4 min. to read.
Today is the 13th day of Lent. As a part of my practice this year, I’m reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. I journal on the scripture he’s selected and his reflection, then I post daily (or near-daily) meditations that emerge from this.
The scripture for today is Luke 9:51-56, the time when the disciples asked Jesus to incinerate a village.
Jesus and the disciples are traveling toward Jerusalem. The disciples won’t accept it yet, but this trip will end in Jesus’ death. Just before this, Jesus had been transfigured, and God had explicitly said, “Listen to him.” They weren’t listening, though., This event shows how far of track they were.
Along the planned route, they would pass through part of Samaria and stay in a Samaritan village. The Samaritans were descendants of Judeans from the old Northern Kingdom. They had been left behind during the Babylonian exile and intermarried with their neighbors, who weren’t Jews.
There was a great deal of animosity between the Samaritans and the Jews over this history, including disputes over which parts of scripture were authoritative. The Samaritans even had a separate temple they believed was the one temple God truly blessed. Feelings between the group ranged from dismissal to hatred. While racism as we define it today wasn’t really a concept in the 1st century, and ethnicity was seen differently, it’s not an inappropriate analogy to think of the animosity between Samaritans and Jews as racial or religious hatred.
Jesus sent some disciples ahead to this village to make arrangements, and when the village found out who was coming, they refused to host them. Refusing hospitality in this time and place was a great offense, and the disciples felt it. In reaction, James and John asked Jesus for permission to call down fire from heaven to incinerate the offending village!
Here’s where Zahnd’s reading of the text gets interesting. He suggests that the disciples didn’t come up with this idea out of the blue. He points to 1st Kings 1. In this passage, the great prophet Elijah gets into a dispute with the king of Samaria (the city the Samaritans were named for). When the king sent soldiers to collect Elijah, he called down fire and destroyed the troops. He did this twice to two different groups of 50 soldiers!
If Zahnd is right that the disciples recalled this story, then the situation was basically this. The disciples were using an Old Testament scripture as justification to invoke violence against someone who offended them. They were making a Biblical argument! Jesus refused their request.
The legacy of citing scripture to back our desire to injure others is long indeed. Scripture has been used to justify slavery, genocide, invasions, bombings, and every kind of social hierarchy meant to keep certain people in power at the expense of others. In every case, people claimed Biblical support for their actions.
Unlike what you may have heard, the word Biblical is not in itself an affirmation. There are actions recorded and opinions expressed in the scripture’s pages that are not good, moral, or loving. If Elijah incinerated soldiers meant to arrest him, that wasn’t a moral act. Even if his action could be justified in terms of his time and place in history, Jesus repudiates it as an option for his followers.
We who follow Jesus cannot simply use the label “Biblical” to justify our choices. As important as it is, the Bible is not our Lord and Savior. Jesus is. As Zahnd says, “Even the Bible must bow to Jesus.” For us, the standard by which we measure our actions is not “Is it Biblical,” but “Is it Christlike?”
The season of Lent is an opportunity to evaluate the paths and motives of our own hearts. We are invited to let go of those things that get in the way of our encounter with Jesus.
Am I, in any way, using Jesus to do things that aren’t very Jesus-y? Do I depend on scripture to justify behavior or beliefs that cannot be supported directly in the life and teaching of Jesus? Do I use the word “Biblical” to give authority to positions I hold when those positions do not reflect the way and teaching of Christ? Do I use scripture to “power up” so that I can manipulate others to get what I want?
Lent invites us to give up religious vengeance and spiritual manipulation. This way is life.