Luke 9: 51 – 62
There is a saying that you never really know someone until you have shared an inheritance with them.
I had to think about this as I pondered Jesus’ odd words in this reading, which at first seem to imply that, if one claims to be a follower of Christ, they should be willing to abandon all legitimate familial expectations and commitments. It seems counter-intuitive; shouldn’t a “good Christian” be exactly the one who becomes the pillar of strength and goodwill for the family in their time of need?
I know a man who discovered unexpectedly harsh realities when, upon the death of his father, he and his sister – the two surviving siblings who had for the most part enjoyed a harmonious relationship to that point – ended up in a protracted legal tussle which saw the sister taking most of the inheritance.
The general consensus of the commentators on these later verses of our reading (“let the dead bury their own dead; you follow me” and “don’t worry about saying farewell; just get to work”) is that we must be wary of Jesus’ use of Middle Eastern hyperbole, and we must balance what he is saying with what he says elsewhere in the Gospels. If we do that, we are able to settle on a summation of his words that may go something like this: “The good is the enemy of the best.” Our tendency is to believe that life offers us choices between good and evil; the reality is that life most often requires us to make a choice between the good and the best. And that’s not an easy choice, especially when settling for what is good happens also to be what is easiest.
The context is Jesus’ and the disciples’ trip to Jerusalem. They were in Galilee last week (you remember the story of the crazed man on the other side of the Lake of Galilee), and now they are headed southward to Jerusalem, going via the hill country of the Samaritans. The Jews viewed the Samaritans as god-forsaking half-breeds, spiritually and ethnically unclean; they had strongly racist sentiments toward them.
Jesus, however, chooses the quicker route to Jerusalem, and this means going through Samaria. The group needs a rest stop, perhaps lunch or dinner or an overnight stay, but the Samaritan village proves to be unwelcoming. This is all the excuse needed for James and John to request permission to go all Old-Testament-prophet-like: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
As if. But then, I personally know someone who “rebuked in the Name of the Lord” a neighboring campsite and its inhabitants when they didn’t turn down the volume of their radio to an acceptably Christian level. How easy it is for us to believe that our interests are God’s interests; that our personal likes and dislikes are divinely inspired and sanctioned. Most of the hardships I have suffered in the Church have come from the hands of those who were utterly convinced of their rightness or spiritual superiority.
And maybe that’s the lesson of the whole reading: we simply can’t assume that our priorities, whether they focus on the fight against evil or on the promotion of good, are necessarily divinely inspired. We should not say that God demands this or that; we should say instead that because of our own understanding of God, as limited as it is, we stand for this or that. Don’t drag God into the fray of calling down fire and brimstone, nor even into the presumed goodness of caring for the bereaved. You are doing it, not God. You may do it because of what you understand of God, but you are doing it. You must weigh what is good and what is best.
What does it mean to follow someone who says, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”? To become like the Quintessential Man means accepting that the end of our day will not find us returning to the place from where we started it. Becoming truly Human is to reject the merely repetitive and cyclical existence of the animals and respond instead to a higher calling, one that urges us on toward the image of God; one that, hopefully, brings us to a new place, a better place, at the end of each day.
“No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” Amen.
©Howard Adan 2013