1 Kings 19:15-16,19-21 / Luke 9:51-62
The histories of Jews and Samaritans diverge in the abyss of bad kings and broken kingdoms after Solomon, and the collapse of those kingdoms before the Assyrians, and in the rebuilding of identity as peoples after the exile.
Samaritans didn’t share the Judean nostalgia for King David. They never saw Jerusalem and the Temple there as the center of the world. In the north, they had the ancient holy place of Shechem, and above it on Mount Gerazim, Samaritans once had their own Temple to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They understood themselves to be true to the old way. Judeans, for their part, regarded Samaritans as ethnically suspect and tangled up in idolatry, since the Assyrians had settled people from across their empire in Samaria.
But these two people shared a common Israelite religious heritage, a common ancestry. They shared the five books of Moses. These peoples, in many places, lived peaceably alongside one another. They sometimes intermarried. But these neighbors were distinct peoples divided by centuries of hostility and prejudice. The parable of the Good Samaritan works as a story because the Samaritan knows and rightly interprets the law, and because he’s a Samaritan helping a Jew.
So now Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem with his disciples. He sends, as he does, messengers ahead on him into a village to make arrangements for the travelers to stay. Its a Samaritan village. The messengers, it seems, explain what and who they’re about. And the Samaritans send them packing, because if this Jesus they’re hearing about has a mission with everything to do with Jerusalem, he isn’t going to be their guest.Its was a king of Judea who’d destroyed their temple, after all. They turn him away as an outsider.
Anyone in this traveling band of disciples has seen Jesus’ identity and honor challenged, his safety threatened. This is not the first time they’ve been rejected. In Jesus hometown, a crowd tried to kill him. But something about this rejection, the sense of dishonoring in this, trips something in James and John and they want to make it right with some destruction. James and John say “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
Jesus had just been on a mountain with James and John. They’d seen him suddenly, blindingly transfigured, and talking with Moses and the great hero-prophet Elijah. But what we learn in this moment—what James and John and the rest of the disciples standing learn—is that Jesus isn’t going to be a hero like Elijah, and neither are they.
We heard some of the end of Elijah’s story this morning. The word of the Lord happened to Elijah as he was hiding out in a cave in the wilderness. And the Lord calls Elijah from the cave and passes by him in sheer silence. Then then God speaks, and retires him. He’s to go anoint a new king of Aram, and a new king over Israel, and then anoint Elisha to be a prophet in his place. A question that I certainly can’t answer is why. Because Elijah was exhausted? Because his nerve was shattered? Or maybe the Lord can’t have a prophet who’s called and tasted fire.
Consider what had just happened, before the wilderness. The land had been wracked by drought for three years while the rotten Ahab, king over Israel, served another god. The rain had been shut up, just as Elijah had prophesied to the King it would be. And now the Lord sent Elijah to stand before the king again. I, the Lord says, am going to send rain on the earth. But when Elijah gets there, he tells the king to gather the people and 800 of the prophets of Baal and Asherah. He’s decided on a dramatic and final confrontation. The prophets are told to kill a bull and place it atop wood as a sacrifice for burning, and to call on Baal to send the fire. They try, and they try—nearly all day. And then Elijah rebuilds a stone altar to the Lord, and prepares another bull and wood. And he has the people fill jars with precious drought-land water, and soak it all until it runs onto the ground. And he calls to the Lord to reveal himself as God in Israel. And the fire fell and consumed everything. Even the stones.
And then Elijah took the prophets of Baal down to the wadi and killed them all.
“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” say James and John. They say it because their blood is up, and because they’re dreaming of Elijah. They’re dreaming of Elijah calling down consuming fire on that altar. Elijah, calling down fire on the soldiers of Ahziah, and what it would feel like to see that destroying power. They’re the purifying prophets now. “But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and moved on to another village.”
Rebuked them how? That’s open to us to wonder at too.
He might have reminded them how they’d been with him on the plain, when he called to anyone who would listen to
Love your enemies,
do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who abuse you…
do not condemn, and you will not be condemned.
Forgive, and you will be forgiven;
The fire there is the hard news that they and we have been blessed so that we’re free to bless those who hate and curse us, they and we have received mercy so that we might be merciful, that we have been forgiven so that we might forgive. We are saved for something: To be agents of mercy and healing. Not fire.
Maybe Jesus pressed them why this time? Why fire now, for this village and not for the Gerasenes. This village and not for Nazareth?
This village of Samaritans. Not their kind. And there are different consequences for the mistakes of not their kind. Different blessings. Different mercy for not their kind. Not our kind. They could imagine that village and its people disappearing into fire because they never, really, saw them at all.
And Jesus will have none of it. And Jesus says follow me.