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.”
I think it’s no secret that I am not a biblical scholar. I’ve never spent a lot of time reading the bible and analyzing it. In my church upbringing, I would go to church, read the passages with everyone else, listen to the sermon, and call it a day. Once in a while I’d follow up and look something up, but not very often. This lack of study on the one hand makes me singularly ill-prepared to give reflections, but on the other hand, means that when I sit and read a passage, I have to do a lot of research to understand it. I hope that this helps me develop some new insights into it.
This passage was no exception; I immediately searched online for guidance. Here’s what I got from the Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Regarding why the Samaritans didn’t receive Jesus and his disciples: The aorist implies that they at once rejected Him. The Samaritans had shewn themselves heretofore not ill-disposed (John 4:39), and St Luke himself delights to record favourable notices of them (Luke 10:33, Luke 17:18). But (i) there was always a recrudescence of hatred between the Jews and the Samaritans at the recurrence of the annual feasts, (ii) Their national jealousy would not allow them to receive a Messiah whose goal was not Gerizim, but Jerusalem, (iii) They would not sanction the passage of a multitude of Jews through their territory, since the Jews frequently (though not always, Jos. Antt. xx. 6, § 1) chose the other route on the East of the Jordan.
Well. That clears it right up, doesn’t it? I think we should take a moment and go around, and everyone should use “recrudescence” in a sentence.
But seriously, here’s a recap of the narrative of the passage, based on my research: Jesus is heading to Jerusalem with his followers; he knows it is time for him to return there for his crucifixion and resurrection. Along the way, they pass through a Samaritan village, and his followers go on ahead into the village so that the Samaritans can prepare for his arrival, but the Samaritans don’t want them to visit. The response to this news from James and John on the one hand makes me laugh really hard – can’t you just see them swaggering like wannabe tough guys showing off for Jesus, saying hey “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” It makes me laugh because it’s so absurd; they aren’t tough guys, and do they not know that they have absolutely no power to call down God’s wrath? But it also makes me really sad; here is Jesus, trying to teach them, to prepare them for a life without him, a life where they will need to take over the work that he’s been doing. And they are so fundamentally stymied by all the lessons he’s taught them, over all this time, that they think Jesus’s direction would be to smite a village full of people because the inhabitants didn’t welcome them?
Here’s another interesting thing: I bet you all know this; I’m sure I looked this up at some point, but it didn’t stick with me – I had to look this up again: Who were the Samaritans, and why did they not want Jesus and his followers to stop by? Well, Samaritans are also Jews, but they only accept the five books of Moses, and not the books of the Prophets or later texts. And they therefore had a different high temple, in a different location (the one in Gerizim), so there’s some discussion that, despite having been accepting of Jesus on earlier trips, they didn’t want him to visit when he was on his way to Jerusalem, the seat of the OTHER high temple.
The passage from Luke then covers a few of Jesus’ parables, covering the need to let go of our comfortable habits to follow him; someone says he’ll follow Jesus; Jesus makes it clear it won’t be easy. Another person says he wants to follow Jesus, but first he has to bury his father. Okay, legitimate excuse! But Jesus says, essentially “if you’re going to follow, follow. No excuses!” And another person says he wants to follow, but first he has to say goodbye to his family. Another valid excuse! But Jesus uses the parable of looking back when you’re plowing, which would make your row go all crooked. So, again, no excuses! Because if the prospective follower goes home to say goodbye, I’m guessing next comes lunch, packing, maybe a nap… and next thing you know, “oops! Looks like I missed my chance! Oh, well – next time!
But let’s go back to James and John, and their offer to Jesus to call down the wrath of the great Jehovah on the Samaritans for not offering them welcome. I feel like this may be the heart of the reading. I mean, these guys are disciples of Jesus; they’ve had quite a bit of personal time to learn his teachings, but they still haven’t fully absorbed all of the lessons of “love thy neighbor as thyself” and “turn the other cheek”. And these guys eventually became saints! So maybe that’s the real take-away for us; that a Saint maybe isn’t someone who’s perfect and Christlike. Maybe a Saint is someone who tries, and fails, and tries again. Someone flawed, whose ego and pride get in the way of the work, who struggles to absorb the lessons. But by sticking with the struggle, and not giving up, they eventually master it. They didn’t stop to bury their fathers, or say goodbye to their families – they followed him. And therefore, we CAN aspire to do the work, instead of saying to ourselves “well, first I’ve got to…..” before I can start, or “I am unworthy” or “I am incapable.” How many times we play the endless loops of our failures; the time we said that thing to that person (cringe!). The time we did that thing. The times we were selfish, easily offended, ego-driven. But God still loves us. God still beckons us. Every day, with God’s help, we can get up to do the work, even when we’ve failed a thousand times. Amen.