Our Gospel passage today is not an especially famous one, but as we shall see, it is a key passage for Luke, in the development of his account of Jesus’ life. We’ll look at the passage in three parts this morning, and you may want to keep it in front of you; we won’t be going, however, exactly in the order of the verses.
The first of the three sections is a short one, consisting only of the first verse: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The phrase “set his face” attracts our attention, as it is not one we usually use in our everyday speech. Set the table, yes; set your hair, maybe; “set the stage” – but not “set his face.” Yet it is a phrase that makes sense, once we visualize it. To “set” is to place or put; to set one’s face, then, would be to place it pointed toward a certain direction. To set one’s face to go to Jerusalem, then, would mean to face Jerusalem, to look toward the destination of Jerusalem. Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem: he faced the direction he had decided to go next.
The literal meaning of the specific Greek word “set” adds a little more to our understanding: The word comes from the word meaning “to stiffen” or “to harden.” Jesus didn’t just think about maybe wandering in the general direction of Jerusalem for a while; he resolved to go there. He was firm in his decision; he was determined. He “hardened” his will; he . . . was going.
Some writers believe this is one of the key verses in the whole gospel of Luke, being the point at which Jesus decides once and for all that, yes, he is going to face his opponents in Jerusalem, knowing full well what that means for him: the events of Good Friday. He is going to go through with it.
So it is at this point that he becomes determined to go to Jerusalem, to let nothing stop him or distract him from carrying out a very painful mission, including arrest and death.
That’s what the verse says: Jesus is determined to go. But another question arises: Why does it say it here? We’re only in chapter nine of Luke’s gospel, out of twenty-four. There are still ten chapters to go before we reach Palm Sunday, Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem. There are still many occasions for teaching, many healings, many encounters with scribes and Pharisees, many parables and miracles to go. We’re closer, in fact, to the birth narrative, only seven chapters behind us, than we are to the beginning of the Passion. Why does Luke choose to emphasize Jerusalem now, so early in the gospel, when there’s still so much to take place first?
First, it is suggested, it is to define the goal of Jesus’ ministry, to set the context. Luke wants us to know what is most important, what Jesus’ ultimate purpose is. He is not aimlessly wandering around, telling a story here, healing someone there, in chapters 9 to 19. All his actions are part of a master plan, which culminates in Jerusalem: Jesus being taken up and revealed as the Messiah, God’s son, the Savior. The events of Jesus’ ministry in the next few chapters, are certainly not insignificant; they help tell us who Jesus is, who God is. But they are not the main point of Jesus being here. That main part, the death, resurrection, and ascension, the revelation of Jesus as Lord, is symbolized by the place where it happens: Jerusalem. So Luke begins discussing Jerusalem here, to make sure we know that’s the main point. That’s the context of everything else Jesus does.
The second reason it’s important that we know where Jesus is headed at this early point in the gospel is that it changes the perspective of disciples. Once we know Jesus is determinedly, irreversibly on his way to Jerusalem, the following events become the disciples’ last journey with him, their final period of training before he leaves and they need to take over. The announcement becomes a wake-up call: “Pay attention now! This is our final trip together. This is your last chance to learn what it means to be a disciple.” Jesus’ destination lends a sense of urgency to the events that follow, for the twelve disciples and for us as his church: these next things are what he most wanted us to know as he proceeded toward his death.
The third section of our reading, verses 57-62, begins relating these things we most need to pay attention to. They describe the second thing that happens, after Jesus determines to start his final journey: These are the encounters with potential disciples, and they can be a little puzzling, when looked at one way: Jesus has decided to proceed with a terribly difficult journey, and with a final journey, after which others will have to take over for him. Wouldn’t he want as much support, as many disciples as possible, in this difficult time, and to continue his work? We would expect him to try to attract supporters and helpers at this point, not discourage them.
But the specific circumstances of each of the three potential disciples reveal why they are not the right ones to be added on, at least with their current attitudes. The first comes up to Jesus of his own initiative, uninvited, and says, “I will follow you.” His enthusiasm seems quite high. But apparently, from Jesus’ response, he has not thought his offer through; he is caught up in a burst of excitement now, but has not thought ahead. This is a serious commitment, Jesus is saying back to him, not a moment’s emotion; it takes a serious understanding of what it means to be a disciple, and a serious well-thought-out commitment. One must, to pick up Jesus’ phrase from chapter fourteen, “count the cost” before starting on this project, just as he has counted the cost before heading to Jerusalem. This moment’s enthusiasm is not enough. It is the reason some people have questioned the effectiveness of one-night Christian revivals, especially by traveling evangelists: They are great at generating one moment’s emotional enthusiasm, but is there any commitment left once the emotion has faded and the evangelist has moved on? Some sort of continuing effort is needed.
The second potential disciple is invited by Jesus; the conversation starts with Jesus saying “Follow me.” And the answer to the invitation appears to be “Yes” – but with a condition. Yes, but first let me take care of this other project. The phrase “bury my father” is not completely clear to us; it’s possible that he meant he wanted to wait till his still-living father died before leaving home to follow Jesus. And the timing of his request is not good: Remember, this is the Jesus who has just “stiffened his face” to go to Jerusalem, who will let nothing stand in his way, admit no distractions. So Jesus cannot allow for distractions in the disciple either: the discipleship must be one’s first priority, even above family commitments. The walk with Jesus must come first.
If the first man showed only a temporary enthusiasm, and the second attached conditions to his following, the third seems to do both: he approaches Jesus with enthusiasm, like the first, rather than being called; and he adds a condition: but let me go see my family first. He does both; so he too is pronounced “unfit.”
Enthusiasm is not enough by itself to make one a disciple; one must know full well what one is in for and have thought it through and made an informed commitment. And qualified interest is not enough – Yes, I will but there’s something else I want to do first. True discipleship, it seems, takes the same informed, count-the-cost, no-distractions determination that Jesus has just shown in heading toward Jerusalem.
But before Jesus encountered the three disciple wannabes, one other thing happened first, on the road to Jerusalem: the decision of the Samaritans not to receive him. The disciples respond quickly: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” Not your average everyday run-of-the-mill question. “Lord, shall we kill them?” What could have motivated this . . . suggestion?
One possibility is that the disciples were recalling an Old Testament story, from the life of the prophet Elijah. In II Kings 1, we find Elijah calling “fire down from heaven to consume” some people – it’s exactly the same phrase – as proof that it’s God who’s in charge of what happens in this world, not Baal or some other “god.” The disciples, in asking their question, may have been thinking of what Elijah had done, though no one in this story is claiming that God’s not in charge, or worshiping other gods.
The second possibility, I’m afraid, is that the disciples inquired into the possibility of consuming the people because those people were Samaritans. Samaritans, you may recall, were not liked by Jews, and vice versa. There was a long history of animosity going back at least seven hundred years, due partly to the fact that Samaritans insisted that God could only be properly worshiped in their temple on their holy mountain in Samaria; while the Jews insisted that God could only be properly worshiped in their temple on their holy mountain in Jerusalem. The text tells us, in fact, that the reason the Samaritans rejected Jesus is because he was going to Jerusalem, the focus of the controversy; they would have nothing to do with someone on his way to worshiping there. The disciples, as Jews, did not like Samaritans. And I’m afraid this dislike, or prejudice, cannot be overlooked in their bringing up the subject of consuming them with fire from heaven.
Whatever the motivation, Jesus’ response is clear: he rebukes them. “NO, you can’t kill them! NO, you can’t call fire down from heaven and consume them!” Commentator Joseph Fitzmyer defines this rebuke as a strong term: a correction of disciples who do not understand what Jesus’ mission means; in effect: “You don’t have a clue, do you?” Some later translations of this story would even add that explanation to the text, as an extended verse 55; you may have it as a footnote: “The Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.” NO, you can’t kill them; that’s not what we’re here for. Jesus says it clearly in Luke 19:10, “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost,” and in John 3:17: “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” We’re not here to consume them with heavenly fire, but to save them.
If the disciples were motivated by the fact that it was Samaritans who were involved, that argument certainly wouldn’t convince Jesus. Jesus will tell about or encounter two Samaritans in the following chapters. One is the Good Samaritan, who cares for an injured Jewish man who has been ignored by pious Jews. The other is a Samaritan leper whom Jesus heals, and is the only one of ten lepers, the others being Jews, who bothers to come back and thank Jesus. So Jesus would certainly not be moved by the fact that the offenders were Samaritans.
And if the disciples were thinking that Jesus would want to act the way Elijah did, they were mistaken there too. Jesus does not see himself as a second Elijah; he has rejected the notion that he’s the new Elijah. John the Baptist tried to describe him in those terms: He described the Messiah as being one who would baptize in fire, and separate wheat from useless chaff, and burn chaff with unquenchable fire, consuming those who did not believe – as Elijah did. But when John asks for evidence as to who Jesus is, Jesus does not define himself as some new Elijah or fiery judge of the final days. He describes his role this way: “Go tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them” (Luke 7:22). Jesus rejects that image of him as a consuming-fire Elijah, as Fitzmyer writes: “Jesus makes it clear that he carries no ax or winnowing fan, cleans no threshing floor, and burns no chaff. Instead, he cures, frees, resuscitates; he cares for the blind, lame, lepers, deaf, and even the dead; and he preaches good news to the poor.” Jesus defines himself in short, as the figure promised by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson today, caring and helping, not as a new Elijah calling fire down. His whole mission, in fact, is to restore people to God, not punish them.
So: “NO, you can’t kill them. That’s not what we’re here for.” Disciples, like their master, aren’t supposed to be interested in punishing unbelievers, but in helping people. That’s who Jesus is; that’s how he defines himself; that’s the mission his disciples are to carry on. Fitzmyer, one more time: “Taken with the episode that follows about the conditions of discipleship, the two scenes serve to correct the wrong ideas of what it means to follow Jesus. Discipleship does not consist in zealous punishment of those who reject Jesus and his mission; neither does it consist in qualified following.”
In Christian circles, in Christian conversations, as in a Sunday School class, or a Bible study, or in informal theological discussions, between a couple church members here or there, it is not unusual to sooner or later come around to the subject of what types of people on this earth are saved and what types are not; and what happens to those who are not. Is there a literal “hell,” for example, which is a place of fire and brimstone and eternal punishment? If so, how is it determined who goes there and who does not? You may have been in some conversations along these lines yourself. And they are certainly legitimate questions; there are passages of the Bible that tend to point our attention in this direction. And believing in a hell of consuming fire is fine; one can certainly be supported by Scripture in that belief.
What may not be so fine, I’m afraid, is the intensity, or even eagerness, of some of the attitudes I’ve heard in such discussions. Too often they tend toward: “You have to believe in that kind of hell. I want you to believe in that kind of hell, where people are punished by consuming fire.” Too often it becomes apparent that this is very important to them, to be reassured that this kind of punishment will happen to some people. Sometimes they go beyond believing in hell to actually wanting it to exist, wanting disbelievers to be punished, wanting consuming fire to vindicate their choice of faith.
Jesus’ answer to us disciples, when we drift too far that way, would be his answer to the twelve disciples when they brought up the subject of consuming fire: “That’s not what we’re here for. That’s not our mission. We are here so spread the good news, and to care for people, not to call punishing fire down from heaven to consume them, not to want punishing fire to consume them. That’s not who we are.”
The third one released of the “Star Wars” movies is called “Return of the Jedi.” An early scene takes place in the lair of the evil villain Jabba the Hut, and shows some poor creature falling through a trap door down to where a monster will consume it. And all of evil Jabba’s evil cronies run over to the pit to enjoy watching this consumption. And I’ve wondered, seeing that scene: What kind of creature would it take to enjoy watching something like that? What kind of mind and heart gets pleasure out of seeing that kind of suffering? One thought leads to another: What kind of person becomes a torturer, inflicting pain for a living? Or enjoys attending executions, as some people used to do in the days of the guillotine and others continue to do today with the electric chair? What kind of people want to see athletes hit too hard in a football or hockey game, to the point of injury? And what kind would want people to be punished by God?
Not a follower of Jesus. That’s what he rebukes; that’s what he rejects. That’s not what following Jesus is all about.
Let’s pray: God, thank you for being a God most interested in saving, healing, forgiving, granting eternal life – not consuming with fire. Help us to show the same attitudes as we try to be Jesus’ committed faithful disciples. Amen.