In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have several of Jesus’ hard sayings today. It starts with a memorable scene. Jesus and his disciples are heading south from their native Galilee to Jerusalem, and to do so they need to pass through the territory of the Samaritans. When the Samaritans learned that they were heading for Jerusalem, they rejected them because the Samaritans rejected the worship that happened at the Jerusalem temple. The disciples respond to this unfriendly withdrawal of all hospitality by asking Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Jesus rebukes them for even asking such a thing. What was so bad about the Samaritans? They were universally disliked by the people Jesus and his disciples grew up with because of a centuries old conflict that remained unresolved. This week in our country where disputes are more and more front and center, we know how such unresolved conflicts from the past continue to make themselves felt in onerous ways in the present, do we not? Although wrong, the prayer for fire from heaven to consume them is understandable. Some 750 years earlier the Jews who lived in that area had been captured by the Assyrians and deported from their own land and foreigners from other parts of their empire were brought in by the Assyrians to resettle the newly vacant land. The descendants of these unwanted settlers were resented by the Jews who remained as they became a separate religious sect with a temple of their own rivaling the one associated with King David in Jerusalem so central to the piety of Jesus and his people. As the disciples of Jesus passed among people whose very presence reminded them of past failures and injustices and those same people rejected them because their destination was Jerusalem, the disciples, comforted themselves with an ancient story of Elijah, who on a nearby mountain, confronted the lying prophets of Ahab with fire from heaven that consumed the sacrifice he offered to God (1 Kings 18, see also 2 Kings 1). What if in the name of Jesus, they could similarly end a centuries long feud they were sick of with fire that consumed their enemies?
As comforting as this fantasy was for them, was this the best they could do? As critical as readers can be of the disciples, answers to such long standing problems are hard to come by for them and for us. There is an inevitable friction between ourselves and the world. What it is that thwarts you, that gets in the way of your plans, that prevents the world from being how you think it should be? In other words, what are your Samaritans? What does that friction do to you? What does it add up to in your life in the long run?
Jesus rebuked his disciples’ for their wishing for fire to come down and consume the Samaritans because, if that is how they responded to resistance, to what thwarted them, it showed that they did not understand what it means to follow Jesus. It was not long after this that Jesus would tell one of his most famous parables and he would make the hero of that story a Samaritan, to the scandal of all who first heard it (Luke 10:25-37; we’ll read that parable together in a couple of weeks). The Gospel of John has a story of Jesus having a long and kind conversation with a Samaritan woman at a well (John 4:4-26). Needless to say, according to Jesus, punishing divine fire was not the solution to the problem presented by the Samaritans.
According to the story, faced with the inhospitality of the Samaritans, Jesus just kept walking. He explained, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” If the Bible story the disciples were thinking about was the story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven, Jesus was thinking of another, much older one, the old story from Genesis about Sodom and Gomorrah, cities overrun with every form of wrongdoing and were, therefore, about to suffer judgment for the wrongs they had done. Lot and his wife are told by God to leave and “Don’t look back.” After she leaves the city, Lot’s wife does look back and turns into a pillar of salt (Genesis 19:26). Later in Luke 17:32, Jesus names her directly when says “Remember Lot’s wife.” Jesus, walking through Samaria receiving no hospitality at all, continues on toward Jerusalem and does not look back.
To suffer turmoil and affliction without looking back requires a certain something and that is what the remaining sayings in the gospel of Luke passage are all about. Without signaling a change in subject we are told that a man approached Jesus and said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” To make the point even more emphatically, we are told of another man who agrees to follow Jesus but says, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (Sounds reasonable enough, right?). But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Jesus insists that he must come first for the Jesus thing to work.
Any reader can wonder here what this insistence of Jesus that he must be emphatically first has to do with where we started, that is, helping us to become the kind of people who walk through our difficult world not calling out for fire from heaven. What seems to be the case is that Jesus understood what could be called “the transforming power of firstness.”
It is something that most of us only learn the hard way when we have something or someone in our life that must be first. You’ve likely had such an experience. During the worst part of the pandemic, a lot of people who had never had a dog, decided it was time to get one. And just as many people were shocked and surprised at how constant the needs of their dog were. Of course, this is nothing compared to what first-time parents experience. New parenthood is something of a shattering experience because the human infant must be in some way first in order to survive and flourish. The sacrament of Christian marriage is remarkable because it assumes that this quality of firstness, of forsaking all others, can be sustained for a lifetime–or as we say “‘till we are parted by death.” Athletes who achieve what most of us think is impossible train every day for years and years and would never be who they are without putting their sport first. People who master a foreign language often immerse themselves in it so thoroughly that they dream in that language as if it was their first tongue. Musicians who master their instrument often put in some many hours that the instrument becomes an extension of themselves or the reverse. It is hard to tell. There are many other such experiences.
All these experiences of firstness are deeply and thoroughly transforming. People, often frustrated by a lack of change, thwarted by life, chafing against apparently limited possibilities, would approach Jesus asking him how to change and grow and he would say, “put me first!” Or in his familiar words, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt. 6:33). He would speak of how “a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, would go and sell all that he has and buy it (Matt. 13:45-46). And of “a woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, “Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost” (Luke 15:8).
Ultimately the disciples were not wrong that the answer to their problem was fire from heaven. They were just seeking the wrong kind of fire. The transforming power of firstness is a kind of fire in the soul. It is a fire that does not consume, but purifies. It’s love for what it puts first does not eliminate the opposition and friction presented by the world, but the very intensity of its fire enables it to pass through the “Samaritans” of all kinds and make its way toward its “Jerusalem.” Because of this heart fire, it can put its hand to plow and not look back.
Help us God in life, even if we are calling for fire from heaven to destroy, help us to attend to you first, to choose what matters without delay, and so ignite in us another kind of fire that burns inwardly for you, open our hearts and minds that Christ Jesus may bring into them something of the greatness of his life and love that you may move us ever forward by your Spirit and we don’t look back. Amen.