When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.
The name given to James and John in Mark’s Gospel seems apt. The “Sons of Thunder” respond disproportionately to predictable reluctance to offer hospitality to a wandering rabbi. From a Samaritan viewpoint Jesus was resolutely going in the wrong direction, heading south to the upstart Jerusalem when he should have been going north to Mount Gerizim to worship God in the right place.
Jesus had just taught the disciples that “whoever is not against you is for you”. Perhaps the brothers’ logic became “therefore anyone who is not for you is against you, especially when they’re Samaritans”. Some versions of the text add a reference to Elijah, reminding the informed reader of the prophet calling down fire as a sign of God’s power during a stand-off with King Ahaziah of Samaria. Elsewhere Luke mentions Samaritans in relation to getting things right while those who should know better miss the point.
When Jesus sent out the twelve (Luke 9.1-6) they were to simply shake off the dust from their feet if any house chose not to welcome them. He repeats this injunction when he sends out the seventy (Luke 10. 1-12.) Wasn’t this enough? It’s easy to imagine him wincing and rolling his eyes at James and John’s suggestion. No wonder he rebuked them.
Where do we put our energies? Persist in trying to persuade people who have given up on Church-going Christians that we’re not as bad as they think we are, and critiquing the absence of meaning in their life as we see it? Or finding ways of getting alongside and engaging with people who are trying to make sense of life, as they respond to neighbours’ needs with compassion and generosity?
This village may have good reasons for shutting their doors against us. There are other villages.
God, my heart’s compass, when my plans don’t work out the way I hope they will, or think they should; when an agenda close to my heart is not affirmed, or when my ambitions for good are thwarted; remind me to take a breath, stand back and look for you and wait to be shown a different way to go, to reach your destination. Amen
The Rev’d Fiona Thomas, freelance facilitator, member at Christ Church, Bellingham