In Luke 9:51-62, Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem. He sends James and John ahead to scout for provisions. At a Samaritan village, they are turned away because, “his face was set toward Jerusalem.” This has caused much ink to be spilled and trees cut. The apostles want to burn the village down, but Jesus rebuked them, and they moved on. Perhaps it is the ill will between the Samaritan people and the Jews. Perhaps it is some religious issue. Jerusalem was the holy city of the Jews. If they recognized the power of this traveler, why wasn’t he going to their holy mountain Gerizim. But there is a deeper meaning than earthly squabbles made more difficult by Luke’s propensity to use Semitic phrases which are clumsy in Greek and which Luke probably didn’t know in either Hebrew or Aramaic. Remember, Luke was pulling early Christianity away from Judaism. But the proverb had meaning beyond stating the direction in which one is going. He set his face. His continence was fixed. He was on a mission.
And so Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem and his death by crucifixion, and the pivotal act of Salvation history. Don’t get in his way. Don’t try to stop him. Even the Samaritans, that other Semitic people, but mere gentiles to the Jews, could see it, and looked away, in fear or reverence.
And they are on the road again, Jesus and his disciples. And they meet a man who offered to follow Jesus wherever he went. And Jesus, oh, so typical of him, answers with a peculiar statement, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus certainly had been in people’s homes and laid his head to rest. But he was poor. He didn’t own anything. And a home suggests a family, children, and safety. Foxes and birds have their dens and nests to rest and raise young. But Jesus neither has a home nor wife and children. His home is not in this world but the world above. Again, the theme of poverty. Again the reminder that we are in this world but not of it. Perhaps like the rich young man who did all the right religious things but couldn’t give up everything because he owned a lot of things, Jesus knows the heart of this one and tests him with the reality of what following him means.
But to another man, Jesus says to come with him. Perhaps satisfied with his heart, this second man passes the sheep-and-goat test and is welcome. But again Jesus meets people on the road. “Let me first bury my father,” This is a big one. A son has the obligation to say the funeral prayers for his father. Is Jesus is telling him to dishonor his father? What do the commandments say? But he tells this man to let the dead bury the dead, “but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” We don’t know what that one did, follow the old covenant or claim the new one. Did he go and proclaim the Gospel, the first even before the seventy of the next reading. Again another man answers, let me say goodbye to my family at home. Again a home and love and security. But Jesus hits the nerve, and challenges this one, when you plow do you look back and create crooked furrows? Will this one be another potential one of the seventy to be a harvester for the Lord of the harvest? Answer that to say if you are worthy of the Kingdom of God. And we remember that harsh rebuke to Jesus’ mother and brothers who are scandalized by him. Who are his mother and brothers? Who are ours?
In these examples we are shown the entire spectrum of excuses we use to not follow Jesus to build the kingdom, or at least to follow it in a sort of part-time haphazard way. Nobody ever said the Way was easy or risk free. And nobody ever said that Jesus’ words were easy to understand without prayer and spirit driven discernment. Where are we in this reading? Could we abandon a child, as some of the first martyrs did? Could we give up our homes? Our parents? Yet that is what Jesus is teaching, tests of faith, tests of loyalty and devotion to the Son of God. Because as is said in other places, to know Jesus is to know the Father. And the time and place of these tests is on the road to Jerusalem and the Cross. And perhaps these men made the wrong choice, but for good and compassionate reasons. There is no reason to despair that they are lost. But they are not walking the road to salvation at that time and place. We don’t know the mind of God, and we work hard to know the mind of Jesus. And Jesus is using them to teach us that there are no excuses to abandon him or leave him waiting, even good excuses. What would we do on that road if we encountered that one whose face was set toward Jerusalem?
What makes these teachings so uncomfortable to us, beyond the desire not to take risks, is that we, as the living Body of Christ in the world, bind ourselves to our families and our parish family. Walking out on our family is the last thing any pastor would urge. But what if it were a war and it was necessary to make that sacrifice, even to martyrdom, to oppose a tyrannical regime? Like Bonhoeffer, who preached against “cheap grace”, the easy way to appear ethical, but recognized “costly grace,” for which he died, executed by the Nazis? Each of us could name another from every period of history. Most of the Apostles, Ignatius of Antioch, Jan Huss, Thomas Becket, Thomas Moore, the Anglican martyrs Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer and others, Edith Stein, Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King. The early church theologian Tertullian said that the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. But what is the blood of martyrs but those women and men who were forced to set their face toward Jerusalem and follow Jesus. Those who left comfortable lives and conformable opinions to hold the line, sometimes against their own Church or state, to proclaim the Gospel.
From the set face of Jesus to today, we also may be called to set our faces, and do the unthinkable for the Kingdom of God, recognizing that this world is in many ways the shadow, and the life above with God is the reality. If asked, can any of us know if we would be able to follow our Lord to death? But we are given in this reading the bar, and the bar is high. Let us pray that if we are faced with following the Jesus of the Set Face we would be given the grace of the Spirit to endure whatever came and be true disciples of the Gospel.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.