2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
Who is Jesus? Albert Sweitzer famously said “looking for Jesus is like looking down a well. You see only your own reflection: that Jesus remains a stranger and an enigma; there will never be one answer to this question.” (The Search of the Historical Jesus). But there are things we do know about him that can help us understand his purpose and ministry.
The first thing we need to know about him was that he was a Jew. And the next thing we need to know about him was that he was a poor Jew. He was a poor Jew in a country long occupied by an imperial foreign power, the Roman Empire. Which is to say he was a powerless, disinherited person who knew the daily indignity of living under the fear of political violence.
Jesus was not a citizen in his own country. Paul was a Roman citizen, but Jesus was not. We saw a couple of weeks ago how Paul and Silas were beaten and jailed in Philippi for being Jews. Paul, as a Roman citizen, had some recourse. But Jesus had no power. If a Roman soldier pushed him into a ditch or spat on him, there was nothing he could do about it.
This powerlessness profoundly shaped him. I’m reading a book called Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. It was written in 1949, which happens to be the year I was born, and it came out right before the civil rights movement got moving in the 1950’s. Thurman, a black man, was the Dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He was one of the influences on Martin Luther King, who did his doctorate at BU. In his book, Howard Thurman draws comparisons between the socio-political world that Jesus grew up in and the American South during the Jim Crow era.
In both cases powerful majorities disinherited powerless minorities through fear and the threat of violence. The regular lynchings in Howard Thurman’s day and the regular crucifixions of Jesus’s day were both designed to instill terror in the disinherited minority and keep them in their place.
The Judaism of Jesus’s day was not monolithic, but had several different groups. Each group had a different strategy for dealing with their Roman oppressors. The Sadducees, who ran the temple, collaborated with the Romans, to hold onto their power. The Pharisees, who despised the Romans, became scrupulous keepers of the Law of Israel, and stuck to themselves. The Essenes, an ascetic sect, abandoned society altogether and moved into an isolated community in the desert along the Dead Sea. It is from them that we get the Dead Sea scrolls. And the Zealots believed that they could mount an armed insurrection against the Romans. That had been tried several times before, and let’s just say, it hadn’t gone well.
So, these various Jewish groups in Jesus day all had strategies for living under Roman occupation and for dealing with the daily indignities of being a disinherited minority.
And that brings us to Jesus. What was his strategy for dealing with the Romans? Jesus chose another way, the way of love. He admonished his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who hate you.” The root of this love was the love that God had for all people. Jesus knew that hatred damaged the soul of the hater.
And Jesus’s way was a way of humility. He knew that “Humility cannot be humiliated.” His stance was one of passive resistance to the Romans. They could make him do things, but they couldn’t make him hate them, and he wouldn’t let them rob him of his dignity as a human being.
Remember how he said, “If someone strikes you on the cheek offer him the other cheek to strike.” That was most likely not a hypothetical case. A Roman soldier could slap a Jew with impunity.
Remember how he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, ‘Do not resist an evildoer.’”
Remember how he said, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile.”
This is non-violent passive resistance. It was a way of asserting dignity in the face of oppression. A Roman soldier could, by law, force anyone to carry their burden for a mile. That was their power. But to go a second mile voluntarily, that act of resistance morally challenged their power over you.
Howard Thurmond understood that Jesus had a special meaning for the disinherited, for people with their backs against the wall. He had learned the Bible by reading it out loud to his grandmother, who was born a slave and was never taught to read. One day he asked her why she never read from the letters of Paul. She said the slaveowners wouldn’t let black preachers preach to them, but would bring in white preachers, and it was always Paul telling them, “Slaves, obey your masters.” “That is why I don’t want to hear from Paul!” she told him.
But she also told him that the slaves would have secret church meetings in the middle of the night, and the black preachers would tell them, “You are not a slave. You are not that bad word they call you. You are a child of God. God loves you.” Imagine how powerful that message would have been to a slave. To hear that despite their powerlessness they had dignity as human beings.
Jesus, of course, is not only for the disinherited, the powerless and the poor, but he has a special affinity for them because he was one of them. But Jesus also loved his enemies, the Romans and the Samaritans, not just the poor and downtrodden.
And in today’s reading we are reminded of another startling fact about Jesus. He was homeless. “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58)
For the three years of Jesus’s ministry he didn’t have a home. He relied on the hospitality of disciples and strangers, friends like Mary and Martha, Roman collaborators like Zacheus. Jesus was saying to his would-be follower, “You want to follow me, follow me, but my itinerate ministry is not easy. I am homeless and if you follow me, you will be too.”
That is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the cost of discipleship.” And I have always thought that today’s passage was about the difficulty of following Jesus. How he sets the bar for discipleship so high. I still think that is part of it. But there is something more that Luke is telling in this Gospel.
Yes, Jesus is telling them there’s an urgency to following him. He receives several requests for putting off following him. One of his would-be followers said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another would-be follower 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.” It seems harsh doesn’t it?
The fact is, none of the requests were unreasonable, but Jesus was stressing the urgency of his purpose and mission. Jesus had “set his face” toward Jerusalem. For Luke, this is more a theological statement than a geographical. As Jesus had reminded the disciples, Jerusalem is where the prophets go to die.
So, I don’t think this passage is primarily about discipleship. I think it is more about Jesus’s own mission and purpose in living out the love of God. For one thing, in the rest of Luke’s Gospel Luke doesn’t show a high regard for the disciples. They never quite get who Jesus is.
For example, in today’s story, Jesus sends disciples ahead to a Samaritan town to seek a place to stay, but they are denied hospitality.
I need to say a word about the Samaritans. Jews and Samaritans were enemies. They were cousins, but Samaritans had intermarried with the local Canaanites and took some of their customs. They didn’t worship at the temple in Jerusalem, but on Mt. Gerizim. For this reason, Jews and Samaritans hated each other with that special kind of hatred only estranged family members can have. Jesus had to go through Samaria to get to Jerusalem. Well, he didn’t have to, but it was the shortest distance. You can get from Rhode Island to New York City without going through Connecticut, but it is inconvenient.
Two telling stories in the Gospels say something about Jesus’s capacity to overlook walls of hatred and estrangement. The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is unusual in that Jesus was even talking to a woman and that she was a Samaritan. And in the well-loved story of the Good Samaritan the point is often missed that it that the one who did the kind thing was from a hated group.
So, the disciples James and John wanted to punish the Samaritans for not offering them hospitality, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” They didn’t understand that Jesus wasn’t into vengeance. Recall that it was James and John with Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared to them. Elijah, of course, called down fire on the priests of Baal, and so James and John saw Jesus as a prophet like Elijah.
And recall how Luke also tells the story of the Road to Emmaus when Jesus walked with several disciples after the crucifixion and they didn’t recognize him, even though he spelled it out for them who he was. So, Luke’s depiction of Jesus disciples is uniformly negative. They were pretty much clueless.
So, we see that the disciples didn’t really get what Jesus was doing. But when Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” to directly confront the power of his Roman oppressors he knew exactly what he was doing. He knew that people who said the kind of things he said and did the kind of things he did ended up on a Roman cross.
So, he “set his face to Jerusalem” as the final act of his resistance to Rome and the final act in his ministry. And remember I said the first thing we need to know about Jesus was that he was a Jew? To unmoor Jesus from his Jewish identity is to misunderstand who he was and what he was doing.
Jesus saw all the strategies of the various Jewish groups as a betrayal of the faith of Israel. He knew his Bible and how Israel over the generations had been unfaithful and disobedient to God. Jesus was himself going to embody the faithfulness and obedience to God that Israel had been unable to do. That is why he picked twelve disciples to mirror the twelve tribes of Israel. That is why he began his ministry with forty days in the wilderness to mirror the forty years of wandering by the Israelites before they entered the promised land.
I need to say a word about Elijah’s mantle. A mantle is a cloak. In today’s first reading Elijah rolls up his mantle and strikes the water of the Jordan River, and it parts just as the Red Sea did when Moses struck it with his staff. Elijah’s mantle is a symbol of his power as a prophet, and when he is taken up to heaven with the “chariots of fire” his mantle falls and is taken up by Elisha, his protégé and successor as the prophet of Israel.
And there is a subtle reference to this in today’s Gospel reading. When Elijah calls Elisha to be his disciple and follow him, Elisha asks permission from Elijah to visit his family to say goodbye, and Elijah permits it. Jesus knew this story, and by denying such permission from his would-be follower he is saying, my work is even more important than Elijah’s; my calling is more urgent.
And that brings us back to our initial question. Who is Jesus? Some of the disciples thought he was a prophet like Elijah, and he was. But he was more than a prophet, he was the Jewish messiah, God’s anointed one.
Did Jesus take on Elijah’s mantle? He did take on a cloak, but his cloak was not a symbol of the kind of power Elijah had. His cloak was a symbol of a different kind of power.
Recall with me how Mark describes the crucifixion.
And they clothed Jesus in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.” (Mark 15: 17-20).
Have you ever wondered why none of the Gospels go into detail about the crucifixion? They didn’t need to. Everybody in those days had seen one. Everyone knew it was a slave’s death, a horrible, painful, disgraceful way to die. And Jesus chose to accept it. He took on the mantle of Israel in the end, and was mocked as “the King of the Jews.” He took it on and died a slave’s death.
And that would have been that, except that Jesus didn’t stay dead. The resurrection was God’s “Amen!” to Jesus’s way of love and humility, of faithfulness and obedience.
Jesus’s way of love and humility still has the power to affirm human meaning and dignity. How many in our time could use the reassurance that Howard Thurmond’s grandmother, born a slave, passed on to him: that he was a child of God, that he was loved by God. How many in our time don’t believe they are worth anybody’s love? How many don’t experience basic human dignity?
We have an opioid epidemic that is taking human lives. We have a teen suicide epidemic that is taking human lives. Both are public health crises that require government attention.
But both are also spiritual crises about the loss of meaning, purpose and hope for many in our society. What a difference it would make if the church could adequately share our faith that God loves everyone, that every human being has dignity.
And, whether we are always conscious of it or not, our statement that we welcome everybody to this church embodies the ethic of love and humility of Jesus and witnesses to the love of God for all people.
I started this sermon with the question “Who is Jesus?” As Albert Sweitzer said there can never be just one answer to that question. But one good answer is the one Dietrich Bonhoeffer came up with: “Jesus is the man for others.” He showed, by word and deed, the love of God to all people. He loved the unlovable, gave dignity to the disinherited, and showed us all a way to live, a way to be fully human. A way to live as God would have us live. Amen.
(I preached this sermon on June 30, 2019 at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, Rhode Island. For an audio podcast of it go here. The photo is Rembrandt’s “Head of Christ.”)