I once heard a Samaritan scholar give a talk at the Omaha Jewish Community Center. At one point he said, “We Samaritans and you Jews are both heirs of the ancient Israelite tradition. We Samaritans carry the authentic tradition, whereas you who have lived to the south of us are the heretics. The Torah says nothing about a temple in Jerusalem. Deuteronomy speaks about worshiping in ‘the place where I will cause my name to dwell.’ We know where that is—Shechem and Mt. Gerizim.” To my surprise, the audience received this statement quite calmly. The quarrel was, after all, twenty-six centuries old. They knew what to expect when they had invited a Samaritan to speak to them.
It is precisely this ancient quarrel that Luke expects his readers to know about when he writes that the Samaritans would not welcome him “because the destination of his journey was Jerusalem.” To Samaritans, a group of Jewish Galileans on their way to worship in Jerusalem was a group of heretics acting out their heresy; the Galileans were crossing Samaritan turf for the wrong reason and therefore deserved not hospitality but contempt. Confronted by this hostility, James and John (the “Sons of Thunder”), inspired perhaps by Elijah's ability to summon divine pyrotechnics (1 Kgs 18 and 2 Kgs 1), ask, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to consume them?” Luke says simply that Jesus turned toward them only to reprimand them and that they set off for another town.
Surprisingly, this passage is little used as a demonstration of Jesus’ teaching and practice of nonviolence. Yet it is one of the best examples of his teaching on non-retaliation. He knows where the Samaritans are coming from. Rather than return hate for hate, he understands, forgives, and moves on.
Then, after this stunning example of tolerance, there follows an episode demonstrating how profoundly demanding Jesus can be. When Jesus summons a potential disciple, the man makes what appears to be a reasonable request: “Let me go first and bury my father.” Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
Jesus’ reply would be stark indeed if it were a refusal to allow the son to attend to his recently deceased father's funeral and burial. But the situation may be quite other than what we assume. In first-century Palestine, it was customary that the eldest son stay home, manage the property of his aging parents, and finally see to their proper burial. If that is the situation implied here, Jesus' reply is not a command to skip a parent's funeral. Rather it is a challenge to leave home now—not some thirty years hence—to join in the Master's mission. Urgent and challenging, yes; cold and unreasonable, no.
With a little background, these puzzling episodes at the start of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem become powerful illustrations of the cost of discipleship, anywhere and any time. Jesus still invites all of us, not just mendicants and celibates, to break free from the expectations of our culture when the mission of announcing and enacting the reign of God demands it. More frequently than we may like to admit, that commission invites us to respond to misunderstanding and hostility with compassion and nonviolence.