Sunday's Gospel (Luke 9:51-62) contains one of the most significant events in St. Luke's accounts: the start of Jesus' final journey to Jerusalem.

For the next ten chapters, until His Palm Sunday entrance into the city, Jesus and His disciples will be "on the road."

Only after the Holy Spirit's arrival in the Acts of the Apostles, seven weeks after Jesus' death and resurrection, will some of those disciples first begin to leave town.

Into the city

Jerusalem plays a pivotal role in Luke's theology. At this point in his Gospel, everything and everyone starts to flow into the city. There, Jesus will die, rise and send the Spirit; from there, His disciples will be sent out "to the ends of the earth."

At the time Luke composed his Gospel, Jerusalem was just a heap of ruins. The Roman army had wiped it off the face of the earth 15 years earlier. No longer was the Jewish capital geographically important.

Its destruction provided the evangelist with an opportunity to "spiritualize" the city. For Luke, Jerusalem represents wherever and whenever Christians die, rise and receive the Holy Spirit in their lives.

That's why he created a "journey narrative." Our lives of faith are a constant journey to a dying, rising and spirit-filled experience. That's also why we must pay close attention to what happens at the beginning of the actual biblical journey:

* First, Jesus demands that His followers let nothing distract them along the road. When James and John want to stop long enough to punish the Samaritans who refuse to welcome them, He rebukes them, and they journey to another village.

* Second, Jesus sets the requirements for those who want to set out on such a venture: Get rid of any idea that this is the beginning of a soft life. "Foxes have dens," Jesus warns, "and the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest His head."

* Third, neither respect for others nor family obligations should ever block one's way. When someone promises to take to the road only after his father dies, Jesus points out that, if one's father objects to him becoming a Christian, he's already "dead." In that case, "Let the dead bury their dead. But you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God."

* Fourth, turning back is not an option: "No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God."

We should be careful not to contrast Elijah's permitting Elisha to "kiss his mother and father goodbye" with Jesus' refusal to let His followers do the same. The author of the first reading (I Kings 19:16b, 19-21) doesn't share Luke's "journey theology."

Three questions

St. Paul helps us better understand the depth of Luke's insight. Author John Shea often mentions that the historical Jesus' ministry revolved around answering just three questions: What do you want out of life? Where do you get it? How much does it cost?

Paul presumes we want freedom, especially freedom from religious rules and regulations. He achieves liberation by letting the Holy Spirit control his life. Yet, as he reminds the Galatians in the second reading (Galatians 5:1,13-18), this freeing Spirit enters our lives only when we begin to love our neighbor as ourselves: "For the whole [Mosaic] law is fulfilled in [that] one statement."

Love is Luke's road to Jerusalem; it is the price Jesus places on our freedom. It's a road that leads to death, life and the Holy Spirit's control of our lives. The cost of our freedom is our commitment to love.

No wonder Luke's Jesus is so demanding. If love of others isn't at the center of our lives, we'll never be fulfilled. Love guarantees that, no matter how often we start our journey to Jerusalem, we're always exploring a new road, encountering unique experiences and discovering a dimension of life we've never before visited or even noticed.