Second Sunday in Lent
March 17, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
This passage actually consists of two units that originally may have been independent of one another. In the first unit, vv. 31-33, the Pharisees warn Jesus to "get away from here," that is Galilee, because Herod wants to kill him. Only Luke reports this episode. The second unit, vv. 34-35, is the lament of Jesus over Jerusalem, which is also in Matthew 23:37-39. Matthew places the lament after Jesus has entered Jerusalem, whereas in Luke Jesus pronounces the lament before he arrives in Jerusalem.
The time reference in the opening phrase of the paragraph, "at that very hour," connects this paragraph to the previous section which begins at v. 22 with the comment that Jesus went through one town and village after another, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked Jesus if only a few will be saved. Jesus responded that there would be disturbing surprises. Those who thought that they would be among the saved will find themselves left outside where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, while people from east and west, from north and south, will be seated at the heavenly banquet with Israel's patriarchs and prophets. Thus the lectionary reading for this Sunday with the lament over Jerusalem is closely connected to the previous section not only in time, "at that very hour," but much more significantly in subject matter, namely, that those who counted on being among the saved, such as the people of Jerusalem, will find themselves left out. But more on this later.
It may come as a surprise to Christian listeners, who are used to thinking of Pharisees as hypocrites and enemies of Jesus, that in this passage it is some Pharisees who warn Jesus to flee from Galilee because Herod wants to kill him. Not all Pharisees were hostile to Jesus. While Jesus and the Pharisees did not see things eye to eye, we find in Luke and Acts that Pharisees are often in the company of Jesus and not always antagonistic. Jesus is often invited to the home of a Pharisee for dinner (Luke 7:36, 11:37; 14:1). In Acts 5:33-39, when the Jewish Sanhedrin wanted to kill the apostles, a well-known Pharisee, Gamaliel, counsels them to be careful how they treat these men. If the undertaking of the apostles is of human origin, Gamaliel says, it will fail; "but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them--in that case you may even be found fighting against God!" Some Pharisees had even become Christians (Acts 15:5). And of course we know that Paul himself was a Pharisee. In fact, in his defense before the Sanhedrin he uses the present tense and says, "I am a Pharisee" (Acts 23:6).
Some might still doubt the motives of the Pharisees in warning Jesus to leave Galilee. Maybe they were not sincere. Maybe they wanted to get rid of him by fabricating this story about Herod. However, there is no reason to doubt the sincerity of the Pharisees in warning Jesus. Herod's design to kill Jesus does fit the other bits and pieces of history. He killed John the Baptist. Later, when he heard of the activities of Jesus, he was perplexed and said, "John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?" (Luke 9:7-9). Luke adds the ominous note: "And he tried to see him." Herod is going to figure again in the story of Jesus in Luke 23:6-12 when Pilate will send Jesus to Herod to be interrogated.
Now Herod will get his wish, but only to a point. Luke comments: "When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign." As one might expect, Jesus would not only refuse to perform signs to entertain, but he would also refuse to answer Herod's lengthy questions. Consequently Herod and his soldiers would mock Jesus and send him back to Pilate.
In the passage in Luke 13, when the Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him, he tells them to tell "that fox," "Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work." Jesus in effect is saying that his timetable is not determined by Herod's schemes but by divine purpose.
Jesus gives Herod the uncomplimentary name "fox," and later when Herod sees him and questions him, Jesus refuses to accommodate him in any way. Jesus in the wilderness had already faced the temptation to worship the devil as a way of gaining the kingdoms of this world, and his answer was a firm no. He was resolutely committed to the worship of God and adherence to the divine purpose. Now in his encounters with Herod, he was carrying out that commitment. There was no room for political diplomacy, compromise or negotiation. Any political advantage that may have been gotten by a softer stance is altogether forfeited. The kingdom of God which Jesus came to preach and live was incongruent with the entire system within which Herod functioned. No peaceful coexistence was possible. What was there to say to someone who had beheaded John the Baptist, a prophet of God?
It is to be granted of course that Paul admonished Christians in Rome to be subject to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1). Even Jesus himself once told his audience to give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's (Luke 20:25). Luke himself portrays Roman officials in Acts as reasonable and responsible individuals. He does not demonize political institutions and persons. Even Pilate is portrayed as reluctant to condemn Jesus but eventually makes the decision to crucify him only because the chief priests and leaders demand it. It may be that Luke wants to convince his readers that while Jesus was uncompromisingly committed to God's will and purpose, that did not mean that he was a threat to the political establishment. Nevertheless, if a choice must be made between God and Caesar, there was no question as to where Jesus stood on the issue.
The time reference, today, tomorrow and the third day (vv. 32-33), is probably intended metaphorically to mean a short time rather than exactly three days. A more critical issue that requires some reflection is the word "must" and the word "impossible" in v. 33: "I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem."
The verb "must" occurs regularly in Luke in reference to the life, work, death and resurrection of Jesus. In Luke 4:43 Jesus says, "I must proclaim the good news . . ., for I was sent for this purpose." In Luke 24:26 the resurrected Jesus says to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, "Was it not necessary ("must") that Christ should suffer these things?" and in 24:44, "everything written about me . . . must be fulfilled." In Acts the same thought is expressed in the preaching of the apostles. In his Pentecost sermon Peter says to the people in Jerusalem that Jesus was "handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God" (Acts 2:23). When the apostles and the early church pray for boldness in Acts 4, they tell how Herod, Pilate, the Gentiles and the people of Israel gathered against Jesus, "to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place" (4:28).
Must, impossible, necessary, definite plan, foreknowledge, predestination--what are we to make of these words? Has God predestined the death of Jesus and the place where it must take place? Was the death of Jesus predetermined by God and written in the annals of eternity long before it unfolded in the affairs of this earth? If so, can anyone who was involved in the events that resulted in the death of Jesus be held accountable for their decisions and actions?
Interestingly enough, in the sermons in Acts the human agents responsible for the death of Jesus are never let off the hook. The blame for the death of Jesus is placed squarely on the shoulders of Herod, Pilate, Gentiles, Israel. Likewise at the Last Supper Jesus makes this statement concerning the one who was going to betray him: "For the Son of Man is going as it has been determined, but woe to that one by whom he is betrayed" (Luke 22:22). Human accountability is fully present here. But divine purpose is also fully present. The result is that the death of Jesus was brought about by human beings that acted out of selfish, sinful and arrogant attitudes, and yet the purposes of God were accomplished. How can this be? Luke surely does not say that human sin accomplished the divine purpose. God's purposes were accomplished not because human beings did what they did but because God acted in the life, death, resurrection and glorification of Jesus.
In the same vein, when Jesus says that it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem, the meaning is not that blind fate or divine intelligence for some inexplicable reason dictated that prophets must die in Jerusalem. These words of Jesus are rather a commentary on the history of the mistreatment of past prophets by the people of Jerusalem. A prime example is, of course, Jeremiah who was condemned and barely escaped death in Jerusalem. Another prophet, Zechariah (Luke 11:51; II Chron. 24:20-22) was killed in Jerusalem. The irony is that the very city which was the site of the temple, the house of God, and therefore destined to represent sacred space, becomes the scene of persecution and murder of prophets. Could it be that the most severe persecution of prophets has been at the hands of the religious establishment in any age?
Another irony unfolds in the second unit of this passage, the lament over Jerusalem in vv. 34-35. Jerusalem has persecuted and killed prophets not out of ignorance. It was not because they had been given only one chance and they blew it. "How often have I desired to gather your children together."
Scholars have noted a difficulty here. In Luke, Jesus had not yet been to Jerusalem to preach or do any ministry there. How then could he say how often he desired to gather her children together? In Matthew, on the other hand, the lament over Jerusalem occurs after Jesus had been in Jerusalem for a few days (Matt 23:37-39). Of course, even a few days is not long enough to warrant the statement "how often," but at least it is more understandable than Luke's placement of the lament prior to the ministry of Jesus in Jerusalem.
Some critics have pointed out that what Jesus says here is not how often he actually attempted to gather Jerusalem's children but how often he desired to do so. That is, Jesus could have desired many a time to accomplish such a thing long before he ever set foot in Jerusalem. Others have suggested that this saying may have been a word spoken by the Wisdom of God much like the statement in Luke 11:49, "Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, . . . I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute. . . '" Therefore, the "how often" is not to be understood merely as a reference to the few attempts that Jesus himself may have made in his lifetime to minister in Jerusalem but to the numerous attempts that God has made over the centuries to make overtures to Jerusalem. Jerusalem's recalcitrance then is not directed merely against prophets or even Jesus, but God.
If God is the speaker in the lament over Jerusalem, the picture of a hen gathering her brood under her wings becomes a deeply moving portrait of God. Not least in significance would be the characterization of God in a feminine symbol. Perhaps we need to explore our understanding of God not exclusively in terms of such masculine symbols as father and king, as important as those are, but also as a compassionate mother hen with deep affection and tenderness for her brood.
The deep pathos of the lover whose love is jilted comes through in the tragic words, "you were not willing." God will persuade, coax, and woo, but will not coerce. God acts from a stance of grace rather than coercive power, and therefore the human response must be one of love and willing obedience.
In the final words of the lament, "your house is left to you," Luke is hearing a reference to the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 which had already taken place by the time Luke wrote his gospel. The words should not be taken to mean that Jesus or God was abandoning the Jewish people. In fact, in Acts Luke will tell the story of Pentecost and the birth of the church in Jerusalem in the very city where the religious and political leaders condemned Jesus to death. The judgment against Jerusalem is not final. In his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 Peter will tell Jerusalemites and others who brought about the death of Jesus that there is still hope and forgiveness for them if they will only repent. The pronouncement of judgment is a wake-up call and therefore redemptive in its purpose. One is reminded of the deep pathos in Hosea 11 where God pronounces judgment on Israel because of her unfaithfulness to the covenant, but in the next breath God says, "How can I give you up, Ephraim? . . . My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender."
The lament ends with the final words of verse 35, "And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'" In the Lukan context the immediate reference is of course to the time when Jesus would enter Jerusalem and the crowd would shout those words of blessing (19:38), which are quoted from Psalm 118:26. However, there may be a reference here also to the eschatological future when Christ will return in the parousia as judge after a period of absence. The lament issues a warning and at the same time holds out hope that the ministry of the early church in Acts in the absence of Jesus may yet spell the difference between final judgment and final salvation for Jerusalem.
This text provides an opportunity to address the problem of religious prejudice that arises out of preconceived notions and stereotypical generalizations. Christians have traditionally viewed Pharisees as enemies of Jesus. Yet the evidence in the gospels does not unequivocally present such a picture. In this text they seem to offer Jesus protection from Herod. How often we form an opinion about a person or a group without really attempting to understand them as persons of value. We attach labels such as conservative or liberal to others when often that only declares that our position is the truth and the other position is false. Christians have made the name Pharisee equivalent to hypocritical legalism. While Pharisees did have a tendency to become legalistic, they were in fact committed to Hebrew Scriptures and sought ways to live by the biblical commandments.
Another way that religious prejudice can be seen in this text is in the attitude that Herod and Jerusalem have toward Jesus. Both see Jesus as a threat and seek ways to get rid of him. Herod is a political figure and his concern is that Jesus appears to be disturbing the peace in Galilee. In one sense, Herod had nothing to worry about because the message of Jesus was about the kingdom of God and not a political agitation against Herod. In another sense, Herod had everything to worry about because when people take the kingdom of God seriously Herod could lose his political leverage with the people.
Through peaceful resistance Ghandi was able to bring about the collapse of the British regime in India when armed resistance was pitifully helpless against the mighty British Empire. If people are fired up with a vision of the kingdom of God that Jesus preached, Herod had ample reason to worry. Maybe Christianity has become rather tame in our time because we have domesticated the subversive nature of the kingdom of God.
Herod sought to kill Jesus. But, as the story would unfold, the real threat to Jesus was not Herod but Jerusalem. How is it that Jerusalem, the holy city, this religious capital, has become known as the city that kills prophets and will shortly put to death God's final envoy? Why is it that it is often the religious establishment that has so much conflict with prophets?
What needs to be heard here is not the fixing of blame for the death of Jesus on Judaism or the whole city of Jerusalem. This text is a call to all of us who have been immersed in a particular religious tradition to search ourselves. When a religious institution views itself as the sole custodian and broker of religious faith, it becomes so obsessed with itself and so determined to perpetuate its authority that any perceived threat to its status is interpreted as blasphemy against God and must be squelched. How easy it is to think that our own understanding of the faith is the absolute truth and therefore any view that challenges our own must be interpreted as unorthodox and condemned and eliminated. Religious arrogance can easily be camouflaged as zeal for God's truth.
On the other hand, in this day of easy tolerance and insipid relativism, religious truth is viewed as a matter of individual decision not to be questioned by anyone else. Passionate commitment to an unflinching faith and uncompromising faithfulness to God are labeled as fanaticism. Yet the text presents to us a model in Jesus worthy of consideration. Jerusalem in its passionate zeal brings about the death of prophets and Jesus. Jesus, on the other hand, in his passionate commitment to God's purposes journeys resolutely to Jerusalem to carry out his mission, knowing full well that such a course is replete with dangers. In his zeal to carry out the purposes of God he is willing to undergo suffering and death.
Here we have two contrasting pictures of religious zeal--Jerusalem and Jesus. Religious passion drives Jerusalem to murderous ends. Religious passion moves prophets and Jesus to fulfill God's mission at the cost of their lives. Will the church today follow the example of Jerusalem or Jesus? Will we raise our voices in this world to assert our power to defend our turf? Or will we adopt the model of faithfulness to God's purposes even if it means vulnerability and suffering? We who are called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus are faced with a challenge.
Yet even when Jerusalem has killed one prophet after another, God does not quit sending envoys. Here we find a picture of a gracious God who is like a mother hen making repeated attempts to gather her chicks under her wings, but the chicks are going their own way. God coaxes and pleads but does not coerce. When human beings persist in their rejection of God's gracious invitation, He will allow them to go their way and suffer the consequences. Divine judgment will eventually come, but judgment itself has a redemptive purpose in the sense that sometimes the only way we can come to a full realization of our sinfulness and bankruptcy is to suffer the consequences of our foolishness. Our house is left to us. It is only then that we might wake up and realize how doomed we are and cry out to Him in humility and repentance.
God's judgment is tempered with grace, mercy, and the hope of redemption. God as a mother hen persuades and coaxes and warns and pronounces judgment with the hope that we may respond in obedience and humility and be saved. God patiently invites and waits, hoping that the wayward one will come home before it is too late. The tragedy is that after all that God has done, some may still choose to turn a deaf ear to God's overtures and find themselves at a point of no return. That is the final judgment.
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