An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 9:51-62, June 30, 2013
“ACCEPT JESUS AS your personal Lord and Savior, and you will be saved.” How often one hears street preachers and tele-evangelists say this, with the implication that this is all one has to do in response to God’s offer of salvation in Jesus. And of course, such texts as Acts 16:31 and Rom 10:9 are often tacked to it in order to buttress the claim. How easy salvation would be if this were true! There would be no need for the Church, the Eucharist and the sacraments, prayers and holiness of life—which is exactly what many born-again Christians claim! Unfortunately, however, what is almost always overlooked is that such statement about man’s response to God’s offer of salvation is, as found in the texts, already a formula which must be explored, bearing as it does a long history—therefore, with many presuppositions and implications. Hence, unless the statement is taken in its proper context, chances are that the interpretation will be off-tangent. For this reason, it has to be seen in the light of other ways in which it is described.
Today’s Gospel on the cost of discipleship (Luke 9:51-62) is an example of how the response to God’s offer in Jesus is depicted differently, because of a different theological purpose. For Luke, as for all the synoptic writers, the central message of Jesus is the Kingdom of God, and man’s response to that offer is discipleship. But who is a disciple? In all the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Mathew and Luke), hearing and acting upon the Word of God is the essential note of discipleship: “Any man who desires to come to me will hear my words and put them into practice” (Luke 6:47; Matt 7:224-27; cf Mark 3:35).
In the theology of Luke, however, there seems to be two distinctive features that are not found in the other synoptic Gospels. First, quite apart from hearing and doing the teaching of Jesus, one identifies himself with the life and destiny of the Master (Luke 9:23); he must walk in his footsteps. Second, discipleship culminates in one’s membership in the community of brothers and sisters: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and act upon it” (Luke 8:71). That community is realized in Jerusalem, to which Jesus firmly resolved to proceed (Luke 9:51), and which is the city of his rejection, betrayal and death. It is there where a community of one heart and one mind is established (Acts 2:24). These two are inseparable: so one may become a member of the family of God, he has, following Jesus, to take his own journey to Jerusalem, where he will be rejected and killed.
Today’s Gospel focuses on the first element—journey to Jerusalem: “As the time approach when he was to be taken up from this world, he firmly resolved to proceed toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). In this verse which begins Luke’s Travel Document (Luke 9:51-19:27), the word “taken up” does not simply mean Jesus’ ascension, but the entire complex of passion-death-resurrection-ascension. Luke would like to tell us that at this point, Jesus began this complex by heading to Jerusalem—his determined objective. And to embark on such a journey—the journey every disciple must undergo--is not easy. On the contrary, it is costly.
The requirements are set in three sayings. First: To one who said “I will be your follower wherever you go,” Jesus replied, “Foxes have lairs, the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58). Discipleship entails complete renunciation of what one usually strives after: honor, money, power and comfort. While it is an invitation to wholeness, integrity and meaning, yet all this becomes possible if one is ready to renounce himself—if his personal ambition and comfort recede to nothingness, and if one strives after the values of the Kingdom. Jesus, after all, had no security and comfort. He depended on others’ generosity and hospitality (8:1-3).
Second: When someone told him he would follow him provided he would first bury his father, Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead” (9:60). This demand is not to be taken negatively, that is to say, it does not mean that Jesus was anti-familial. What he meant to say was that burying the physically dead should be left to those who are spiritually dead. But to be a disciple, one has to transcend one’s physical family and be eager to accept all as brothers and sisters in order to establish family of God where there is no Greek or Jew, male or female, black and white, but all are one as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-28). In question of loyalties, the realization of this community of the Kingdom must prevail.
And third: After one told him he would follow him, but he would first take leave of his people at home, Jesus answered, “Whoever puts his hand to plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62). (This saying recalls the 1st Reading [1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21] where Elisha asked permission from Elijah to kiss his parents goodbye.) Just as one, while looking back, cannot plow straight furrows, so one cannot be a disciple if his commitment is half-hearted. Commitment cannot be made on weekly basis, for it is a lifetime commitment. It is easy to be dedicated at the start of any endeavor, but to sustain the commitment requires more than a youthful enthusiasm.
This, according to Luke, is all it takes to undergo a journey to Jerusalem in response to God’s offer of salvation in Jesus. This is the Lukan portrait of discipleship; one follows the road to Jerusalem that Jesus treaded. This is why Luke—and only Luke—placed this episode at the start of his travel account so we can understand that discipleship implies walking in the very footsteps of Jesus to Jerusalem, which is obviously more than accepting in one’s heart Jesus as personal Lord and Savior, however psychologically fulfilling such acceptance might be. Indeed, discipleship is not taken under fair weather. Jesus or the Kingdom of God takes precedence over comfort and security, family loyalties and personal interests. He offered no bargains. But then, one is assured of one’s place in the community of disciples in Jerusalem, where one experiences integrity and wholeness.