Have you ever wondered how it is that we as followers of Jesus appear to pay so little attention to what he actually taught? I suspect that many of us have a hankering for churches which are successful as measured by the number of worshippers, as measured by the quality of our buildings and as measured by being surrounded by those who think and act as we do. It is certainly easier to be in a safe welcoming setting surrounded by supportive friends than out there struggling with the application of gospel in a sometimes uncertain world, and probably easier to settle for measuring success in terms of the beauty of musical harmony and the gusto of the singing than facing situations where neighbours are getting a raw deal. Yet in all honesty, such measures of success appear to have little to do with the gospel.
There is obviously a place for getting together with fellow workers for the kingdom (kin-dom?) – but if we, and they, are not also serious about the tasks of the kingdom, it rather makes the gathering for worship a pointless exercise. And further, if we cannot see past the like-minded we might then question what it is we are doing when we sing our songs of praise to one who insisted that we get involved with our neighbours, whoever they might be.
It is simply not the case that Jesus avoided interaction with those whose theology was different, and even less that he saw his main sphere of action in places of worship.
In today’s reading we find Jesus taking a short cut to Jerusalem through Samaria, directing his disciples to the Samaritan’s village. When the Samaritans found out he was heading to Jerusalem, they wanted nothing to do with him. Then as if that was not enough we find him refusing to condemn these heretics for declining to welcome the disciples.
It is true that the reason why the Samaritans were at odds with the Jews in the first place probably seems strange to modern Western minds. You may already know that the Samaritans were descendants of two of the Southern tribes of the twelve tribes of Israel. Whether or not they could also justify their claim to be traced back to the priestly Levites would be disputed by the Jews.
The schism is traced back to the time these tribes were jockeying for position, a little over 2,200 years ago. This included setting up different Holy places. It seems that one of the Samaritan early leaders, one Eli, son Hafni, saw himself as a rival for the position of high priest, who at the time was called Ozzi (“O- Z –Z – I” just in case you were wondering and just in case there are any Australians present today!) When Eli spurned the previous holy mountain of Gerizim and set up his own altar in the hills of Shiloh to make his sacrifice to God on his own behalf and on behalf of his followers, he allegedly made the sacrifice carelessly leaving out the salt which was supposed to be part of the ceremony. This was enough for Ozzi to accuse Eli of losing his right to be considered a legitimate high priest and a bitter civil war broke out between the two groups. Although there are only a few hundred Samaritans still around today (with a good number having converted to Islam over the centuries) we might also remember that in Jesus’ day there were still many thousand Samaritans living in the area called Samaria, and despite sharing many of the same scriptural traditions, there was still much bitterness between the Jews and Samaritans. For example, some years before Jesus was on the scene the Jews had destroyed the Samaritan temple.
When we remember this act of temple destruction it is hardly surprising the Samaritans were nursing a grudge against anyone who had anything to do with Jerusalem.
Without Samaritans in our vicinity today, it is hard to see their dispute as any more than a pointless squabble, but we might acknowledge that for whatever the reason, at that time Samaria was in effect a no-go area for any traditional Jews of the time and for Jesus and his disciples to go to their villages represented a tolerance that many of the day would have found hard to accept. It may also be a helpful reminder to us that many instances of intolerance in our society today – including intolerance based on sectarian, racial or political differences must seem to others just as silly as ever we now might think the dispute to have been between the Samaritans and the Jews.
Please notice James and John wanting Jesus call down fire from heaven on their non welcoming Samaritan hosts. This is probably best interpreted as the disciples’ understanding that in some way Jesus was Elijah returned. Since Elijah’s most memorable act was calling down fire from heaven to ignite a sacrifice to teach the priests of Baal that Elijah’s power came from God(2 Kings 1:10-12), if James and John did believe Jesus was Elijah, as far as the brothers were concerned, what would be more appropriate as a way of convincing heretics than consuming them with fire.
Jesus shrugs off the apparent Samaritan rebuff. Perhaps this is Luke stressing for us that Jesus’ way has no place for revenge.
Then today’s passage confronts us with a challenge. The gospel can make some serious demands on the life of the one who is serious about following Jesus. Again the task is not to join in admiration of Jesus but rather to commit to the uncharted and possibly dangerous journey into the unknown. So here we find a man who wants to follow Jesus. “I will follow you wherever you go.” And what do we find? Instead of welcoming him as another disciple, Jesus appears to be putting him off. “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Certainly it is no longer a case for his followers to be asked to literally accompany Jesus into Jerusalem, but there are countless issues each with their own dangers that are on offer to those who accept his challenge in the contemporary setting.
59To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Not all the commentators agree on this one. I have for example heard some who suggest that perhaps the man was avoiding the challenge by using the perfectly reasonable funeral excuse, yet it may equally be that Jesus had guessed the man’s father was still alive. The Jewish custom was that the son must remain living at home as long as his father is alive, and only after the funeral would he be free.
61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Since few modern urban dwellers would have any experience of walking behind a plough, looking back while ploughing a single furrow would now seem to be an archaic illustration. On the other hand many of us are keenly aware of the misdirection and even paralysis which occurs when we continually look back to the once familiar.
Perhaps this reminds you a little of the quaint story in Genesis about Lot’s wife which, at least to my way of thinking, also has a universal meaning. You probably remember it. As the author of that part of Genesis told it, God had told Lot to take his wife and family and flee the city? They were instructed not to look back (Genesis 19:17). Lot’s wife turned and looked back, and (believe it – or perhaps more likely don’t believe it)….what happened?
We are told in verse 26 she was turned into a pillar of salt.
A fairy tale?, or perhaps you have spotted the deeper meaning which suggests when we look back and focus on the past, we become paralyzed, immobilized, and are perpetually stuck where we once were.
Now fast forward to the present.
I don’t think there is any argument that we are living in a rapidly changing world. This means our challenges too are constantly changing. History records the futility of attempting to stare down the impending change by resorting to past answers and approaches. The major conflicts of the last hundred years should underline for us that the past answers have proved positively disastrous when carried forward into the future. The interdependence of economic systems means that we actually have to start worrying about the fate of those far removed in a geographical sense.
For a previous generation Lord Palmerston was fond of pointing out when it came to international politics that nations had no friends, only interests. What has changed is that the circles of influence have widened to the point where there is virtually one overlapping circle of influence. How we learn to treat our neighbours then has to move from a scriptural aphorism to attitudes which are essential for mutual survival.
The arms race has made military solutions to disputes increasingly unpalatable. The forces of globalization make it impossible to shut ourselves off from what happens elsewhere in the world. Increasing populations make it imperative that we find new and better ways to protect our environment and share resources. How else can we claim to love one another as he first loved us?
Even more significant are the raft of advances in biotechnology which for the first time in history enable us to redesign our future. Some of you may have heard of the notion of trans-humanism or TH. TH is linked to the idea that science and technology can be used to continually improve and reshape the human condition. For example we have already witnessed the use of rudimentary artificial intelligence, cloning, medical implants, enhancement of intelligence, defect elimination and so on. Although we cannot pretend in Canute-like fashion that this new tide of progress can be held back on command, the Christian challenge is to ensure that the focus on the well being of our fellows continues at the forefront of our thinking. With its current momentum, whether we like it or not, within three decades virtually everyone is likely to be impacted by trans humanism in some form or other. We can hardly claim that Christianity is a good guide for life if we cannot find a place for it in what is already beginning to happen.
Given the complexity of our modern world one person’s efforts are not going to meet more than a tiny fraction of what is now needed. The genius of Christ was that he was able to identify some general principles which shaped his life and when thoughtfully applied, shaped the life for many of his followers for the better through the centuries.
If we see the Christian life circumscribed by a focus on what happens in Church on a Sunday it may be that we have missed the impact of Jesus’ message. His journey took him to Jerusalem. Ours should take us out to find new meaning for the gospel in the life opening before us.