When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:51-62 – NRSV).
On Luke 9:51 – 18:30, one commentator notes: “Here begins a very distinctive part of Lk, mostly proper to the third Gospel and comprising about one-third of the total. Unjustifiably it has been called the Peraean Ministry, for only some of its incidents take place east of the Jordan; others have called it the Samaritan Ministry because of the special reference it makes to the people of that district. Perhaps its best name is the Journey Narrative, though it appears to deal with more than one journey; but we have seen that Lk has special sources, and certainly Jn knows of several journeys to Jerusalem. But it can be said that Lk is here concerned principally with the progress of Jesus to Jerusalem for the purpose of fulfilling the divine decree of the Passion which he has begun to announce; cf. 9:51; 13:22; 17:11; 18:31. It is the final events at Jerusalem that Lk has in view all the time, and this it is which gives unity to the section. It is largely composed of discourses, containing thirteen parables proper to Lk. Scattered here and there are some of the logia or sayings contained in the Sermon of Mt chh 5–7. Characteristic of this part, and somewhat of a change from the preceding, is the severity of our Lord’s language on occasion; cf. 9:57–62; 11:42–52; 12:20, 56; 13:5, 26–35; 14:26–35. It may be an indication of his source that Lk here shows very little care for topography; the Apostles are named but once, even Peter, James and John rarely appearing. Finally this section contains some of the finest examples of Lk’s writing, e.g. 15:1–32” (R Ginns, “The Gospel of Jesus Christ according to St Luke”, B. Orchard & E. F. Sutcliffe (Eds.), A Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, Toronto; New York; Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson, 1953, 953).
“An important new section of the Lucan Gospel begins at 9:51, the so-called travel account” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), pp. 823–824). New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 823).
Luke contains obvious dependence on Mark – see for example Mark 10:1-52 – but also obvious independence of him – as indeed does Matthew.
Unlike John, Luke and the other Synoptic writers have only one journey to Jerusalem. “The scene stresses Jesus’ resolute determination to make his way to Jerusalem, the city of destiny, despite all opposition. Nothing is to distract him from what has been determined” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, op cit, 827).
Luke refers to the journey indirectly again in Acts 10:39.
When the days drew near for him to be taken up: What is to take place in Jerusalem is not simply Jesus death. In Jerusalem there is to be an “event” which will climax in his “being taken up”.
he set his face to go to Jerusalem: This is again an affirmation of Jesus’ prophetic role. See Ezekiel 21:7-8 where a similar expression is used of the “Son of Man” who is told to “set his face against Jerusalem,” and to “prophesy against the land of Israel.”
messengers: The Greek word is angelous. We are reminded of John the Baptist in 7:27 – “This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you’.” We are also reminded of Exodus 23:20 – “I am going to send an angel in front of you, to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place that I have prepared”.
Let the dead bury their own dead: This is a strange – and hard saying! Some commentators argue that Jesus is referring to those who have rejected the Kingdom, are dead and they should be left to fend for themselves. Maybe, however, it is just an enigmatic – and very stark – way of Jesus saying he demands everything of his disciples. There are no half measures!
In today’s Gospel – Luke 9:51-62 – we hear Jesus in a very decisive mood. First of all, Luke tells us Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem”. Then, when James and John – those “Sons of Thunder”! – want to punish the Samaritan villagers for their rejection, Jesus “turned and rebuked them”. Luke does not elaborate further, he simply says: “Then they went on to another village”. Do you think James and John did not get the message?
Then there are the encounters with potential disciples. Again, Luke is not explicit, but the message is clear: “It is total commitment or it is nothing”. This is, on the face of it, demanding stuff – very demanding stuff in fact. One commentator writes: “The two scenes serve to correct wrong ideas of what it means to follow Jesus. Discipleship does not consist in zealous punishment of those who reject Jesus and his mission; nor does it consist in qualified following” (Joseph A Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes, (Vol. 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 827).
Every text has a context. In the very next chapter – 10:25-37 – Luke gives us one of the gems of the world’s literature: The parable of the good Samaritan. Just as we read of James and John’s inclination to revenge on the Samaritans in the light of the parable, so it is useful to read the parable in the light of Jesus reaction to James and John’s suggestion. Let us take one little example. In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus uses the same word of the Samaritan – the Greek is splanchnizomai meaning “to be moved with pity/compassion” as he uses of the father in the parable of the prodigal son – see 15:20. And in the encounter with the ten lepers – 17:11-19 – it is the Samaritan alone who returns to give thanks.
When we consider that the central theme of the Bible, the one that holds it all together, is love – God’s love for us, as 1 John 4:7-21 reminds us – we can get some insight into the seemingly preposterous demands of Jesus to those who want to be his disciples. God’s love – embodied in Jesus – is preposterous! For us, love is always conditional. It is never utterly and totally, unconditional. It always has a measure of human limitation woven through it. For God, love is always unconditional. God’s love is infinite, and it is given unmerited. We cannot earn it. God will always love us.
The only limits are those that we bring to the relationship. Jesus, in asking for a wholehearted commitment, is in effect saying: “I and my Father, want to love you. Let us love you. Don’t hold back. Your fulfilment, your wellbeing and all your deepest desires will be found in my love for you. No need to win my love – just receive it!”