First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 2

William Loader

Lent 2: 21 February  Luke 13:31-35

Danger. Herod Antipas had killed John the Baptist. It is very believable that he also wanted to remove Jesus. Why? The eastern flank of the Roman empire was unstable. When you are trying to maintain stability and security, the last thing you want is popular movements critical of government. If you are running the temple and trying to sustain a balance between Roman demands and your commitment to the survival of Israel and its faith, then you also do not want people from ‘left field’. Military revolutionaries are more easily categorised. People like John and Jesus brought unrest.

Mark tells us that Herod was furious that John objected to his marrying his step brother’s wife (on a very strict reading of the purity code in Lev 18), also briefly mentioned by Luke (3:19-20). Jesus doubtless agreed. Josephus suggests the broader concern. Probably both sources shed light on what happened. So it was in Herod’s interests (and the temple’s) to silence Jesus. There were only a few ways of doing so. Herod would probably have preferred to be called a ‘lion’, as earlier rulers in Israel claimed among their titles. Herod Antipas was ‘small beer’, just a ‘fox’, but foxes were dangerous and wily.

Jesus lived in the context of danger partly because what he was doing and saying was seen as dangerous and partly because the powers would have put him into a broad category. Such dangers still confront people faithful to the words and deeds of Jesus: being misunderstood/categorised and being well understood. Behind it all is a common context: followers of Jesus are to be engaged in the issue of dealing with powers, of all kinds, and what they do to people.

At another level this is also evident in Jesus’ response. He indicates what he has been doing: exorcisms and healing. He has been dealing with powers. He has been concerned with setting people free and healing them. Behind this is: he has been engaging in acts of compassion and caring which restore dignity to people. Why should Herod worry about such a ‘nice person’? Because Jesus’ vision went beyond the individual to a transformed society. That had social and political implications. Both dimensions matter: the individual, personal and the social, communal.

Jesus’ response speaks of three days: ‘today, tomorrow, and the next day’. He does so twice (13:32, 33). 13:32 looks typical of Jesus’ clever responses: ‘Go and tell that fox, "Look I am casting out demons and performing healings today and tomorrow and I will be finished on the third day."’ ‘In three days’ was a common way of describing a short time. It occurs frequently throughout the Old Testament in this sense. After three days Abraham found the ram in the thicket, Jonah was spewed up from the whale, etc. At that level Jesus is saying: ‘Don’t worry I’m off out of here soon.’ There is of course more to it. The word teleio, ‘finished’, is ambiguous and fortunately our word, ‘finished’, captures it well. Herod wants to finish Jesus off. Jesus declares he will be finished. People hearing the anecdote in Greek would catch the word play. In the light of Jesus’ crucifixion, it is even more telling. 13:33, a probable expansion of the earlier 13:32, makes this specific. As prophet, Jesus expects death in Jerusalem.

13:34-35 continues the motif of ‘Jerusalem’ which appears in 13:33 and this may be why Luke brings in this material from Q here. The wonderfully graphic declaration in 13:34 is extraordinary: it speaks of being like a hen seeking to gather chicks throughout Jerusalem’s history. It cannot refer to Jesus’ short ministry. How can he speak as though he has been regularly present in Jerusalem over centuries? The context indicates that each prophet has been an embodiment of the hen gathering her chicks.

If we were confident that Luke believed, like the author of the fourth gospel, that Jesus was in existence as the Logos from the beginning of time, then the riddle resolves itself: as Logos he was present in the prophets. He was coming ‘to his own’ and ‘his own did not accept him’, as many would have understood the tradition behind John 1:11. Elsewhere Luke does not reflect a christology like John’s, but he does provide evidence that developments were heading this way, especially through the link with Logos in its more common, feminine image: ‘Wisdom’. That also fits the gender better (mother hen).

Luke 11:49 is closely related to our passage: ‘Therefore the wisdom of God says, "I shall send you prophets and apostles, and some of them they will kill and persecute, so that the blood of all the prophets poured out from the beginning of creation will be held against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, killed between the altar and the sanctuary." Yes, I tell you, it will be held against this generation.’ Matthew 23:34-39 puts both sayings together.

Luke (and his tradition) is both linking Jesus with the prophets, his death with their deaths, and associating him with ‘Wisdom’. In Jewish literature ‘Wisdom’ was pictured as God’s treasured companion, who sent prophets and brought God’s Word (and Law) to expression. What began as a metaphor came in some circles to be a description of something like the highest angel or as a twofoldness in God, which started a process already in Judaism which later came to expression in the Trinity.

It is not meant to distance God from what was going on, although it may be the result of emphasising God’s transcendence. Rather it meant: God is here in this confrontation. Behind the image of the hen is the image of Wisdom and behind that is an image of God, God, the compassionate and caring mother. Jesus embodies that. At this level of thought we are also being challenged to embody it.

If the temple authorities appear to have connived in suppressing unrest to protect the temple and Israel’s faith, this saying counters by saying that such protection will have the opposite affect. It will lead to the temple’s destruction. Not all subversive voices bring chaos. Some bring renewal and hope. Listen! They didn’t. The temple, ‘the house’, ‘is forsaken’, might have been originally a declaration, like Jeremiah’s and Ezekiel’s, that God had stopped inhabiting the temple and so it would be destroyed. It might be another witness to Jesus’ own prediction, which he symbolised in his action in the outer courts and by his prediction of its destruction in a short time (3 days!).

After the actual destruction in 70 CE, the time when Luke is writing (possibly in the 80’s), people would hear it as a reflection on that event as God’s judgement. Then the rest of the verse is a prediction of Jesus’ return to Jerusalem as Messiah. ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’, from the psalm of ascents, Ps 118:26, applied originally to any pilgrim, but came to be used in particular of Jesus (as it is still in the canon of the eucharist). It is used of Jesus at his entry into Jerusalem (see Luke 19:38 - indirectly), but here it refers to Luke’s vision of a messianic kingdom of Jesus based in Jerusalem, once the time of the Gentiles has passed (21:24) and God restores the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6), in fulfilment of the promises given voice in the Lukan infancy narratives.

These few verses are rich in historical allusions. They invite us to participate in the movement for freedom and salvation in a world where individuals and communities are governed by other powers.

Epistle: Lent 2: 21 February  Philippians 3:17-4:1

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