First Look: Luke 13:31-35

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’  He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.  Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.”  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!  See, your house is left to you. 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.” ’

If you’re following the lectionary texts from week to week, by now you’re probably accustomed to skipping around in Luke’s gospel.  Jumping forward and back through the text does give us the advantage of addressing particular themes as they arise in the lectionary cycle.  However, we also lose the very important aspect of the author’s unique style, narrative, and emphases.  Consider, for instance, this reading from the thirteenth chapter of Luke.  At this point in the text the drumbeats of doom are growing, getting louder and louder with each chapter.  Luke has provided several events and dialogues suggesting that dark clouds are on the horizon, and the end of the disciples’ journey with Jesus won’t be a pleasant one.  In the two chapters preceding chapter thirteen we read that the scribes and Pharisees are out to get Jesus (11:53-54).  Jesus tells his disciples not to fear those who kill the body (12:4), then assures them that the Spirit will tell them what to say then they are persecuted (12:11-12).  Jesus even tells them not to be afraid (12:32), but immediately afterward tells them to be ready for what is to come (12:35-40).  It should be clear to us by chapter thirteen that Jesus is moving inexorably toward Jerusalem, where this dramatic wave of dire warnings will finally break and the conflict between Jesus and the incumbent religious powers will reach its climax.  This sense of building tension is something that Luke masterfully wove into the narrative of the text, yet we miss it completely by skipping around forwards and backwards from week to week.  Studying, teaching, or preaching the text carries the responsibility of somehow maintaining this sense of tension.

If it isn’t clear by this point in the text that the conflict and tension will result in Jesus’ death, Luke 13:31-35 should remove all doubt.  Jesus identifies Jerusalem as a place where prophets go to be killed (13:33-34).  His description of his journey toward Jerusalem carries connotations of divine guidance, suggesting that he is being led there by God.  At face value, this text informs us that Jesus undertakes a journey of conflict and tension to Jerusalem, where he will die.  Yet, this passage is not merely a vignette of conflict between Jesus and the religious authorities – in fact, the Pharisees come to Jesus to warn him in verse 31.  It is assumed here that these Pharisees don’t particularly see eye-to-eye with Herod, and an enemy of their enemy would be worth warning of his violent intentions.  This is not your typical Jesus vs. Pharisee skirmish.  Neither is it simply one more drum beat in the litany of foreshadowed death with which Luke has laced this narrative.  There is an element of that, obviously, but to read the text as simply a foreshadowing of doom misses something far more theologically important.

The thing that should set our theological gears turning lies in verse 34:  Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! This verse is striking in its juxtaposition of images.  First, we have the violent horror of prophets being killed and even stoned, a horrific and bloody practice to be sure.  Jesus follows this image directly with the tender and compassionate description of a hen gathering her chicks under her wings, which speaks of warmth, protection, and love.  Together they form a heart-rending lament for a city that has exhibited a pattern of misunderstanding and punishment for those whom God sends to it.  God’s response to such a stubborn and misguided populace is not retribution, or punishment (thought the city was destroyed sometime around 70 C.E., an event of which Luke was likely to be aware), but rather lamentation and persistence.  God is not done with Jerusalem and its people.  In fact, it is that very promise – that God in Jesus Christ will come to them yet again – with which this passage ends.  This is no mere prelude to Palm Sunday; it is a promise from God to the people.  God will once again engage and pursue the very city that kills God’s prophets and stones those whom God sends.  It will serve not only as the final drum beat in Jesus’ journey to the cross, but also the setting of God’s greatest triumph.  It is the people of Jerusalem who will see God’s own willingness to suffer and die for them face-to-face.  It is an extraordinary statement on the grace of God, and also a compelling proclamation that no place stands exempt from God’s tender compassion and persistent love.  Those who seek to follow Jesus must learn to view the world with no less compassion, no less forgiveness, and no less love.

Isn’t this an appropriate message for Lent?  In this season of repentance and reflection, we are called to examine that many ways in which we fall short of the glory of God.  So often we do not exhibit God’s grace to the world.  It is unfortunately commonplace for Christians to be characterized as unforgiving, and less than persistent in our pursuit of those who do not measure up.  Might we learn something from Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem?  There very well may be an opportunity for reflection and learning here, for when we realize that God’s response to hostility and violence is not retribution, but rather lament and persistent grace, how might our relationships with the violent and hostile places of our world change?

Might we, as this reading suggests, be blessed to one day enter those places in the name of the Lord, as Jesus did?

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First Look is a commentary on the upcoming gospel lectionary texts, and is usually published on Mondays.  Be sure to come back next week!

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