Commentary on Luke 9:51-62
Our reading from Luke for this week is made up of two vignettes; the first about Jesus’ encounter with an unwelcoming Samaritan village (9:51-56), and the second a series of conversations about following Jesus (9:57-62).
The first vignette may, at first blush, seem like just another example of “if they’re not with us, they’re against us” (which is actually the exact opposite of what Jesus said just a verse earlier in Luke 9:50, “whoever is not against you is for you”). Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (more on that below), and has sent messengers ahead of him to prepare the way. One might think of these messengers as the forerunners of the forerunners who gather the colt for Palm Sunday (19:29-44).
When these messengers enter a Samaritan village, they are not received well, nor is Jesus’ arrival anticipated with excitement. Why? Because he is:
- the messiah—a prophet not welcome in his own home town (4:24 and following)
- a sabbath commandment breaking do-gooder (6:6-11) and
- not at all the expected messiah (see also 9:43b-45)?
No. They do not receive news of him because “his face was set toward Jerusalem.” It may be helpful here to remember that the Samaritans were—and are—relatives of what becomes the Jewish people; we might call them their “second cousins once removed.”1 When Israel divided itself against itself in 922 BCE and the two kingdoms were eventually destroyed, what was left behind in/of the Northern Kingdom, whose capital was in Samaria, was a group of Yahweh worshipping believers who had their own version of the Pentateuch and worshipped in their own temple on Mt. Gerizim. Even in Jesus’ day, the Samaritans thought that proper worship of the Lord took place their way. So, when these Samaritans learn that Jesus has “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” they are immediately put off of their spiritual feed. One may think of the story in John’s Gospel of the Samaritan woman at the well: “The woman said to him, ‘Sir, I see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem’” (John 4:19-20).
The tension here is pointed, so much so that James and John figure the best bet is to destroy the village by calling down fire to consume them. But, true to form, Jesus will have none of it. In Luke, Jesus bypasses the tension altogether, ignoring it, and keeping his face set toward Jerusalem, where, as we heard in the reading for Transfiguration Sunday, Jesus has something to accomplish.2
This setting of Jesus’ face toward Jerusalem is about more than the tension between Jews and Samaritans, however. What we have in that phrasing, which is almost lose-able in the way that it is almost innocuously dropped into this first little vignette, hearkens back to the Servant Song of Isaiah 50.
There we read,
5 The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious,
I did not turn backward.
6 I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near (Isaiah 50:5-8a).
The “setting” of one’s face is not an uncommon expression in the Old Testament. Sometimes it has to do with simple intention (Genesis 31:21), other times it is with hostile intent (2 Kings 12:17)3, or again having to do with focusing one’s attention (Numbers 24:1). Jesus’ setting his face toward Jerusalem is, on the one hand, clearly a stance of intention: Jesus is going there, even though he knows what awaits him. And again, that intention is with purpose; not hostile purpose, but hopeful purpose. The connection of Jesus’ face-forward stance, with the foretelling of his death, and with this passage from the third stanza of Isaiah’s Servant Song, makes a strong and clear case for Jesus’ “messianic intentionality.”
The second vignette, which has a series of people wrestling with following Jesus with a hefty “but” bringing up the rear, may at first seem somewhat unrelated. The first someone approaches Jesus and says that they will follow Jesus “wherever you go,” even, presumably, to Jerusalem. A second person is called by Jesus to follow, but says, “First I need to bury my father.” The third offers to follow Jesus, but adds, “First, let me say my goodbyes.” To the first person, Jesus warns that there will be a lot of “roughing it” associated with following him. The second and third he admonishes, as though he were saying, “First things need to be first things.” And to borrow from one of my favorite theologians, Ricky Bobby, he implies, “and if first things ain’t first, they’re last.” The point that Jesus is making, it seems, is that following, discipleship, or the life of faith, is not something that can be done half-heartedly. Neither can setting one’s face toward Jerusalem, toward sacrificial suffering and death.
These two little stories seem to mean two very related things. First, that Jesus’ messianic intention is serious, and it is full. There are no half-measures for Christ. And then second, in a sense, the calling to which the faithful are called is no less full. To be “fit for the kingdom” is to be committed as fully as possible, to set our own faces toward Jesus, and to not turn away, no matter how ugly things may become.
- Jacobson, Jacobson, and Wiersma, Crazy Book: A Not-So-Stuffy Dictionary of Biblical Terms (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Books, Second Edition, 2019) 302.
- Note that in John the tension is released when Jesus says, “the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. … the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:21-23).
- In Leviticus this phrasing is often used of the Lord’s reaction to transgression of the law; the Lord will set his face against law-breakers, and cut them off from the people. See also Leviticus 17:10; 20:3,5,6, etc.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Lord Jesus, Great Teacher,
You place tremendous responsibility upon those who follow you. You demand more than we are often willing to give. You promise no safety, only that the way will be rough. Make us ready and willing to walk your rocky path and carry your subversive word to hostile ears, for the hope and promise of rewarding life in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Hide not thou thy face, Richard Farrant