Biblical Commentary
(Bible study)

Luke 9:51-62




Luke 9:51 introduces a new section, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem—Jerusalem, of course, being the place where Jesus is going to die. The section has two major themes: (1) The tension between Jesus and the religious leaders. (2) The need for Jesus to prepare his disciples for his death (Bock, 180).

This section has much to say about welcoming or rejecting Jesus and his disciples, who serve as his emissaries:

• Samaritans refuse to receive Jesus (9:51-56).

• Jesus repeats his earlier instructions about shaking dust off the feet when not welcomed (10: 10-12; see 9:5).

• Jesus pronounces woes on Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum for rejecting him (10:13-16).

• Martha and Mary welcome Jesus into their home, but Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better part for the more personal way that she welcomes him (10:38-42).

• The Pharisees and lawyers lie in wait for Jesus to make a mistake (11:53-54).

• Blessed are the slaves who are alert to welcome the master when he comes (12:35-40).

• The crowds welcome Jesus to Jerusalem (19:28-40), but Jesus weeps over the city because “you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God” (19:44).


51It came to pass, when the days were near that he should be taken up (Greek: analempseos—going up, ascending), he intently set his face to go to Jerusalem, 52and sent messengers before his face. They went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, so as to prepare for him. 53They didn’t receive him, because he was traveling with his face set towards Jerusalem.

“It came to pass, when the days were near that he should be taken up” (Greek: analempseos) (v. 51a). Analempseos could refer to Jesus’ going up to Jerusalem (uphill to Mount Zion) or his being lifted up on the cross—but a parallel between Jesus and Elijah suggests that Luke is referring instead to Jesus’ ascension. The parallel is this: At the ascension of Elijah into heaven, Elisha received his request to inherit a double portion of Elijah’s spirit (2 Kings 2:9-12). In like manner, after Jesus’ ascension (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-11), the disciples will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1-21). Such an interpretation has added force because of the many Elijah-Jesus parallels in this Gospel.

“he intently set his face to go to Jerusalem” (v. 51b). This phrase, “set his face” is familiar Old Testament language showing resolve (Isaiah 50:7; Jeremiah 21:10; Ezekiel 6:2; 13:17; 21:2). Jesus determines to go to Jerusalem. His commitment in the face of Jerusalem danger helps us to understand the demands that he will place on would-be followers in verses 57-62.

Jerusalem is where Jesus will die. Luke will keep reminding us (13:22; 17:1; 18:31; 19:11; 19:28) that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem, which is a veiled way of saying that he is on his way to his death. In verse 53, Luke says again, “his face was set toward Jerusalem”—reminding us again of Jesus’ determination to do what he has come to do—to obey the Father’s will to bring salvation to humankind.

Luke will introduce a similar journey motif in the Acts of the Apostles, his sequel to the Gospel of Luke:

• Just as Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem occupies many chapters of this Gospel, so Paul’s missionary journeys will occupy much of the book of Acts.

• Just as Jesus has set his face to go to Jerusalem, so Paul will say, “I must also see Rome” (Acts 19:21).

• Just as Jesus anticipates the cross, Paul says, “I am ready not only to be bound but even to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus” (Acts 21:13).

“and sent messengers before his face” (v. 52a). This alludes to Malachi 3:1, “See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me.”

Some translations fail to capture the full force of verse 52, which repeats the phrase “his face.” Literally, it says, “And he sent messengers (angelous) before his face (prosopou).” The phrase, “his face,” is thus repeated in verses 51, 52, and 53—a fact obscured by some English translations.

“They went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, so as to prepare for him. They didn’t receive him, because he was traveling with his face set towards Jerusalem” (vv. 52b-53). This is the only place where the Gospels mention Samaritans negatively. Luke gives favorable treatment to Samaritans in the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37)—in Jesus’ later relationship with a Samaritan leper (17:16)—in his ministry to a Samaritan woman (John 4)—and in his inclusion of Samaria in his charge to his disciples (Acts 1:8).

“so as to prepare for him” (v. 52b). This was the role, earlier, of John the Baptist (3:1-20; 7:27), but Luke has already reported John’s death (9:9). Now the disciples assume John’s role. Both are messengers (7:24, 27).

However, the Samaritans refuse to receive Jesus, “with his face was set toward Jerusalem” (v. 53). Their refusal is not surprising, because there is a good deal of animosity between Jews and Samaritans. This began centuries earlier when Assyrians took most Jews into captivity and re-populated Samaria with foreigners who intermarried with remaining Samaritan Jews. Samaritans became known for pagan worship (2 Kings 17:24-29), and Jews regarded them as tainted racially and religiously. When Zerubbabel led the return from exile to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, he rebuffed Samaritan offers to help. Samaritans then built a rival temple on Mount Gerazim and tried to prevent the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem (Ezra 4:1-10).

Samaria’s location between Jewish Galilee and Jewish Judea makes the situation worse. Jews often travel through Samaria—many of them pilgrims going to or returning from the Jerusalem temple—a temple whose validity the Samaritans do not acknowledge. We should not be surprised that Samaritans would fail to welcome a pilgrim whose “face was set toward Jerusalem” (v. 53).


54When his disciples, James and John, saw this, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from the sky, and destroy them, just as Elijah did?” 55But he turned and rebuked (Greek: epitimesen) them, “You don’t know of what kind of spirit you are. 56For the Son of Man didn’t come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” They went to another village.

“When his disciples, James and John, saw this” (v. 54a). Jesus called James and John “Sons of Thunder,” presumably because of their noisy, violent personalities (Mark 3:17). They were fishing partners with Peter (also a noisy character) until Jesus called them (5:10), and they are now part of Jesus’ inner circle (which also includes Peter), which only recently accompanied Jesus at the Transfiguration (9:28-36). Mark portrays James and John as personally ambitious—asking Jesus to grant them seats on his right and left in his kingdom (Mark 10:35-40; see also Matthew 20:20-23).

“Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from the sky, and destroy them, just as Elijah did?” (v. 54b). Their request alludes to the story of Ahaziah, son of Ahab and Jezebel and ruler over Israel in Samaria (1 Kings 22:51). When Ahaziah sent soldiers to seize Elijah, he called down fire from heaven to consume them—and did the same once again when Ahaziah sent more soldiers (2 Kings 1). James and John think that, if it was appropriate for Elijah to call down fire from heaven on Samaritans, it must be appropriate for them to do so now because of the Samaritans’ refusal to receive Jesus.

“But (Jesus) turned and rebuked them” (v. 55a). Rebuked (epetimesen) is a strong word. Elsewhere in this Gospel Jesus rebukes demons (4:35, 41; 9:42), fevers (4:39), and storms (8:24), but never disciples. Jesus responds strongly to James and John because he has instructed them to love their enemies (6:27-36) and not to judge others (6:37-42).

Jesus has also given the disciples explicit instructions on how to deal with rejection. When rejected, they are to shake dust from their feet as a testimony against the rejecters (9:5; see also 10:10-12)—but are not to respond with violence or vengeance. James and John failed to listen. As closely as Jesus’ ministry might parallel that of Elijah, his mission was not to call down fire from heaven on his opponents but to save them. In due time, God will judge those who reject Jesus (10:10-14; 13:1-9), but disciples are to leave such judgment in God’s hands.

“You don’t know of what kind of spirit you are. For the Son of Man didn’t come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (vv. 55b-56a). Most scholars treat these words as a later scribal addition. Most translations omit them.

“They went to another village” (v. 56b). Jesus models the behavior that he expects of the disciples when they experience rejection.


Jesus, who is moving toward Jerusalem (synonymous with the cross), offers no easy discipleship. In these verses, he clarifies the extreme nature of his call. Those who would follow him must first count the cost, because they will share his suffering. They must not give anything—even good things—priority over Jesus.

Once again, Elijah provides a model for these three stories. As he was preparing to ascend into heaven, he told his disciple, Elisha, three times, “Stay here.” Elisha, however, responded all three times, “I will not leave you” (2 Kings 2:1-6). There are, however, two significant differences between that story and the one told here by Luke:

• First, Elisha was a devoted disciple who actually followed Elijah.

• Second, in the stories told by Luke there are three different people involved with Jesus rather than just one.

The key word that links these three little stories is the verb, “follow.” The first and third would-be disciples volunteer to follow Jesus—the only people in this Gospel who so volunteer. Jesus calls the second of the would-be disciples, saying, “Follow me.”

The second and third would-be disciples ask leave to take care of other priorities before beginning their discipleship. The first would-be disciple makes no such request but Jesus apparently sees in him some lack of commitment that occasions a warning.


57As they went on the way, a certain man said to him, “I want to follow you wherever you go, Lord.” 58Jesus said to him, “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”

“I want to follow you wherever you go” (v. 57). This man’s commitment seems strong. He offers to follow Jesus “wherever,” but Jesus offers only “nowhere.” Jesus has no hole, no nest, and nowhere to lay his head—and his disciples can expect nothing better.

From the beginning, Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7). He humbled himself at the beginning of his life, being born in a stable and cradled in a manger. In the same manner, he will humble himself at the end of his life, dying on a cross. In between, he focuses on ministry rather than personal comfort, and expects his disciples to do the same. He blesses sacrificial ministry.

“The foxes have holes, and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (v. 58). We are surprised at Jesus’ sharp response to this man’s willing discipleship, but surely he sees a problem in the man’s heart. Perhaps the man thinks that Jesus is a young man on the way up, and wants to ride his coattails. Jesus, however, is on his way uphill to Jerusalem and is preparing to be lifted up on a cross—hardly the upwardly mobile path that most young men would want to follow.


59He said to another, “Follow me!” But he said, “Lord, allow me first to go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead, but you go and announce the Kingdom of God.”

“Lord, allow me first to go and bury my father” (v. 59). While I cannot find a citation in the Law requiring burial, an unburied body is a mark of disgrace (Deuteronomy 28:26; Psalm 79:2; Ecclesiastes 6:3; Isaiah 14:19; Jeremiah 7:33; 16:4; 25:33; 34:20), and the burial of one’s father or mother is an important part of honoring them in accordance with Jewish Law (Exodus 20:12; Deuteronomy 5:16).

It is not clear that the father is dead or near death. It is possible that the would-be disciple is asking to take care of his parents in their old age, an important part of honoring them in accordance with the Law. After they are gone, he will answer Jesus’ call to discipleship.

Kenneth Bailey, who lived and taught in the Middle East for forty years and is familiar with Middle East values and traditions, says that “bury my father” really means to stay at home until his father is dead and buried (Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, 26). If a son asks permission to leave home prior to the father’s death, the father is likely to interpret that as a desire that the father would die.

It is also possible that the father has died and has been buried in a tomb. At the end of a year of mourning, the son will retrieve his bones and re-bury them in a bone box.

“But Jesus said to him, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead'” (v. 60a). Whether the father is dead or alive, Jesus’ call is unequivocal. Let the dead bury the dead:

• Some scholars believe that this is a call to let those who are spiritually dead bury the physically dead.

• Others believe that it is a call to let the physically dead bury the dead (Fitzmyer, 836).

“but you go and announce the Kingdom of God” (v. 60b). Jesus challenges disciples to give kingdom proclamation top priority. The burial of one’s father is an urgent responsibility, and an honorable person will not allow lesser responsibilities to intrude on it. The one more important responsibility, however, is that of proclaiming the kingdom of God.


61Another also said, “I want to follow you, Lord, but first allow me to say good-bye (Greek: apotaxasthai—from apotasso) to those who are at my house.” 62But Jesus said to him, “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God.”

“I want to follow you, Lord, but first allow me to say good-bye to those who are at my house” (v. 61). This recalls another Elijah story (1 Kings 19:19-21). Elisha was plowing with his oxen when Elijah called him. Elisha asked, “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” The NRSV sounds as if Elijah granted Elisha’s request, but both the Hebrew and the Septuagint are obscure at this point (Tannehill, 172).

Of special interest is the fact that Elisha, before leaving with Elijah, slaughtered the oxen with which he had been plowing and used their yoke and harness as fuel to cook the oxen for neighbors to eat. This was a graphic statement that he had burned his bridges behind him. He had killed the animals and destroyed the equipment that would be required for him to resume his old life. Now there was no turning back.

“say good-bye” (apotaxasthai—from apotasso). Bailey notes that apotasso can be translated “take leave of,” and notes that it is so translated in Mark 6:46; Acts 18:18, 21; 2 Corinthians 2:13 (RSV).

“No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God” (v. 62). Jesus’ response shows that he expects the young man to give Jesus priority even over his father, an almost unthinkable requirement. A dutiful Middle Eastern son does not put anyone above his father—except, perhaps, God. That is the point, of course. Jesus acts by God’s authority, and expects the kind of devotion that we reserve for God.

Plowing behind a draft animal is exacting work, because the farmer must control the plow with one hand and goad/guide the animal with the other hand. He must watch a fixed point directly ahead to plow a straight furrow. Looking back will cause him to lose sight of the fixed point and to lose control of the plow—causing him to plow a crooked furrow—the mark of an amateur. The crooked furrow will be there for all to see until next year’s plowing. That farmer will then be the butt of many jokes during the coming year, and will try his best to plow straight furrows next year.

A modern metaphor is the person who turns to look into the back seat while driving a car. When the driver twists sideways, he/she will lose sight of the highway and will tend to pull the wheel in the direction that he/she has turned. Such a driver is dangerous—not fit for highway driving.

We should, however, be slow to condemn those who offered excuses. Who among us has not done the same? We should also note that some of the giants of the faith first offered excuses before they finally accepted God’s call.

• Moses protested, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11). He argued, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue” (Exodus 4:10).

• Gideon pleaded, “But sir, how can I deliver Israel? My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family” (Judges 6:15).

• Jeremiah protested, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (Jeremiah 1:6).

• Isaiah said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…!” (Isaiah 6:5)

And yet each of these people, however reluctantly, did what God asked, and God blessed their reluctant discipleship. This is Good News, because it means that God does not grade us with an indelible “F” when we sin or protest or offer excuses. Every failure is an invitation to repentance and blessing. We wonder if any of the men in our Gospel lesson dropped their excuses and followed Jesus. What happened if they did?

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2004, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan