Commentary on Luke 9:51-62
The gospel reading sounds more fitting for the liturgical season of Lent than post-Easter.
But in this lectionary year, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is placed near the beginning of Ordinary Time, or Pentecost Season, in which the focus is on the Christian life. From the last Sunday of June to the end of October, we are on our way to Jerusalem. All of the Gospel lections for these four months belong within Luke’s journey narrative which begins at 9:51 as Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” and concludes nearly ten chapters later (19:27) with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem.
The Journey Narrative
The journey narrative is a special feature of Luke’s gospel. Within this literary framework are some of the most familiar and loved stories of Jesus. Some are found only in Luke, and recognized by traditional titles, such as The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son. Other parables, sayings, and teachings have parallels in Matthew and Mark but do not occur in the same order. The arrangement of material within the journey to Jerusalem is clearly intentional. The author reminds readers at key points in the narrative that we are on our way to Jerusalem (see 13:21 and 17:10) and enjoins us to connect the individual stories to the larger literary context.
The phrase “set his face” is unique to Luke and suggests Jesus’ resolute and single-minded purpose toward his destiny. It signals a transition to this long central section of the gospel and also recalls themes announced earlier. Jerusalem has a prominent place in Luke. Luke begins and ends in the temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the location of Jesus’ death but also his resurrection and ascension. Acts begins in Jerusalem with Jesus’ ascension and the Pentecost story.
Jerusalem functions symbolically on several levels in this gospel. The story Luke tells is firmly located in the faith and institutions of Israel from beginning to end. After Jesus was circumcised, Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the Temple to “do what was customary according to the law.” On this occasion, Simeon tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed…” (2:33-34). On the first leg of the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples travel through a Samaritan village and evoke the long-standing antipathy between Samaritans and Judeans over the Temple (9:52-53), both a fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy and a foreshadow of opposition ahead.
The Disciples’ Journey
The sayings on discipleship at the outset of the journey indicate that Jesus does not travel alone. He has disciples eager to follow him. Jesus’ instructions to would-be disciples seem harsh and unreasonable. No time to arrange for a funeral, even for a parent. No time to say good bye to family and friends. No one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.
His words here may strike us as uncharacteristic of our image of Jesus. Some commentators question whether or not Jesus could possibly have spoken them. Whether or not they represent Jesus’ own words, they make an important point about discipleship. Jesus’ response to legitimate requests to postpone the journey reminds Christians in every generation that there are always justifiable excuses to defer the journey or put off the claims of discipleship. Other important matters compete for our attention. Some must make heart-wrenching choices, but there is urgency about Jesus’ mission to bring forth God’s reign. Jesus compels us to proclaim the Kingdom of God. This is our Christian vocation and must be our first priority.
Preaching on the Way to Jerusalem
Luke’s journey narrative is indeed fitting for the Pentecost Season with its focus in Christian discipleship. I know the preaching habit–an understandable one–of considering only the week’s assigned readings for the coming Sunday’s sermon, but Luke is a literary masterpiece that lends itself well to reading the parts in relationship to the whole story. Themes that are announced at the beginning persist through the gospel. Preachers, who relate the individual gospel lections to their location within the larger literary framework of the journey to Jerusalem, and within the entire gospel, will likely find this an enriching habit for preaching Luke during this season. Neil Elliot’s comment on this text in the People’s Bible (Fortress Press, 2008) is instructive: “All that Jesus teaches about justice, about the right use of wealth, about prayer and steadfastness in his cause, he teaches as he leads his followers toward a final confrontation in Jerusalem.”