Scripture: Luke 9:51-62
An Unwelcome Gospel
Today’s text is an uncomfortable one. We see a village reject Jesus and his disciples. We see the disciples retaliate with an urge toward violence, and a disturbingly casual one at that. And then we have three teachings about discipleship where it appears Jesus dissuades would-be disciples from joining the cause. Something tells me that this is not a popular text at evangelism conferences.
That’s too bad, though. This is a text that communicates a far more honest picture of being a follower of Jesus than many of the more popular options. While we too often suggest an easy path by emphasizing a walk down a church aisle and a prayer of repentance, this picture of following Jesus indicates that discipleship is costly, it usurps all other relationships and cultural norms, and it requires an absolute commitment. No wonder Jesus’ gospel makes him unwelcome in the Samaritan village, and in our lives today.
An Honest Gospel
This is one of those places where the Bible is brutally honest about who we are as human beings. Much like today, it was thought in Jesus’ day that religious people are supposed to be good, kind, ever-flowing founts of forgiveness. But much like today, religious people in Jesus’ day were more often judgmental, self-centered, and vindictive.
So we see with Jesus’ disciples here. They are offended by the cool reception offered by this Samaritan village. Sure, they paint it as though they are “righteously indignant” on Jesus’ behalf, but their willingness to lash out with such violence just proves how far from Jesus their minds truly are.
The Samaritans are not really Jews—nor are they properly Gentiles. The Samaritans are those Jews who were not carted off to exile. While the educated, rich, and powerful were off in Babylon struggling to redefine the Israelite religion, those who would become Samaritans were left behind and struggled to continue the old ways of worship. When the Exile came to an end, returning Jews harbored animosity for those who were left behind—and the religious gulf that had sprung up between them was a barrier too great to overcome.
All that means that there is nothing really surprising that this Samaritan village wouldn’t accept a Jewish rabbi and his disciples, especially one on his way to Jerusalem. And that—to me—makes the disciples’ response even more horrific.
There have always been faithful people who thought that their faith entitled them to certain rights, accommodations, and benefits. While certainly present in our world today, such attitudes are not unique to our world today. Jesus’ gospel—we will see in a minute—is unwelcome because it is hard, but the Gospel of Jesus will always be unwelcome when we try to impose our convictions on others.
Our Baptist forbearers knew this better than most. They were born into a world where it was illegal to believe the wrong things, where one could be put to death for varying from standard doctrine. Many of them paid with their lives because they were convinced that a person could not be coerced to faith.
Thomas Helwys, one of the very first Baptists, argued that “Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertaines not to the earthly power to punish them in the least measure,” because “mens religion to God is betwixt God and themselves” (in Baptist Identity, 47). He is advocating—in the 1600’s no less!!—that a government should protect the religious rights of Muslims, Atheists, Jews, Pagans, “or whatsoever,” to worship and practice their religious convictions without interference.
A hundred or so years later, the Baptist pastor John Leland will use the full weight of his influence and friendships with folks like Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe to make certain that the fledgling United States ensures the protection of religious liberty. In one of his writings (called Right of Conscience Inalienable), Leland argues: “Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”
When we follow the example Jesus sets for us, we will find ourselves walking the path of our Baptist ancestors as well. When we follow the example of the disciples in this text, not so much.
Honesty—>proves the Bible is true for me
Before we go on, I have to offer an aside. I get asked regularly how to respond to a friend, family member, or coworker who identifies as an atheist or agnostic. There’s an example in our text today of what not to do—do not call down fire from heaven and threaten them with hell. That is not the way of Jesus. In fact, I’m not sure you can find anywhere in the Bible where Jesus threatens someone with hell. That’s just not the way Jesus works; that’s not the way love works. Jesus loves people enough to give them space, to trust God with the work of salvation, and to prove that love through his actions.
It would have been easy enough for the writers of the NT to “clean up” these stories. You know what I mean—to make sure the disciples did the right things, responded the right way, understood everything Jesus taught…… It would have been easy enough, and other ancient texts about other religious persons do exactly that. The Bible, I find, is more honest—and those inclusions of people’s rough edges and failures are pieces that prove it is trustworthy. Don’t hear me wrong—someone who doesn’t already believe the Bible probably isn’t going to be swayed by this. We don’t get proof—we must have faith. But these honest depictions of failure and the struggle to live faithfully certainly build confidence as I read and grow.
Three Would-Be Disciples
Anyway, as Jesus and his disciples make their way to another village, they encounter three would-be disciples. These are people who have a real desire to follow Christ, but find it requires too much of them—or so we have historically read these verses (they actually do not say the people rejected Jesus, as we see in other places, cf. Rich Young Ruler in Matt 19:22).
The first person vows to follow Jesus anywhere he might go. Now I don’t know, but maybe this is the kind of follower that expects Jesus to be going places. He sees something special in this Christ, and he wants to make sure he cashes in too. But instead of making discipleship easy for the man, Jesus offers a wake-up call—to be my disciple means you have to give up your place in the world.
Another fellow insists on burying his father before following Jesus. He thinks he can obey the conventions and customs of the world and those of God’s Kingdom. But Jesus shoots back that our calling to proclaim God’s Kingdom should be our sole allegiance.
The third fellow—presumably okay with the requirements imposed on the first two—vows allegiance to Jesus, insisting only that he be allowed to tell his family goodbye. Those of us familiar with the stories of the gospels may well remember the passage in Mark 3 where Jesus dismisses his biological family, expressing that his “true family” is “whoever does the will of God” (Mk 3:35). So it is not altogether surprising to us when Jesus issues his most scathing response to this third man: “If your hand is on the plow but your eyes are looking backward, then you’re not fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:60, VOICE).
Cost & Convenience
These are hard teachings—as it is a difficult call that Christ issues to us. This, too, is what makes Jesus’ gospel unwelcome—it is, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “costly.”
We live in a day and time that worships convenience. We want it easy, we want it our way, and we want it now. A lot of Christianity has tried to bend evangelism to this drive-thru mentality, feeding the rampant individualism, selfishness, and impatience of our world. We have tried to pave expressways to heaven, removing anything and everything we think might be a hinderance to faith.
Is it any wonder that churches have so many members that never darken its doors?
Is it any wonder that so many never progress from the milk of spiritual infancy to the meat of spiritual maturity?
We have made discipleship so easy that it requires nothing of us. Nothing! And the discipleship we offer looks nothing like the discipleship to which Jesus called folks. Jesus himself said in Matthew 7:13-14 (ESV)
“Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many.
For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”
Temptation vs. Discipleship
A few chapters ago (Luke 4), the gospel told of Jesus’ temptation. In that story, Jesus works out the kind of Messiah he is called to be:
Will he be a social reformer?…… “No, people need more than bread to live” (Lk 4:4, VOICE).
Will he be a political leader?…… No, only “the Lord your God” can accept our allegiance (Lk 4:8).
Will he be a wonder-working miracle man?…… No, no one can force God’s action (Lk 4:12).
In a similar way, today’s verses help us define what kind of disciple Christ calls us to be:
We must give up our place in this world, including our rights.
We must offer allegiance only to God’s kingdom, and not the kingdoms and cultures of this world.
We must privilege our identity as the Body of Christ above all others, including our family identity, our national identity, and our ethnic identity.
Discipleship will cost us dearly. The radical gospel of Jesus makes him unwelcome, and it does not help recruit new disciples.
This radical gospel of Jesus is just as unwelcome today, especially among religious folks who want an easy path to eternal life. It requires we turn away from revenge, instead embracing humility and love. And that, as we see in the lesson and in our world today, is simply too much for most to accept.
But for those who are willing to accept the cost of discipleship—to follow Jesus down the narrow path, entering by the narrow gate—we encounter the deepest well of love, acceptance, and grace that could ever be experienced. We find purpose, and life makes sense as it is lived according to the designs of our very creation. We discover hope, peace, and joy that overwhelms our very being. We become, you might say, fully human.
What cost, would you say, you would be willing to pay for that?