the harmless Jesus who bounces Mediterranean toddlers on his knees, Luke wants us to know that Jesus offended more people than he ever attracted—not because he was obnoxious, but because what he was asking was more than almost anyone wanted to pay.
One of my minister friends, Scott, told me about a class on discipleship he taught when he was a youth minister. He began by laying out the sin that divides us from one another and from God, and how God made a decision to reconcile us, and how Jesus came to reveal another world God is busy creating.
He talked about the great humiliation suffered by Jesus throughout his trial, and his subsequent ignoble death as a criminal at the hands of the political leaders.
He talked about how as followers of Jesus we are called to live lives of sacrifice and service, that we’re called to pick up our crosses as a function of following him.
He let the kids know that our discipleship always comes at great cost to us.
One of his kids interrupted, hoping, I think, to be helpful, and said, “Well, Scott, I don’t mean to tell you your business, but if you tell people that stuff, nobody will want to be a Christian.”
Isn’t that at the heart of it? If we really believed this stuff, shouldn’t we run for the hills, too?
But, you see, if we were to do that, if we were just to give the whole thing up as a bad investment, there are a lot of people besides just us who would feel the pain of our abandonment. There’s a whole world full of pain out there right now—and we walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, right into the very heart of the systems of domination and death that oppress the vulnerable and kill those who seek justice for them.
That’s right, we who follow Jesus follow him to Jerusalem. We follow him not just so that we can sleep better at night, but so that those who go to sleep at night terrified of what this world holds for them, will finally find some peace, a chance to rest from the relentless notion in our culture that their lives have no value.
You can see it in the eyes of those who watch their African American friends and family harassed day after day by the criminal justice system, segregated to another part of town, warehoused in jails and prisons.
You can see it in the eyes of our LGBTQ siblings as they see their neighbors work so unceasingly to claw back whatever rights they’ve managed to win.
If you’d seen Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter, Valeria, last Sunday, you would have seen the pain. They left El Salvador, along with wife and mother, Tania Vanessa Ávalos to escape it, to seek refuge in the United States from it. The grinding poverty forced that young family of three to travel 1,000 miles from their home, across Mexico, until they finally reached the border crossing at Matamoros—on the other side of the border from Brownsville, Texas.
But when they got to the bridge, there were hundreds of people in front of them, waiting to get into the U.S. Being that close to what they assumed was safety and security, they decided to take the risk of crossing the Rio Grande River.
What they didn’t count on, however, was the strong current. And so, as the world saw on Wednesday morning, Óscar and Valeria, died trying to find asylum from a world that too often rolls over the top of the forgotten people.
We walk with Jesus toward Jerusalem, knowing that Jerusalem doesn’t just exist in the heart of the Middle East. The Jerusalem toward which Jesus heads is everywhere—from the U.S.-Mexico border to the West Side of Louisville.
Jerusalem is wherever those in power steal bread from the hungry and slake their thirst with the tears of the forgotten.
Jerusalem is wherever the vulnerable live in fear and the dispossessed die in despair.
Jerusalem is wherever people suffer and die because of the color of their skin, or the object of their affections, or the country of their origin, or the God to whom they pray.
But the good news is that Jerusalem is also where Jesus is.
Difficult words. But, then again, this is the kingdom of God.
“I don’t mean to tell you your business, but if you tell people that stuff, nobody will want to be a Christian.”
Maybe. Jesus is pretty hard on the life you hand over to him—but the life he gives you back is truly fitted for the reign of God. —Amen.