Commentary on Luke 9:51-62
Following his “temptation” in the Judean wilderness, Luke 4:14 reports that Jesus returns to Galilee to begin his ministry.
Now in 9:51, Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” It’s a critical turning point in the Gospel. In the previous Narrative Lectionary reading, I noted that it is closely linked to his Transfiguration. We see the glorified Jesus, but we also see where this all going to end up in Jerusalem with betrayal, suffering, and death.
There is actually a lot going on in 9:51, and you will notice this by comparing various English translations and watching how it plays in the next few verses.
“When the days drew near for him to be taken up”
There are two interesting aspects of this phrase. First, it’s not just that the days are approaching, but there is also the sense that the time is coming to completion (sumpleroo). Second, the expression “taken up” (analempsis) is a literal translation, and could refer to Jesus’ going up to Jerusalem, being lifted up on the cross, or taken up from the tomb. It is clear from the use of this word in Acts 1:2, 11, and 22, however, that Luke has Jesus’ ascension in mind. (Hence, some translations add that he was “taken up into heaven” or simply use “ascension.”) As important as the crucifixion is, Luke frames it between the Transfiguration and Jesus’ ascension/exaltation.
“He set his face to go to Jerusalem”
Luke is invoking an Old Testament phrase (cf. Jeremiah 3:12; 21:10; Ezekiel 6:2; 13:17; etc.) to indicate a particularly strong kind of resolve. Jesus’ travel plans face an immediate obstacle when the Samaritans reject him precisely because “his face was set toward Jerusalem.”
It is commonplace to note the frequent hostility and suspicion that existed between Jews and Samaritans. The response of James and John was probably not extraordinary, though they certainly deserve the rebuke Jesus delivers for their destructive zeal. It also explains the shock of a positive portrayal of the Samaritan woman in John 4, and, more aptly, the Parable of the Good Samaritan that occurs in the next Narrative Lectionary reading on Sunday.
I don’t want to make too much of the matter, but it is interesting that the Samaritans refuse Jesus not because he was Jewish but because his face was set to go to Jerusalem. Perhaps it’s not unlike the desire to want a mountaintop-transfigured Jesus or a heavenly-exalted one and skip all the suffering and death part that has to be completed in between the two.
Moving Along the Road
We are now ready to start moving “along the road” with Jesus to Jerusalem. (Keep in mind that whenever Luke mentions this “road / way” = hodos, he also uses the word with the awareness that this will become one of the earliest designations for followers of Jesus as those who “belong to the Way.” See Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). It’s going to be a long journey. We’re in chapter 9, and Jesus doesn’t enter Jerusalem until chapter 19. In following Jesus, the issue of discipleship — or life on the Way — immediately arises. As noted in the previous verses (and really since 8:18), there has been an ongoing interplay between Jesus’ role as Messiah who undergoes suffering and death and his ultimate role as glorified Son of God. The three vignettes in 9:57-62 highlight Jesus’ mission and what it means to participate in that mission.
The first aspirant promises to follow Jesus wherever he goes, and Jesus replies enigmatically with the saying about foxes and birds having places to call home, but “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The infant who had “no crib for a bed” but only a manger in which he “laid down his sweet head” (the composer of “Away in a Manger” surely was influenced by this saying) never did find rest until he was laid in the grave. The implication, of course, is that to follow Jesus is to experience life and death in the same way as he does. We can see how this saying will relate to the next two involving family relationships. In all these cases, to follow Jesus is demonstrated to be a matter of “either / or,” not “and also.” It’s either the comfort of home or no place to lay one’s head. It’s either family or Jesus. In Luke 14:26, Jesus will say so explicitly.
Jesus tells the second character to follow him, but the man asks leave to first bury his father. In a culture where family was so important and honoring one’s parents was both commanded and expected, the man’s request seems reasonable enough. Jesus, however, replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead.” On the one hand, you could treat this paradoxical statement as a metaphorical pun — “Let the (spiritually) dead take care of the (physically) dead.” For someone who aspires to authentic living, the only option is to follow Jesus. But Jesus’ saying can also be understood literally as an absurdity. The dead can’t bury their own. Exactly, but the point is that you do as you are. So if someone wants to claim, “I’m not dead yet!” then what do they do? Jesus continues, “But as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” That’s what people who are really alive do.
The third person wants to follow Jesus but only after saying farewell to his family. It’s a situation similar to 1 Kings 19:19-21 where Elisha is permitted such a thing before following Elijah. Jesus does not. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” The image evoked here is the ludicrous one of someone trying to plow a straight line while looking backwards. To attempt a modern idiom, “No one who is driving and texting is fit to be on the road/Way.”
In each instance, Jesus has contrasted one of the most important values in his culture and relegated it, not just to a secondary role, but to an irrelevant one. It’s either his Way or no way at all. Such absolutism does not go over well in today’s society where we are led to think we can have it all. I’m not even sure what are the most important values in today’s culture, but whatever they are, we want them all and also Jesus.
Ash Wednesday is a good time to assess what we have valued, to repent, and to recommit. Most importantly, as we receive the mark of the cross on our foreheads, it’s the right time to remember how Jesus’ face was set toward Jerusalem, toward his crucifixion and exaltation.