ONE OF THE TASKS IMPOSED ON those who wish to read the canonical Gospels sensitively is to see how the various units are linked. Casual readers remember individual stories about Jesus from their Sunday school days, but do not always reflect on the links that weld these stories into a complete Gospel. Moreover, the individual evangelists did not arrange their material exactly the same way as the others, so the special flavor of each gospel is often lost unless the distinctive links are thoughtfully pondered.
An instructive example is found in Luke 9:49-50. The preceding verses (9:46-48) find Jesus’ disciples arguing as to which of them would be greatest (in the consummated kingdom, presumably). Knowing their thoughts, Jesus teaches them an embarrassing lesson, employing a little child to make his point. Important people honey up to even more important people. Those who follow Jesus welcome the least powerful members of society – the little children. What Jesus demands is an outlook fundamentally at variance with that of the world: “For he who is least among you all – he is the greatest” (9:48).
It is at this juncture that 9:49-50 comes into play. John comments that he and the others saw a man driving out demons in Jesus’ name, “and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” Jesus forbids them this course of action, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” At first glance this is a somewhat different topic from that of the preceding verses. Then again, maybe not: the connections call for reflection. John’s complaints no longer sound like godly concern for orthodoxy, but like power-hungry moaning more concerned that those who preach and heal belong to the right party than that the mission itself be advanced. So this is pathetically tied to the debate over who would be the greatest. Personal aggrandizement will inevitably prove an unstable base for making wise assessments of the ministry of others.
The following verses (9:51-56) find Jesus in Samaria. When the Samaritans prove inhospitable, Jesus’ disciples are quite prepared to call fire down upon them. Jesus rebukes them. Since these verses follow the themes already elucidated, the attitude the disciples here betray is clarified. Their passion for judgment against the Samaritans is motivated less by a genuine grasp of and devotion to Christ Jesus, than by a power-hungry self-focus.
The closing verses of the chapter highlight the same contrast (9:57-62). The three who protest the loudest about how eagerly they will follow Jesus are firmly put in their place: they have not counted the cost of discipleship, and so their pious protestations take on the ugly hue of self-love.