9:54 When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?”
9:55 But he turned and rebuked them.
9:59 To another he said, “Follow me.” But he said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
9:60 But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
9:61 Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.”
9:62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
A Question or Two:
- What is it with religious extremists and fire from heaven?
- Does nothing ever change?
- What’s this about dead fathers so close to Fathers’ Day?
Some Longer Reflections:
We could talk about the demands of discipleship. We could encourage each other with that conversation. We could make our discipleship more vigorous. It would probably be good for us and for the Church.
We could notice how strenuous are the demands that Jesus makes in this scene. We could worry about those demands and about whether they encourage works righteousness. We could be honest and notice that if discipleship requires leaving a dead father to bury himself, no one is fit for the Reign of the Heavens, especially so close to Fathers’ Day.
Fortunately we know how to deal with impossible demands. When the bull of demanding discipleship charges at us, we could execute a perfect theological Verónica and dodge the charging bull by claiming that it is good news that no one is fit for the Reign of the Heavens, and then we could all sing a chorus of Amazing Grace and go home justified by grace and glad of it. We Lutherans are good at this. Only Dietrich Bonhoeffer sits silent as we whirl our theological cape and emerge unscathed. There is a cost to discipleship, he reminds us, somewhat awkwardly.
All of that we could do.
But I can’t get past the request made by James and John:
“Wouldn’t fire from heaven be perfect just now? Fire. Fire from heaven. We could just call down fire from heaven and consume them. We could do that. Someone needs to teach them to fear God. Just say the word.”
Fire from heaven.
The past weeks have given us too many occasions to think about the role of anger in our life together. A murderer in Orlando. A murderer in Britain. Those are the obvious ones. There was also the US senator who prayed for the President to die. And before him there were pastors who prayed the same prayer.
And there are the threats and assaults that people in the LGBTQ community experience so commonly. There are many more examples. All of them are justified by a deep anger that makes any act of violence, any insult, any offense allowable. The anger justifies itself.
Fire from heaven.
James and John no doubt felt justified in their call for fiery destruction.
Just like the people that populate the Comments section of so many sites on the Web. And also just like the people who lend their anger to the current political campaign. Anger unites them. Anger gives them a reason to believe any conspiracy theory, any slander, any preposterous claim. Anger leads them to say, in defense of their chosen candidate, “At least he…,” and then they fill in the blank with something like “says what he thinks,” or (more disturbing) “says what everyone is thinking,” or “says what everyone already knows,” or “defends the little guy,” or “will make us great again,” whoever the “us” is, exactly.
There is always an Us, and there is always a Them, and it is holy anger that unites Us against Them.
Not so long ago a candidate for public office warned that “Second Amendment remedies” might become necessary against the President. That is, without question, a death threat. James and John call for the same sort of remedy.
We appear to have come to a point where people are willing to burn down the world rather than compromise, cooperate, or consider other courses of action.
The problem is that our reaction to those who call down fire depends on which side we are on.
When one of Them calls down fire, we call them out for their obviously dangerous extremism. We are correct to do so. But we are not so clear about what to do when it is one of Us calling down fire.
My point is not that we are all hypocritical. We are, but that is not a surprise to anyone. And biblical interpretation that contents itself with making such points is easy to ignore. Someone will make a comment about a bleeding heart, and someone else will wonder if we were just supposed to be nicer to Adolf Hitler. And once Hitler comes to the party, things are pretty much done.
My point is that we cannot be casual about calling down fire.
If we are just searching for a vigorous metaphor, leave the fire out of it. It is a death threat, and death threats are not metaphors. But if we mean to call down actual fire, we had better do so with an adult awareness of what comes next.
When I was a child, my father would spend Sunday afternoons playing songs on our piano, usually old Spirituals. My sisters and I would sing along with him. I learned some fine songs on Sunday afternoon: strong old songs like Go Down, Moses and Shout All Over God’s Heaven and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
My favorite, maybe because of the determined intensity with which my father sang it, was O Mary, Don’t You Weep.
Pharaoh’s army got drownded,
O Mary, don’t you weep.
Some Sundays my father would tell us the story of the Exodus when we sang this song. Freedom mattered when he told the story. Freedom mattered, but he wasn’t happy when we cheered for the deaths of the Pharaoh’s army. “It’s not right to be happy when people die,” he said. And then we sang some more.
Sometimes my father sang verses that weren’t printed in the songbook we used. My father always knew more than was printed in the book. The verse I’ve been remembering this week went like this:
God gave Noah the rainbow sign,
No more water, but fire next time,
Pharaoh’s army got drownded,
O Mary, don’t you weep.
My father’s voice got quiet when he sang that verse and if we asked questions he would just tell us to read the Noah story.
It wasn’t until years later that the verse and my father’s quietness made sense to me. It began to make sense when I read James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. I was in high school. It was the mid-60s. The Watts riots and the Detroit riots had been on the news as had the reports of the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Medgar Evers, along with more assaults than anyone could count. And in the middle of all this I discovered Baldwin’s book. And I finally made sense of my father’s quiet, intense voice as he sang that old Spiritual song.
My father had been a paratrooper in the Second World War: 82nd Airborne, 508th PIR. He had seen a world changed by fire, and some of his friends had died in that fire. My father watched the same news that I watched, and saw the same fires burning.
No more water, but fire next time
It is the easiest thing in the world to scold James and John, those “sons of thunder,” for calling down fire. They are only characters in a preaching text, too often a pre(aching)-text for illustrating some theological point that the world could have done without.
It is simple to reject the extremism of opponents (religious or not) who call down rhetorical fire on anyone who doesn’t hold to their pure ideological line. They are opponents, after all.
But when the voice calling for fire is a Native voice reminding forgetful people of the massacre at Wounded Knee, or a Queer voice remembering how little protection there is for people in that community, or ANY other voice that has been targeted by actual physical violence through long, unchanging decades, the situation becomes much more difficult.
What if this is the time for fire?
That question should scare everyone. It is worth remembering that those who call for calm are often those who have little to lose if nothing changes. But it is also worth remembering that fire is, in this scene and in our time, not a metaphor. It is a threat, and there will be real destruction.
I hear nihilistic voices that would be glad to burn it all down. I also hear serious voices calling down fire. And I hear comfortable voices calling for calm above all else. We have to figure out which is which.
I used to imagine that I knew the difference between nihilistic voices and serious voices. I am no longer so sure.
Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?
I don’t know.
Remember: Jesus scolded James and John for wanting this to be the time for fire.
But remember: he did not scold them because he wanted nothing to change.
No matter what Jesus did or said, we have a responsibility to pay attention to what anger is doing to us all. This responsibility is paired with our responsibility to make things change.
And I find my voice getting intensely quiet. I find myself hoping that I have learned my father’s lesson about determination in the midst of the fire.
I don’t know if I have.