When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
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.” To another he said, “Follow me.” But he 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 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 plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:51-62)
Two consecutive stories and at first I didn't see the connection. One story seems to be about hospitality and power. The other about commitment.
But I think the connection is the thing that Luke says twice: Jesus's face was set towards Jerusalem.
This was a Samaritan village. So it could mean that they rejected Jesus because they knew he was a pious Jew: if he was on his way to Jerusalem, they wanted nothing to do with him. He was probably on pilgrimage, he'd be wanting to go the Temple. He'd be all fussy knowing that they had the ability to make them unclean.
But I think Luke is being more theological, more literary than that. Luke 9 is the hinge point of the Gospel. Jesus does the great miracle of the feeding of 5,000. Peter declares that Jesus is God's Messiah. He predicts his death. He is transfigured. He predicts his death and again.
And then he sets his towards Jerusalem. From now on in, the Gospel of Luke is heading for the cross.
So I wonder whether the Samaritans are actually being quite cagey. If they sense that Jesus is going to Jerusalem for that confrontation with the authorities that will bring him death - maybe they don't want to be accused later of harbouring a heretic and trouble maker. If his face is set towards Jerusalem - let him go there. We've got two political parties today in the UK, after the EU referendum, where the more senior members are going to be trying to make sure that they're on the winning side - or at least, that if they're on the losing side, they don't upset the winners too much. Maybe that's where the Samaritans are.
And then in the second story. People come to Jesus and say they want to follow him, one with reservations. One has an ageing father, and wants to stick with him until he dies - then he'll follow. One says he'll follow Jesus anywhere - and Jesus challenges him to realise how hard this is going to be.
You can't plough a furrow straight if you keep looking back - you'll keep misdirecting the ox pulling the plough, and end up all over the place. Same as you can't ride a bike or drive a car if you keep looking over your shoulder. You'll be a hazard to traffic.
Jesus knows if he looks back there's Nazareth, and a loving home. A steady job. Mary making his dinner and asking when he's going to settle down with a nice Jewish girl. If he looks back his path will be all over the place. Ahead there's rejection, pain and a cross. He's got to keep looking ahead so he sets his face towards Jerusalem.
I wonder about the way James and John wanted to blow the village up. They feel offended - and want to strike back. It can make you feel good, blowing up someone else's life - metaphorically - but Jesus tells them off and drags them on. Was that charity on Jesus's part - peacefulness? But also the knowledge that if we start scrabbling and squabbling with people along the way, we're not looking forward?
If we're called to follow Jesus we're called to look ahead. There may be a cross there - or something like one. And behind us may be all sorts of comforts we wish we could cling onto. But what we're called to ahead, leads to the love of God and loving God, and knowing God forever. Our way is in the footsteps of the King - going forward in hope and love - and not looking over our shoulder.