On the Gospel of Luke 9:51-62
This week’s Gospel is again taken from the Gospel of Luke chapter nine (Lk 9:51-62). The time is drawing near that Jesus will be taken up to Heaven and He sets His eyes on Jerusalem. At the end of the opening paragraph we read that “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luk 9:51 RSV). The use of the word ‘ face’ or ‘presence’ (προσωπον) seems interesting here. ‘ Face’ here can be denoting the physical face of a body, but also a presence. In the Gospels of Luke, where the word is used as face, it always has to do with the presence of the person.
Face or presence (προσωπον) is used a few times in this Gospel, and it seems that every aspect of the Gospel can in some way be related to it. It is the presence of Jesus that stands central. So Jesus goes up to Jerusalem to be there, to be present, as the time has come. On the journey to Jerusalem He sends out messengers in front of Him to prepare for His presence.
Now let’s try and apply this event of Jesus sending out the messengers to our own lives. The important things is the encounter with Jesus, and as such Jesus sends people into our lives who are messengers to us, to make known his presence to us as He walks with us to Jerusalem, to the crucifixion and to the victory of the resurrection.
Saint Thomas in the Summa Theologiae, in the model of the exitus-reditus has the human action as the start of the reditus, the return to God. We have to react to God and initiate the relationship. Where God is always inviting us, patiently but passionately waiting for us, it is up to us to respond to this invitation. The invitation, an invitation deep in our hearts, is complimented by the invitation of other people, of messengers of God who encourage us to search for Him. And it is important that we do respond and prepare ourselves, make ourselves ready for His coming; as in the Gospel He sent His messenger “to make ready for him” (Luk 9:52 RSV).
“But the people would not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem“ (Luk 9:53 RSV). It was a Samaritan town in which Jesus was planning to stay, and there was a bit of historical difficulty between the Samaritans and the Jews. But again taking the physical ‘face’ more in the spiritual sense of ‘presence’ it might be worth wondering what the reason is for the rejection of Jesus’ presence, especially in combination with His going to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the symbol of the Kingdom of God, but the Kingdom of God as Jesus tells us is maybe not exactly what people want or expect. The cross is still involved in the journey before we arrive at the resurrection. The story of God is a story of love and self giving for others, not self satisfaction. The rejection of Jesus here can well stand for the rejection of the Kingdom of God, and it might be worth reflecting on this.
Taking St. Thomas’ structure in the Summa again, it shows that the action of man to search God is important as it comes before the action of God. It is after the action and role of man that St. Thomas goes on to explain the role of virtue and grace. Gods role in our journey to Heaven, and its final accomplishment, is infinitely bigger than our part, but it is our part which is required in order for God to work with us, as He is always respecting our free will to choose or reject Him. If we choose to reject Jesus presence, He will not “bid fire come down from heaven and consume [us]” (Luk 9:54 RSV) as James and John propose. Instead He will leave us alone, instead he “went on to another village” (Luk 9:56 RSV). However He still longing for us, with a passionate desire, but he will respect our choice.
Then the second part of the Gospel gives a few examples of Jesus’ invitation to others to follow Him on the road to Jerusalem, towards the realization of the Kingdom of Heaven. To the first man Jesus answers him that it is not an easy journey. Elsewhere Jesus warns us that it is foolish to embark in building a tower without first to “sit down and count the cost” (Luk 14:28 RSV) and at the end of this weeks Gospel that “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luk 9:62 RSV). Following Jesus is not something that is an impulsive adventure to embark on and enjoy for a while as long as it lasts. There must have been a good buzz around when Jesus and His large group of followers travelled the country, while He was preaching the Good News and healing people. But following Jesus is much more important and significant than enjoying the buzz of the moment. Following Jesus involves making a decision to open oneself up to God, to His ‘presence’ and allow God to work with us and change our lives. I guess here again, it is our trust in God, the working of His Grace in our lives that will make this possible, but we first have to make the first step. “A wise man who built his house upon the rock;” (Mat 7:24 RSV) and makes sure that he is ready to embark on the journey to Jerusalem.
Finally, there is the man to whom Jesus says “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” (Luk 9:59 RSV). But Jesus gives the, admittingly harsh sounding, answer, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luk 9:60 RSV). This passage often stirs up some rebellion in our heart because of the seeming harshness of Jesus. In Jewish society it was a duty to look after your parents, and if the father is still alive but maybe old, the son has an obligation to take care of him. Jesus condemns the Pharisees and scribes who abandon their parents to serve God (Mk 7:11). But when again we take passage with the ‘spiritual’ view it might be a bit clearer.
Jesus is inviting us from death to life. Taking the passage on face value, it hardly makes sense to let the death burry the death. How could a death person bury somebody who died? But if we interpret the ‘death’ as being death to God in a spiritual way, being people of the world and not of the Kingdom, maybe it makes more sense. The young man Jesus is inviting does not feel it is time yet to go and “proclaim the kingdom of God” (Luk 9:60 RSV) but prefers to linger a while longer with the “death”. But Jesus is firm here, the young man is seems to be ready but just does not feel like it yet, and it is important not to wait. “The master of that servant will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour he does not know” (Luk 12:46 RSV) Once we meet Jesus but start putting off following Him, the chances are that we will keep doing that until the hour has come.