Rejection ignites thirst for revenge. Mix in messianic fervor and one can sense the intense anger growing. This desire for conquest and revenge appears in Luke 9:51-56. Jesus has set his face “resolutely toward Jerusalem.” Although Jewish travelers from Galilee often bypassed Samaria on their way to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples travel through it on this occasion. Jesus sends messengers ahead to request hospitality in a Samaritan village.
Samaritans, descended from Israelites and pagans exiled to Palestine by the Assyrians after the conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel, worshiped God at a temple on Mt Gerizim in a fashion somewhat different from that observed at the temple in Jerusalem. Their differences are discussed by Jesus and a Samaritan woman in John 4. Jews and Samaritans disdained one another. That, in fact, was the reason for the customary bypass of Samaria by Galilean Jews traveling to worship in Jerusalem.
The Samaritan village to which Jesus sent messengers rejected those messengers. Luke says, “The people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53). Religious prejudice blares out in those words. Jerusalem was the location of the Jewish temple. They would not accept a worshiper headed for Jerusalem into their village.
The apostles James and John (whom Jesus had nicknamed “Sons of Thunder”) react angrily. These syncretistic Samaritans have rejected God’s Messiah! The brothers seek to initiate a call for fire, a quite literal and lethal call for fire. James and John ask Jesus, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” The situation reminds us of Elijah’s confrontation with the prophets of Baal in 1 Kings 18. There God granted Elijah’s request and fire consumed the sacrifice (and the altar with everything on and around it). Here, however, “Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village” (Luke 9:55-56). Some old copies of this passage include Jesus’ words to James and John as “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Even if those words were not part of the original text, I believe that they explain how the brothers’ request differed from Elijah’s prayer and why Jesus rejected their desire to call for fire when God had granted Elijah’s request.
Elijah had ended his prayer by saying, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God, and that you are turning their hearts back again” (1 Kings 18:37). Elijah prayed for the conversion of the worshipers of Baal. James and John, on the other hand, requested the killing of people Jesus came to save. In their anger, these Soldiers of Christ forgot their commander’s intent. Jesus earlier had instructed his disciples, “Love your enemies do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28). It is quite clear why Jesus rejected his disciples’ call for fire. Their prayer ignored the training they had received from him.
Perusal of Christians’ entries on social media sites reveals that the Sons of Thunder have spiritual siblings still wanting to call for lethal fire against those they perceive as theirs, and God’s, enemies. Their anger at disregard for what they regard as vital doctrine mirrors Jesus’ anger at disregard for the temple’s status as a house of prayer (John 2), but their desires and their prayers echo the rejected plea of James and John, “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?” The ultimate goal is to seek and save the lost, to go and make disciples, not to incinerate those who disagree.
We call for fire when under attack. However, we must remember Christ’s intent for our mission. Like Elijah, we pray for God to change people’s hearts, we request that they will hear and obey the call of the gospel. We may contend for moral and ethical principles with intensity, but we must conduct ourselves in a way that will create the conditions for our opponents to hear and obey the gospel. Praying for their destruction invites Jesus to rebuke us the way he did James and John. Loving our enemies and praying for those who oppose us sets the stage for reconciliation and salvation.
O God who knows our hearts, we confess our bitterness toward those who do not share our values or our faith in you. Calm our anger and turn our hearts back to you. Help us to remember, as your Word teaches us, that you do not wish that any would perish, but that all would come to repentance. We pray for those who oppose you, your Son, and your worshipers. We pray that they may be reconciled to you, that they may know peace, that they may love as they are loved by you. We want to be your lighthouses in the darkness, showing the path to safety, not smoldering embers that distract from your call for reconciliation and the destruction of barriers that divide. Teach us to love and to forgive. In the name of Jesus, Amen.