Whenever we are in an election year, I find myself wondering how Jesus might fare in a political race. I mean, he has a pretty awesome platform: liberation for the poor, forgiveness of debts, healing, even eternal life. But Jesus would be a modern campaign manager’s nightmare. I can imagine the harried manager running around in circles after hearing this week’s text. Just as Jesus is gaining ground and growing his constituency (or as the text calls them, disciples and followers), and just as Jesus is starting to gain prestige with comparisons to other great leaders, like Moses and Elijah, Jesus starts running his campaign into the ground.
We hear the campaign crumbling through four different incidents in our gospel lesson today. First, we hear the story of how Jesus and his crew need shelter. The Samaritans refuse them hospitality, and James and John, remembering how the great Elijah brought down fire on his opponents, ask Jesus if they should do the same thing. Reigning down fire on the enemies would certainly make for great evening news coverage and might even result in a surge in the polls. But Jesus does nothing of the sort. Instead, Jesus just ignores the affront and keeps going. Surely Jesus’ campaign manager would be crushed when his prepared speech about the Samaritans does not see the light of day.
Next, Jesus gets some promising news. On the campaign trail, someone shouts, “I will follow you wherever you go!” The campaign manager must be salivating as he hopes to tweet the comment and post the interchange on Vine or Snapchat. But, then Jesus ruins the whole moment by saying, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” Not exactly the best promotional video for Jesus’ campaign. Who wants to follow a guy whose response to “I’ll follow you anywhere!” is basically, “If you follow me, get ready to feel ostracized, abandoned, and alone.”?
The day keeps getting worse for the campaign manager. Two other people are ready to commit their lives to supporting the Jesus campaign. But instead of joyfully receiving them after they have packed their bags and said goodbye to their families, Jesus crankily says, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” and “No one who puts the hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” At least the great Elijah showed a little more patience than Jesus in his leadership. If you remember, when Elijah called Elisha to follow him, he gave him the chance to say goodbye to his family. But not Jesus. A new sheriff is in town and he has no patience for other agendas. I can just imagine the team of writers that the campaign manager would have to assemble to wax Jesus’ words and make them more palatable. Jesus would be a modern political campaign’s worst nightmare.
The way the text reads today, Jesus comes off as heartless and dismissive. But if we are really honest, Jesus can come off as heartless and dismissive through much of the gospels. We like to remember the lovey-dovey stuff about Jesus: the healings, the tender moments of compassion, or the motivational parables. But like any good marriage, with all the love that comes from Jesus, we must also take the hard, uncomfortable stuff too. Yesterday, two of our parishioners got married. The day was a day for love and joy. But the day was also a day for honesty and reflection. You see, the bride and groom had both lost their first spouses to disease and death. Between them, they have enjoyed over 90 years of happy marriages. Though both of them are thrilled to have found love and companionship again, they entered their marriage yesterday with the sobriety that can only come when you really know what you are getting into. I can do all the premarital counseling I want with a young couple getting married for the first time. But eventually they will have to learn for themselves that marriage is hard and love is even harder. Love is not all roses and champagne. Love is working through tough times, making sacrifices, and living with a partner who can sometimes be as cranky as Jesus.
The reason we stay in committed, loving relationships is that we understand the ultimate goal: to love and care for one another for the long run. Jesus is probably cranky in our vignettes today because he too has an ultimate goal: his love for us which leads to the cross. At the beginning of our story today, the text says, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This is our cue about Jesus’ seemingly bad mood. Jesus does not have time for teaching and coddling. He does not have energy for a leisurely stroll, where he can tell long parables and then explain their meaning. No, Jesus has turned his face to Jerusalem. We can hear in that one sentence, “When the days drew near for Jesus to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem,” an indicator of Jesus’ demeanor.[i] I am not sure Jesus would have ever made a savvy politician anyway, but he certainly would not have done so at this point in his ministry. Where we are in Luke’s gospel is a turning point – a dramatic shift in the narrative. When Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem, everything else fades away. He takes on a “singlemindedness of purpose that is prompted by God’s profound love for humanity and all the world.”[ii]
In his epistle to the Galatians we read today, Paul has become a bit cranky too. The Galatians are fighting and Paul tells them to “stand firm,” or, in other words, to be single-minded in their love for one another. Paul says, “…through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” As one scholar argues, “Being good at love, …requires a fair share of determination. Loving another is not the easiest of commitments to make. Love, it ought not surprise us, is going to require a little crankiness along the way. Everything that has value does, and love is what has ultimate value for, of course, it is the only thing that lasts. According to Paul and Jesus, it really is the only commandment, the only thing life is really about.”[iii]
Though both Jesus and Paul sound cranky and harsh today, I do not think they are either. Why Paul asserts that the Galatians stand firm and why Jesus condemns those who put their hand to the plow and then look back is because both of them know our tendencies. “Perhaps Jesus recognizes our tendency to put off the moments in time that might actually make a difference in what we say about him. Perhaps Jesus sees that we come with ready excuses to defer our proclamation because we think we need to be in a better place, a better time, a time when the stars align so as to make our experience of the Gospel the perfect it was never meant to be. Perhaps Jesus simply says stop making excuses and start imagining experiences that invite ‘let’s see what happens’ instead of ‘I need all my stuff figured out.’”[iv]
That is what happens when we really love one another. We do not worry how savvy our political campaign is. Instead we worry about what really matters – our call to love one another as Christ loves us. Once we start doing that, party affiliation and grandstanding matter very little. In fact, politics becomes a lot easier when we use the Jesus standard of love. When we single-mindedly focus on love, our actions fall less into one political party or another of this world, but instead fall into focus on the kingdom of God.
Now, like our newlyweds will you tell, loving our neighbor is not easy. Love as a political campaign will be frustrating and at times will make us quite cranky. But by focusing on love, we allow ourselves to let go of all the extraneous stuff of life and focus single-mindedly on God’s purpose for us. Sorting priorities becomes easier, caring for one another becomes more satisfying, and living into our purpose in this life comes more naturally. Perhaps that would be the slogan that Jesus’ campaign manager would eke out of all Jesus’ interactions today: All we need is love. Amen.
[i] Elaine A. Heath, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 190.
[ii] David J. Lose, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 195.
[iv] Karoline Lewis, “Every Moment Counts,” June 19, 2016, as found at https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4679 on June 22, 2016.