Seward United Methodist Church
Friday, November 15, 2019
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Following Jesus on His Terms

Luke 9:51-62

The heart of Luke chapter 9 is Jesus’ teaching about discipleship: “Deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Much of the rest of the chapter deals with a series of stories of “discipleship failures.” The disciples, and others, just don’t quite seem to get what it means to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Jesus.

Jesus is setting out toward Jerusalem for what will be the last time in his earthly life. They are up in the north end of Galilee at the beginning of the chapter, so they have a long journey to get there. Most Jews, when traveling from Galilee to Judea, would go east, cross the Jordan River, and skirt around the land of Samaria, which was in between the two territories. Some would travel through Samaria, since it shaved a lot of time and distance off the trip, but if they did, they certainly wouldn’t stop for the night, or seek out Samaritan hospitality!

There was a long and ugly history, stretching back 1000 years, between the two groups of people who eventually became the Jews and Samaritans in the first century. Of course, they were relatives. But they wouldn’t admit that, not after all the centuries of fighting. One of the last incidents in their history was when the Jews invaded Samaria and burned the Samaritan Temple to the ground 150 years earlier. While the Jews were angry when the Romans invaded, the Samaritans welcomed them because it meant that they were free from the rule of the Jews. Needless to say, the Samaritans were not friendly to Galilean Jews traveling to the Temple in Jerusalem. Jews were often harassed or pelted with stones while traveling through Samaria.

But Jesus made a habit of going there, seeking out relationship with the Samaritans. This time, he extends a hand of friendship to the Samaritans by seeking out hospitality. But he is rejected this time. Either he is rejected for who he is, or maybe more likely, for where he is heading.

By the standards of the day, the Samaritans were in the wrong. This is contrary to our way of thinking, but in the first century, if you showed up at someone’s door and asked for lodging for the night, they had a sacred duty to receive you. By the standards of the day, the Samaritans were in the wrong to reject a traveler seeking hospitality.

James and John want to make it right by force, by calling down fire from heaven, an act reminiscent of the prophet Elijah. Elijah ministered in what was Samaria, at that time called Israel. Three times he called down fire from heaven: Once to defeat the

prophets of Baal and Asherah in his contest on Mt. Carmel, and twice to save himself from the king’s soldiers who had come to arrest him. But those were life-threatening situations, not petty vengeance. Righteousness can never be achieved through violence. Vengeance belongs to God, not us.

I think the warning to us is that if we are associated with Jesus, then we too will be rejected. There will be people who will want nothing to do with us if we belong to Jesus. I’ve run into that in my life, and I’m sure some of you have as well, maybe all of you. It’s probably inevitable at some point.

But a Christ-follower must be tolerant towards others, even when rejected. And in case you haven’t noticed, tolerance is in short supply in our world! We have plenty of indifference: “I don’t care about those people!” But we have precious little real tolerance. Real tolerance is based on love, not indifference.

So they go on to another village. And it’s not stated in Luke’s Gospel, but I think it’s implied that they are received in the next village. We know that on at least one occasion, Jesus, the Jewish rabbi, was welcomed in a Samaritan village. It is a mistake to make broad assertions about groups of people. The phrase “That group of people never or always does _____” is almost always incorrect.

As they travel, Jesus encounters three more people, and there is more to learn there about discipleship.

The first man says, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

Jesus says, “You had better count the cost of discipleship. The Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus had left his home for the sake of the mission. And maybe the implication is that he was not welcome back there. The Gospels tell us that early on, Jesus’ own brothers were no fans of his mission! He was dependent on the hospitality of others. “Are you sure you want to sign up for that?”

Jesus doesn’t tell him no. He just tells him to consider it carefully before he makes such a claim. And we don’t know whether or not he follows through.

The second man says, “Let me go bury my father first.” Burying one’s parents was a sacred duty, especially for the oldest son. Well, there are several possibilities of what’s going on here:

The first is that the man’s father is dead, but not yet buried. That’s not very likely. Burial was always done on the day of death in first century Jewish culture. What are the odds Jesus shows up on that day?

The second is that the father is already buried, but not completely. On the first anniversary of a person’s death, the family would open the tomb and place the bones in a stone box called an ossuary. Only then was the burial complete. So if that’s the situation, then he’s asking for up to a year’s delay.

The third possibility is that the father is very old or in bad health. It would seem a little harsh for Jesus to tell him to leave immediately then!

And the fourth possibility, which I think is correct, is that the father is alive and well, but he disapproves of Jesus! The man can’t disappoint his father. “Let him die, then I’ll follow you.” I think this would explain the “leave the dead to bury the dead” line. The father is dead, spiritually, because he rejects Jesus.

There’s no way to know for sure, but I think the point remains the same all along: To follow Jesus means to put him first. Discipleship is our most important obligation, even more so than family. It is a radical demand.

The third person says, “First let me say goodbye to my family.” That doesn’t seem unreasonable. Elijah allowed Elisha to say goodbye to his family, after all. But Jesus makes a more radical demand.

Maybe Jesus knows this man is just looking to delay a decision. Or that he’s the kind of person who will always have an excuse not to do something. In any case, Jesus responds, “Anyone who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the Kingdom.” Just as a farmer can’t plow a straight line while looking back over his shoulder, neither can a servant of the Kingdom be effective if he or she is always asking, “What could have been?”

If Jesus is truly Lord, then we must serve him on his terms, and not on our own terms. We must be willing to accept rejection without retaliation. We must count the cost of discipleship and be sure we are willing to pay it. We must put Jesus first, above all other obligations. And we must not look back. There is nothing easy about Jesus’ demands. But if Jesus is Lord, the only real question for us to ask ourselves is, “Are we willing to serve him on his terms?”

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