In today’s Gospel reading, Luke 9.51-62, Jesus begins his journey to Jerusalem. Along the way, he encounters different groups of people, who respond to him in different ways. In light of the series on vocation that’s been occupying my midweek posts — and therefore my thoughts — of late, I couldn’t help but think that these reactions to Jesus and his vocation are instructive for us about both the ways people (including those of us who call ourselves Christians) can respond to Jesus today, and the ways we might expect people to react to us as we follow Jesus down the roads of our own vocations.
Jesus is a man who understands who he is and what he is called to do. He had at least a sense of this in his childhood (see Luke 2.41.49), but certainly from the time of his baptism and subsequent battle of wits with the devil in the wilderness, he understands that he is uniquely God’s Son, but also understands that the vocation that goes along with that identity is about service, empowering others, and self-sacrifice, not about self-aggrandizement or power trips. And so, he is clear about his identity and mission — and where this was going to lead him. As the reading begins, Jesus “sets his face to go to Jerusalem.” He understands that the opposition his mission has set in motion is about to come to a head and begins the trip to the city where it’s all going to happen.
Along the way, he and his followers encounter a series of people, each of whom reacts differently to him. First, a village of Samaritans refuses to receive him. The text says this refusal is “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” This makes sense. One of the major disagreements between the Samaritans and mainstream Judaism was their rejection of Jerusalem as the centre of Israel’s religious life. (See Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman in John 4, for example.) Hearing that Jesus is going to Jerusalem, this Samaritan village understands that his vocation is taking him to a place they want nothing to do with. Who he is and what he feels called to do is either in opposition to them or indifferent to them. Either way, they want nothing to do with him and send him on his way.
Hearing this, two of Jesus’ disciples, James on John, are indignant on his behalf and want to lash out in anger against the town: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (As it happens, this sort of brashness must have been characteristic of these two, since Mark 3.17 provides the humorous detail that Jesus called them the Boanerges, or, “Thunderboys.”) But, of course, this kind of reaction is as much a rejection of Jesus’ identity and mission as the Samaritans’ was — the Thunderboys may belong to ‘team Jesus’, but that doesn’t prevent them from missing the mark completely. And so, Jesus rebukes them. This interaction is reminiscent of Jesus’ rebuke of Peter when he refused to accept Jesus’ pronouncement that his path would lead to the cross. Once again, Jesus’ own followers misunderstand his calling and are, despite their good intentions, in the way.
Then, as they journey on, they meet a man on the road. He seems eager to follow Jesus, saying “I will follow you wherever you go.” But, Jesus must see something in the man’s heart that suggests otherwise, and replies: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Jesus’ path has consequences, consequences that often involve not really fitting in, feeling lonely and not having a ‘home’. We aren’t told explicitly what happens here, but we’re led to believe this caused the man not to follow along. The cost of following Jesus is simply too high for him.
Finally, Jesus calls two others to follow him, but they put him off, saying, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” and “let me first say farewell to those at my home.” What’s interesting here is that these excuses are legitimate. This is not a situation like St. Augustine’s, where he prayed “Make me holy — but just not yet” because he was attached to his free-and-easy lifestyle; these men are distracted not by sin but by legitimate concerns and duties. But, their priorities are still off. These responsibilities are honourable, but are not, as Jesus elsewhere tells Martha, ‘the one thing needful.’ Following Jesus is a full-time job; you can’t have one foot in and one foot out.
As people who want to follow Jesus, we would do well to watch out for reactions like these in our own hearts. Are there places Jesus goes we simply want nothing to do with? Are we excited to be on Jesus’ team but behave in ways that go against his teachings and example? Is the cost of following too high for us, so we shrink back? Or, are we distracted by other things — even good things that are nonetheless not the most important thing? If we’re honest with ourselves, I’m sure the answer is ‘yes’, at least sometimes in some ways.
But there’s a second application that I think is helpful as we continue to think about vocation in our own lives. For, we will undoubtedly encounter these same kinds of reactions — both from others and our own hearts — as we discern and live out our callings, especially as pursuing our vocations causes us to leave conformity and people-pleasing behind. We might at first want nothing to do with our vocation, and if we do pursue it, some people will likely want nothing to do with it or us and wave us along. Some might unintentionally knock us from our path in their exuberance to support us but not knowing to to so helpfully. (And we can knock ourselves off the path in the same way!) In other situations, we may see our vocation but step back when we count the cost. And some times, other things — important or not — may distract us. And the people in our lives can shake their heads at us and not support us for going down the difficult roads we may be called to walk.
But, Jesus did not allow the bad reactions people had to him to stop him from following his calling. His face continued to be ‘set toward Jerusalem’ and he followed his path to the end. And, in a similar way, neither should we let doubts, from ourselves or those around us, stop us from pursuing our vocations. But it is true that the way of calling, like any way of faith, is often a lonely one. We will cease to ‘fit in’ as we increasingly become the people we were created to be and not the people our families, peer groups, or even churches want us to be.
And so, may we, like Jesus, come to understand our identities and callings from deep within, and set our faces down the roads before us.