The bitter agony of God

 Lent 3 – 2016
 Luke 13:31-35

                                                                                                                                                     Marian Free

In the name of God who longs to gather us in, if only we would allow ourselves to be so loved. Amen.

Today is the last Sunday in four weeks of Long Service Leave – which explains for any who have been paying attention –why last week’s sermon used the gospel for this week and vice versa. In the no man’s land of leave, it was easier to believe that the lectionary would follow the order of the gospel not vice versa! In retrospect there is something liberating in being logical rather than rigidly following the Lectionary. If Luke thinks that the lament comes after the cursing of the fig tree, it makes sense to keep it there. But enough with explanations. Today’s gospel is even more confusing than last week’s unless it is read with the background in mind.

Chapter 13 falls almost in the middle of what has been called Luke’s Travel Narrative (9:51-19:58). In line with Matthew and Mark, Luke organises his gospel geographically – Jesus’ time in and around Galilee, the journey to Jerusalem and Jerusalem. Scholars argue that the author of Luke uses the journey to Jerusalem to teach the disciples and it is true that much of the material that Matthew uses elsewhere is placed here by Luke. It is also true that there are a number of references to the journey in this section (9:51; 13:22; 17:11; 19:11,28). However there is no actual narrative, nothing that looks like a travelogue. What is more, this long section of Luke’s Gospel appears to have very little internal order, there is very little that holds it together. In this repect Luke is very different from Matthew who organises much of the same material into five (or six) distinct blocks or sermons.

As Luke tells it, the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem is slow and not particularly logical. In 9:51 we are informed that Jesus “set his face” towards Jerusalem yet here, four chapters later Jesus is still in Galilee (Herod’s jurisdiction) and verse 33 suggests that the journey has not even begun. Later, in chapter 17, Jesus has apparently only just reached the area between Galilee and Samaria – that is, he has not yet entered Samaria and Jerusalem is still some way off. (This despite the fact that as early as 9:52 Jesus is supposed to have entered a village of Samaritans.) All of which is a reminder that Luke, as the other gospel writers, is not trying to provide an accurate chronological record of Jesus and that we should not believe that the events are recorded “as they happened”.

That the journey is filled with trepidation is indicated from the very start. “Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem.”Jesus didn’t “decide” to go or think that it might be a good idea to go. The language “set his face” suggests a degree of determination to do something that he knows ahead of time will be difficult and unpleasant. It makes it clear that Jesus is not going to Jerusalem for a social visit or a holiday. Going to Jerusalem, is something that must be done not something that Jesus wants to do, a sentiment that is picked up in verse 33 which reveals what lies ahead. “It is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” Jesus knows that going to Jerusalem means certain death. He knows too that there is no escaping this fate.

So the setting for today’s reading is Jesus’ slow (meandering?) journey to Jerusalem, behind which lurks the threat of execution. The verses don’t make a lot of sense. It appears that Luke has joined together two quite separate traditions (the warning about Herod and the lament over Jerusalem) with a sentence explaining why Jesus must go to Jerusalem.

The first two verses are unique to Luke and provide a more flattering view of the Pharisees than we are used to. In this instance the Pharisees are warning, not challenging Jesus. They are afraid for his safety if he stays in Galilee! From Luke’s point of view this exchange serves to keep Herod in the picture . Herod is very much part of Luke’s story. He has beheaded John the Baptist, expressed concern that Jesus is John risen from the dead and he will appear again when Pilate sends Jesus to him.

Jesus is not at all concerned about “that fox”, for he is already on his way to Jerusalem which is outside Herod’s sphere of influence and which, to his mind is far more threatening.

The reference to Jerusalem provides the cue for Jesus’ lament which Matthew places on Jesus’ lips after his attack on the Pharisees. The lament expresses not only Jesus’ foreknowledge with regard to his own faith, but his deep grief that those whom he came to save will not allow themselves to be gathered under his wings. Not only will those at the centre of Judaism stand apart from Jesus and his message, but they will also, they will be the source of his destruction.

There is not much OT evidence for the death of the prophets, but it does appear to be a tradition by the first century when there has been no prophet in Israel since the exile. Whether or no Jerusalem has killed the prophets, Jesus’ lament is one that echoes through the OT from Deuteronomy to Hosea. It a lament of longing, of God who, knowing that we are safest and happiest when we are under the shelter of God’s wings, sighs in despair that we will not consent to be loved, enveloped, protected. It reflects a grief so deep that will will do anything, give anything, sacrifice everything to open our eyes and to help us to see where we truly belong. It is a sorrow so profound, that it will take Jesus to the cross.

Has anything really changed? Is it not true that the world of the twenty first century is as self absorbed, self interested and as determined to go its own way as first century Palestine? We hope God is there when we really need support and comfort, but do we rely on God all day every day? Do we allow ourselves to be gathered in or do we, like toddlers, assert our independence and try to prove that we can go it alone?

Jesus’ lament is the expression of the anguish of God, the anguish of God who knows the solution to the world’s pain and heartache, but will not impose it on us but wait in torment until we are ready to accept it.


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