Setting our face towards paradox
Week of Sunday June 26
Gospel: Luke 9:61-62
9:1 Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases, 2and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal. 3He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic. 4Whatever house you enter, stay there, and leave from there. 5Wherever they do not welcome you, as you are leaving that town shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them.’ 6They departed and went through the villages, bringing the good news and curing diseases everywhere…
21 He sternly ordered and commanded them not to tell anyone, 22saying, ‘The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.’
23 Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. 24For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it…
28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (exodos), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem…
49 John answered, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’50But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. 54When 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? 55But he turned and rebuked them. [Other ancient authorities read rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what spirit you are of, 56for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.’] 56Then they went on to another village.
57 As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ 58And 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.’ 59To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ 60But Jesus* said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’61Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ 62Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’
Pilate washes his hands to excuse himself of the violence he has condoned. Jesus gives us "power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases" but calls us to shake the dust off our feet where we are not welcomed. (Luke 9:1-6) As Lady Macbeth showed us so clearly, hand washing does not make us clean.
Shaking the dust off our feet signifies a great disapproval. In one sense it is entirely symbolic; who will see us as we stand of the edges of the town? It does no violence. But the symbol is grounded in a concrete reality: it involves walking away. (In practical living, there is, here, a letting go of hurts done to us, so that they cannot hold onto us.)
Jesus teaches this to his disciples, but only a few verses later, when a village does not receive him, the disciples express the extreme violence of wishing to rain fire down upon it. Jesus rebukes them.
There is an addition which was made at this point in some early Lucan manuscripts:
He rebuked them, and said, ‘You do not know what spirit you are of, 56for the Son of Man has not come to destroy the lives of human beings but to save them.’ Then they went on to another village.
Daniel Clendenin says
… those words … clearly express the broader Jesus tradition about which there's no debate. They sound like something he would say and have the ring of truth. The authentic Luke 19:10 sounds suspiciously similar to the non-verse (which is one reason why textual critics reject [the 9:56 variant] as spurious): "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." So does John 3:17: "God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world." There's even a similar and spurious textual variant at Matthew 18:11: "The Son of Man came to save what was lost." So, the interpolation might not be authentic, but its sentiment is….
The option of violence is forbidden us. It is of a different spirit from the spirit of Jesus. He does not criticise those who use his name but were not among those of the disciples; "for whoever is not against you is for you." (Luke 9:49) He walks away from those who are hostile.
Understand that hospitality was (is!) a sacred obligation. Not welcoming, and not receiving, do not imply mere disinterest. They are not neutral. They are hostile. I've always remembered a missionary given a bed with my parents' characteristic welcome when I was about 10. I liked him; he taught me to play chess. In my teens there was some comment made about him, and I was shocked to find my Mum thought he was a dill, and had no interest in his message. That's disinterest; it has no connection to the obligation to make welcome. Not receiving a person, in the context of Jesus' travels, is to leave them to the mercy of whatever comes. It is a violence.
So our text is a reinforcement of what has already been said about being welcomed and received, or not, at the beginning of Luke 9. And it comes as Jesus "stiffens his face" (the literal translation, according to Fiztmyer pp 826) towards Jerusalem. It is the time "when the days drew near for him to be taken up." This nonviolent walking away from not being received, and beyond that, toward Jerusalem is the spirit of his exodos, his whole purpose.
Exodos is the word translated as departure in the Transfiguration story of Luke 9:28-36. In this story Luke reminds us Jesus is right up there with the giants of the Faith, Moses and Elijah, and then shapes the story to show that Jesus is superior to them all. They discuss his exodos which he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. Like Moses, he is to take the people out of their Egyptian slavery; that seemingly good bounty which had turned bad.
We have been alerted to Elijah already. Luke 1:17 says of John the Baptist.
With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord,
Malachi 4:5-6, in the last verses of the Old Testament, is waiting.
Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. 6He will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents, so that I will not come and strike the land with a curse.
And then, when Jesus meets opposition at Nazareth, he invokes the memory of Elijah. (Fizmyer notes the parallel between Chapter 4 and here in Chapter 9 at pp 827. Both the ministry in Galilee, and then on the journey to Jerusalem, begin with a rejection story.)
They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’
God's favour and love is for all people.
But when Jesus is not received in Samaria, he walks away from the example of Elijah. Elijah was known as the one who rained down fire on the soldiers of Ahaziah when that king of Samaria did not receive Elijah and his God, but sought advice from Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron. (2 Kings 1)
Indeed, when Elijah called his disciple Elisha, (1 Kings 19) he gave him time to say farewell to his parents. Jesus said to a similar request, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.’ (Luke 9:62)
So how do we hold together the urgency and harshness of Jesus' sayings; e.g., let the dead bury the dead, with his almost irenic call, immediately beforehand, to simply walk away from those who are unwelcoming, and go on to another village? I ask this question because I so often observe, and have been guilty of, zeal and urgency which slides into violence which the perpetrators do not even recognise as violence.
I find two inescapable conclusions from my reading of the Gospels. One is the universal love of God— no one is condemned, for Jesus did not come to condemn the world. And if God's love cannot forgive my sin unless I repent, then this "love" eventually becomes some violence which rains down fire on Ahaziah's soldiers. It is not the love of a good God. What kind of monster forbids the sacrifice of children in the Old Testament, but then sacrifices his only son? Not a God of love.
I know that in the same breath in which John says (3:17)
Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. 18Those who believe in him are not condemned,
but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
But the final outworking of understanding that Love is at the back of all things, is to see that God does not condemn. We are called to grow beyond Elijah's' calling down violent fire (1 Kings 18:36-40, 2 Kings 1:1-16) and Elisha setting bears upon children, in proof of his having the spirit of Elijah. (2 Kings 2:15, 23-4) Just as we already recognised that Jesus would not spitefully kill children, contra The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and left such writings out of the Canon.
But my other conclusion is driven by the last parable in Matthew. This is the parable of the sheep and the goats. (Matthew 25: 1a, 31-46) How can sin be overlooked? There is a profound inhumanity in us. When we do as the goats did— and we all do— which is to unwelcome and to leave hungry and naked the one fully human being, we are unforgivable. Penal substitutionary atonement is as right in its apprehension of the gravity of sin as it is wrong in its making God a monster.
I can find only one way out of this: accept what seems to be a contradiction as, instead, a paradox which it is not for us to resolve. If I accept that the love of God is supreme over all things, I can accept that is supreme over sin, and trust that it covers me.
If I will not accept paradox, but must solve the contradiction, I will do one of two things. I will make sin a small thing (ignore Matthew 25, for example,) or I will inevitably make sin the ultimate power.
Ignoring sin seems to me to be the preferred option of we who are rich. Sharon Welch says
… the temptation to cynicism and despair when problems are seen as intransigent is a temptation that takes a particular form for the middle class. "The despair of the affluent, the middle class, has a particular tone: it is a despair cushioned by privilege and grounded in privilege. It is easier to give up on long-term social change when one is comfortable in the present—when it is possible to have challenging work, excellent health care and housing, and access to the fine arts. When the good life is present or within reach, it is tempting to despair of its ever being in reach for others and resort to merely enjoying it for oneself and one's family... Becoming so easily discouraged is the privilege of those accustomed to too much power, accustomed to having needs met without negotiation and work, accustomed to having a political and economic system that responds to their needs" (Sharon Welch, A Feminist Ethic of Risk, 15).
Alyce McKenzie quotes this in a piece focussed on the need to keep our hand to the plough and not give up, but we same middle class rich who give up so easily, can also easily ignore sin, especially corporate sin, because it so often benefits us! We need Matthew 25 like a burr in the sock of our conscience.
But making sin the ultimate power, even if I couch it in language about the "justice of God," means I make God not-God. I begin the journey not to Jerusalem, but the journey toward calling down fire.
Jesus "stiffens his face" toward Jerusalem. It is unwavering commitment. It might call to mind Isaiah 50 where it says, "… therefore I have set my face like flint," but this is no hardening of face and heart towards enemies, but a bearing of them.
I gave my back to those who struck me,
and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;
I did not hide my face
from insult and spitting.
7 The Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame;
8 he who vindicates me is near.
Notice the end of the song:
11 But all of you are kindlers of fire,
lighters of firebrands
Walk in the flame of your fire,
and among the brands that you have kindled!
Those who call down fire live in the flames.
I started ploughing in primary school. We do not walk behind the plough, but drive a tractor ahead of it. So we must look back! I spent many hours sitting with my left hand to the wheel, twisted around to the right to make sure I was leaving no unploughed strips, or ploughing over already turned soil; watching to keep the depth right; scanning to spot any sign of a dropped shear. To this day, I can twist more easily to the right; twisting to look behind to my left, is an effort! I have a slight deformity in my spine, and wonder if those long childhood hours of keeping the plough straight were baked into my bones. (I should say that as a solitary child, I loved it. And I treasure the ability it gave me to be contemplative.)
The most important thing we can do is set our face to Jerusalem, and all the pain that may bring us. This discipline saves and heals us. It bakes the spirit of Jesus into our bones. But if we cannot walk away from those who will not receive us; if we must bring down fire on those who beat our backs, we are only half baked Christians. We scapegoat Samaritans; we project our awareness of our own sin onto them, because we have not felt the full love of God.
There is only one way to fully embrace love. It is to walk away from sin, and from unwelcome; it is to wipe off the dust. We let God take care of the paradox or we become the sinner.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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Luke 9:51-62 - Clambering through the family tree (2019)