Okay, I admit it. I “get” this gospel story. James and John resonate with me because if I’m honest with myself, I’m a “Can I call down fire?” kind of guy!
I’ll bet you are too.
I like to think of myself as a peace loving follower of Jesus, but I have to admit that there are some things that get under my skin, that I can get all “fired up” about and make me wish for a little “immediate righteous indignation with gratification.”
I’ve watch the sad story about a pet left outside in the heat with no water, and thought to myself, “They should chain up the owner in the sun with a water bottle just out of reach, let him/her see what it is like!”
I’ll bet you’ve caught yourself thinking the same, a little “retributive justice” for something that made you mad.
Pick your area of irritation, conservative or liberal, and I’ll bet you can come up with a time or two when you thought it would be all right if someone “got what was coming to them” for their actions.
It is human nature.
It is the way we think about and weigh what we would consider “just” in a particular circumstance.
Oh, I get James and John.
I am far too eager to ask Jesus for the same permission to “zap,” to punish what I see as an egregious affront or error.
Surely even Jesus would understand my anger, my sense of indignation, my own righteousness in the face of what is so blatantly wrong.
We might even imagine ourselves doing Jesus a favor here. “Don’t trouble yourself Master, you’ve got your eye set on Jerusalem and more important matters, I’ll take care of this little annoyance — with your permission, of course.”
James and John wanting to act on impulse, in the heat of the moment, is not all that far fetched for me to understand.
I’ve been there, and I’ll bet you have too.
What makes this an exceedingly good news story for me is that Jesus seems to understand this impulse. He guides those who follow him away from it.
James and John are rebuked, (we are told) but we do not get any of the details of the rebuke.
We don’t have Jesus turning on them and exclaiming “What are you guys thinking of??? Where did you get this idea???”
No heat or anger or argument from Jesus, just a quick turn, a comment of rebuke, and a call to “move on.”
Then these little comments or questions that follow.
“As they were going along the road, someone said to him…”
Who was that someone?
Was it some stranger who came up to them up along the way?
Or were these comments made by the disciples themselves in turn, trying to break the silence, change the mood, understand?
I try to imagine this exchange in my mind, of what it was like, and the image that I conjure up is always a little bit like a car ride as a kid.
You know what I mean.
The too-long car ride before computer navigation, where mom or dad are focused on the directions, the next turn they have to take, where to go, when you chimed in from the back seat and your comment (whatever it was) was just not appreciated, proved to be a distraction.
The icy quiet of a parent who is not pleased with you, but also not going to pull over. We are on our way, and you are along whether you like it or not, are ready for it or not.
That’s what comes to mind when I think of this story.
I can imagine James and John having “stepped in it” with their comment about calling down fire, and Jesus rebuking, and then what follows is this uneasy and tentative journey where no one is quite certain just what to say.
Jesus is intent, and intense, his face is set toward Jerusalem, toward figuring out how all of this is going to play out
Jesus’ mind is set on how he will enter the city, the reception he will receive there, where he will need to go, and how he will need to prepare himself and his disciples for the events that will take place once he arrives.
Jesus, (more than his disciples at this point) knows that this will be a fateful journey, a journey of consequence.
He’s been trying to communicate that to his followers, but their minds are dazzled by the miracles they have witnessed and set upon how they might access that same power that they have seen Jesus wield and that Jesus has promised to give them.
How they will make their entrance, these disciples? Prove themselves to be followers? Take their places at Jesus’ side? All of these questions seem to be ruminating on the road to Jerusalem in one story or another.
The “calling down fire” comment was a bust, and so now, what will we say? What can we say?
“As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
That seems a safe comment to make, a renewal of the intent to follow where Jesus leads.
To which Jesus responds, from the front seat… “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
“I’m not going anywhere comfortable,” Jesus seems to be saying.
He will have no place to lay his head.
In Jerusalem, we as readers know that his head will eventually roll to his own shoulder on the cross, finding no place to lay. When his head does finally come to rest on something, it will be on a borrowed tomb’s stone slab at the end of this journey.
If you’re looking for someplace comfortable, someplace safe to end up with Jesus, that’s just not in the cards.
“Follow me.” Nevertheless, Jesus says.
And then come the qualifiers from the back seat. It’s not that they do not WANT to follow him, it’s just that life throws all these very legitimate distractions in the way.
“Lord, first let me…” they say.
Let me say my good-byes.
Let me take care of what look like some really important things.
Let me ….
And each of those qualifiers is met with a comment that seems, (I don’t know) cold? Too direct? Almost Heartless?
“Let the dead to bury the dead?”
“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God.”
Attempts at making small talk, of reassuring Jesus of one’s intent are not met as expected, with encouragement or levity, but rather with Jesus making clear in this moment that the journey he is on is deathly serious. It is underway now, and you as a disciple are along for the ride, there is no half-way, he’s not “pulling over.”
No, I get James and John for their “call down fire” comment.
And I also get the mood that Jesus sets here, because it is the mood that I struggle with as well.
It is easy to follow Jesus when we think that following will mean having the perks and benefits of Jesus’ presence, being able to “do” things.
It is harder to follow when we begin to sense that we are just along for the ride, and that we will have little say in the actions along the way.
We don’t get to decide who gets zapped.
We don’t get to pick and choose the things that seem like legitimate excuses at the time, things that no one should argue with, like obligations for funerals and family.
No, once the call is made, the direction given, the disciple is along for where Jesus is going, and bound to his decisions.
I have felt both of these experiences.
I have experienced the confidence of feeling that with Jesus going along with me I could make anything happen.
Heal and bring hope and light.
I have also experienced the other side of following Jesus, when he sets his face on something that I’m not so sure about, wants me to follow where he isn’t afraid to go, pulls me along with terse reminders of the cost of proclaiming the Kingdom. I’ve had to do things that do not make friends, and do not please family members and that are questioned long after the event unfold.
“Was this the only thing I could have done, should have done?”
No, If you are looking for a comfortable ending as you follow Jesus where he sets his face, think again.
If you think you will always know what to say and when to say it in the presence of Jesus, think again.
He will challenge and confront as well as compliment and encourage.
Yes, I “get” this story of James and John.
This is the story of a God who is intent on doing whatever it takes to accomplish what God sets out to do.
No side distractions.
No hasty decisions.
No vindictive actions.
Just a stead and unrelenting march toward Jerusalem, and the Cross, and grace and redemption.
This story is a reminder to those who follow Jesus that you will not always find the way easy, clear, or to your liking.
A reminder that Jesus may throw you a curve from time to time in your expectations of what you think should be done.
A reminder that to be a follower of Jesus is to make your way toward the place where things are going to happen, and the only real assurance you will have is that you are making your way there with Jesus.