Commentary on Luke 9:51-62
In this passage Jesus sets out on his final journey to Jerusalem.
He has warned the disciples of his impending suffering there (9:21-27, 44-45), but even though they confess their faith in him as Messiah (9:18-20) and see him transfigured with Moses and Elijah (9:28-36), they cannot begin to imagine the horror of Jesus’ last days. But Jesus knows. He has “set his face” toward Jerusalem, meaning unwavering determination.
Normally very accepting of the Samaritans, he shocks his disciples by barely noticing the Samaritans as he heads to Jerusalem, so concentrated was he on his up-coming destiny. The Samaritan villagers “did not receive him because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” Did they reject Jesus, or did they not host him overnight since he “his face was set toward Jerusalem”?
The text doesn’t say, but the disciples take it to be rejection and impulsively ask if they should “command fire” to destroy them — as if they could even do that! An unknown copier of Luke’s gospel even adds “as Elijah did,” referring to Elijah calling fire upon the soldiers of the evil king Ahaziah, who had ruled the northern kingdom from Samaria (2 Kings 1:10-12).
Jesus uses the occasion to speak about discipleship and about the implications of following him. As the text makes clear, Jesus is speaking to those who are indeed following him, not to potential followers. As he often does, he speaks in hyperboles and exaggerations for emphasis in making his point. He is saying, “Be willing to let go of the past.” You bury the dead and move on. There comes a time when you leave the comforts of home, let go of the doorpost, and move into uncharted waters.
He knows that his disciples will soon be doing exactly that after he has gone. Their lives will be radically and unexpectedly different than anything they had imagined. They will leave behind what they have known and done and go in totally new directions.
What does Jesus mean by saying, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”? Anybody who has plowed a field knows you have to watch carefully in front of you to keep the furrows straight. Look backward and you will swerve one way or another.
How ironic it is that the disciples did exactly that in the despair and confusion following the crucifixion and resurrection. They looked back and resumed their previous occupation of fishing (John 21:1-14). It isn’t until Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit empowers them, that they begin their true work of spreading the Gospel of Jesus all around the Mediterranean.
These verses jar us into asking, “How are our lives different as followers of Jesus than what they might have been otherwise?” I remember a bumper sticker asking, “If you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Discipleship means living in ways we might not otherwise live.
The umbrella truth above this whole topic of discipleship is that being a Christian and a disciple of Jesus gives us a whole new identity. We are no longer simply a biological unit on this earth, but a child of the God of the whole universe. We now live knowing that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). Because our lives are now measured by eternal things, we are “exiles and aliens” in this world (1Peter 2:11).
Philip Scharper, editor of Orbis Books, describes the Christian life as pilgrims, but even more accurately as nomads: “A popular church metaphor is that of the people of God on pilgrimage. But a more apt metaphor should be that of the people of God as nomads. Pilgrims know where their journey is headed … Nomads are called to go by uncertain paths to a place that shall be made holy at some indefinite time by something God shall say or do. And there is no guide, no guide except a pillar of fire by night and a wind-driven cloud by day — sounds and symbols of the Holy Spirit.”
Little did the disciples know that day that they would soon become nomads on this earth, travelling all over, with no fixed home, living in often frightening and hostile circumstances, as followers of their Lord. But they — and we — were also pilgrims, because pilgrims do have a final destination, namely in eternity with God.
Leading adult forums in congregations, one of my faculty colleagues is fond of asking people, “What is God doing in your life these days?” It is a thoroughly biblical question, because we believe God’s Spirit is active within us. Yet the question catches Lutherans by surprise, because we don’t usually think in such concrete ways.
I remember visiting an African-American congregation near our home, where the pastor asked the people, “What’s God been doing in your life lately?” Whereas Lutherans would have sat in shocked silence, the people in this church, probably accustomed to the pastor posing that question often, responded one after another by standing and giving their answers, each followed by a vigorous round of applause.
Whether we think of ourselves as aliens, strangers, nomads, or pilgrims on this earth, it is because we follow Jesus, and that often takes us into new ways of living!