A Transitional Unit (Luke 9:37-62)
[June 21, 2009] For today’s reading (Luke 9:37-62), Luke wove together eight stories to create a major transitional section. It comes between the revelation of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration and Jesus’ sending of the seventy-two messengers. The Mount of Transfiguration scene represents the culmination and the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. The sending of the seventy-two introduces the major teaching section that lies ahead (10:1—19:27) and takes place entirely on Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem.
Luke divided the Galilean ministry into two parts. In the first part, 4:16—7:15, Jesus introduces Himself as the Lord of the Jubilee and calls His first disciples. In the second part, 7:16-9:50, Jesus is revealed to be the Son of God. In a scene that reminds us of Mount Sinai, a voice from heaven proclaims, “This is My Son, the Chosen One,” repeating to the disciples what Jesus heard at the time of His baptism. Then the voice said, “Hear Him!” The fact that what follows is a very long teaching section is significant in view of this word. In the teaching section, we “hear” Jesus.
If we compare Luke’s gospel to Matthew’s where the Transfiguration takes place in chapter 17, then the teaching section in Luke corresponds to the section in Matthew where Jesus taught about the church in the light of the kingdom (17:22—20:16). This section in Luke is likewise for the church. He uses a lot of material from Matthew but also adds a lot of his own. The teaching material that he has put together here covers a range of topics, all helpful for the churches existing among the nations, made up of Jews and Gentiles.
But it begins with Jesus sending out seventy-two disciples to announce His coming, a story not in the other gospels. It is similar to the story of Jesus sending out the Twelve in Galilee, only Luke passed over the return of the Twelve in silence but shows Jesus elated with the return of the seventy-two. We have a hint here that Jesus is disappointed with the Twelve and therefore sent others.
Today’s section (9:37-62) is a transitional section between the Mount of Transfiguration—where Peter spoke “not knowing what he was saying”—and the sending of the seventy-two. In the middle of this section it says in verse 51, Jesus “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.” Four stories come before this statement and four more stories come after it. Luke gathered them from different parts of Matthew and added a couple of his own. These eight stories all have something in common. They all show the failure and shortcoming of the disciples.
The impression we get is that the Twelve were inadequate—at least at this point. Later on, they will catch up. The point that Luke may be hinting at here is what comes later in the days of the Acts of the Apostles: that the leadership the church in Jerusalem, the leaders of the mission to Israel, proved inadequate and the Lord in heaven had to choose others—such as the apostle Paul—to carry the mission further. Paul and all his co-workers, whose writings comprise the majority of the New Testament, were not members of the Twelve. We read of how Peter at first resisted the mission to the Gentiles the way Paul understood it (Acts 10 and Galatians 2). He did catch up later, but by then the mission had greatly expanded without his leadership.
I have pointed out before that the role of the Twelve is limited to their role as eyewitnesses of the Gospel and in relation to the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel. Other than as eyewitnesses of Christ, which is not unimportant, they are not significant for the Gentile mission.
Eight Stories of Failure (9:37-50; 52-62)
On the Mount of Transfiguration Peter was uncomprehending.
Then when Jesus and the three disciples who witnessed the Transfiguration came down from the mountain, Jesus is confronted by the failure of the other disciples to heal an epileptic boy. Jesus gets impatient. “O unbelieving and perverted generation! How long shall I be with you and bear with you?” After He heals the boy, the man’s only son, He returns him to his father, restoring the family.
Then in 43b-45 Jesus spoke for the second time of His death, saying emphatically that they should “put these words into your ears,” and the disciples are uncomprehending. Jesus’ plain meaning “was concealed from them so that they would not perceive it,” and they were too afraid to ask Jesus what He meant.
Then in 46-48 the disciples are squabbling—even after these failures!—over who is greatest. At the last supper they will argue about this again, but then it will be about their placement in the coming kingdom. Here it has to do with the present: who is greatest now. Jesus addresses this infighting by placing a child beside Himself—over against them—and asks if they can receive even a little child because of His name, not their idea of the “greatest.” In the church the least and most powerless may be the most important. This may reflect later squabbling over leadership in the church in Jerusalem.
In the fourth story (49-50), after their own failure to heal the epileptic boy, John tries to stop someone who was successfully healing in Jesus’ name. It also shows that John totally missed the point of the previous story. This story hints at the resistance later on to the work in the broader church that was taking place outside the control of the church in Jerusalem.
The center piece is Jesus steadfastly setting His face to the cross. Notice the contrast between Him and His disciples in these stories!
On the other side of this, in the fifth story (52-56) paralleling the fourth, James and John prompt another scolding from Jesus because they want to call down fire from heaven to burn up a Samaritan village—like the zealous Elijah did in 2 Kings 1:1-18, or like what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. Their behavior is not unlike how Christians in America often react to rejection. Our attitude should be humble and generous, not belligerent and argumentative.
So far Luke has shown that the Twelve are incompetent, uncomprehending, boastful, exclusive and vengeful.
Rounding this out are three more stories not about the Twelve but about would-be disciples (57-62). All three are inadequate. They are frivolous, distracted and unprepared.
The first person wants to follow Jesus. He volunteers himself, but he has no idea what would be required of him. Jesus enlightens him.
The second person does not volunteer. Rather, Jesus calls him but he is reluctant to leave his family to the care of others. Following Jesus will cause families to be divided (Luke 12:49-53), though it also re-unites families (Luke 18:28-30). The point is that even our most basic family obligations must not distract us from following Christ.
The third person volunteers himself like the first, but like the second, he too is unwilling to put Jesus before his family. In this way this story contrasts with 1 Kings 19:19-21 where Elisha says farewell to his family to bring closure. Here the disciple is still holding on to his family. He is attached. He wants to linger a little longer.
In a Positive Light
If this is a depiction of the church in Jerusalem and Palestine under the leadership of the Twelve and the members of Jesus’ own family at the start of the church’s great expansion into the Gentile world, this is all rather sad: incompetent, uncomprehending, boastful, exclusive, vengeful, frivolous, distracted and unprepared.
Yet their failure enabled something new to begin in Acts 13. Thankfully, those who failed here caught up later on, and we find Peter no longer in the lead—except by reputation—but standing behind Paul and fully supporting him. Legends abound, but the historical record is not so clear about what happened to the others.
Verse 45 says that the disciples were uncomprehending because the meaning of Jesus’ saying “was concealed from them so that they would not perceive it.” We may react to how unfair this is—because we too are uncomprehending—but it does show that God’s hand is mysteriously in the whole movement of events, even negative ones. The inability of the Twelve to understand meant that the Gentiles could comprehend the Gospel in a new way, the way that Paul showed them. We can despair over failure, or we can find hope.
The Church in Our Day
The modern age (characterized by its dependence on oil and vast amounts of energy), has become very secularized and seems to have no need of any sort of spiritual guidance or consolation. It started out full of self-confidence, believing it was entitled to anything it wanted and capable of providing that for itself, if it only applied enough skill and ingenuity to it. It still believes that. Of course, religion can only have a residual place in such a society. With the disappearance of the local community, the church also has no place.
Our dependence on oil is a problem, but the problem we are interested in now is the church’s reaction. The church has not remained faithful to the way of the cross. Instead it has itself become secularized and continues to try to become “relevant” by accommodating to the culture. The Gospel gets lost in this accommodation. While the entire world is in the midst of two unprecedented crises—namely the end of the age of energy and global climate change—we are in as much denial as everyone else. The economic crisis is probably related to these. Whichever way one looks the church seems uncomprehending, frivolous, distracted and unprepared. Sometimes it is even boastful and vengeful.
Let us denounce the predictions of Harold Camping and Family Radio about the end of the world in two or three years. His teachings about Christ tend toward the heretical. And his predictions about the coming of Christ are not soundly Biblical, they are not true, and they encourage Christians to be irresponsible about the future.
Instead, a great opportunity lies ahead of us. If we can take our eye, for a moment, off the spectacular explosion of technology, we might see something else that is going on. It does not look like alternative energies are going to be able to replace our growing demand for oil. We are going to have to rediscover how to live closer to home and with a lot less energy. There is going to be a major shift in our culture within the next few years, and we are all going to have to change the values by which we live. If we can hold out long enough, pay attention to the Gospel, and be comprehending about the way of the church and the way of the cross, we may wake up to a more humane re-localized community in which the church has its proper place.