Jesus called them “Sons of Thunder.” We do not know exactly how James and John earned this. Mark notes it only in passing (Mark 3:17). But our gospel reading this week offers a hint. Luke also offers a glimpse into Jesus’ way of dealing with those who reject Him. This is especially important for Christians today who live in a politically charged and deeply polarized culture.
The scene in our text opens with Jesus on His way to Jerusalem with His disciples. They were traveling through Samaria and need a place to stay. To prepare, Jesus sends several messengers ahead into a village. But they find no welcome. This was not particularly surprising. Conflict between Samaritans and Jews had a long and complicated backstory. Josephus reports that Samaritans were known to mistreat pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem, even to the extent of occasional murder. When the messengers return to Jesus with the unhappy report, the Sons of Thunder were ready to send lightning. “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from Heaven and consume them?” (9:54).
It is the kind of suggestion you would expect to hear in our contemporary political climate. We live in a time when the middle ground is virtually non-existent. Respectful dialogue with opponents is increasingly seldom. Differing opinions and positions bring forth rage instead of reason, emotional reflex instead of patient reflection. Nuance and subtlety have been replaced with scorched-earth contempt. It is us versus them. Compromise is not an option.
Jesus, however, would have none of it. Luke reports simply that He “turned and rebuked them” (στραφεὶς δὲ ἐπετίμησεν αὐτοῖς). This was no small thing. The last rebuke Jesus gave in Luke was to an unclean spirit (9:42).
What is the problem with James and John’s “scorched-earth” approach? The textual variant at the end of verse 55 offers one take. Although the many scholars consider it a scribal insertion, most late manuscripts (and a few early ones) add, with slight variations, “And He said, ‘You do not know what sort of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy people’s lives, but to save [them].’” To borrow dogmatic categories (which you should not use in a sermon), Jesus chastised them for pushing His alien work over His proper work.
To borrow dogmatic categories, Jesus chastised them for pushing His alien work over His proper work.
But James and John were not far off. They got a few things right. As you try to help your hearers navigate a combative context such as ours today, their exchange with Jesus has considerable homiletical potential. You could begin the sermon by bringing the hearers into this brief narrative and help them emphasize with, and then feel the shame of, James and John’s suggestion. Then, you could come back of out the narrative and spend the rest of the sermon considering what the Sons of Thunder got right, and what they got wrong.
What did they get right?
- The textual variant notwithstanding, God DOES (according to His alien work) judge and destroy. This is hard to accept, especially today. But the next chapter of Luke’s gospel is unambiguous. Jesus warns Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum of the coming judgment. Those who reject Jesus have rejected the Father who sent Him (Luke 10:16), and such people will be brought down to Hades (10:15). God’s alien work is still HIS work. Judgment is still coming.
- Jesus has the power to bring down fire from Heaven, and James and John knew it. Which is to say, the Sons of Thunder believed in Jesus. Leon Morris puts it well, “There is great faith in Jesus in this question. In the face of the insult to their Master, they felt they had only to call for the fire in Jesus’ name and it would be given. But this does more credit to their zeal and their devotion to Jesus than to their understanding of the nature of Christian service.”
Jesus has the power to bring down fire from Heaven, and James and John knew it. Which is to say, the Sons of Thunder believed in Jesus
What did they get wrong?
- Judgment, like grace, is always on God’s terms. God is God. We are not. This is a constant struggle for those who follow Jesus. People today reject and disrespect Jesus from many angles on many issues. In our love for the truth and for Him who is the Truth, we long for God to act against them. We wish He would stand up for Himself and defend His honor. But His ways and His timing are beyond ours. James and John (and you and I) must trust, not only that Jesus CAN act, but that He WILL act according to His perfect will.
- The proper response for Jesus’ disciples toward Samaritans is not vengeance or judgment. This belongs to God alone (Romans 12:19; see also Deuteronomy 32:35). Instead, as the Parable of the Good Samaritan in the next chapter (Luke 10:25-37) makes clear, followers of Jesus are called to love their neighbors and show mercy.
James and John were not lacking in zeal, and neither are many faithful people of God today. But zeal must be shaped by knowledge (reference Romans 10:2-3). In a society which is increasingly disinterested and even, at times, hostile to the mission of Jesus, it is your job to shape their zeal by clearly speaking God’s commands and promises. In doing so, you will help them navigate the polarization and polemics as little Christs.
But which commands? Let God be God. Let vengeance be His. Leave justice to God. In the meantime, love your neighbors, even when being persecuted. As Peter and Paul both insist, do not repay evil for evil. Instead, overcome rejection with goodness, gentleness, and respect (see 1 Peter 3:9-17 and Romans 12:14-21). Also, proclaim the promise. The textual variant in verse 55 offers direction. Jesus did not come to destroy, but to save (σωσαι). That was why He set His face toward Jerusalem in the first place. He did not treat God’s enemies as the Sons of Thunder desired. This was good news for them, and it remains good news for us. Jesus has come to save. His salvation begins with your hearers, the baptized people of God. Proclaim the promise of salvation directly and clearly. Then remind them of God’s desire to extend His salvation to all... even to their enemies.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Luke 9:51-62.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Luke 9:51-62.
Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Arthur Just of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Luke 9:51-62.