2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14+Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20+Galatians 5:1, 13-25+Luke 9:51-62
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, were fishermen. They worked with their father at the nets, fishing in the Sea of Galilee near the village of Capernaum, partners with another local fisherman, Simon. When Jesus called these three away from fishing so that they could fish for people (Luke 5:10), he gave them nicknames. Simon, he called Peter, a wordplay on the Greek word for rock, because Peter was to be the rock on which the church would be built. Given that Peter had his less-than-stellar moments in following Jesus, that rock could also symbolize a stumbling block, or something that people trip over. It may even have been a nickname born of joking around. These were not a bunch of serious-minded guys walking around with halos over their heads; they were buddies. I kind of like the thought of Jesus calling his friend something like a rockhead!
The two brothers, James and John, were given the name Βοανηργές, or “sons of thunder” (Mark 3:17). It seems an odd name to give to them, and Jesus never quite explains why he called the brothers that. Of course, Jesus would not have been speaking Greek to these new disciples; he would have spoken Aramaic which is similar to Hebrew. Some have interpreted this “sons of thunder” in lofty terms. In Hebrew, the word for thunder can mean the “voice of God.” So, maybe these two are to be the voice of God for the inbreaking of God’s reign which Jesus is here to proclaim. Or maybe Jesus is making a joke. Maybe they are just Thunder Boys, blowhards, guys who talk a big game. Maybe Jesus is poking fun at his friends.
These are the only three that Jesus gives nicknames. They were obviously the three who were closest to Jesus, accompanying him onto the mountaintop at the Transfiguration and into the Garden of Gethsemane following the last supper. Since they are the closest to Jesus, they are the ones about whom the gospel writers tell us the most, and not all of it is flattering. Remember that James and John are the two who want to know who is the greatest of them (Luke 9:46-47) and who gets to sit at Jesus’s right hand when God’s reign comes (Mark 10:35-45). It’s pretty obvious that they don’t really understand what it is Jesus was asking or expecting of them when he said to “follow me.”
Nowhere is that more evident than in the words we hear them say today, “‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’” (Luke 9:54). The “them” to which they refer is a village and its residents – men, women, and children. This village of Samaritans refused to receive Jesus, and the disciples were offended by this, so their solution is to incinerate every living thing there. This is rather shocking. Jesus has proclaimed love and healing and praying for enemies, and here these two want to wipe out those who say, “no, thank you” to a visit from Jesus. It’s kind of funny that they think they can do this when earlier in this same chapter of Luke, they can’t even heal a small boy, but that they could even imagine wiping out an entire village should make us sit up and take note.
I’ve been seeing and reading and hearing a lot of similar spewing of judgment and hate in recent weeks and months. Those heartless people who lock up children in cages should burn in hell. Those parents who risk their kids’ lives by coming to this country “illegally” should be shot. Oh, yeah, I’ve seen and read and heard these kinds of things and worse, and I’m sure you have, too, much of it coming from people who call themselves Christian. We can get so caught up in pointing fingers and spouting hate, assured that our judgment is the correct judgment, and we want to call fire out of heaven to burn up those who oppose us.
And just as Jesus rebuked the disciples, so, I believe, does he rebuke us. And that this rebuke is followed by the hard words, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God’ (Luke 9:62) should command out attention. Now, I’ve heard this as guilt-inducing for anyone who expresses doubt about their faith or their ability to devote themselves to the work of the gospel. In case you need a reminder, Jesus doesn’t do guilt. I’ve also heard it as kind of a demand to not care about anybody or anything other than following Jesus, but Jesus is all about being in community with those we love and who love us. So what is it he is trying to say?
I don’t know that I have the final word or the best interpretation, but in these times and in this place, I believe Jesus has a word for us, and that word is not to take our eyes off of what is really important and what our work really is. If we are to love God and love neighbor, to “seek and serve Christ in every person” and respect the dignity of every human being,” (BCP 305), then we can’t get caught up in name-calling and judgment-proclaiming. Yes, we can oppose those who seek to harm others. We can protect the innocent and stand for justice and truth and peace. And. And we can keep our shoulders to the plow, tilling the soil for God’s justice to reign among all people. Giving voice to hate on the one hand while claiming to love Jesus on the other just doesn’t work. There’s plenty of that kind of hypocrisy to go around these days.
We have a truth to proclaim, and we have work to do, and we can’t be distracted into inertia by lobbing critiques at those who disagree with us and then doing nothing to make the world a better place for those who are suffering. That’s what it is to “look back” after beginning good work. If you believe that immigrant children should not be separated from their parents and put into whatever you want to call that kind of detention, then advocate, contribute, be vocal on their behalf. There’s no need for the name-calling in the other direction. That does nothing to advance the plow through the soil.
We have to be more than Sons of Thunder in this work. We can’t be all words and no action. We can’t be calling fire out of the skies. We have to be sowers who go out and prodigally scatter God’s love to all people, and we have to dig in and do the deep work of reconciliation and justice-making in our world. Our reading today begins with Jesus setting his face for Jerusalem, and what awaits him there is crucifixion. He is modelling the way for us, shoulder to plow, teaching those he loved to keep their eyes focused on what matters most. That is the work we are given to do, right here and right now.