When the days came near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make it ready for him; but the Samaritans did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Note: My sermon on verses 57-62 of this passage can be found here.
Jews and Samaritans did not get along. In fact, they openly despised each other, and a Jew could be considered unclean just by passing into Samaritan territory. Considering the pervasive hatred between the two groups, it is astonishing that Jesus decided to enter a Samaritan village in the first place. It was not a convenient stop on the road to Jerusalem, yet Jesus goes out of his way to contact the hated Samaritans living there. That he is denied entry “because his face is set toward Jerusalem” is significant. It speaks to the Samaritans’ own hatred for the center of Jewish religious practice, as well as their suspicion of Jesus, a Jew, coming so far out of his way to see them.
I’ve always found something a bit humorous about the disciples asking Jesus if they should command fire to come down from heaven and consume the Samaritans. Who, exactly, do they think they are? Do they seriously believe that they could do such a thing? Their question is undoubtedly born not just out of their hatred for the Samaritans, but their misguided understanding about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. They obviously seem to understand that following Jesus gives them some sort of divine power, which they could use to smite whomever they wish. They do not yet understand the power or the scope of Jesus’ ministry. But the time will come. They will eventually see that Jesus’ power lies in sacrifice and self-giving love. They will eventually see that Jesus’ ministry is for all kinds of people – even Samaritans.
The theme of the disciples’ misunderstanding continues into the second half of this passage. Seemingly eager to follow Jesus wherever he goes, someone tells Jesus that he will follow him wherever he goes. Jesus simply issues a warning that following him won’t exactly be a picnic. He has no permanent home, and travels from place to place (even Samaritan villages!) to proclaim the good news. Jesus speaks about two would-be followers who seem just as eager to follow, yet they want to follow on their terms, not his. There is a qualifying “but” in each of their statements. I want to follow you… but I need to go bury my father. I want to follow you… but I need to go say goodbye first.
It seems a bit harsh that Jesus would instruct someone not to go bury their father, or say goodbye to their own family, but he makes a demanding point by doing so. The fact is that for those who would follow Jesus, nothing must get in the way. Following Jesus required the ultimate sacrifice and the ultimate commitment. Anyone who lets death or even family get in the way of their discipleship compromises the work of God’s kingdom.
Of course, there is more disciple in us than there is Christ, so we will undoubtedly find ourselves playing the role of misunderstanding follower. There will be times when we look to those who will not receive us or Jesus with hatred and contempt. Still, Jesus teaches us another way. There will be times when we seem eager to follow Jesus, but let the demands of life get in the way of our service and commitment. Still, Jesus teaches us another way.
We can only hope and pray that as the journey of our discipleship continues from day to day, we will gradually exhibit more tolerance than hatred, and more commitment than selfishness.
* * * * *
First Look is a weekly commentary on the upcoming lectionary gospel text written by Rev. Lee A. Koontz. It is usually published on Mondays.