Nuechterlein on Luke 9

Excerpt on Luke 9:51-62 from “The Work of René Girard as a New Key to Biblical Hermeneutics,” by Paul Nuechterlein. Currents in Theology and Mission, June 1999, pages 196-209.

“A Samaritan village refuses to receive Jesus” (1)??

With Jesus’ face set toward Jerusalem, he and his disciples pass by a Samaritan village, and the disciples seem eager to scapegoat its inhabitants: “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” (2) The question I would like for the reader to consider is: Are we, the readers and hearers of Luke’s telling of this story, also hasty to scapegoat them? I would submit that, yes, the history of interpretation would seem to indicate that this is the case.

There are two strong indicators that I will seek to bring forth through an alternate reading of this text. I would like to first pause with a comment about the overall importance of Luke 9:51-62. The first verse, Luke 9:51, is widely regarded as a pivotal verse in Luke’s gospel. Most commentators see it as the beginning of a major new section in the Lukan narrative, the famed “Journey to Jerusalem Narrative.” Luke, more than the other gospel writers, presents Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem as the climax of a prolonged journey that begins at the first verse of our passage in question here: “When the days drew near for him [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This verse is quite well-known among Luke’s commentators. Why is the passage connected to it not as widely commented on? One often sees in the commentaries multiple references to 9:51 in isolation, and then a glossing over of the intact passage. I hope to encourage not only interpreting the passage in its entirety — not just its first verse — but also that the reader might come to see it as vital to our reading and understanding of what it is that Luke is trying to tell us, not only about this Jesus, but also about ourselves.

Then let us get to the task at hand. The first indication of scapegoating — i.e., that Luke’s interpreters may be following the disciples in scapegoating the Samaritans in this story — is our predilection to negatively amplify Luke’s choice of verbs for what the Samaritans have supposedly done to Jesus. The nearly universal tendency has been to take Luke’s rather passive verb, “receive” (dechomai), and turn it into an active rejection. Luke simply says: kai ouk edexanto auton. The most literal rendering would be, “But they received him not.” Compare this with the NRSV caption for the passage, as quoted above: “A Samaritan village refuses to receive Jesus.” Clearly, it changes Luke’s primary verb, “receive,” and relegates it to a supporting infinitive role; the much more active verb “refuses” displaces Luke’s more passive choice. And this is one of the milder illustrations of this quite typical transformation of Luke’s verb. The favorite choice of verbs in the commentaries seems to be “reject,” even more negatively active in its connotations.

So we might ask: why are we, Luke’s interpreter’s, apparently so eager to read rejection here on the part of the Samaritan villagers? Luke knew the harsher verb well, apodokimazo (to “reject”), but chose not to use it in this instance. In fact, Luke used it only a few verses previously, as Jesus warns his disciples that “the Son of Man…must be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed.” (3) Luke used the stronger verb in this instance. Why not in the one in question? Could it be that he wants to emphasize the rejection by the Jewish ‘insiders’ and not the alleged rejection by these Samaritan ‘outsiders’? (4) And does not the whole point of the passage seem to focus instead on the disciples’ rejection of the Samaritans? Luke narrates a story here of the disciples’ readiness to make scapegoats out of these traditional rivals to the Jews — for which Jesus must momentarily turn his face, which has just become set to journey towards his own scapegoating in Jerusalem, and rebuke the disciples for their attempted scapegoating of the Samaritans. Jesus would soon be more like one of these Samaritans, a scapegoated outsider to his own people. Yet interpreters through the ages have invariably labeled this text in terms of a Samaritan rejection of Jesus, rather than in terms of the disciples’ rejection of the Samaritans. (5) Is not the latter the more prominent feature of the narrative?

The second indicator that we the readers may be wanting to join the disciples in scapegoating the Samaritans is that the implied subject of the verb need not be the Samaritans in the first place. There is some grammatical ambiguity in the antecedent of the third person plural verb form of “receive.” The immediately preceding noun, i.e., “a village of the Samaritans,” is a genitive construction whose noun is singular and adjectival modifier is plural. Thus, the plural verb matches “Samaritans” in number, but not the noun, “village.” In the English, for example, would not the best grammatical form be: “But it did not receive him,” rather than “they” — if we are to assume with all the commentators that “the village of the Samaritans” is the antecedent of the verb? (6)

Let us not assume so for the moment. We will need to look at the preceding verse as well, in order to find a definitive third person plural noun. Here is Luke 9:52-53 in both the English and the original Greek:

52And he [Jesus] sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.

52 kai apesteilen angelous pro prosopou auton kai poreuthentes eiselthoneis komen Samariton os etoimasai auto; 53 kai ouk edexanto auton, hoti to prosopon autou en poreuomenoneis Ierousalem.

The problem is the same in both languages, even though they have different grammatical structures. The Greek, unlike the English, does not require the use of a separate word for the personal pronoun “they,” since that third person plural designation is contained in the verb form itself. But the verb, like the pronoun in English, does need to agree in number with its implied subject. There are two verbs without definite subjects in these two verses: eiselthon (“they entered”) and ouk edexanto (“they received not”). In the first instance, it is clear that the object of the previous sentence, angelous (“messengers”), agrees in number with the next verb; so we can imply that it is the messengers who entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for Jesus. But we have already stated the problem with the second verb. In this latter instance, the object of the previous sentence, komen Samariton, is a singular/plural compound that does not fully agree in number with the verb of the following sentence. So we have two choices: assume with all the commentators that Samaritans is the antecedent (and that Luke used less-than-perfect grammar?); or we might revert back to the same subject as previously, i.e., “messengers,” which does unambiguously agree in number.

But, of course, this latter option drastically changes our reading of the text. We would now understand the messengers as not having received Jesus into the village. A slightly paraphrased translation of these two verses might read like this:

52And Jesus sent messengers ahead of him. Journeying in this way, these messengers entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for Jesus; 53but they never received him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem.

Does this reading make sense? Yes, I think it does. Especially if we return to the first indicator of scapegoating, the continual changing of Luke’s verb on the part of us, the interpreters. If we assume with all the commentators a harsher verb form, such as “reject,” then assuming the messengers makes no sense. These messengers would not have gone ahead to prepare for Jesus only to then reject him. But, if we leave Luke’s (well-chosen?) verb in place, then perhaps it even makes more sense to assume the messengers as having “not received” Jesus. Consider it this way: Luke begins by simply stating the presumably general practice of sending messengers ahead: “And Jesus sent messengers ahead of him.” Then, he tells of a specific instance in which the advance guard — one might call them the “Hospitality Committee” — went into a Samaritan village to do their job but never had the chance to welcome Jesus because he had since set his face to journey to Jerusalem. Is not this what Luke’s text seems to be conveying to us? Might that also be why he chooses a congenial verb like “receive” (dechomai), which has to do with hospitality and welcoming, rather than a more hostile verb like “reject”?

If we accept this alternate reading, then the passage highlights even more the disciples’ attempt to scapegoat the Samaritans. For their venomous request to Jesus would not be out of revenge for the Samaritans having rejected him. No, they would simply be noticing that Jesus had decided to skip this town and then assumed the reason out of their own prejudice. They would have assumed that Jesus was skipping this village out of the same hostility to Samaritans which they so clearly express in their request to rain down God’s consuming fire. They were seeking such terrible revenge, not for a simple lack of hospitality, but out of centuries of hard feelings. Doesn’t the latter really end up being a better explanation for such deep hatred, anyway? Isn’t a firestorm, ala Sodom and Gomorrah, a rather harsh response to an alleged slight on the part of one village?

Many commentators are quick to point out that the esteemed Elijah (whom three of the disciples had just seen on the mount of transfiguration (7)) had ordered such a firestorm upon Samaritans. They often mention the variant ending for verse 54 that makes explicit the connection to Elijah. (8) But does this story in 2 Kings 1 in any way provide a justification for what the disciples suggest to Jesus? Elijah receives a message from the Lord to intercept some messengers of the king of Samaria and to send them back to the king with a word of judgment to him. When this word is relayed to the king, we are never given his in-depth reaction, other than that he would seem to want to know more. For the king of Samaria sends messengers to Elijah, asking that he “Come” in person. When Elijah responds to this invitation by raining fire down on not just one, but two, groups of fifty emissaries, it is clear that he is the one rejecting an invitation. Thus, in the popular reading of Luke 9:51-56, it is supposedly the Samaritans who are refusing to invite or receive Jesus, the opposite as in the story of 2 Kings 1, in which Elijah not only refuses an invitation from the Samaritans, but also rains down fire on his inviters. True, the disciples (and Luke (9)) may have had Elijah in mind as a model in requesting a firestorm. But my reading suggests that it is not so much for some reason parallel to Elijah’s situation, i.e., the rejection of an invitation, but more likely for the same true, underlying reason: a deep-seated prejudice of Jews against Samaritans. This is how the disciples are modeling Elijah! In reading the text in this manner, the point of the story is clearly not some rejection of Jesus by the Samaritans, but rather Jesus’ rejection of the kind of deep-seated prejudice expressed by his disciples against the Samaritans.

Luke is telling us that, in setting his face to Jerusalem to suffer the rejection of what we might call the insider/outsider game of scapegoating, Jesus came to put an end to all such game-playing. At this crucial point in the narrative, Luke right away gives us a clue to Jesus’ overall mission by having him rebuke the disciples for playing just such a game. Isn’t this point lost behind an interpretation which focuses instead on the Samaritans allegedly rejecting Jesus? And, perhaps more importantly, doesn’t the popular interpretation reveal our own susceptibility to getting caught right up in the same kind of scapegoating game? Obviously, we no longer have the same kind of stake in scapegoating the Samaritans. They no longer represent for us a group with whom we have had a long-standing hostility. But we do have such groups, the Jews unfortunately being one of our long-standing targets. History is tragically stained with just such Christian holocausts against the Jews. At a time when we are trying to heal those relationships and repent of our past sins, the alternative reading suggested here runs less risk of obscuring the main point, which is that Jesus came to put a stop to such hatred and holocausts, whether it be Jews against Samaritans, or now Christians against Jews. Jesus himself came as the one rejected, consumed by our scapegoating hatred on the cross, the loser in our insider/outsider game of scapegoating. On the cross he would be in solidarity with outsiders. He would be declared an outcast to his own people, thereby in the same company as the Samaritans. (10)

To make this story be about a Samaritan rejection of Jesus is to thus miss coming to terms with what the Girardian anthropology has urged me to see as the heart of the Gospel: namely, that Jesus came to mess up our insider/outsider games of scapegoating precisely by identifying with the outsiders of this world. To see the story as a Samaritan rejection of Jesus plays right into the existing structure of the Jewish/Samaritan rivalry of that era. I do not think that our historical approach has served us well in this instance. For commentators are much too quick to point out the simple facts of that rivalry, citing the lack of hospitality of Samaritan towns toward Jewish pilgrims. What I am suggesting here is to read this story in a different context of understanding, one which goes beyond the basic historicity. We must learn to read scripture also from our understanding of the Gospel message itself. This passage provides a classic example of reading the text from an historical-critical standpoint and thereby missing the point. Such a reading has deflected Luke’s emphasis, i.e., a rejection of the Samaritans by the disciples. The focus in this narrative is not on what the Samaritans did or did not do, but on what the disciples did. The disciples, in fact, try to make the issue lie with the Samaritans, just as commentators have through the ages. They read a Samaritan rejection into Jesus’ change of plans and want Jesus to judge them accordingly. But the text tells us the reason for Jesus skipping this village: “because his face was set toward Jerusalem.” And so Jesus’ rebuke is for his disciples, not for the Samaritans as they had hoped. To read this text in the manner in which I am suggesting is to more properly feel Jesus’ rebuke to his disciples for having played the deadly insider/outsider game of scapegoating. For the point of the Gospel, it seems to me, is this: we all play those games, including we who seek to be Jesus’ modern-day disciples. This is what Jesus came to show us on the cross. Luke 9:51-56 is thus a foretaste of the main dish to come at a crucial point in the narrative — unless we mistakenly read the action in the manner of Jesus’ disciples, wanting to throw the focus on the Samaritans.

The alleged anti-Semitism of the evangelists.
A modern, ironic instance of trying to scapegoat the scapegoaters?

Why would we “want” to scapegoat the Samaritans in this story? We no longer have a direct stake in that particular rivalry between Jews and Samaritans, do we? It is a bit ridiculous to suggest that we would “want” to scapegoat Samaritans, isn’t it? Perhaps. But I would like for us to consider that we at least have an indirect stake in such scapegoating: namely, that our human penchant for scapegoating would not be so directly revealed. We point to the historical circumstances to make it their problem, not our problem. When it is read as simply a historical matter between Jews and Samaritans, then we do not have to read ourselves into the text. We do not have to see ourselves as Jesus’ disciples, receiving his rebuke for our continued scapegoating behavior.

Perhaps a quite subtle example of modern scapegoating is in order here. A recent trend in biblical scholarship is to accuse the gospel writers of anti-Semitism. The implication is that the evangelists are partly to blame for centuries of subsequent violence against the Jews on the part of Christians. The evangelists may be seen as the beginning of a bloodstained history. In fact, there may be some in this camp of thinking who are uncomfortable with my reading of Luke 9:51-56, because I so heavily emphasis the Jewish hatred for Samaritans. The spirit of this current trend is that anything which remotely sounds like pointing a finger at the Jews must have a spirit of anti-Semitism behind it. In their view, I am being anti-Semitic; or, if my reading is correct, then perhaps it is another example of Luke being anti-Semitic.

The wider trend is to read anti-Semitism into all the gospel accounts because of their harsh treatment of the Pharisees and other Jewish leaders. It is correctly pointed out that the gospel accounts of the Passion focus culpability for the crucifixion of Jesus on Jewish leadership more so than on Roman. Those who read anti-Semitism into these narratives thus argue that the more likely historical scenario was greater Roman culpability, based especially on the fact that it was a Roman form of execution. But, again, to argue solely in terms of historicity is to miss the central point of the gospels. Jesus came to reveal what I am calling the insider/outsider games we play that lead to the seemingly endless cycles of violence in our world. If Jesus came to reveal this deadly game we play, then those who designate themselves as insiders need to be confronted with the truth of their game. Here the basic historical data does come into play: for Jesus to confront those who thought themselves insiders in his own time and place, it was necessary to confront the leaders of his own people. To highlight blame for the Romans does not as directly reveal the problem, since they were hated outsiders to the Jewish people. The Romans were regularly scapegoated targets for Jesus’ own people, and to blame them would bring no new insight into the insider/outsider dynamic of human culture. In order for any of us to fully recognize the problem, we must first see that it is those of us who consider ourselves insiders who are the source of the problem. We seek to always perpetuate the insider/outsider structure to our advantage. In the case of the gospels, the crucial folks to reveal this to were the insiders of Jesus’ own people, the Jewish leaders. To structure the narrative in this way is not anti-Semitism at work. It is the Gospel’s very theme of revealing the insider/outsider structure.

I began these reflections on this modern trend in scholarship wondering whether it is itself an example of the insider/outsider game. Apparently, in modern academic circles, the role of insider is reserved for those who are always on the lookout for anti-Semitism, to expose it wherever it may be found, even if that is in Scripture. But there is a double irony here. First, the implications of what I am saying is that the very impetus of looking out for anti-Semitism comes from the gospel narratives — which many now accuse of anti-Semitism! In making such an observation, I am by no means trying to deny that subsequent Christians have had a problem with anti-Semitism. Far from it, I would underscore the truth that, since Constantine, Christians have generally been the insiders, and Jews have been the outsiders, to the power structures of Western culture. Christians have disgracefully and tragically acted out this insider/outsider game of scapegoating which, from the point of view of this essay, Jesus came precisely to reveal.

The second irony is that scholars may now be playing this same insider/outsider game when they over-zealously see anti-Semitism everywhere, even in the Gospel itself. Scapegoating is such an easy trap for us to fall into that we even fall into it when we are trying to stop others from scapegoating. (11) Many modern scholars have come to scapegoat the gospel writers without becoming clear about what it is that the gospels reveal. I would suggest that they fail to recognize that the source for their sensitivity to anti-Semitism is itself the Gospel-preference for the victim of the insider/outsider game.

Luke 9:51-56 is a crucial passage in coming to recognize our own tendencies to scapegoat others, since it points to the scapegoating among Jesus’ own insiders, i.e., his disciples. We who consider ourselves as disciples of Jesus should read ourselves into this text. The point is not to blame or scapegoat someone else for scapegoating, but to come to see it in ourselves! Christians have missed the whole point of the Gospel at the cost of millions of lives, when they have sought to scapegoat Jews or Muslims or whomever. Modern scholars may also be missing the point in their sometimes overzealous approach to stamping out anti-Semitism, as they scapegoat the writers of the gospels, the very persons who have left us the legacy of the Gospel’s power to reveal scapegoating. What is so desperately needed in this violent world of ours is to not miss the point of the Gospel!

Luke 9:57-62: Continued instruction for would-be disciples on the deadly games we play

At the outset I mentioned a hope to see the wider passage of Luke 9:51-62 in its unity. Thus far, I have not dealt with 9:57-62. The link is provided in the first two words of v. 57, Kai poreuomenon (“And going”). Luke has used this same verb four times previously in 9:51-56 to establish the action of journeying to Jerusalem. This motif of journeying continues in 9:57-62. I would suggest that the other theme that holds 9:51-62 together as a unity is that of failed discipleship. This theme is more obvious in the half we are yet to deal with; my argument regarding the first half has been that the focus of our reading should be on the failure of the disciples, rather than on the Samaritan village. The first event on this journey is the disciples’ misperception of its goal: they have not heard Jesus’ prediction of his rejection by the elders of Jerusalem and instead anticipate the role of the Jewish leadership by desiring to play the same deadly game against the Samaritans. Verses 57-62 now continue the journey with three would-be disciples who underestimate the cost of taking the journey with Jesus. Jesus’ responses to these three are often labeled under the heading of “hard sayings” and are dealt with separately from 9:51-56 (especially from the standpoint of form criticism which sees these sayings as a different genre from the rejection narrative that precedes it). By contrast, I will read the second portion of Luke 9:51-62 in light of the first, using the Gospel themes we have attempted to bring forth thus far.

The first would-be disciple promises to follow Jesus, to which Jesus responds: “Foxes haves holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” This saying is not just about the inconvenience of occasionally not having a place to stay. Nor is it, I think, trying to say that he never has overnight accommodations; for this would not ring true after telling us of their traveling procedure of sending messengers ahead to prepare. To say that Jesus and his disciples do not have a place to call home like the foxes and birds is closer to the meaning. But I think it still misses the deeper significance — which is: in a world that structures itself around the deadly games of insiders against outsiders, one who comes to be on the side of outsiders is completely out of place in such a world. (12) The self-reference here as the “Son of Man” signals a ‘heavenly’ context and recalls the opening words of the passage in verse 51: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up.” analempseos is the word that Luke will use three times in Acts 1 to refer to Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Verses 51 and 58 together anticipate Jesus’ ultimate lack of reception in this world by looking forward to the days of his lifting up to heaven. Only the God who is on the side of the victim will receive Jesus once again in the Ascension. This lack of reception echoes the theme emphasized in the traditional reading of 9:51-56, as a lack of reception on the part of the Samaritans. Our alternative reading still recognizes a lack of reception, but it is on the part of the messengers. And their lack of reception is due to Jesus’ initiative in changing his itinerary. The setting of his face to Jerusalem now makes more real his ‘out-of-placeness’ in this world, which Jesus expresses to this first would-be follower on the journey.

Jesus’ response to the second would-be disciple is even more difficult without the proper context for understanding. The second man is apparently willing to follow Jesus but first must go bury his father — a quite reasonable request. But Jesus’ answer is downright shocking: “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” What is Jesus doing here?! He is not exactly the model of the compassionate grief counselor. The clue to the meaning comes in the absurdity of the first part: obviously dead people cannot bury anyone, busy as they are with their own decomposition. As Girardian scholar James Alison puts it:

Rather [Jesus] is saying: this piety of burying the dead is proper to a culture based on death, and has nothing to do with the piety of those who are building the kingdom which knows not death. Get out of the culture of death, leave it behind, and build with me the culture which is coming into existence. (13)

Jesus has come to replace human culture, which is based on the deadly games of insiders against outsiders, with a culture in which everyone is invited to take part — but only through solidarity first with the victims of this world’s insider/outsider games. Jesus’ statement is eschatological more than pastoral. It may not be the most pastoral response to the situation in the present but, properly understood, looks forward in hope to God’s reign based on life. It seeks to jar us out of our enslavement to the human culture based on death.

Jesus’ third response, then, continues the eschatological bent. His image of the farmer at the plow underscores that his followers must keep their gaze forward; looking back to past ties with human culture is to risk returning to the slavery. One imagines the farmer whose steady gaze is lined up on the tree at the other end of the field. Jesus, at this point in Luke’s story, has his gaze steadily fixed upon a tree outside Jerusalem. There is no turning back, if he is to meet God’s goal of exposing the deadly insider/outsider games of human culture. There should be nothing worth looking back to, if the goal is truly God’s offer of a whole new way of living that is freed from the ultimate grasp of the reign of death.


1. This is the current title given to the paragraph of Luke 9:51-56 in many NRSV editions. Other translations and editions put the matter even more strongly, such as “Samaritan Opposition” (many NIV editions). Perhaps the most extreme interpretive caption is “The hostile Samaritans,” and it comes from a surprising source (considering the extremism), The New Oxford Annotated Bible [Oxford University Press, 1991], page 96nt (in the notes).

2. Luke 9:54; all biblical quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible [copyright © 1989, National Council of Churches], unless otherwise noted.

3. Luke 9:22; apodokimazo is from the adj. dokimos, meaning “tested” or “trustworthy,” and is the opposite of the verb form dokimazo, “to be tested,” implying that one has failed the test or been rejected. Grundmann (Kittel’s TDNT, Vol. II, p. 260) points out that the synoptic gospels connect this word with Jesus’ quote of Psalm 118:22, referencing the stone which the builders have rejected.

4. Emphasis on ‘insider’ rejection as opposed to ‘outsider’ rejection is precisely the theme of the next passage in Luke, the sending out of the seventy (Luke 10:1-20). The theme of sending out might even be seen as secondary to the otherwise strange passage embedded in the midst (10:13-16) in which Jesus utters woes to the ‘insider’ towns of Bethsaida, Chorazin, and Capernaum. He specifically states that it will be worse for them in the judgment than for ‘outsider’ towns like Tyre and Sidon. The conclusion of the woes gives the apparent criteria for judgment: “Whoever listens to you listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” (Here another word for “reject,” atheteo, is used.)

5. I think it is significant that I have never seen a paragraph caption of Luke 9:51-56 in any editions of the Bible that highlights the action of either the disciples requesting judgment or Jesus rebuking the disciples for it; rather, such captions always allude to the alleged action of the Samaritans.

6. Perhaps “all the commentators” is a bit strong; but I consulted over a dozen commentaries, all of which ignore the grammar of the passage, and all of which assume that the verb “not received” refers to the Samaritan villagers.

7. Luke 9:30.

8. Codexes A, C, and D are among the ancient texts that conclude the verse with “as Elijah did.”

9. Could Luke intentionally be having the disciples imitate Elijah in a negative fashion because Jesus has come to supersede Elijah as God’s prophet? This would seem to continue the point of including Elijah in the Transfiguration narrative only a few verses previous (9:30).

10. Elsewhere in the gospel, Luke seems to portray a solidarity between Jesus and Samaritans. In the only other two references to Samaritans in Luke’s gospel, they are lifted high as models of good behavior: the Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37) and the Healing of the Ten Lepers (17:11-19).

11. I walk a fine line here myself in not scapegoating modern scholars!

12. I am indebted to James Alison for insight into Luke 9:57-60 from his reflections on the parallel version to these verses in Matthew 8:18-22, Raising Abel: The Recovery of the Eschatological Imagination [New York: Crossroad, 1996], pp. 86-87.

13. Ibid., p. 87.

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