The people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven and destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village. (Luke 9.53-56)
From time to time we come upon transitional passages in the Gospels—brief accounts of going from here to there, with something that seems relatively minor happening along the way. We tend to scoot by these to get to the good stuff, and some of them feel so incidental we may wonder why they’re included at all. Every now and then, though, what takes place borders on monumental, and if we glance over these quick bits we miss why the writers considered them essential. Luke 9.51-56 is an excellent case in point.
Peter, James and John have just witnessed Christ’s transfiguration, the event that initiates the Passover journey to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be tried, executed, and resurrected. The magnitude of the disciples’ experience instills in them a sense of authority unlike anything they’ve known. For Peter, it confirms his confession that Jesus is The Christ. For James and John, whom Jesus calls “the sons of thunder,” it dazzles them with power. They go overboard in holy swagger. First, John hastens to inform Jesus they found a man driving out demons in Christ’s name. “We tried to stop him,” he tells the Lord, “because he is not one of us.” (Luke 9.49) Jesus corrects John’s impetuosity. “Don’t stop him,” He says. “For whoever is not against you is for you.” (v50) It’s pretty much a “mind your own business” scolding. But the Thunder Boys can’t help themselves. Next, Jesus sends messengers ahead to a Samaritan village that He and the disciples will pass through en route to Jerusalem. He intends to rest there. But the Samaritans aren’t eager to accommodate a Jewish prophet and entourage—which makes sense, since they're not welcome in Jerusalem at Passover. So here come the Thunder Boys, feisty as ever, asking, “Should we call down fire from heaven and destroy them?” As if Jesus would countenance such a thing. As if they could actually do it. They’re in a transitional passage of a different kind without knowing it—the steep pass we all must climb to discover true power is evidenced by self-containment and tolerance.
Once again, Jesus scolds them. Most manuscripts simply note, “Jesus turned and rebuked them.” But some texts also quote Christ directly, saying, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” (v55) The expanded text stresses nothing—including religious rejection—entitles us to wish destruction on anyone. That’s an archaic mentality, based on Old Testament yarns about God wiping out Israel’s adversaries. It’s completely out of keeping with Christ’s spirit and message. And any time we sink to the level of even imagining vengeance, like James and John, we betray our ignorance. We are not born of a spirit of destruction, but one of life and love. The only fire we should be concerned with is the flame burning inside us, the fervor that burns up our impure desires and lights the way to mercy and acceptance. If we truly follow Christ, our main impetus is saving lives, not destroying them.
Punishment is none of our concern. Contemplating ill that might befall someone who harms or disrespects us isn’t worthy of us. Yet it’s also often the case that those who wish us no good will not receive us. How then do we go about “saving them?” This passage answers that question with such simplicity we may be dumbfounded. After Jesus rebukes the Sons of Thunder, the story ends: “And they went to another village.” (v56) This sheds enormous light on what Jesus means by “saving lives.” We tend to think of it in the most grandiose terms—i.e., changing lives. We fret about not being heard or welcomed into a place where we can show those who reject us a better way. We presume if we were there to lead them, they would change. This won’t always be so. Some people have no desire to change. What we tell or show them won’t be anything they’ve not heard or seen. In this context, saving lives means sparing them—praying for their good, their health, and their success despite the harm they intend to do to us. This aligns with Christ’s teaching in Luke 6.27-28: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Often, saving lives is more about changing us than them.
The Journey’s Beauty
When Jesus realizes He isn’t welcome in the Samaritan village, He moves on. There’s no recrimination toward the villagers. In fact, there’s no mention of them at all. More important things lay ahead. James and John don’t know this is Christ’s last journey to Jerusalem. They want to show off their newfound sense of power and righteousness. Jesus realizes time is of the essence. There are villages ahead that want Him, people who need Him, and believers waiting to minister to Him. Fighting prejudicial resistance will mar the journey’s beauty.
Sometimes moving on is our only option. We have to accept that. We also have to realize others don’t define our value and worthiness. No one needs to be brought low so we can be lifted. Indeed, fantasies of vengeance and retribution reduce us. They pull us down to a level that’s beneath Christ. Instead, we lower ourselves by letting go and moving on. James 4.10 says, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” Earlier in Luke 9, Jesus teaches us, “If people do not welcome you, shake the dust off your feet when you leave their town, as a testimony against them.” (v5) Move on. The fact that we’re not around speaks for itself. We don’t have time to linger over destructive thoughts. There are places that want us, people who need us, and others waiting to minister to us. Our journey is too beautiful and sacred to be marred by rejection.
We don’t have time to stick around where we’re not wanted. There are better things ahead. Praying for adversaries’ destruction only mars the beauty of our journey.