Suppose that Jesus were to take a walk with all of us—or at least a few of us—through a major city, or perhaps a major university. As we walk along, Jesus teaches us about his kingdom. He teaches by both story and example. We see something or someone in our path, and this encounter leads to a conversation with Jesus. Jesus, always alert to the opportunity for an enacted lesson, uses our questions, our observations, and even our prejudices to make his points. At the same time, we encounter others: those who live or work in the places we’re walking through. They hear Jesus too. They have their own questions and observations. The levels of interaction among Jesus, those who have been following him, and those who are there when he passes grow more complex. The conversation grows more interesting.
Something like that is what’s happening in the gospel of Luke during the journey of Jesus from Galilee, where he began his ministry, to Jerusalem, where he will be crucified (9:51–19:44). This long section of the gospel is sometimes called Luke’s “travel narrative.” As we journey through these passages we will be listening to the conversation as it develops between Jesus and those around him most of the way to Jerusalem, and we will try to report what we hear.
Jesus is traveling with a mixed group. Some are his disciples—people we know, such as John and James. Others appear to be religious leaders—Pharisees, mostly—who have some sympathy for Jesus. They are at least occasional disciples of his. And then there are the people of the land. The land Jesus passes through is Samaria, populated by people despised and rejected by those who consider themselves the true people of God. They have the wrong roots, the wrong theology, the Jewish leaders say, and they worship in the wrong place. As Jesus makes his way through the land, he speaks to and about each of these groups. It should be an interesting journey.
Neighbor—The First Sunday of Epiphany
Scripture: Luke 9:51–10:37
Theme: Especially the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37)
Sometimes in a passage of no more than a few words, the gospel writers capture the whole life of the church before it even began. This is one of those places. It begins with Jesus setting his face resolutely towards Jerusalem (9:51). His ardent followers expected that he would, once in Jerusalem, inaugurate the kingdom. Indeed, this is precisely what he means to do. But it’s not the Romans he means to displace. He has in mind a larger battle and a larger victory: victory over death itself. It’s with this in mind that he sets out.
Ready to begin the journey, he sends a delegation to the next village—a Samaritan village, as it happens—to secure accommodations for the night. But the delegation is refused. They don’t want these Jews on pilgrimage to stay in their village. The sons of Zebedee are incensed. They want to go to war with these inhospitable Samaritans: “Do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” (9:54). Jesus will have none of it. He tells them simply to move on. You can’t destroy the power of death by serving death.
Instead Christ talks about what is required of those who would follow him. One such teaching is that his followers are not to hold too tightly to the things of this world. After encountering several people who would like to follow Jesus but who are too much invested in the world (9:57–62), Jesus sends out a mission: seventy-two disciples are to go to the surrounding villages. They are sent without money or sandals. They go only where they are welcome. They bring only the power of the kingdom to each place they go.
When the seventy-two return, they report how the kingdom was manifested in the places they went: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name” (10:17). This sudden release of kingdom power fills Jesus with joy. Here is the power of those who believe, the pattern for the church. The power is not ours; it belongs to Jesus. Through this power Satan falls. The power is still manifest wherever people go in the name of Jesus. But just then, when everything seems to be going so well, a theologian, a man of the cloth, asks Jesus a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (10:25).
As far as it goes, it’s a great question, the sort of question that people are still asking today. But it’s also hard to miss the irony of the situation. Jesus and the seventy-two are engaged in a mighty struggle against death, taking up the mission of God with what seem the meager weapons of the kingdom—their own presence and the name of Jesus—and this man asks a question that is concerned with nothing larger than his own soul.
Jesus replies by telling a story that in the end turns the question around. Instead of “What can I get from God?” it becomes “How can I serve God?” It returns to the question of hospitality with which this section of Scripture began. The Scripture scholar wants to limit his liability, asking, “Who is my neighbor?” The answer, in the words of Heinrich Greeven, is: “One cannot define one’s neighbor; one can only be a neighbor” (in Eugene Peterson, Tell It Slant [Eerdmans, 2008], 42).
The church remains in the Scripture scholar’s mode of thinking. With all this power promised us—the power illustrated in the mission of the seventy-two—we are often more interested in what it all means for us and how we can put limits on our liability to God.
Prayer—The Second Sunday of Epiphany
Scripture: Luke 10:38–11:54
Theme: Especially the Parable of the Man Who Knocks (11:5–13)
This long section begins with listening (10:38–42). Jesus says to Martha, “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”
Luke moves on quickly from listening to talking—that is, prayer. In this gospel, the Lord’s Prayer is pared down to just five petitions. It mirrors the instructions given to the seventy-two (10:1–9). They are to go out with little more than their own selves and to trust that the kingdom will come through them. The prayer reverses these, centering on the coming of the kingdom (“your kingdom come”) and a simple lifestyle (“give us each day our daily bread”). Clearly Jesus still has in mind the struggle against death and evil. In the section that follows, he briefly describes the war in which he is engaged: “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (11:20). But between the prayer and this description of the battle, Jesus tells a little story. It’s about prayer, but not so much about what to pray as the way we should pray.
The story is about a man in a bind. Guests have arrived, and he has no food in the house. He goes to his next door neighbor, raps on the door, and asks for bread. The neighbor is not inclined to get up. It’s past his bedtime, lights are out, the children are asleep, and he’s tired. But the one who needs the bread keeps on rapping. He has what Jesus calls anaideia. “Shameless audacity” is how the New International Version of the Bible translates it. It’s this attitude that Jesus wants in his followers.
We won’t see the kingdom among us unless we dream it, long for it, and keep on rapping on God’s door. We need a shameless audacity in our passion for the kingdom.
Carefree—The Third Sunday of Epiphany
Scripture: Luke 12:1–34
Theme: Especially the Parable of the Rich Fool
We have a way of making the kingdom something burdensome and difficult. This passage is about one of the basic instructions Jesus gives his followers then and now: hang loose to the world. The section begins with a little story about a man who has a bumper crop. At first he doesn’t know what to do. The abundance is almost too much for him. He decides to build bigger barns. He goes to bed happy that he will always have enough. But with consummate divine irony, this is the night his soul is required of him. He dies rich in the things of the world and poor in what matters.
Jesus extends the teaching of the parable. The Message puts his words this way:
“What I’m trying to do here is get you to relax, not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God’s giving. People who don’t know God and the way he works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how he works. Steep yourself in God-reality, God-initiative, God-provisions. You’ll find all your everyday human concerns will be met. Don’t be afraid of missing out. You’re my dearest friends! The Father wants to give you the very kingdom itself.
“Be generous. Give to the poor. Get yourselves a bank that can’t go bankrupt, a bank in heaven far from bankrobbers, safe from embezzlers, a bank you can bank on. It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”
—From The Message, © 1993, 2002, 2018 by Eugene H. Peterson. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. Represented by Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
How can we live loosely to the world, carefree? How can we have the kingdom not only in our mission but in our souls, tasting the life God has for us? How can we stop building barns and enjoy what God has given us today?
The Times—The Fourth Sunday of Epiphany
Scripture: Luke 12:35–13:9
Theme: Especially the Parable of the Fig Tree (13:6–9)
Jesus begins to talk about the times. What are these times in which we live? He tells a little story about a wedding reception. The servers are waiting for the wedding party. The wait has gotten long. When at last the bridegroom arrives with his entourage, some have fallen asleep, but some are still waiting. The implied imperative is: Stay alert. Wait. The bridegroom will come.
Peter wonders whom Jesus is talking to. In response Jesus tells another of his little stories, this one having to do with a manager who faithfully does what his master asks. If he knows what the master wants and does the opposite, Jesus says, he will be held culpable when the master returns. Jesus drives the point home: to those like Peter to whom much has been given, much will be demanded. Those of us who know the master’s will will be held responsible for how we manage the master’s affairs in his absence.
As Jesus continues to talk about the times and interpreting the signs of the times, they get some news about some unfortunate Galileans slaughtered at the altar—presumably in Jerusalem—by the Roman procurator, Pontius Pilate. This piece of news is full of ominous overtones for Jesus and for those who left Galilee with him. Will their blood also be mixed with the blood of their sacrifices?
The theological opinion of those who have come to Jesus with this distressing news seems to blame the victim. If something horrid happens to you, somehow you must have deserved it. It’s what we often assume even today about people who suffer calamities. Jesus adds another example, this one recalling an apparent accident: Were the eighteen people killed when the Tower of Siloam fell on them more guilty than any others living in Jerusalem? No, says Jesus, but you will all perish unless you repent. The times bode ill for those who assume that things will continue as they are and that they will escape while others suffer.
Jesus brings the discussion to an end with another of his little stories, this one about a fig tree that doesn’t bear fruit. The owner wants to chop it down, but the gardener wants to give it another shot. He promises to dig around it and put on manure. Wait another year, he suggests, to see if will produce figs.
The little story seems to be an allegory. The owner is the Father. The gardener is Jesus. The tree is the human race or Israel or the church. Jesus is pleading for time—time to try once again to see if they—whoever “they” is—will begin to produce real fruit. It’s a sobering warning and a hopeful sign of grace. The gardener is still digging around the tree, still putting on fertilizer, still hoping that this year there will be fruit.
Topsy-Turvy—The Fifth Sunday of Epiphany
Scripture: Luke 13:10–14:35
Theme: Especially the Parable of the Banquet (14:15–24)
Religion too often is about keeping the status quo, upholding the order of things. In this section of Scripture Jesus suggests that the kingdom of God turns all such expectations topsy-turvy. The stories begin with a healing—one of those healings on the Sabbath that Jesus seems to take so much delight in. A woman with something like osteoporosis comes to service at the local synagogue. Jesus is the preacher. When he sees the woman, he heals her then and there. The president of the synagogue finds this offensive. Couldn’t she have been healed on another day of the week?
The president of the synagogue has missed the point. The point is not just the healing; the point is a system that keeps women like her bent over and unable to hold their heads up. This is where the battle is being fought, as Jesus reminds the synagogue leader: “Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (13:16). What is the Sabbath day for if not for setting people free?
The assumption we make is that the kingdom of God is for us—for those of us who are privileged. And if it is for us, it ought to meet our requirements. We style ourselves God’s sort of people—good people, as opposed to all the others. In the rest of this section Jesus seems intent on making us—all of us who make the assumption that we belong—very uncomfortable.
Perhaps the strongest statement of this theme is found in the passage about the narrow door (13:22–30). The people of the parable assume they will be let in. After all, weren’t they good friends of the owner of the house? But they never actually entered the house. They never joined the cause. By the time they see the door closing, it is too late.
The section culminates in a pair of banquets. One takes place at the house of a prominent religious leader who invited Jesus to join him for lunch; the other is part of a story Jesus tells at the first banquet. The banquet to which Jesus is invited begins inauspiciously when Jesus once again heals on the Sabbath. The religious leaders are not amused. Then Jesus notices the guests are all trying to get the best places at the table, and he has the bad grace to tell them that they should instead be taking the least advantageous places. Jesus also doesn’t spare his host, whom he tells to invite the kind of people who have no way to repay him. This last statement prompts the story.
In the banquet story, we return to the theme of those who take the invitation to the kingdom for granted. The invited guests are busy with work and family; they have no time to come. The master disinvites them and goes out into the world in search of guests. There is a cost to the kingdom. The cost is that when the master calls, you must come. If not, he will invite others. As Jesus puts it, “There are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” (13:30).
Lost—The Last Sunday of Epiphany
Scripture: Luke 15:1–16:15
Theme: Especially the Parable of the Lost Son and the Parable of the Dishonest Manager
The last message in this series focuses on an interesting juxtaposition. Chapter 15 of Luke is the famous set of stories about lost things: a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son. Eugene Peterson (Tell It Slant, 97) correctly points out that these stories of lost things are the lead-in to a fourth story in the chapter, the story of the elder brother, the one who assumes that he is not lost—that as a matter of fact he has never been lost and never will be lost. It’s this man who is the focus of Jesus’ attention.
Juxtaposed with this story is another, this one about a dishonest manager (16:1–15). In the climactic story of chapter 15, the older brother represents a kind of brittle righteousness: I’ve done everything right for my whole life, and no one gave me anything. By contrast, the dishonest manager represents a kind of desperate prayer: I’m in trouble, and I had better do what I can to find shelter. These are the Pharisee and the tax collector of a story Jesus tells a couple of chapters later (18:9–14).
As Peterson also notices, these stories build out of the preceding stories about guests and banquets. Perhaps the subtext here is that Jesus seems to be inviting the wrong kind of people into his little troop—Samaritans, say, instead of religious leaders. Some of those traveling with Jesus have begun to have doubts about him. They are wondering how this open-table doctrine of Jesus will play out in Jerusalem. They are beginning to think that he is a poor judge of character.
Because Jesus knows they are thinking such thoughts, he tells these stories about being lost and found. In the stories, those who are lost are in every case found, although in the cases of the lost son and the dishonest manager, they are hardly model citizens. Equally, in these stories the one way to be truly lost is to assume that you already belong. It’s this dynamic that plays itself out here and in the rest of the journey.
We will have to leave Jesus and his band here, having run out of Sundays in Epiphany. We are still some distance from Jerusalem, but we will get there soon enough.