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First Impressions: Luke 9:51-62

June 24, 2010

I don’t know why I’m having such a difficult time with this text about the rejection of Jesus by the Samaritan village and the difficulties inherent in following Jesus.  I have discovered a lot of good exegetical material, but the jello isn’t jiggling yet (thanks Chick).  Perhaps as I write, something will come into focus for me.  Even though I believe the Spirit can work something good even if I embarrass myself in the pulpit, I’d rather not embarrass myself.  At any rate, here’s what I’ve got now.

9:51 I think it is critically important to keep this verse in mind throughout your study of this passage and as you prepare your sermon.  It is the very reason for Jesus’ sense of urgency in this text and the ones that follow.  The image of setting his face underlines the fact that there is now only one direction to travel for Jesus.  In the Children’s Time, I am considering talking about how cars have gears that allow them to travel both forwards and backwards, and connect that somehow to our discipleship.  The text for this week tells us that Jesus has only forward gears and probably no rear view mirror.

9:52-53 I will not focus my remarks on the disciples’ experience in the Samaritan village, but I find it interesting that Jesus had an advance party.  This indicates to me that one single encounter with Jesus may not be enough to open a person to the kingdom of God or the message of the Savior.  That mirrors the experience of most of the Christians in this world.  That speaks well of longer term “shepherding relationships” (that’s a Kennon Callahan term) rather than solely hit-or-miss, one-time evangelism.  I am not suggesting that there is no role for such evangelism, but that life happens in the long term, and so should our faith building efforts.

Additionally, it seems important to emphasize that the rejection by the Samaritans was a direct result that Jesus had “set his face toward Jerusalem.”  The following vignettes show us how Jesus’ single-mindedness played out on the journey.

9:54-56 This passage was meant to remind the original readers of Elijah, a technique Luke uses often.  The difference in these verses, however, is that Luke here contrasts Jesus and Elijah.  (Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock, People’s New Testament Commentary ([Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004], 217.)  In the 2 Kings 1: 1-16 story, Elijah consumes the soldiers with heavenly fire, while Jesus refuses to follow suit upon the Samaritan village.  This must have disappointed the disciples, who also received an earful of rebuke for their trouble.  Unfortunately, Luke doesn’t tell us what we are to learn from Jesus’ restraint (though you may wish to check the footnote from verse 56 in your NRSV).

9:57-62 I take these all together because I don’t think the details of any specific episode are nearly as important as the point Jesus (and Luke) is making.  It goes back to the image of the car with two directions—forward and reverse.  Jesus’ face is set in only one direction (thematically rather than spatially), and nothing can deter him from the mission.  Disciples who have any temptations to look in the rear view mirror may not be able to follow Jesus all the way.  As we know from the end of the gospel story, as Jesus drew closer to the cross, it became much more difficult to follow him until, finally, none of them were left.

One of my colleagues suggested a sermon title of “Forward Living,” though I still haven’t figured out how to turn it into a full sermon.  We do spend a lot of our time looking backward—even moving backward—with regrets, excuses, fears and a host of other things to slow us down.  Every once in a while, it is wise to take stock of life, to remember priorities, and to order our lives so that we know that our faces have been set toward those things we truly believe in.  A map image could also be helpful, especially because the distance between two points can rarely be traversed in a straight line.  It is one task to determine our priorities, our end destination, but quite another to navigate to that end.

Another sermon possibility is to discuss the idea of this single-mindedness and determination of Jesus.  Something was so important—his mission or the kingdom?—that nothing else mattered, not creature comforts, not family, not responsibilities.  How does that play out for ordinary disciples who have so many weighty matters other than faith with which to deal?

A final possibility comes from Robert Capon’s take on this section.  He suggests that most of us still haven’t caught the radical nature of Jesus’ path to salvation.  Even those of us who emphasize the grace of God still get caught trying to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.  We still want to be winners.  Jesus, Capon writes, calls us to be losers.  He refers to it as a “left-handed messiahship.”  Until we are willing to be total losers, we are not lost enough to be saved.  In the first section (verses 51-56), the disciples are comparing themselves to the Samaritan villagers, and in their minds, the disciples come out very well.  They had accepted Jesus.  Yet that attitude only showed how much they failed to understand.  It was the attitude of someone who still wanted to be a winner, who hadn’t yet thrown in the towel.  In Capon’s view, the second section (verses 57-62) illustrates Jesus’ rejection of all those things we cling to that we hope will help us achieve our own salvation.  The message of Jesus is that you must be a complete and utter loser.  Only then will you be ready for the saving grace of God.  (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], 201-208.)

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