Luke 9: 51-62
This is a difficult section of Luke (not the only one!): the first part reminds us, if we are willing to hear, that tribalism, racism and division is prevalent even among the religious, and that we too can so easily want punishment on others.
The second part seems to make being a follower of Jesus so demanding and difficult, even cruelly indifferent to family needs. Is this really a reasonable request?
There is however a thread that we may not be aware of, which might help us make better sense of these two short passages. Back in the Old Testament (I kings 19) Elisha requests from Elijah that he should kiss his father good-bye before joining Elijah and the wish is granted. Elisha then uses the wood from his plough as a fire to cook his oxen that pull the plough, giving the meat to the people. Elijah however makes clear that receiving the spirit will not be easy, though Elisha really desires to receive this spirit so he can be a good successor to Elijah. Then, a few chapters later, Elijah calls down fire on the soldiers that the king has sent to capture him. So we read the gospel passage in the light of Elijah, his actions and his successor, Elisha.
In contrast to Elijah, Jesus is condemning / prohibiting the violent aggression against opponents but he seems to be upping the ante as to what following him entails. Elisha, who was really keen to follow Elijah, was given time to say good-bye, but following Jesus is another level, and now, even a family funeral must come second.
Jewish teachers used exaggeration for effect, hyperbole, powerful challenging images to help their teaching “stick” – they painted in oils not water-colours, and in bold brushstrokes often. Jewish teaching also, unlike the Greek philosophers, was more episodic, kaleidoscopic, even fragmented; truth is found in the tension created by differing approaches not in the teasing out of an argument; Jewish thinkers seemed to know that the deepest truths are only glimpsed not grasped. We, however, are more programmed educationally to the Greek way of understanding, but I suspect we naturally “get” the Jewish approach – God is beyond rational understanding. If we try and follow the Jewish approach then we should note the tension between thinking following Jesus is not too demanding, maybe just a hobby for Sunday mornings (Jesus demands much more), and thinking discipleship is an elite occupation for only the most committed. Jesus pushes us towards a radical non-retaliatory life-style and to a serious prioritisation of our Christian commitment. Both of these challenge and disturb our human preference – whether to get back at others who we don’t like, or to water down our faith. But he does not give us the final answer, but wants us to think.
He challenges us, by asking us to reconsider the examples of Elijah and Elisha, and think afresh. What does being a follower of Jesus mean to us? In what way does it shape our life and direct it? In what way should we be willing to challenge again previous understandings? I suggest it is better to live with some tension about whether we are doing right, than a complacency which does not question – so an uneasy thank you for a difficult passage to grapple with!
Revd Peter Reiss