This reading marks the turning point in St Luke's Gospel, where Jesus begins a roundabout journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. The point is that he is now on a collision course with the Jewish authorities and everything he does is building up to that final showdown.
Some people don't want to be part of his confrontational approach, and Jesus makes clear that they are free to reject him if they wish. No one must try to coerce or pressurise them. Someone posting on this blog has been trying to persuade me that, because St Luke and other Scripture writers, use the stories of Elijah and Elisha as a resource when they are telling the story of Jesus, that necessarily means the stories about Jesus are made up. However, whereas the New Testament writers usually try to show how alike Elijah and Jesus are, here – interestingly – St Luke contrasts the two. Elijah believed in coercion, and in calling down fire from heaven. Jesus does not.
Even to those who are prepared to follow him, Jesus is keen to point out the hardships and difficulties which lie ahead. If people are not prepared to accept the cost of discipleship, they should turn back.
That cost includes having no permanent home, leaving behind your family – even when they are in great need, and leaving the past resolutely behind. It is what generations of Methodist ministers have done, but I can testify from personal experience that it is a very hard thing to do. Even now the Methodist Church is reconsidering its policy on stationing ministers because of a shortage of volunteers. However, last week's floods are a vivid reminder that those who look for permanence in this world are bound to be disappointed. Only in the realm of spiritual and ethical values can we hope to find anything of truly lasting significance.
Following Jesus can sometimes create a conflict of interest – when being like other people in our village or our family, and sharing their values, is different from being like Jesus. Some sects have used passages like this one to justify calling for a complete break from family and friends in order to join their circle of initiates. That involves placing too much emphasis on sayings which were probably meant to be exaggerations anyway. But nonetheless, as followers of Jesus, we all have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared, if necessary, to take the lonely path of obedience if staying behind would prevent us from moving on with him.
Muslim extremists have shown again this weekend what they understand by the path of obedience. Christians have sometimes been guilty, too, of wanting to bring down fire on the heads of unbelievers, but Jesus' rebuke to James and John reminds us that the way of true obedience is the way of peace and love.
Lord, we pray for decision-makers: for Gordon Brown and his new Cabinet, and those who advise them, that they may be guided by the quest for freedom, truth, and justice.
We pray for the times when decisions are hard, when they are about protecting freedom and safety in the face of the threat from terrorism, or when they are about how best to cope with extremes of weather and climate.
And we pray for our own difficult choices, which we have to make when we are lost and confused.
We pray for those who have no choices left: people who have been caught up in the floods, people who are victims of poverty and hardship or ill health.
And we pray for our churches: that we may make the right choices in proclaiming the Gospel, even when it means leaving behind things that we cherish. Amen
(Based on an original prayer published in Rootsontheweb.com)