A sermon on Luke 9:43b-62
It seems important that these little vignettes start with Jesus’s announcement that he’s going to be betrayed into human hands. Literally, handed over to human hands. So we could ask ourselves, what does it mean, for Jesus to be handed over, to be betrayed, into human hands?
Mainly, I suppose we know, it means that in a fairly short time – in another ten chapters, if we’re going to by the gospel of Luke – Jesus is going to enter the city of Jerusalem, and the events of Holy Week are going to unfold; Judas is going to turn double agent; Jesus is going to be arrested and handed over to the agents of the Roman empire, the Roman state, and that state, that empire, is going to execute him … it means that awful, unforgettable element of the whole story of Jesus’s passion, death, and ultimately resurrection and ascension. The disciples don’t know any of that, but Jesus seems to have known it, the narrator of the gospel of Luke, which is being written after the fact, knows it – and specifically refers to the “time for Jesus to be taken up.” And we know it, because we’re blessed to live many centuries after them, and to have the benefit of a couple of millennia of Christianity under our belts.
But knowing all that, I confess, as I was reading these stories about Jesus and the disciples, about what Jesus says it means to live in the kingdom of God, the realm of God’s direct influence, and what it takes to follow Jesus on this journey to Jerusalem, I found myself feeling rather embarrassed, because I thought … I wonder how well we have learned these lessons, I wonder how well I have learned, this way of life, even after those millennia.
Because these lessons the disciples are having to learn still seem awfully fresh, and awfully challenging:
They compare themselves to each other. The disciples are wondering who’s doing better, who’s going to get the best grade, or the most points, who’s going to have the place of highest honor in Jesus’s coming kingdom. Evidently, several of them, maybe each of them, would like to be that person, would like to be “the greatest.” Not greater than Jesus, obviously, but right next to Jesus.
They boss people around. They like being the experts on who is and who isn’t allowed to do things, who is and who isn’t “one of them.”
And while they’re busy trying to exclude that exorcist from their group, they’re busy fantasizing about getting back at those awful people who’ve kept them out of some other group, especially since they never liked those Samaritans that much to begin with. So they’re just itching to call down some fire from heaven!
In other words, these disciples feel, to me, a lot like anyone, a lot like us, too much like me.
But at the same time they’re having all these big ideas, they don’t expect following Jesus to change much. They expect to keep living the way they always have, doing what they’ve always done, caring about what normal people naturally care about, putting first things first the way they always have. When Jesus challenges those expectations, they’re surprised – really surprised – we’re surprised!
We think … really? What’re those guys supposed to do? Just walk off without making the funeral arrangements, just leave some other relative holding the bag? Just take off on a road trip without even phoning home? Really? That seems pretty harsh …
So while we’re on that … it seems important that the context for those last remarks, the one about the dead and the one about the plow, is Jesus’s final trip to Jerusalem, which was happening, right then, it was time, so it was something that couldn’t be put off. Some things in life are like that: they’re happening now, they demand our immediate attention and action, or we will miss them. The baby is hungry now. Our partner is crying now. Our friend is in the hospital today. The city council meeting that’s going to decide whether there can be a Pride picnic on Saturday in the public park is Tuesday night and if we care about that we need to be there, because Wednesday morning it will be too late to get up in that meeting and say “insurance won’t be a problem, our church insurance will probably cover that, we can find that out before the end of the week.” [True story, by the way.]
So that’s part of what goes into Jesus’s remarks there, that simple fact that sometimes the choice is between the urgent demand of the moment and everything else, even important things …
And while we’re on that, it turns out that if we dig into those requests by those potential followers, we find out that they mean something different in the first century than we might think. The man who wanted to “bury” his father may have been asking for up to 11 months leave of absence, the way burial customs were back then; and the man who wanted to bid farewell to “those at his house” probably wanted to do more than hug his mom and leave a post-it for the kids, may have wanted to give instructions to his slaves and make arrangements for keeping the whole household running smoothly and profitably while he was out of town …
In fact, digging into any one of these lessons could make for at least a whole sermon, more like a nice series of Sunday school lessons, like: “the wisdom of a non-comparative life,” or “getting past our differences,” or “how to love our enemies,” or “what it means to follow Jesus HERE and NOW.”
[In fact … the Presbyterian church in Corydon is actually about to start reading a book titled “How to Have an Enemy,” which is literally about “how to love our enemies instead of wishing we could call down fire from heaven on them,” and if anyone is interested in that, please see me after the worship service. [or contact me – seriously] Because a lot of us have a lot of difficulty with this one, and especially these days, when it seems every fresh newspaper headline or video announcement hooks some outrage in us and encourages us to direct that outrage towards “THEM,” whoever THEY are.]
So – watching the disciples in the School of Jesus here in these lessons, I feel a keen sense of common humanity with them. On one hand that’s really reassuring. A Sunday school teacher I knew used to say this a lot, that knowing the disciples had so many problems understanding Jesus and doing what he said to do means there’s hope for the rest of us …
But on the other hand it’s frankly frustrating, because I think: how long does this take us human beings, even those of us who like to think of ourselves as serious about listening to Jesus, and actually making an effort to follow Jesus, to learn these lessons? Why haven’t we made more progress than this?
But they really are hard lessons. That does seem to be part of it.
We like to forget that the way Jesus lived his life was actually SO challenging to the basic social expectations of his day, SO careless when it came to social conventions and “natural” priorities, SO demanding and serious about placing equal value, high value, on actual human beings right here right now, SO unwilling to treat anyone as unimportant or disposable, that living that way and teaching other people to live that way literally got him killed.
Jesus’s teachings and way of life may even have had something to do with getting him “handed over” in the first place. I’ve heard more than one sermon on how Judas thought Jesus wasn’t being a good-enough messiah, a good enough zealot, with all his talk about loving our enemies – like those Samaritans, or worse, those Romans – so, maybe Judas was disillusioned, or was even trying to goad Jesus into taking more militant action, or somehow trying to make Jesus into more like the tough guy he wanted Jesus to be. We don’t know that, of course. But it’s a traditional interpretation.
And while we’re on that … an aside … our word “tradition” comes from the Latin word that means “to hand over,” or “to hand down.” It’s the direct translation of the Greek word Jesus uses in our text about being “handed over” to human hands; both the Greek word AND the Latin word can mean “handed over” in the sense of being passed down, like something traditional, or “handed over” in the sense of being “betrayed,” or even “handed over” in the sense of being translated, from one language to another … which is why in Italian people say “translator, traitor” [n.b.: traduttore, traditore] – because in Italian those two words sound almost the same, and because of how translations can’t help modify the original at least a little … since after all, they’re putting it into a different language, different words …
For instance, in that first story, where the disciples are going back and forth about who is going to be “the greatest” – they literally say who is going to be “greater,” but Greek scholars tells us that in a context like that, they can mean what we would mean if we said “the greatest.”
So then, when Jesus responds to that, when he takes that small child and stands that small child right next to him, he literally says “the littler among you all, that one will be great.” Which the text tells us he did because he knew the debates, the deliberations of their hearts – we think that means something like what was on their minds, but it does seem to include what we think of as … how they felt, what they cared about and longed for.
If they were anything like us, and they do seem to be a lot like us, the deliberations of their hearts included all their anxieties and concerns, about whether they were living up to Jesus’s expectations, and whether they were doing as well as their companions, all those insecurities about their failures and whether they were really making the grade, or were even doing well enough to keep following Jesus …
I’m afraid we’re familiar with “deliberations of the heart” like this, and maybe also some “deliberations of the heart” that go kind of like this: “well, we’re not going to decide what to do because of how So-and-so feels, we’re not going to pay too much attention to what What’s-his-name says” – because in every group, it seems, there are some people most of us take less seriously, treat as less important, you know … In today’s language, we might say they’re not influencers, they’re not the ones we listen to, or think of as the greatest, or as even a little bit great.
Now, every single English translation I’ve checked, and I’ve checked many of them, translates Luke’s account of Jesus’s words here as “the least among you will be the greatest.” In English, it’s always still a competition.
I searched my Greek grammar books, too, and although the text does say “the littler will be great,” the grammar books assure us that the word “great” can mean “the greatest” in that context, and it is certainly easier for us to think of it that way … it sounds better, it has a nice ring to it, the least will be the greatest …
And now, because it is so human for us to get competitive, and because we really are trying to follow along with the disciples, for a couple of millennia at least a lot of us Christians have been competing at being “the least,” at outdoing one another in how much good we can not ask for, how much self-care we can do without, how much more modest and self-effacing we can be … I’m afraid this may touch a nerve with some of us … as if, if only we can make ourselves small enough, we, too, will finally be OK …
But honestly, I really think Jesus was trying to get the disciples, and us, to see that it really isn’t a competition at all – the kingdom of God is not a competition.
Because in the kingdom of God, each one matters; each one, even the least, is great, each one is of unsurpassable worth, each one is God’s dearly beloved; each one is one of the precious people for whom Christ came from heaven, lived as one of us, went to Jerusalem, died on the cross, and rose again. Each one is one of the people for whom Jesus voluntarily embraced the destiny of being handed over to humanity.
A destiny he embraced knowing full well the deliberations of our human hearts, knowing what it would mean to be handed over, not just in the sense of that betrayal a few chapters on in Luke, but in the sense of becoming the Jesus we keep trying to make over in our own image, and have to keep being called back to listen to, and whose teachings we have to keep trying to translate into our lives here and now, without becoming traitors in the process, but as faithful followers of Jesus, who are trying to learn these lessons that are honestly so hard for us, and to live into the vision of the beautiful greatness God sees in us.
The late great poet Maya Angelou, in an interview in High Profiles, was asked:
You’ve said that you’re taken aback when people tell you that they’re Christians. Why is that?
Because I think, ‘You’re that already?’ You know, being a Christian is being engaged in a process: it’s not an ambition you achieve and say, ‘Okeydokey, I have no more to do now.’ No, it’s really ongoing. In the morning you get up and think, ‘Lord, help me! I want to live a Christian life which is kind. I want to be soft-voiced, I want to be peace-searching, I want to be generous, I want to be healing. Lord, help me!’ And then in the evening, when you check yourself out, you think: ‘M’mm. I only blew it 80 times.’
A lot like these disciples in Luke – and like us – because yes, following Jesus still challenges us. It still asks us to do and think and feel what’s difficult rather than what’s easy, and it calls us to do it today, not to put it off to a more socially acceptable time – since, really, no time is going to be more socially acceptable. It still calls for daily practice, and it’s still something we get wrong – a lot.
But Jesus, seems to have known all this: and knowing the deliberations of our hearts, and knowing what it was going to mean to be turned over to our human hands, knowing the people following with him would keep getting things wrong, and keep falling down on the job, still came to live with us and to gather up disciples to follow with him, as imperfectly as that following was obviously going to be, for a very long time. When we talk about the grace of Jesus Christ, this is part of what we mean: the grace of Jesus Christ to hand himself over to us, his very imperfect followers, knowing all the deliberations of the human heart … because he also knew, better than we do, is still trying to teach us, that in the kingdom of God, even the least of us matters. Even the least of us is great. Because even the least of us is loved by God.
Images: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Jesus, Savior of the World,” Mathilde, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons