Anyone familiar with Bob Dylan would know that this is the title of one his great songs. This song popped into my head on Sunday during the gospel reading from Luke 9:51-62. Here Luke tells us that Jesus had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” and when passing through Samaritan villages was not welcomed because of this. Samaritans were against worshipping in Jerusalem, they believed that Mt. Gerizim was where one went to meet God. Nonetheless, upon witnessing such a cold reception given to their Rabbi, the disciples James and John thought it a good idea to tell fire to come down from heaven to consume the inhospitable and unclean Samaritans. Surprisingly, Jesus rebukes them for such an idea.
At this point it would be easy to shake our heads and wag our fingers at James and John, but that would be a little too presumptuous on our part. You see, as Israelites they had grown up with a solid narrative framework that taught them that they were God’s chosen people and that they were to hate their enemies. They had the stories to back that up too from Sodom and Gomorrah to Joshua’s violent conquest of the Promised Land to Elijah and the prophets of Baal and to the most recent and successful Maccabean revolt. Throwing down fire from heaven on one’s enemies was a logical thought when one considers these stories and the narrative framework of Jesus’ disciples. In their minds, and for good reason, they believed that God was on their side and those who rejected them were not. That’s what they had been told all of their lives.
The problem, though, was that Jesus was offering a different framework of sorts. You’ll note that earlier in Luke Jesus had taught his disciples to love their enemies. He even shares with them an interesting description of God saying, “But love your enemies and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.” Jesus walks the talk too, showing love to the Centurion by healing his servant and raising the son of the Widow of Nain. Despite these things, when we come to Luke 9 the disciples are ready to unleash all holy hell on the Samaritan villages. I would imagine that Jesus’ words were barely sinking into the minds of his disciples. Cognitive dissonance is a scary thing, we often fall back on the familiar. God is on our side is way easier to believe than God is for all people. One provides a strong sense of identity and superiority while the other is kind of boring as it levels the playing field. The former can be quite dangerous and has the ability to quickly unify in such a way that can lead to some very bad places such as dehumanization, abuse and ultimately death. Examples of this include the theology of many churches that has served to validate U.S. Imperialism which oddly enough has led to the blossoming and promulgation of radical jihadist Islam. A force and culture that for so long has been convinced that God is on its side is now being terrorized by a force and culture that is convinced that God is also on its side. Go figure, right? Then again, “those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.” And so here we are.
On one of the bookshelves in my office I have a framed picture of a house in New Orleans that has a sign on it that says, “A precondition of doing violence to any group of people or nation is to make them less than human.” In many regards, I think that sums up well why Jesus rebuked his disciples for wanting to tell fire to come down from heaven to consume the Samaritans. Let us ponder these words well as we follow Jesus.