Hospitality is one of the principal ways of demonstrating righteousness. We see this clearly exhibited for us in Genesis 19, when Lot showed himself to be the only righteous man in Sodom, or when the man in Gibeah of Benjamin sheltered the levite in Judges 19. Both Sodom and Gibeah were marked by God for destruction as a result of their wickedness, which was shown in their inhospitable behavior. And note that Sodom was destroyed by fire from heaven, which is how Elijah brought God’s judgment on the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. There is a web of connections in the Bible that we are intended to see. And our story fits right into that web. There’s more, too. Elijah called down fire on the men Ahaziah sent, from Samaria by the way, to arrest him (2 Kings 1). David’s prayer that God demonstrate his presence at the altar he built (1 Chronicles 21).
The Turning Point
In Luke 9:51-62, We’ve reached the major turning point in Luke’s gospel. We are entering into the longest section in Luke’s carefully ordered narrative (Luke 1:3). And as Jesus sets his face like flint for the journey to Jerusalem, his teaching takes a turn. There is an urgency to his call for repentance, and a narrower focus on what it means to be a disciple. He begins to prepare his disciples for his departure.
His departure has been mentioned before. In the transfiguration scene, when he was talking with Moses and Elijah, they were speaking about “his departure.” Or, if we borrow a greek word from the text, they were talking about his “exodus.” And now, in the first verse of our passage, it says that the days had drawn near for him to be “taken up”, the ascension of Jesus.
Apart from the ascension of Jesus, we would not have the Holy Spirit to empower our walk with Christ. (cf. Joh 16:7; 20.17). And that’s crucial for what Jesus is going to explain in this passage. He is going to set forth the cost of following him, a cost we simply cannot bear without the power of the Holy Spirit.
With that day fixed and set before him, Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem. There is determination and resolve in that idiom, which is also found in Genesis 31 and Jeremiah 21. So, when Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem”, in modern terms, we might say it involved, “gritting his teeth”, “setting his sights on” and “putting his nose to the grindstone.” And that’s sort of what the passage is about. But the initial story is an important backdrop. So let’s consider it first.
Fire from Heaven?
Jesus heads to Samaria. Most of the time, Jews went around Samaria. They didn’t like the Samaritans and the Samaritans didn’t like them. So they usually just went around. But Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, so he heads down through Samaria. Luke highlights Jesus’ resolve and determination by giving us this itinerary.
A significant crowd accompanying him, Jesus sends an advance party to make preparations. But their mission is unsuccessful; nobody has agreed to provide housing for them. That’s not very hospitable. And when we breathe the air of the Bible, and connect the intended dots (Sodom and Ahaziah’s soldiers from Samaria), it’s not surprising that the disciples, James and John, asked if Jesus wanted them to call down fire from heaven to destroy these cities. After all, there was precedent. But Jesus turns and rebukes them, and the story ends there.
Jesus’ rebuke hangs on timing. Undoubtedly the Samaritans deserved this punishment. They have not received God’s anointed. But this is not the time for judgment. It is the time for grace and patience and sacrifice. The disciples don’t understand the ministry of the Messiah. It hasn’t been revealed to them. They don’t quite understand the notion of the suffering servant. They are still expecting a conquering king. So Jesus gives them a seminar in what to expect. And Samaria’s rejection of the Lord forms the perfect backdrop.
Three would-be Disciples
So they move on, and then Luke has this guy come up and offer to follow Jesus anywhere. Jesus’ response is striking. It’s not as if he rebuffs his would-be disciple — exactly. It’s more a matter of making clear to him what he’s offering before he signs on the dotted line. Discipleship is costly. It is radically costly. It costs you everything.
The world chases after comfort and security through wealth. But riches are a consolation prize for the reprobate. We do not store up earthly treasures. Our treasures are in an entirely different currency. And there is no exchange rate.
Discipleship is homelessness
Like Abraham, called by God to abandon his home, to leave his family, to go to a place–God knows where–always moving toward a home, but never quite reaching it. Always a foreigner … That’s discipleship! We are called to live as if nothing were ours.
That is not to say that we cannot use worldly wealth for God’s glory. We can and should. God gives us blessing and resources to enjoy. But we must never become attached to them. We have a home, and it is not here. We must never become so attached to the physical structure God has loaned us while we are here that we cannot respond immediately to his call to leave it. If you want to follow Jesus, you can’t have any other allegiances. You cannot serve God and money (Luke 16.13).
Or … setting this against the request of James and John … This is not a time for judgment. It’s a time for sacrifice. And that’s what Jesus is doing. He has set his face toward Jerusalem. “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil 2.6-8) Remember what Jesus taught us in Luke 6:40, a student is not above his teacher … but when he is well trained, he will be like him. And if they persecuted Jesus, they will persecute you. And if Jesus gave up everything, then as you grow to be like him, you will gradually be freeing yourself from the tethers of this world.
The Job Description
The second guy comes along. Jesus calls to follow him and he wants to bury his father first. Surely Jesus will accede this request. After all, we’re supposed to honor our father and mother, right? But we don’t know if his father is already dead, or if he is on his deathbed … or if he’s just getting old. Maybe, like the guy who will start his diet ‘tomorrow’, wants to be a disciple, but he’s not ready to commit. Jesus doesn’t ask for clarification. Instead, he points him to the task of discipleship … the job description. A disciple makes disciples. A follower collects followers. This is why God gave church leaders: to equip you for works of service (Eph 4.11-12). If you are Christ’s disciple, you are to be reaching the lost. You are to be proclaiming the kingdom of God. Isn’t it interesting that this guy didn’t say, “I’ll follow you, Lord, but let me first try to win my folks over.” He said, let me bury my dad. If the guy grasps the need to follow Jesus, then he will grasp the need for his father to follow Jesus. There is an urgency that the man is clearly missing. This is not the time for judgment, but it is a time of proclamation. The door of the gospel will not remain open forever. And Jesus’ response should open his eyes to that fact.
We must be on guard against having a passive faith. We escape damnation by the work of Christ, given as a gift. If we are not sharing the gospel, have we really been freed from our self-centeredness?
No Good-byes for the Useful
The third guy also misses the urgency of the gospel call. He wants to say good-bye to his family. Jesus‘ response is striking. And it’s kind of obscured in most translations. They’ll translate something like “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” … or they might have “worthy” of the kingdom, or something like that. But what is really being conveyed here is a quality of usefulness.
I was never very useful to a baseball team. My skills just weren’t compatible. I could run any ball down in the outfield, but I had such a wimpy arm, I couldn’t get the ball back to the infield. I was useless. Thankfully, our usefulness to the kingdom of God doesn’t have anything to do with skills. After all, God is the one who gives us gifts to serve him with. But focus and commitment are essential to discipleship.
This man was distracted. And a distracted disciple is a useless disciple.
A useful disciple understands the gravity of man’s rebellion, a sin so heinous that to remedy it, God had to crush his own son. A useful disciple recognizes that it is by grace that he has been saved, and he longs to see his God receiving the glory He is due, not only for his mercy but for Who He is. And that useful disciple is ready to sever ties to this world and proclaim the wonder of God’s salvation. He will be persecuted. He will be ridiculed. He will often be rejected. But he will be useful.