The Fire God
Jesus once nicknamed James and John "the sons of
thunder" (boanerges in Greek - Mark 3.17). The story in Luke
9.51-56 gives us an indication why. When some Samaritan villagers refuse
to welcome Jesus, the two brothers suggest calling down fire from heaven
to consume them - a somewhat drastic response to a lack of hospitality.
What gave them the idea is made clear in the story when (following
some of the old manuscripts) the words "as did Elijah" are
In the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah is very much associated with
Godís fiery aspect. Most famously, in his contest with the prophets of
Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18), he called down fire from heaven to
consume the sacrifice he had prepared.
Of more immediate relevance to Luke's story, is a less familiar one
about Elijah (2 Kings 1) where the king is sick and sends an officer
with fifty soldiers to summon Elijah to come and pray for him. Elijah
responds by calling down fire that burns up the captain and his troops.
This is the example that James and John want Jesus to follow. He rejects
Many themes could be developed out of this short passage from Lukeís
Gospel. I wish to highlight just one, which can be approached from two
Consider first the location of the narrative - a village in Samaria.
The Samaritan villagers turn Jesus away because he is known to be
heading for rival religious centre, Jerusalem. Competition between the
two shrines was intense at the time. In the story of
Elijah and the soldiers, the prophet knew that the king had had already
sought help from a rival god (Baal-zebub) before turning to him for
assistance. That was the reason for the prophetís spectacular outburst
against the kingís soldiers.
By refusing to follow Elijahís example, Jesus is telling his
disciples to put all such religious rivalry behind them. This message is
emphasized further in the next chapter of Luke, where Jesus tells the
story of the good Samaritan.
My second approach to the theme of religious tolerance is to note that in
rejecting the religious violence exhibited by Elijah, Jesus is not
rejecting him. In one of the most moving passages in the whole Bible
(1 Kings 19), Elijah himself learns the limitations of the violent
religion he himself had come to epitomize.
God told him to go to Horeb, the sacred mountain, where God made
himself known. In that famous incident, Elijah experienced the wind and
the earthquake and - above all - the fire, in which God should certainly
have been found. But God was not there.
At Mount Horeb, Elijahís religion was turned upside down. He
learned by experience that God lives not in the fire of religious zeal
but in the still small voice that speaks in the heart.
That is the lesson, with its accompanying requirement of religious
toleration and respect, that Jesus teaches James and John - and us - in
the incident at that unnamed Samaritan village.