When I worked with churches in conflict, I sometimes asked a pointed question. “Would you rather,” I would say with some drama, “be right or be in relationship?” For a while, I thought the question was a mic drop sort of query. Then I realized that I was dealing with people who were more honest than I liked. The “right answer” for Christians (as I was assuming) is that it’s more important to be in relationship than to be right. Unity in the Body of Christ is a primary value in the New Testament witness. Some of my conversation partners, however, didn’t see it that way.
“Well, Pastor,” some replied, “of course I’d rather be right. What’s the point, after all,” they continued, “of having a relationship with someone who’s wrong and simply won’t admit it?” I learned that if someone was at that point in a church conflict, the chances that the sides would find common ground and reconciliation were vanishingly small. The desire to be “right” took on existential importance and urgency, sometimes leading to verbal, institutional, and even physical violence.
The first paragraph in our text for Sunday has some terrifying dialogue in it. “When the fulfillment of the days had come for his being taken up,” we read in Luke 9:51-52, “and he fixed his face to go into Jerusalem, he also sent messengers before his face” (my translation). Here we begin the “Lukan travelogue,” the narrative of the way of discipleship that leads from Galilee to the cross in the Holy City. This is not merely a “road” as the NRSV would have it in verse 57. This is “the way” that Jesus has firmly resolved to take.
The lectionary selection and headings in many translations tie together the declaration of purpose in Luke 9:51-52a with the Samaritan refusal in Luke 9:52b-56. However, I think it’s more helpful to see this little section beginning with Luke 9:46. More than that, the declaration of purpose is framed by two discipleship fails, first on the part of John and then on the part of James and John together.
In Luke 9:49-50, we have the Lukan version of the “Unknown Exorcist.” Jesus had commissioned the Twelve in Luke 9:1-6 to go out proclaiming the kingdom and healing. That healing certainly included the exorcism of demons, just as it did for Jesus. It seems that John thought this was a “Jesus” schtick, and they needed to protect their performance rights. “And we hindered him,” John reports to Jesus, “because he is not following us” (Luke 9:49b, my translation and emphasis).
Note what John says here. The unknown exorcist was using Jesus’ name, but he wasn’t following “us.” He wasn’t on the right team, the right side, the in-crowd, the cool kids. He was an outsider who had to be brought to heel. It was more important to be right than to extend the mission of healing in Jesus’ name.
John’s report is a direct response to Jesus’ comments on the interminable “who is the greatest” debate among the disciples. Jesus knows what the argument is — a distraction from all that icky talk about betrayal and a delicious debate about the disciple pecking order. Jesus, therefore, uses the example of welcoming a child in Jesus’ name as a measure of real discipleship. It’s another window into the Lukan “great reversal” theme.
“And as John answered,” we read in Luke 9:49, “he said…” All John got out of the welcoming children example was the phrase “in my name.” With that little prompt he was once again off to the races, seeking to establish both rank and power. Jesus, of course, is having none of it. “Don’t hinder him,” Jesus replies, “for the one who is not against you is for you” (Luke 9:50, my translation).
This is the lead-in to our lectionary reading. While Luke 9:51 is usually regarded as the beginning of the Lukan travelogue, I don’t think we can read verses 52-56 without taking verses 46-50 into account in our interpretation. The one who is greatest is the least. The one who is not against us is for us. Being right is not all it’s cracked up to be.
What will we do to ensure that we are “right”? Tom Nichols wrote a recent op-ed online for the The Atlantic entitled “What Are Trump Supporters So Afraid Of?” Nichols worries that as additional information about events surrounding the January 6 coup attempt comes out, “there will be more irrational anger and threats from people who cannot bear the truth.” That line was immediately ratified by the testimony of Georgia public election officials who, in the wake of their defense of 2020 ballot counts in the state, have been subjected to death threats, harassment, verbal assaults, home invasions, and loss of jobs and peace of mind.
Nichols suggests that the people who engage in such behavior are “less angry than they are terrified.” They are not only terrified of losing political, economic, cultural, and legal power, Nichols continues, although all of that is the case. “I think,” Nichols argues, “the Trump superfans are terrified of being wrong. I suspect they know that for many years they’ve made a terrible mistake,” Nichols continues, “that Trump and his coterie took them to the cleaners and the cognitive dissonance is now rising to ear-splitting, chest-constricting levels. And so,” he concludes, “they will literally threaten to kill people…if that’s what it takes to silence the last feeble voice of reason inside themselves.”
The rest of the column is worth the read, but you get the gist. And perhaps you get the point that strikes me here. In Luke 9, we get an escalation of behaviors on the part of disciples who seem to be protecting their right to be “right.” We’re not going to let some freelancer horn in on our disciple gig. We’ll put a stop to that. Samaritans don’t know enough to extend some hospitality to us on the way (of discipleship, remember)? We’ve got a solution for that straight out of Elijah’s playbook in 1 Kings. Some fire from the sky should put the fear of God into anyone who might contemplate a similar sort of resistance.
Pay attention to the words in Luke 9:54. “But when the disciples, James and John, saw [this], they said, ‘Lord, do you wish that we might call fire down from the heaven and destroy them?'” The Lukan author makes it crystal clear that disciples are offering this suggestion. It happens to be James and John in this case, but it would seem that they represent the consensus of the group. Clearly, the vocation of discipleship doesn’t automatically make anyone less of an asshole. That seems to take a bit of doing.
The Lukan author also makes it crystal clear that this suggestion by the disciples is demonic. “But turning around, he [Jesus] rebuked them” (Luke 9:55, my translation and emphasis). Jesus rebukes the wind and the waves when they threaten the disciples. Jesus rebukes the fever in Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. Jesus rebukes demons, and they leave people. Most recently, in terms of our text, that happens in Luke 9:42. Peter rebukes Jesus and gets called “Satan” (I know that’s in Mark, but it’s still the case). This is not a gentle correction of a slight faux pas.
Jesus doesn’t excuse the Samaritans for their response to him. Neither does he blast them to smithereens because they are “wrong.” Based on Jesus’ training with the Twelve, he shakes the dust off his feet and moves on to another village where the reception might be better. Nobody is going to die here today, James and John, no matter how “right” you think you are. That’s not how people who actually “are” right operate.
Tom Nichols puts it this way. “No one who truly believes they are right threatens to hurt anyone for expressing a contrary view,” he argues. “The snarling threat of violence never comes from people who calmly believe they are in the right. It is always,” he continues, “the instant resort of the bully who feels the hot flush of shame rising in the cheeks and the cold rock of fear dropping in the pit of the stomach.” If Nichols is right, then the fiery proposal is not an expression of conviction but rather the insecure response of those who still harbor doubts.
For the Twelve at this point in the Lukan account, I’m afraid that shoe fits all to well. And perhaps it fits too well for many of us.
I find it hard to see how so-called Christians could read our text and then conclude that violence in the name of being “right” is ever an option for Jesus followers. We may indeed find ourselves in a place where we are called upon to die for the sake of the mission (see Luke 9:57-62 for some insight into this notion). We who follow Jesus cannot find ourselves in places where killing in the name of Jesus is ever the “right” thing to do. More than that, doing violence to protect our “rightness” is demonic not disciplic (I know that’s not a word, but it should be).