Once again, Luke has captured an intriguing scene in which excuses are offered and Jesus rejects them as illegitimate. No time for God? Nonsense! But, it is the opening passage that would have alarmed early readers or hearers of this gospel. Here there is a decidedly non-ethical moment as proper protocol is breached. In the scene, Christ enters a Samaritan village only to be turned away…an uncommon slip in hospitable behavior. In Jesus’ world and even in the world well before Christ, the world of Jewish tradition, hospitality holds a place of high importance. To refuse to receive Christ indicates the state of affairs between the Jewish people and the people of Samaria. But it also refers back to Jesus’ own words to his disciples, practical words of advice to “shake off the dust on your feet” if they are refused hospitality in the towns through which they travel.
Hospitality always held a high status in my childhood home. My brother and I were taught to welcome friends and family and to provide for their needs. As children, that meant we were to share our toys; as adults to offer food and something to drink, the best seat in the house and good conversation. But the mission and ministry of Jesus were not readily accepted and Jews and Samaritans were not friends. So, at least this part of today’s reading makes sense to us.
What causes us to take another look into Luke’s gospel reading are the verses that come next. Jesus’ harshness toward those who expressed a desire to follow him but, first, had to clean up the details of their lives seem contrary to what we like to see in our gentle Jesus. None of the requests to delay seem unreasonable…burying one’s father, saying farewell to family…these hold their own importance for all of us, but Jesus’ responses do seem harsh and deliberately so. The act of following Jesus is never easy. My days at Seminary training to be a minister taught me that truth.
My final year in Seminary was the year I did my field experience. I was assigned to a pastor serving a church about 20 miles from the school. I had to be present and participating in that church service weekly. I was driving an old car that wasn’t very good on Maine’s winter roads and I had very limited funds. Field education was not a paying gig. To add to all this; like all the students at the seminary, I had the opportunity to preach most Sunday mornings on a substitute basis in the area churches; these churches did pay…some very well…for the privilege of having someone come, like me, and lead their services, someone who could offer them a sermon. I needed the money and I needed the experience but my assigned field ed. pastor would not let me off the hook. She said, “This is where you will be on Sunday mornings, no ifs, ands or buts.” I learned that following my call and my Christ wasn’t going to be an easy road. I had to make both my first priorities, no ifs, ands or buts.
We tend to find lots of excuses for putting God and Christ second or third or somewhere else on our list of priorities in our lives. I may have chosen (or been chosen) to follow Christ in my life and I may have made faith, church and religion my assigned life-long vocation but even I get caught up in every day living, family, friends, vacation, new clothes, and entertainment and these may nudge aside my professed desire to fully follow Christ. Like you, I struggle with a command to put Jesus first in my life. I can just as readily get hung up on the phrases “deny oneself” and “take up your cross daily”. Life is tough enough; why make it harder? Or is the point of the whole denial and cross thing suggesting that I’m the one making life tougher not God. Where are my priorities? And yours?
Googling the words, “put Jesus first” uncovered an interesting blog entitled “Grace for the Road”. And the blogger comes up with the astonishing revelation, which should be apparent to all of us but, of course, isn’t. In her words, “There’s no way to get around the fact that [denying oneself and taking up one’s cross] means everything in life has to be less important than [Jesus]. Putting Him first. It’s the easiest thing to do and the hardest thing to do. What He really wants is my heart, not my decisions … for me to want Him so much that the other stuff becomes secondary. And for me to actively want that every day. It’s not passive. It’s not coasting. But it’s also not drudgery. We love Him. And so we get out of bed, and we follow.”
In the end, it all comes back to relationship…what and who will become the top priorities in our lives. Everything in our lives should flow out of the essential relationship we hold with the Lord who gave us life, who gave his own life for ours, and who daily gives us the grace to fulfill our lives for the sake of God and others. Yes, that would include our families and our neighbors. Our ability to really be there for others begins with our willingness to let Christ be first in our lives. Everything – every need, every hope, every desire, every intent and loving connection we have in our lives flows from the essential relationship we hold with Christ. And though we know it is not easy, though we know it takes a lifetime of fits and starts, we also know that when we put Jesus first in our lives, we have the strength, power and grace to fulfill all the promise God sees in us. Life and living may not get easier but it will certainly be more satisfying. Amen.