Verses 51-56 of Luke 9 kind of set up the main point of the section. While both elements present stories, in a sense, it is the first story that makes sense of the second. In the first story, Jesus experiences rejection, and corrects the disciples’ desire to call down fire on the offenders. That’s the backdrop for the second story, where three would-be disciples respond to Jesus.
The section begins with Jesus “setting his face” to go to Jerusalem. This is an idiom that seems to indicate a strong determination toward a specific goal. We see, for instance, the goal aspect (in a context of urgency and strong determination) in Genesis 31:21. There, Jacob is fleeing from Esau, and he sets his sights on a destination. In Jeremiah 21:10, on the other hand, we see the determination highlighted as God “set his face” against Jerusalem, as he plans to bring Babylon in against it to chastise it. In Isaiah 50:7, the servant of the Lord (who is the Lord himself) “sets his face like flint” toward faithful obedience. This is probably the strongest parallel, because it contains something of the urgency, the suffering and rejection, and the absolute determination involved in the idiom. Not only does he set his face, he sets it with absolute resolution — like flint. And he sets it toward the purpose for which he came, the sacrificial atonement. The time, after all, was drawing near for him to be “taken up”, referring to his ascension in glory. Luke has already made reference (in the pericope on the transfiguration) to the coming “exodus” of Jesus. That the time was drawing near points to the predetermination of the plan (Acts 2:23) and Jesus’ faithful submission … even determination to the fulfillment of that plan.
While Jesus’ face is set toward Jerusalem, he does not make a bee line for that city. There is quite a bit of back and forth in the itinerary of the Master and his disciples. It’s not a matter of a direct flight or how many layovers they have, though. The idiom marks a transition in the ministry of the Lord. In fact, this is the transition to the longest section of the book, so it’s hardly a direct trip. But at this point, He turns resolutely toward the ultimate purpose for which He came.
Something of the immediacy, the urgency, of the trip, however, is conveyed in the first destination Luke brings us to: Samaria. Ordinarily, Jews went around Samaria. Jesus is not your average Jew, however, and He does not avoid the Samaritans. But the reader of Luke’s gospel might be taken by the destination. Literarily, it’s like Jesus is making a bee line to Jerusalem.
Fire from Heaven?
He sends messengers to “make preparations for him.” This could include a number of things, but when you consider the first point he makes to a would-be disciple, about having no place to lay his head, we are probably to conclude that “make preparations” principally involved finding lodging. Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. Samaria had been the capital of the Northern Kingdom, established as such by Omri (1Kings 16:21-24). When Assyria destroyed the north, she brought in other conquered peoples in an attempt to quell any nationalist zeal by amalgamating the race. The Samaritans corrupted Israel’s religion, receiving only the Pentateuch, and changing the site of God’s temple from Jerusalem to Mt. Gerazim. The Samaritan temple was destroyed in 148 BC. Jews and Samaritans were like neighbors who don’t get along, and so take great pains to avoid each other. Jesus doesn’t generally avoid the Samaritans, bu neither does he accept their corruption of the faith of Israel. In fact, he calls them foreigners (John 4:22; Luke 17:18). With Jesus determined to reach Jerusalem, the Samaritans reject the mission, and so reject the Lord. Apparently, nobody is willing to receive them under his roof. This is a problem, a moral problem.
Hospitality is an important biblical virtue. We see how important it is, for example in the story of the angels sent to Sodom (Genesis 19), and in the story of the Levite upon whom night fell in Gibeah of Benjamin (Judges 19). In both of those episodes, a town refused to offer hospitality, and in both cases, it resulted in the destruction of the city. In the case of Sodom, it came by fire from heaven.
In addition to Sodom, there are two other inter-textual connections to consider. When David bought the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite, the eventual site of the temple of the Lord, he built an altar there, and the Lord consecrated that altar in answer to David’s prayer by sending fire from heaven (just as he did for Elijah on Mt. Carmel in 1Kings 18). David had been offered the threshing floor for free, but he insisted on paying for it. He uttered in this context, his famous line, “I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.” (1Chronicles 21:24-26) In light of the commitment called for in the second section of our passage (vv. 57-62), this is probably a significant connection.
And while God did a repeat of this miraculous fire from heaven for Elijah in 1Kings 18, another Elijah connection comes to mind. In 2Kings 1:10, 12 & 14. In all three, Elijah calls down fire from heaven as judgment upon the soldiers sent from Ahaziah. This is the most natural allusion for the reader, since it is literally fire called down from heaven in judgment. In Sodom, God sent it. With David, it pictured the coming atonement, which was truly a judicial act. But here the judgment is more direct (i.e., less typological).
This is not the Time for Judgment
But this is not the time for judgment. Jesus proclaimed a coming judgment. He did not shy away from it. In fact, he characterized his entire ministry in terms of a baptism, comparing and contrasting it with the baptism that John proclaimed. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance, that the repentant might receive a favorable outcome at the judgment. Jesus’ baptism was the substitutionary judgment itself (Luke 12:50). There will come a day of judgment. But for now, in his first coming, Jesus has not come to judge the world, but to save it. (John 12:47) James and John, like the other disciples, fail to understand this initial sacrificial ministry of mercy. But he will begin to lay that out for them as we procede. And so with a rebuke from the Lord, we move on to the next section in our passage.
Responding to God’s Call
In vv. 57-62, three would-be disciples respond to Jesus. The first and the third appear to come voluntarily, but I wouldn’t make much of that. Luke is a literary artist, and he may use Jesus’ call to the second of them as a way of breaking things up and giving us variety. Even if not, we might understand the third to have overheard the call of the second and stepped up in response to that call. More important is the qualifications of their following the Lord, and Jesus’ response to those.
The first guy offers to follow without qualification. Jesus warns him that this discipleship comes at great cost. With Samaria’s rejection fresh in the reader’s mind, we are told that the Lord has no place to lodge. But it is not simply a matter of rejection, it is a matter of sojourn. A fox’ hole is not a neighboring fox’ hole, it is his own. And a bird’s nest is not borrowed, it is his own. In other words, foxes and birds have homes, but not Jesus. If you follow Jesus, not only will you be rejected, and not offered a place to stay, you will have no home. You will be like Abraham, who was told to set out, forsaking his home and setting his face toward a promised land. To follow Christ is to sojourn here, to take citizenship of the heavenly city and be a foreigner here … an unwelcome foreigner.
The second guy agrees to follow Jesus, but asks to first be permitted to bury his father. Is the father already dead? Is he ill? Is he just old? We aren’t told a whole lot. So, while on the surface, this may seem to be something in accord with the 5th commandment, and therefore a reasonable request, in fact it is regarded by Jesus as an excuse and a distraction. Jesus answers with a pun, an equivocation on the word “dead”. And this ties in with the theme of rejection that encompasses the entire passage. Perhaps I can get at it this way: Why didn’t the guy just drop everything and follow as Levi (Luke 5:27-28) had? Maybe that’s the wrong first question. In light of Jesus’ answer, why didn’t the guy say, “Lord, I’ll follow you, but may I please first try to reach my parents with the gospel of Your Kingdom?” Jesus’ answer highlights the great task of true discipleship, and the priority that it must take. Following on the heels of the previous fellow’s interaction with Jesus, we should know that kingdom allegiance is primary. All other relationships fall underneath. And if the primary kingdom task associated with that kingdom allegiance is proclamation, perhaps this fellow asked the wrong question. Is the man is willing to watch his parents die alienated from God? Spiritually dead people can take care of those things. But those of us who recognize the urgency of the problem are interested in throwing our weight as servants into the solution … the proclamation of the gospel of the kingdom of God.
The third fellow just wants to say goodbye to his family. He appears willing to leave them. And yet, Jesus’ answer to him is harshest of all. The word translated “fit” (in the ESV) conveys not ‘worthiness’ — nobody is worthy of the kingdom –, but of ‘usefulness’. Anyone who takes up the task of kingdom work and looks back is useless.
Again, we are drawn into intertextual allusions here. In the wilderness, Israel looked back to Egypt, and it regularly brought them trouble and judgment. God was testing them, and they were failing the test by ‘looking back’. Probably more immediate in the mind of the reader is Lot’s wife — which brings us once again to Sodom, the issue of hospitality, and destruction. Lot’s wife looks back (presumably longingly) and is turned into a pillar of salt. (Genesis 19:26)
In terms of the image itself, it is plain enough that looking anywhere but ahead will affect the outcome negatively. In modern terms, if you look off to your right while driving, your car will tend to pull to the right. The kingdom path is a narrow one, and God desires straight furrows. A plowman who isn’t keeping his eyes on the road (pardon the constant mixing of metaphors) is useless. This brings the section to a close.
What we’ve seen is the urgency of the matter at hand. The world is lost in sin and is destined for destruction. Hell fire is a gruesome reality for the lost. The kingdom task is to reach the lost with hope … true hope, and their only hope: the gospel. Once we grasp the reality and gravity of the problem, and once we understand the solution, our task is clear: proclaim the kingdom of God. All other concerns fade away. Our home and our allegiance is not here with things of this world. And our new home and task must take top priority. Otherwise, we ourselves will tend to drift. And that will call into question our own confession (Hebrews 2:1-4). A disciple is not above his master, but when trained will be just like him (Luke 6:40). And this will mean that, to follow Christ is to be rejected and even persecuted (2Timothy 3:12). But through our ministry, the sheep the Father gave to the Son will hear the Shepherd’s voice, and will come to Him (John 6). So, we respond to rejection, not by turning back, nor by becoming obsessed with making deaf goats into listening sheep, but by shaking the dust off our feet and pressing forward, eyes on the road. We set our faces toward the New Jerusalem, and march on!