Ask not what God can do for you

Pentecost 6 – 2016

Luke 9:51-62

Marian Free

 

In the name of God who calls us out of our comfort zone and calls us to follow wherever we are led. Amen.

It is probably true to say that we all respond differently to different invitations. For example we might not feel as well disposed to attend our partner’s work function as we are to participate in the wedding of our best friend. We might jump at the opportunity to meet someone whom we admire, but hesitate to respond to an invitation to a function hosted by someone who is less well-known or less interesting to us. If our diaries are fully booked up we might move heaven and earth to be at the death-bed of someone we love, or to babysit a treasured grandchild, but if the invitation does not have a sense of urgency or a pull on our heart-strings we will politely point out that we simply do not have the time to attend.

Invitation seems to be at the heart of this morning’s gospel – God’s invitation to us to follow wherever God might lead.

Luke’s gospel, like that of Mark and Matthew, is broadly speaking divided into three parts – Galilee, the journey to Jerusalem and Jesus’ time in Jerusalem. Of course the divisions are not hard and fast but they do enable us to recognise that the majority of Jesus’ life and ministry were spent in and around Galilee in the northern part of Palestine. It is also useful to be able to locate Jesus’ teaching in relation to the different phases in his ministry – when he is on home turf, when he is travelling to Jerusalem and of course when he is facing danger in Jerusalem[1].

As we have seen, the gospel writers arrange their material differently. Matthew includes a vast number of Jesus’ sayings in what is known as the Sermon on the Mount. Some of these sayings can be found in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, but the author of Luke has used much of the same material in the account of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. From Luke’s text we can deduce that the Lucan Jesus uses the journey to prepare the disciples for their own ministry. So while Jesus’ teaching is rarely exclusive, there are times in this section of the narrative where Luke specifically addresses the disciples. .

Although we begin today’s gospel reading at verse 51 of chapter 9, it is clear that we are entering the second phase in Jesus’ ministry – that of the journey to Jerusalem. This means that from now until Jesus reaches Jerusalem, the primary theme will be that of discipleship and underlying that will be the tension and the threat associated with what awaits Jesus in that city.

Even in translation it is clear from the language that for Jesus going to Jerusalem is an act of will – that the journey is something that he has to do rather than something that he wants to do. When the time came Jesus set his face to Jerusalem. The Greek word στηριζω (staritzo) means to set fast, or in this context  “to render mentally steadfast”.  Jesus knows that he must go to Jerusalem and so he points himself in that direction despite his fear and trepidation. In other words, putting aside his own needs and desires, he responds to the call of God.

Jesus’ response to God’s invitation stands in stark contrast with the examples that follow. The Samaritans for example, demonstrate their complete indifference or even hostility by refusing Jesus hospitality. A would-be follower is warned that discipleship will be difficult and challenging (we do not know how he responds). Two others – those whom Jesus invites to follow – are willing to be disciples, but they want to put their affairs in order first. Jesus’ response is harsh: “let the dead bury the dead” and “no one who looks back is fit for the kingdom of God”. Those who are left behind are already dead, Jesus suggests, they can take responsibility for themselves. A person who is ploughing cannot possibly plough a straight line unless their focus is on what lies ahead.

Discipleship entails courage and commitment, a willingness to leave the past behind and to give oneself completely to the task at hand. Cowardice and delay simply will not do. Jesus’ own experience tells him that the only way to follow God is to do so wholeheartedly and without delay, not weighing up the costs or being held back by indecision or personal considerations. Following where God will lead does not necessarily mean an easy existence, it may mean leaving behind what one loves and going where one does not wish to go. It might entail discomfort and risk-taking or facing hardship and even hostility, but Jesus’ example demonstrates that the rewards by far outweigh the costs.

We make a mistake if we think that faith is only about what God can do for us. It is clear from the example of Jesus and the disciples that just as often faith is about what we can do for God.

God is always leading us on, drawing us out, inviting us to take risks and suggesting new directions for our lives. Today’s gospel asks us to consider how we respond to God’s invitation. Do we pay so little attention that we do not even notice that God is calling? Do we play it safe and stay in our own little comfort zone rather than allow God to stretch and challenge us? Is our response to God’s call lukewarm and half-hearted or does it depend on what else we have going on in our lives? Do we answer “yes” but keep half an eye on what else might be on offer?

Jesus “set his face” to go to Jerusalem. Following Jesus is not just a matter of doing the right thing. It entails responding to God’s call, stepping out of our comfort zones, taking up the challenge and facing every difficulty and hardship knowing that whatever the cost, it will all work out in the end.

 

[1] The chapter and verse numbering is helpful in enabling us to quickly find a verse or parable, however they do not necessarily reflect the natural breaks in the narrative. For example, in Luke the journey to Jerusalem begins at the end of chapter 9 rather than at the beginning of chapter 10.

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