What is it to be human?

30 June 2019
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 8C (RCL)

2 Kings2:1-2, 6-14
Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

Luke 9:51 is of course a turning point in Luke’s account of Jesus. From this point onward, his narrative is directed toward the events of Jerusalem. Luke immediately connects this turn to four short sayings. The first about a village of the Samaritans. James and John want to imitate Elijah and call down fire upon them (2 Kings 1:10-12). Elijah operated primarily in the Northern Kingdom, so the connection would be obvious.

Jesus, of course refuses the fire and just moves on. Immediately, he encounters someone who promises to follow him wherever he goes. Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Human Being has nowhere to lay his head.” I think the case is strong for this translation of the phrase uios tou anthropou, usually translate the Son of Man (man here is incorrect). Jesus is given instruction on what it means to be human. Neither being Samaritan, nor having one’s face set toward Jerusalem defines being human.

Jesus invites another to follow him, who asks to be allowed first to go bury his father (meaning to fulfill his obligations to his family). Jesus replies, “Let the dead bury their own dead,” implying that to follow Jesus means to die to family. To be human, then, is not defined by family. Jesus tells him to go and proclaim the kingdom of God. To be human is to live in the Kingdom and proclaim it wherever one is. To follow Jesus, then, is not necessarily to journey to Jerusalem with him, but to live in the Kingdom on the road.

The third encounter is with someone who will follow after going to bid farewell to those at his home. Jesus replies that no one who sets a hand to the plow and then looks back is fit for the kingdom. Evidently, to live in the kingdom requires going all in.

We don’t want our Christianity to require so much from us – we would rather it was a weekend activity. Jesus lived in a time when, for the the average person, the Empire was a matter of daily brutality. For those who benefited from that brutality, life looked pretty go – for the rest, not so much. In our day, we are likely the ones who benefit from Empire (as I type this on my personal computer, connected to the internet). For those not so lucky, a long walk from El Salvador to the US/Mexican border can look like a better deal. What defines the human being?

Elijah, having accomplished none of what God charge him with on the mountain, prepares for his departure across the Jordan. Elisha insists on journeying with him. Elijah crosses the Jordan out into the wilderness; Elisha, having asked for a double share of Elijah’s spirit, takes up Elijah’s mantle, and strikes the Jordan, and crosses back into Israel from the wilderness. Joshua was the first to make this crossing, and Elisha’s name bears some similarity to Joshua’s. Elijah means YHWH is God. Joshua means YHWH saves, and Elisha means God saves. (Jesus, which is just Joshua in Greek, of course crosses the Jordan after his baptism by John the Baptist (who is an Elijah figure)). Elisha re-enters Canaan for the same purpose as Joshua entered the first time – to conquer the land for God.

Paul reminds us that Christ has set us free for the sake of freedom. Freedom from what? From definition by the flesh – neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. We should not, then, become slaves again to any false definition (in the verses left out, he makes the joke that he wishes those are trying to convince the Galatians to accept circumcision would just go ahead and castrate themselves), but rather, through love, become slaves to each other.

Defining ourselves by the flesh leads to the long list of vices he enumerates. His catalog is frighteningly accurate. All of these things are true of those who benefit from Empire. To be human means to be defined by the Spirit, and leads to a catalog of virtues. It requires us to live rather differently than we do, willing to hit the road, to abandon the social institutions that define our humanity, and seek a more free and authentic way of living.

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