The Cost of Discipleship

Ordinary 13C

Luke 9: 51 62

Introduction

This week's reading allows us to "look in" on the opening of our Lord's long journey to Jerusalem, and all that this city stood for. For eleven Sundays we will focus on the qualities Jesus demands of those who seek to be his disciples. St Luke writes in such a way (and we will identify signs of this) that help us to see the journey of Jesus not so much geographical as a journey for the whole church: a journey through hardship and suffering, towards glory. Thus there is an emphasis on the on-going mission journey of the Church, and the role of each disciple in that great mission.

As we open at verses 51 — 56 (part one of our reading) the focus is on those whom the disciples encountered on the way. The writer of the Gospel also depicts Jesus responding to their problems in a way which will continue throughout the Church's journey.

Verse 51

The N.A.S.B. version of this verse translates it as:

"And it came about, when the days were approaching for His ascension, that He resolutely set His face to go to Jerusalem;"

A note on each word in bold print:

  • days: This refers to the days of our Lords suffering, death, resurrection and ascension.
  • ascension: Literally this would read "the days of his reception up". Under influence from the Syriac and Arabic versions, modern translations have "ascension". The same word is used in the Greek Septuagint version for Elijah's assumption into heaven. It denotes restored union with God.
  • resolutely: Literally Jesus "set his face firmly". The modelled behaviour of our Lord is not casual: "if it happens, it happens…..". Rather he is decisive and motivated.
  •  Jerusalem: This will indeed be a place of fulfilment.

Verse 52 and 53

Jesus sends messengers ahead of him, not to preach, but to prepare. This turned out to be more difficult than expected. They were not welcomed in the Samaritan village they entered because they were on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On the rivalry between Jews and Samaritans see 2 Kings 17 and Ezra 4. Christians would do well to remember that they often exhibit, even today, the most extreme discourtesies and lack of respect, one denomination to another. When will we ever learn?

Verse 54

When James and John saw the Samaritan reaction, they were quickly aroused. They implied in their comments to Jesus:

"Of course you want us to call down fire from heaven to obliterate them from the face of the earth — the way Elijah did!"

(As Bishop Ambrose remarked in a sermon around A.D. 350 — no wonder Jesus called them Sons of Thunder!)

Verses 55 and 56

But, on learning this, Jesus turned and "rebuked" them: meaning he showed the strongest possible disapproval for their suggested behaviour.

In this way Jesus models the opposite behaviour of his two disciples. James and John pitched their fury against the Samaritans. Our Lord in dealing with the incident, "rebukes" them, that is, he focuses on what they wanted to do to the Samaritans. This is a crucial observation in how our Lord trains his disciples, and we would do well to put this into practice ourselves.

James and John were right to be angry, but wrong in their anger to forget mercy. They instinctively wanted to destroy rather than to save those who needed enlightenment. This is surely a lesson we could all benefit from.

When Jesus had made his point he moved on to another village to make a fresh start. Our Lord never harped on an issue. He generally dealt with it incisively and then moved into a new topic or a different location. Good psychology! The consummate teacher.

Verses 57 and 58

A new theme of a journey of spiritual growth has begun to emerge in our Lord's teaching. Accordingly, he begins to set out clear guidelines from the start. In the second part of our reading (verses 57 — 62) we notice how Jesus does not ask others to do what he has not done himself.

As Jesus and his band of followers were walking along the road, a man (very likely a scholar) comes up to him and declares, "I will follow you wherever you go."

This verse (57) gives us one of many examples of how informed members of out Lord's own culture were willing to become his disciples. We should be wary of Christian literature which seeks to convey the opposite impression.

Our Lord, no doubt thrilled to be approached in this way, feels constrained to warn this man (whom he obviously hopes will join him) that the way will not be easy. "In fact", he warns "you won't have anything you can really call your own." Such is the poverty and lowliness Jesus experienced. The manner in which he confronts his aspiring follower, if we "read between the lines", indicates that our Lord is holding this out to him, not as something to be despised, but a gift of inestimable value. He never makes such offers to weak characters.

No matter how much we explain this verse, we are obliged to observe the approach to ownership and control of material goods which Jesus holds up for those who would be his teachers and co-workers.

Many people who ascribe this status to themselves openly justify on a regular basis their income arising from ministry. We all need to check out, from time to time, what kind of balance we maintain between the commitment we have to our Christian calling, and the material rewards we take from it.

Verses 59 and 60

Our Lord then invites a second man to follow him. The prospective disciple agrees but insists there are family expectations to be completed in the care of his father, who is dying or has already died.

The reply from Jesus, "Let the dead bury their own dead," has been grossly misinterpreted over the ages. In the worst cases, those who admit only a literal interpretation of Scripture have formed a very negative view of treating the dead, exhibiting almost a fear of honouring the dead, or seeing such honours paid as pagan and unspiritual.

Jesus allowed his closest followers to pay every honour they were able, in the circumstances, to his body from the moment he was taken down off the cross. The Church at large fortunately has kept up that same loving display of warmth, affection and closest possible care for the dead, sparing no effort to let this love be seen.

In this particular incident Jesus is not dismissing attention to the dead as something of lower priority for his disciples!

On the contrary he is using, in a very Jewish manner of speech, the undisputed propriety of completing religious protocols to heighten his listeners perception of this special call to follow him. We could present the situation like this:

"Yes indeed, let your father be attended to with all honour and dignity. But such duties require the time and preoccupation of those who are available to carry them out. Let those people do what they can do so very well. You are not needed for that! But when I call you to follow me, you are needed for that! My work for you is urgent and no one else has quite what I see in you. That is why I am calling you, and we must move on now. There is no time to dither especially when there is no reason whatsoever to delay. I shall say it again, follow me."

Verses 61 and 62

A third man has been called to follow Jesus. His response is loud and clear. "Yes, I will follow you, but I'm not quite able to do it just at this very moment. I will need to organise a number of matters for my family. Once they are all in place, whenever that is, then I will follow you."

Again, as in the case of the previous man called, Jesus is aware that other men could attend to all of these things satisfactorily. And so he is quite blunt is his reply — which, note, is aimed at getting the man to see this and change his mind.

"No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for service in the Kingdom of God."

Again, we had better be careful how we apply this quotation,. We can be very clumsy in using our Lord's cryptic statements. He is not saying in this case, that it is wrong to treasure special memories if these move us to gratitude. We can also be absolutely certain our Lord is not declaring family connections should be coldly ignored. He is saying: "If you honestly feel committed to continue with the obligations of normal family ties, then by all means do so, with my blessing. But if you decide to accept my invitation to become one of my student followers then do not let yourself be drawn off course by every little temptation to go back to your former way of life."

In typical rabbinic style, Jesus is not really talking about looking back, but rather about the need to keep your eye on the distant goal at all times. He knows how hard this can be, and that is why he is so "up front" about the hardships his followers will need to be ready to meet, especially in giving up family ties. But we need to remember that our Lord is always very humane and comforting. He calls not for giving up but for detachment so that our dependence will always be on God alone!

Conclusion

No one listening to our Lord, considered for one moment that he did not live up to his demands himself. Indeed there is every chance that the three men spoken to were inspired by his straight talking, and enlisted in his service. Mercifully for us, countless Christians down the ages have responded to his call and the radical demands made, and have persevered with his help in their vocation. They have faithfully passed on the faith. The challenge for us is to do our best likewise to pass it on.

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