Proper 8(C): What Would Jesus Do?
The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen
When I was a kid in the early 90s, WWJD swag was a big deal. I had bracelets, t-shirts, and even a bible with the letters emblazoned across it. With every action we took, we were to ask ourselves the question: What would Jesus do?
Now, at its core, this is not terrible advice. The trouble, of course, comes in knowing what Jesus would actually do. Anyone who has lived in any sort of community (a family, a seminary, a camp, etc.) knows that it is next to impossible to actually know the mind of someone else. It stands to reason that knowing the mind of God, even when God arrives incarnated as a human being, is even more difficult.
Our lectionary reading comes at a turning point in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus has ended his Galilean ministry and is journeying toward his passion in Jerusalem. Here, he will confront the civic and religious leaders, and his message that God’s kingdom includes everyone will ultimately get him executed.
When Jesus sends messengers ahead to proclaim his arrival, a village of Samaritans rejects Jesus and his disciples. Given the animosity between Jews and Samaritans, this is hardly surprising. I can’t help but laugh when I hear James and John’s response to this rejection: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” How many times have I thought about destroying my own enemies or those who speak ill of me?
The comedian Daniel Tosh has a brilliant, if vulgar, routine where he remembers his WWJD bracelet. When an obnoxious man in a movie theater talks on his phone during the film, Tosh recounts that he wants to punch this man. One look at his WWJD bracelet, however, changes his mind. “Oh I was going crazy,” Tosh says, “but then I looked at my bracelet—what would Jesus do? So I lit him on fire and sent him to hell.”
Ok, so maybe not a joke you’re comfortable using in the pulpit, but I think it’s exactly where James and John go. They remember the story of Elijah who sent fire down upon the worshippers of Baal (2 Kings 1:9-16). Wouldn’t Jesus want them to do as the great prophet did?
The inability of James and John, and presumably the other disciples, to understand Jesus gives me a kind of hope. When I read the second part of our Gospel lesson, I have an uneasy reaction. I’m supposed to ignore my family and become a religious zealot? My grandmother recently died, and I took time off from my church job to go home, be with family, and bury her. Is Jesus telling me in this passage that I should not have done that? Knowing the mind of Jesus is difficult.
As with most biblical passages and characters, I think Jesus has to be understood in light of the greater story and its context. This passage in Luke is not simply Jesus strolling through the countryside looking to create disciples. This is Jesus marching toward the center of Roman civic and Jewish religious authority where he knows that his proclamation of the Kingdom will lead him to execution. He has limited time.
The urgency of Jesus’ story and the Lukan community’s expectation of the Parousia gives us some parameters to set around our understanding of Jesus’ teachings. Clearly, Jesus has great concern for compassion. When James and John suggest lighting the Samaritans on fire, Jesus rebukes them. When the first man tells Jesus that he will follow him, Jesus makes sure that the man understands what he’s signing up for. When another wants to follow Jesus after he’s tended to his own needs, Jesus reminds him that the time has arrived for action. Harsh? Maybe, but they are truthful statements.
As I think about how I might preach these two difficult passages, I think the theme throughout is discerning awareness of the magnitude of the work of discipleship. As followers of Jesus, we need constantly to turn to Jesus in prayer and through Holy Scripture in order to understand better how he calls us to follow. Furthermore, we need to be able to make that discernment in light of our own time and context. Just as Jesus in Luke’s Gospel has immediate political and religious challenges, we too have immediate challenges that come from our own social and religious realities.
One way we can bring this Gospel into our own contexts is to ask the question, who would I like to light on fire and send to hell? I’m fairly confident that this is NOT what Jesus would do. There is wisdom, however, in identifying those who impede the work of ministry and understanding that sometimes the most loving thing we can do is move on to the next village and trust that God will continue to love and care for those to whom we cannot minister. Likewise, we can ask ourselves these important questions: What things are standing between me and Jesus? What cares of the world are outweighing the immediacy of God’s kingdom? And where is the Spirit leading me as I follow Jesus’ path?
There is no one correct response to these questions, and I’m certain that different communities and individuals will have differing realities. That is the beauty of discipleship—we are not called as individuals, but as a collective Body of Christ. I am not singularly responsible for the evangelism of the world or the building of the kingdom. I am but one part of God’s great plan. God will utilize me as best suits my gifts, and God will utilize others as best suits theirs. Jesus reminds us in Luke that we should discern his will in our immediate context, keeping in mind the realities of empire and other power structures that attempt to work against us.
The Rev. Charles Lane Cowen is Associate Rector of Trinity Episcopal Parish in Wilmington, Delaware. Utilizing his former acting career, Charles enjoys engaging with Holy Scripture through various forms of storytelling and performance. Since completing his M.Div. at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas in 2018, he has put much energy into learning the Spanish language and Latino culture in order to better serve the Latino community in Wilmington. When he is not at church, Charles can be found walking the many beautiful parks in Delaware or attending theatre and music performances.