Lenten Studies - Week 4: “Along the Road”

Reflecting on the Gospel Story

Jesus leaves all behind him - home, family, neighbours, work - and takes to the road. He says goodbye to everything familiar to him, leaving it all over his shoulder.

From a settled life in the small village of Nazareth, he becomes a pioneer, not only in taking new roads and gathering new friends and devising new means of reaching out to people on the way, but also in attracting a formidable cluster of new enemies. The transition from the quiet, settled life of a village carpenter to becoming a wandering teacher must have been a particularly challenging one: you have to say goodbye to the small world of the secure and familiar, turn around, and face a larger world of insecurity and strangeness.

The famous lines of Robert Frost from “The Road Not Taken” are appropriate:

“I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,

I took the one less travelled by,

And that has made all the difference.”

Journeying with Jesus

Following the new Companion Guide written for groups: by Father Denis McBride

Gathering companions for the road ahead

The evangelists present Jesus as a man who can command loyalty and respect and devotion; he has the capacity to attract disciples to leave their homes and jobs and families to follow him on the road. He makes an impact on people, and people become interested in who he is and in his mission.

The impact happens first; the interest comes second. Without the initial impact there would be no interest: we don’t become interested in people who make no impact on us. If Jesus had done and said the same as all the other rabbis, no one would have asked the question: “Who is this man?” Jesus has made a significant impact, provoking people to wonder about his identity.

  1. Who is this man that he even forgives sins?

  2. Who is this man who commands the waves to be still?

  3. Who is this man who opens the eyes of the blind?

  4. Who is this man who heals on the Sabbath?

None of the disciples would have followed Jesus if they had not been first attracted by him and the power of his message. You do not give up everything to follow someone who looks primed for failure, someone who appears to be heading nowhere

There was, at one time, an advertisement on television .A man walks alone down a deserted street in a run-down part of the city. Tall vacant buildings appear behind him; there is no sign of life anywhere except, from somewhere in the background, you hear a dog barking. It is raining heavily. The man’s wide-brimmed hat does not appear to be protecting him from the pouring rain. He pulls his wet coat collar around his neck and stops under the only lamp post in the street. He takes out a packet of cigarettes, lights one and breathes out a whiff of smoke. A voice-over declares: “You are never alone with a Strand.”

Strand cigarettes died a quick market death because so few people bought them owing to the miserable association projected by this advertisement. The forty-second long advertisement proved memorable for many people, but few smokers wanted to buy Strand cigarettes and associate themselves with a lonely man, in abject surroundings, on a wet night, whose only comfort in life seemed to be a cigarette. Who would want to follow him?

Who would want to take out a packet of Strand cigarettes in company and have others associate them with this lonely figure who looked like he had nowhere to go? People don’t associate naturally with what they perceive to be failure or desperation. To give up the life you have known, and take a new road, you need to believe that the person calling you and the new way of life offered, both hold out new prospects and new challenges.

Why else would you change? It is a measure of Jesus’ natural authority, to say nothing of the attractiveness of his personality, that he could call others to a new way of life. They must have seen in him a new way of being in the world, a new road to walk. He became the new way.

On what basis would you leave everything to follow someone?

Who would that person have to be and what would they have to do before you would attach your life to theirs? 

Have you ever met, encountered or even just learned of a person whose way of life you were inspired to follow or to want to follow?

Did that feeling persist?

Was it merely temporal or did it prove to be long lasting?

Setting your face for the road

Jesus at first ministers in his own region of Galilee, which, geographically, appears to be a safe distance from the religious authorities in Jerusalem. Luke tells us that Jesus “set his face” to take the road to Jerusalem. If you have to set your face to go to a particular place, it suggests that you would rather stay where you are or head for somewhere else. W.C. Fields famously proposed as his epitaph: “On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia.”

Setting your face towards a place implies difficulty, if not danger, on the road ahead. It suggests that resolute determination will be needed. This journey will be neither easy nor agreeable, but will require sacrifice. For sure.

Jesus and the disciples begin their journey south by travelling through Samaria, and they are met with open hostility, giving them a taste of things to come. The Samaritans reject them - probably because they believe that this group is travelling to a theological mistake in the city of Jerusalem. The antagonism was mutual between the Jews and the Samaritans, illustrated by the response of two disciples. What do you do when people reject you? What do you do when you put on your best face, smile your most engaging smile, and all you get in return is sullen indifference and condemnation? Two of the disciples, James and John, make an interesting pastoral suggestion to Jesus: call down fire from heaven and burn these people up.

The disciples appeal to raw power for the purpose of dominating others - an appeal that Jesus has already dismissed in the wilderness when Satan offered him immediate sovereignty over the kingdoms of the world. The appeal now comes from two of his own disciples, not from Satan.

Jesus rebukes them and then does himself what he will often counsel his disciples to do: if people reject you, shake the dust from your feet and move on. Move on! Do not become captivated by others’ meanness of spirit or their miserable and miserly ways; otherwise you will end up building a monument to your own rejection, and spend the rest of your life telling the story. Move on and keep going until you meet people kind enough to make you welcome. This will make the disciples dependent on the kindness of strangers.

The disciples bring into their relationship with Jesus and into their relationship with each other not only their real commitment and enthusiasm, but also:

  1. their own prejudices

  2. their unresolved compulsions

  3. their inability to handle rejection

  4. their sleeping violence

  5. their unformed theology

  6. their ready anger

  7. their jealousy at others’ success

  8. their collected guilt

  9. their strange in-laws

  10. their suspicions

  11. their lust for greatness

  12. their misinformation about people

  13. their own unhealed hurts

  14. their thin resolve when things get tough

  15. their embarrassment and fear when Jesus is taken from them

Jesus has a lot of work to do during this journey to evangelise his own crowd, never mind any other crowd. As Jesus journeys through different places and spaces, he wants to give his disciples not only a direction but also a perspective. The journey is not just from one place to the next but from one perspective to the next. He wants them to borrow his eyes, to see ever so gradually, people and the world differently, more kindly. It is not just the road that they travel together; it is his viewpoint that they are invited to share.

Following the way of the master

Whatever disposition his followers have, Jesus needs their help. He is not a perfectionist, aggressively demanding that his disciples measure up to his ideals before risking them on the road, afraid that they will not shine in the task ahead. After all, Jesus has only one voice, one pair of hands: he needs his disciples if his message is to spread beyond the reaches of Galilee. One of Jesus; wonderful attributes is that he trusts his disciples in all their fragility, sending them out ahead of him. “Go on your way,” he commands them - a command that, in the circumstances, seems either incredibly hopeful or utterly stupid.

After so short a training, Jesus sends them out on their own, to find their own roads, hoping that, in spite of all their vulnerability, their love and commitment might be caught by others who meet them. He hopes that the love they have for one another - not their efficiency - might be catching; it might intrigue people to become interested in the project.

Compared to the strength of his opponents, Jesus is aware that his own disciples are like lambs among wolves: in other words, they must be prepared to be eaten alive. Such is the urgency of preaching the kingdom that Jesus takes this epic risk: time, after all, is not on his side. In other words the disciples are not just to follow Jesus but to make their own roads in life. The disciple is challenged to become like the master, to share his power.

The master will not be around for ever; the disciple will have to take over and become a leader and attract other people to the movement. Disciples must not only follow but become new leaders in their own turn. Above all, they must grow into their own authority, one that reflects the gentleness and attentiveness of Jesus himself. Jesus passes on everything to his disciples, so that they might find their own road in the world.

Perspectives (and the changing thereof)
The Greek word “Metanoia” is a Lenten metaphor.

It means a complete re-think of many of the principles by which we live our lives - how comfortable a concept is this?

Using the list above how might we change our perspectives in our homes, our parish, our church, our lives?

The road

In the Gospel of Luke Jesus’ journey which begins at 9:51 and ends at 19:27 with the entry into Jerusalem, is an extraordinary travelogue which includes teaching on discipleship and prayer, healing sick people, exchanging bitter words with the religious authorities, warning people of hard times ahead, eating with rich people and poor people, and watching people who would love to join his company walk away. You wonder if Jesus ever speculates how many of his followers will endure with him, right to the end. Will he be surprised that only the women make it to his final destination?

During the journey you watch how Jesus is challenged about his origins, his lack of formal education, his seriousness, his frivolity, his curious friends and his baffling choice of eating companions. His freedom and independence make many observers uneasy; they wonder by what authority he does what he does. He argues with his opponents, without exacting ultimate clarity from them; he does not snipe at them behind their backs, but confronts then and calls them names to their faces.

Whatever the drama is on the road, Jesus never allows the conversation to drift too far away from the challenges and suffering that await his company at journey’s end. Most people would want to keep talk about suffering and division and rejection firmly off the agenda, but Jesus brings is to the forefront. He names what he sees, and he has a charisma for provoking conflict.

Jesus also speaks words of awesome tenderness to his companions on the road; he talks of their measureless worth in the eyes of God and why they should never underestimate the power of love within them; he tells them that no matter how lost and broken they might become, they will always be welcomed back to their Father’s house; he assures them that their life of renunciation will not go unheeded but be rewarded many times over, in this life and the next. He has a hard time, however, getting his own crowd to believe in themselves and in their own aptitude for mission, but he persists right through to the Last Supper.

As they travel ever nearer to Jerusalem, the road gets shorter, the mood gets more solemn and the talk gets more serious. Did Jesus ever feel like making a u-turn and hiking it back to the safety of the Galilean hills?

The end of the road: entering the city with style

Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem ends when he organises his own parade into the city that is destined to kill him. The commotion throws the city into turmoil as the people seek to discover: “Who is this man?” That question again. The city people are told that this is the prophet Jesus of Nazareth, from up north in Galilee. The northerner has come to question the south; the countryman has come to risk himself in the big city; the prophet has come to confront established authority.

By the time the passion gets under way there is nothing to shout about. Processions that follow messiahs are triumphant affairs; processions that follow condemned criminals are timid by comparison, shabby affairs made up of those who bravely turn up and the legion of the curious, who can never be mistaken for disciples. After Jesus’ arrest all of his male disciples will abandon him: one will betray him with a kiss; another will deny him with curses. Confronted with fight or flight, their fear will make the decision.

Jesus himself presses on to the end of the road. The passion is not just something that is done to Jesus by others; it is a power within Jesus, his passion that enables him to face the violence and the pain. Jesus has a grand passion, one that consumes his whole person and drives him through this time of horror. He could have avoided coming south to Jerusalem; he could have compromised and settled for survival. But the passion that is in him is grander than his need for security or survival. He is a deeply passionate man. His ardent love insists that he face the ultimate test of love—the cross.

Throughout his journey Jesus has revealed the reaches of his own passion. His undying urge to do his Father’s will. His preference for the poor and the abandoned. His fury at a religious authority that exacts inflexible standards, crushing the broken reeds, all the while inventing new burdens for people to carry. His energetic love for those who are disabled in life, for those who have been unlucky, for those who are stuck in wretched ways, for prisoners who never hear good news. His open disappointment with those who are economical with their love, reserving the lion’s share for themselves. His way of having basketfuls of plenty, pressed down yet still spilling over. His outlandish attachment to those who count themselves worthless. His dogged loyalty to those who will abandon him.

In the end the cross comes as no surprise.