Environmental Stewardship Commission (MEESC)

Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota

Lectionary Reflection Gospel Lesson Year C, Proper 8

Luke 9:51-62

When the days drew near for Jesus 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."

NRSV Copyright Statement
Reflection on Luke 9:51-62 by John Gibbs, PhD First, we examine again (as on last Sunday) the issue of identity: Jesus’ and ours. Second, we turn to the urgency of our identity. Third, we see Jesus’ identity shaping ours in certain areas of our life in the world.

Section I:

“Pie in the sky by and by,” won by “the Blood” for “I, me and myself” is not Christian expectation for the future. Messianic hope is neither escapism nor self-centeredness. That becomes clear when we focus on Jesus’ identity, for in that identity we find our own present and future. It becomes yet clearer when we focus on “following him” right now without delay.

Jesus praying alone, with only the disciples near him, had to be sure that the disciples understood this. Otherwise, the disciples’ spatial proximity to Jesus would not yet be spiritual appropriation of Jesus’ way of life. He might as well have been altogether alone, with no disciples profoundly “near him,” if they were going to conduct “business as usual” on the surmise that “the Messiah of God” who is also “the Son of Man” would do his own thing “alone” without them.

Luke’s gospel was not written to satisfy mere curiosity about what actually happened. For Theophilus he focused instead on “the truth,” the meaning of “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1-4). That focus on truth or meaning persists in this quest for the identity of Jesus-and-his-followers, pictured here in their “togetherness.” The implication: as Jesus was, so must Theophilus (and we) be.

Section II:

For Luke there is no Messiah without the Messianic Community. So, the whole point of writing his gospel is to urge Theophilus, and implicitly all other readers of this gospel, not merely to observe Jesus way back then “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51), but in their own times and places to be no less decisive, indeed to set our faces to go to our own “Jerusalem.” To set one’s face is to choose, to move, to create a new direction, a new meaning. As he chose, so must and may his church choose, move, and create new direction, new meaning.

Whether Jesus actually foretold his own crucifixion and resurrection (as literalists insist), or at some later time Luke retrospectively and repeatedly “foretold” the Passion before he told it in chapters 22-23, as seems to many of us more likely, we cannot know for sure. But clearly Luke carefully constructed this gospel to lead its reader(s) into a lifelong journey empowered to make the ultimate sacrifice, if need be, for the sake of others.

The Christian life is not a spectator sport, so it is not enough to watch Jesus’ Ascension from a distance. The Spirit that claimed him claims us, and “clothes” us with that same “power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts, picks up the story at that point.

Until Jesus’ resurrection, however, nobody in Jesus’ lifetime could get the point of the Passion. That may explain Jesus’ insistence that the disciples at that time keep silent about the messianic import of his life and teaching (Luke 9:21). [The “Messianic Secret” is, of course, a major sticking point of interpretation (crux interpretum).] In any case, he is who he is for their sake.

The point is this: those who want to become his followers will “take up their cross daily,” which means, as he said, that they will “lose their life for my sake.” Bearing our cross is something quite different from enduring the pains, frustrations, deprivations, and the like, that are common to all human beings. Bearing our cross means investing our lives for his sake rather than reserving them for our own purposes.

The gospel text for today is the turning point of the whole gospel. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up” (that is, resurrected and ascended), at that time “he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” That determination was decisive, fateful, and marked the beginning of the end. Indeed, it had negative consequences right away, for a Samaritan village would not receive him “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.”

But his identity shapes our identity. The word “follow,” repeated three times, emphasizes that the journey Jesus took is the way for us to take. Just as he intentionally moved in the direction of his own death, so we must move toward self-giving for His sake. In our own way within different circumstances we shall discover the meaning for us and for our time of his crucifixion. That is, we shall discover it if we do not make false promises that we delay by other priorities of our own devising. “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Section III:

His identity shapes our identity. Consequently the faith we hold is neither escapist nor self-centered. It moves out into the real world, determined with urgency not to “look back” but to move forward toward whatever destiny God has set before us. Any community that has set its face in a new direction toward a new meaning has thereby been saved from self-centeredness.

Jesus’ famous contrast between saving and losing challenges the Acquisitive Society’s “bottom line” behavior. Throughout Luke’s gospel there burns a deep social consciousness, and a determination to set right the injustices of economic exploitation. Mary’s song of praise to “God my Savior” (Luke 2:46ff.), which repeats Hannah’s prayer (I Samuel 2:1-10), includes judgment against the rich on behalf of the poor: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

William Sloan Coffin, now in the sunset of his years, continues his fight for social justice when he pushes this question in his book Credo, published in 2004 (Louisville: WJK): “What business have we reversing the priorities of Mary’s Magnificat, filling the rich with good things and sending the poor empty away? There’s nothing in any sacred scripture anywhere that says that the whims of the rich should best the rights of the poor” (pp. 57-58).

A former National Security Advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, makes clear that in the most literal sense “those who want to save their life” could very well “lose it.” In his 2004 book (NY: Basic Books) The Choice: Global Domination Or Global Leadership he writes: “An anxious America, obsessed with its own security, could find itself isolated in a hostile world” (p. viii). Further: “America must be more sensitive to the risk that its identification with an unjust version of globalization would prompt a worldwide reaction leading to the emergence of a new anti-American creed” (p. 228). As Kofi Annan said in response to this book, “we must strive to build a global community of shared interest.” Put another way: we must make globalization or global interdependence serve social and economic justice for all, rather than fatten the bulging GNPs of America and the European Union.

When we invest our collective and personal lives in God’s cause, then we will bind together “sanctuary” and “a dry and weary land” (Psalm 63:1-2). When we worship this Messiah, then we limit growth for the sake of our gardens, and learn that less is more.

Copyright Statement

To Reflections on other Readings for this Sunday:
Old Testament (Hebrew Scripture) 1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21
no reflection available
Psalm 16 or 16:5-11
no reflection available
New Testament Galatians 5:1,13-25
Gospel Luke 9:51-62
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Additional Reflections:
Last Sunday's Gospel
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John Gibbs, PhD, is a retired theologian, who attends Trinity Episcopal Church, Park Rapids, MN. He originally wrote this reflection in 2004. He and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to John Gibbs or any MEESC member, or mail them to:
MEESC Holy Trinity Church Box 65 Elk River, MN 55330-0065 USA

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