Commentary on Luke 9:51-62
This week’s lectionary text provides a range of responses to offer to our congregations as we preach about God’s benevolent kingdom and the call to follow Jesus. The Samaritan village that does not receive Jesus provides a foil to true discipleship, although, as we will see, this is not Luke’s last word on the Samaritans. James and John furnish a different kind of negative example, in their desire to see judgment come upon this Samaritan village. Jesus affords the contrast to their vengeance. He continues on his journey without even a word against those who do not receive him. The passage concludes with discipleship sayings of Jesus that stress the cost of following him and the singular allegiance expected.
Luke 9:51 signals a change in direction in Luke’s narrative and in Jesus’ itinerary. Jesus moves from ministry in Galilee (4:14-9:50) to begin traveling to Jerusalem. This passage begins the extended “Lukan travel narrative,” which runs from 9:51 to 19:27 or thereabouts. This section of Luke’s Gospel features Jesus’ teaching about God’s kingdom and Israel’s restoration and includes many of the uniquely Lukan parables. Luke highlights the movement of Jesus and his followers toward Jerusalem, with frequent references to that destination (9:51, 53; 13:33-34; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11).
But this change of direction from Galilean ministry to Jerusalem mission is no whim of the moment. Luke makes clear Jesus’ intentionality to go to Jerusalem by using the idiom “set his face” (NRSV) to communicate this fixed purpose (“resolutely set out” in the NIV). Jesus has already predicted that he will be rejected by “the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22; see also 9:44). Jesus will encounter this group of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem (for example, 19:47; 23:10), and he ties Jerusalem to his missional death. His death will lead to his “exodus” or “departure” (9:31), as well as to his ascension when he will be “taken up” (analēmpsis; see also the related verb analambanō in Acts 1:11).
As Jesus travels from Galilee toward Jerusalem, the first stop along the way is a Samaritan village (9:52-56). Luke narrates that Jesus sent ahead some of his entourage to prepare for his arrival, but that this particular village did not receive Jesus. The lack of welcome is explained by Luke: “because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (9:53). While brief, this explanation is telling, especially given the deep division between Samaritans and Jews over worship sites. While Jerusalem was understood as the only proper location for Jewish worship, Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim (see also John 4:20). Tensions over this distinction would have been even more pronounced after the Jewish destruction of the Samaritan sanctuary at Mount Gerizim in 128 B.C.E.
The rejection of Jesus by this particular Samaritan village focuses on their negative response to Jesus’ Jerusalem destination. Yet this negative response seems not fully anticipated, since Jesus has sent messengers to prepare for his arrival. “The response of these Samaritan villagers goes against the implicit expectation [for hospitality] and so would seem to be a non-representative response for Samaritans to Jewish travelers” (Brown and Yamazaki-Ransom, 239). In Acts, Luke will highlight that Samaritans receive the good news of the Messiah (8:6, 14), a direct reversal of this initial Samaritan scene in Luke (with dechomai used in both places; Luke 9:53; Acts 8:14) and a sign of the restoration of all of Israel, including Samaritans (Brown and Yamazaki-Ransom).
The perspective of Jesus toward these Samaritans is clarified in his response to James and John, who are keen to see God’s judgment enacted: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (9:54). Their sentiment evokes 2 Kings 1, where Elijah calls fire down on King Ahaziah’s troops: “let fire come down from heaven and consume you…” (1:10, also 1:12). This connection was certainly made within the scribal tradition of the New Testament, since one scribal reading of Luke 9:54 adds the words “as Elijah did” (see NRSV footnote).
In contrast to James and John, Jesus shows no desire for judgment to come upon these Samaritans. Instead, he rebukes these two disciples for their perspective. Luke has already highlighted the divine mercy that surrounds the arrival of Jesus (1:50, 54-55, 72, 76-79). And Jesus’ Isaianic mission focuses on proclaiming the good news and “the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-18), with Luke leaving off the final reference from Isaiah 61:2 to proclaiming “the day of vengeance of our God.” The present tense of Jesus’ ministry in Luke is about restoration, not vengeance. So, it is not surprising that Jesus rejects this idea of enacting judgment. Instead, the group moves on “to another village” (potentially another Samaritan village).
This passage concludes with dual emphases on discipleship and kingdom (9:57-62). Three potential disciples interact with Jesus, and Jesus calls each of them to singular allegiance to his own person and to the arriving reign of God. In his first response to an eager follower, Jesus warns of the hardship of an itinerant life. In the second case, Jesus issues a call to follow him, but the would-be disciple raises a family obligation. Jesus responds with a riddle (“Let the dead bury their own dead”) and a second exhortation, this time to proclaim the kingdom. Finally, a third person commits to following Jesus but with the proviso of saying goodbye to their family. Jesus’ warning echoes as a final word on discipleship in light of the kingdom: “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (9:62).
Jeannine K. Brown and Kazuhiko Yamazaki-Ransom, “The Parable of the Good Samaritan and the Narrative Portrayal of Samaritans in Luke-Acts.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 15/2 (2021), 233-246.