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The Lament over Jerusalem


Luke 13:31-35

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32 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. 33 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.” 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! 35 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.”’

As Christian people we all too often pay lip service to the fact that the political and religious context in which Jesus lived, thought and died, was one of economic, political and military domination by the Roman Empire. We also often fail to realise that this was also both the context in which the Christian scriptures were written and the life and death of Jesus was interpreted. Failure to understand these Jewish contexts leads Christians and the Church to misinterpret the underlying message and meaning of the life and death of Jesus the Jew of Nazareth. Whether we like it or not, I am convinced that Jesus had a political agenda as well as an agenda of compassion.

The early three centuries of the Christian enterprise was amongst small ginger groups on the edge of society, and known as the “Followers of the Way” [of Jesus]. These were often persecuted but loyal, loving and caring others into the Way of Jesus. In 303 C.E., the Roman emperor Diocletian initiated yet another ‘Great Persecution’ against Christians. And then came Constantine, at which point the Christian enterprise moved by Imperial invitation from the edge of society into the power broking centre of the Roman Empire. I am convinced that, from that point onwards, the ‘institutional’ Church lost the political radicalism of both Jesus and the Apostle Paul.

The Lent Two appointed Gospel reading is in the central section of Luke that runs from chapter 13:22 to chapter 17:10. This is an important section that develops earlier aspects of Luke’s Gospel and it looks specifically at what it means to be a Follower of the Way. At the beginning of this central section, in chapter 13:22-30, there is the reminder that to follow Jesus requires total and costly allegiance – no half measures.

Immediately after that comes this week’s reading [Luke 13:31-25] concerning the compassion of Jesus towards Jerusalem and its people. 31At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”

It is of great significance that Luke’s Gospel is the only Gospel that includes the first part of this story: the incident of the ‘good’ Pharisees going to Jesus and warning him to flee from King Herod Antipas.

I have no doubt that both John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth had opposed the Jewish political leadership of Herod Antipas who had been appointed by Rome to keep the peace and to ensure that taxes were collected. Sadly, Herod Antipas was exploiting and oppressing ordinary poor Jews. Herod had already executed John the Baptist and now it was time for another political and religious thorn in his flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, to be removed.

But, if this ‘good’ Pharisee incident really happened, why is it that neither Mark nor Matthew mentioned it before Luke was writing, and why did John ignore it at least a decade later? I think that this is something less to do with an actual Jesus incident and more to do with Luke the outsider, who had a long struggle to be accepted as a gentile ‘God fearer’ within the Antioch synagogue some 40 years before. Here Luke is defending some of the other apparent arch-outsiders of the Jesus community in the 9th decade – the Pharisees – reminding his community that not all Pharisees were wicked or corrupt?

In a similar vein, why is it that Matthew and Luke have the story of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem but the earlier Gospel of Mark ignored it? Mark’s Gospel was written much nearer the time of Jesus, using the interpreted memories of the Apostle Peter, so did this really happen to Jesus?

And another thought concerning Matthew’s Gospel: for the Matthew community, their experience of the on-going presence of the Spirit of Jesus in the 9th decade was one of compassion towards ordinary Jews even though Matthew demonstrated deep animosity towards the Jewish religious Establishment that had expelled him and his community of Followers of the Way from their synagogue. Yet the lived message in all our 4 Gospels was one of “love your enemy and do good to those who persecute you.”

As I often comment, I am convinced that Jesus had a political agenda as well as an agenda of compassion. I wonder if the two can be separated? It was Luke who particularly set his interpretation of the Jesus story into a political context: “He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’” [13:32]

Whether or not Jesus said these actual words cannot be confirmed. However, in the Jesus stories told by Luke’s Followers of the Way in this is the framework in which they explained their on-going experiences of the Jesus Spirit. From this Jesus quote, King Herod Antipas and his puppet regime was being blamed for attempting both to silence and to destroy the popularity, healing work and wisdom teaching of Jesus. But what of the statements attributed to Jesus concerning Jerusalem in verses 33 to 35?

33In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! 34″O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! 35Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'”

As beautiful and reassuring as the pictures of the mother hen protecting her chicks conjure up for a defeated and oppressed people, probably these are the words of Luke rather than those of Jesus. Indeed, Luke is looking back on that fateful entry of Jesus into Jerusalem 50 years before and is reflecting the Book of Lamentations written during the Babylonian Exile somewhere around 586 B.C.E.

It is significant that, by tradition, the Book of Lamentations is read by Jews on Tisha B’Av, the annual observance of the destruction of both the First and the Second Jerusalem Temples. Lamentations consists of 5 poems:

Poem 1 portrays Jerusalem as a weeping widow, greatly saddened by the miseries experienced by that defeated and destroyed city. [Note the echoes of the similar state of Jerusalem at the time in which the Gospel of Luke was written!]

Poem 2 picks up the Jewish age-long carrot and stick interpretation of Yahweh God: keeping the Law brings freedom, ignoring the Law brings defeat and oppression. This poem, unequivocally, links national sins and Yahweh God’s castigation of the people. [Note the echoes of the state of Pharisaic teaching at the time in which the Gospel of Luke was written!]

Poem 3 offers new hope to Yahweh God’s Chosen People sometime in the future – subject to their keeping the Law. The Babylonian captivity was seen as both a punishment of Yahweh God for their disobedience but also as a lesson delivered through suffering for their own good to help them learn the carrot and stick lesson of their history. [Note again the echoes of the state of Pharisaic teaching at the time in which the Gospel of Luke was written!]

Poem 4 again links the fate of Jerusalem and its Temple to the sins of the people chosen by Yahweh God. [Note the echoes of the state of Jerusalem and the on-going rejection of Jesus by both ordinary Jews and the Jewish leadership at the time in which the Gospel of Luke was written!]

Poem 5 rounds up the carrot and stick ‘disobedience – punishment – obedience – freedom’ cycle by stating that repentance for past failures to obey the Law would lead to a future freedom and time of self-determination. [Note again the echoes of the state of Jerusalem and the on-going rejection of Jesus by both ordinary Jews and the Jewish leadership at the time in which the Gospel of Luke was written!]

Luke’s references to Jerusalem and Jesus weeping over it are the outcome of half a century of the benefit of hindsight, reading the 4th decade fate of Jesus and the 8th decade fate of Jerusalem and its Temple back to the parallel fate under the iron grip of the Babylonians some 6 centuries before.

We Christians need to understand these contexts if we are to faithfully represent Jesus today. Also we need to remember that Jesus was born a Jew, lived as a Jew, thought within the religious culture of the Judaism of his day, and was executed as a Jewish criminal who dared to challenge the power of the religious and political establishments.

But here are, perhaps, the two most controversial points today. For traditional institutional Christianity, the theology associated with penal substitutionary atonement [or any other theological version of atonement!] is the norm, but there are other ways of interpreting the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth. An alternative offered by 21st century progressive Christianity is that the good news of Jesus of Nazareth was not and is not penal substitutionary atonement in which Jesus was sent to die in your place or my place. That was an early first century CE attempt by the Followers of the Way of Jesus to make sense of the life and death of the one they began to call ‘Messiah’.

The good news of Jesus of Nazareth, within the context of the political and religious oppression and exploitation of first century CE Judaism within the Roman Empire, was a highly political statement about the hungry being fed; the thirsty being given something to drink; strangers invited in; the naked clothed; the sick visited; freedom for prisoners; recovery of sight for the blind; the oppressed set free. All of this was the good news then, just as it is now.

I fully accept that the Christian Church was built upon the life and teachings of Jesus as interpreted and developed through the Followers of the Way down the years, but Jesus had no intention of establishing a Christian Church. I am convinced that his original intention was twofold: the reformation of Judaism and the challenge of both the political and religious Establishments whenever they exploited the poor and the oppressed.

As the ministry of Jesus developed it also took on an additional direction in that Judaism should become inclusive rather than exclusive, based upon compassion rather than upon the strict keeping of religious laws. But that is for another day!

Copyright ©: 2016, Rev John Churcher All rights reserved. New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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