On the Road to Jerusalem

A Sermon for Lent 2C [Luke 13.31-35] (Common Lectionary, Unrevised)

Copyright (C) 1998 by Abigail Ann Young

The gospel lesson for this morning contains an episode far removed in time from last Sunday's. The temptations of Jesus, which we read on the first Sunday of Lent because they offer a biblical pattern for Lent, are the very beginning of Jesus' public life as a prophet and healer; today's story comes very near the end, not only of his public life, but of his whole life. Luke's gospel is really weighted toward the end of Jesus' life. Out of 24 chapters, he devotes about 15 to the final journey to Jerusalem (of which today's gospel is a part), what Jesus did and suffered there, and the Resurrection and post-resurrection appearances.

The temptations are recounted in chapter four and only five chapters later, at 9.51, Luke tells us 'As the time approached when he was to be taken up to heaven, Jesus set his face resolutely towards Jerusalem.' Thereafter, Luke narrates various events along the way, many of which are not to be found in any of the other gospels. Some, perhaps many, of the events which he describes during that journey to Jerusalem may belong, had he but known it, to other trips (for it is only from St John's narrative that the true extent of Jesus' public ministry becomes clear, that is, that it was a three-year ministry which included regular trips to Jerusalem at the major festivals of the Jewish calendar). Other stories, like this one, clearly must belong to the end of Jesus' life on earth.

The reading falls into three sections: first, the advice from the Pharisees; then Jesus' response; and finally, the lament over Jerusalem.

It is a little unusual to see the Pharisees coming to Jesus in such a helpful way. There is usually a certain tension in their encounters. The Pharisees are often critical of Jesus and his followers, sometimes comparing them unfavourably to John the Baptist and his followers. In turn, no other religious group within Judaism comes under so much and such critical scrutiny by Jesus. The Sadducees, the Herodians, the Essenes: the other sects which made up the spectrum of religious diversity in Palestine in Jesus' day receive little or no attention in the gospels.

Jacob Neusner, a Jewish scholar who writes about the period of the destruction of the Temple and the rise of rabbinic Judaism, has considered the question of tension between the Pharisees and Jesus from the Pharisees' point of view. He points out that of all the sects within Judaism at the time, theirs was the one with which John the Baptist and Jesus initially seemed to have the most common ground. Zealousness for God, devotion to the covenant, a desire to save Israel: they did indeed share much. They criticised Jesus precisely on those points at which he seemed to them to be departing from this common ground. They would not have expected a Sadducee, for instance, to observe their rules about table fellowship and ritual cleanliness but they were surprised and shocked when Jesus, whom they seem to have expected would do so, departed from them to eat with publicans and sinners, and with unwashed hands.

Jesus, too, seems to have expected more from the Pharisees than he got. Of all the sects within Judaism, they were the one which he had the most reason to expect to recognise who and what he was, precisely because of that common ground. But, with a few notable exceptions, such as Joseph of Arimathea or St Paul, they failed to do so. What seems to lie behind the harshness of some of his judgements of them, so similar to the prophetic condemnations of Jeremiah or Amos, is a quite human frustration with that failure.

Yet neither side lost all respect for the other. Jesus could still tell the people to respect and obey the Pharisees' teaching while they continued to come to hear him. And here we see a group of Pharisees overcoming this tension to give Jesus a warning they think he needs to hear: 'Leave here and go away, because Herod wants to kill you.'

His response is hardly encouraging. 'Go away yourselves,' he says, using the same verb as they had in their warning, 'and tell that fox that I am casting out devils and working cures today and tomorrow and on the third day I complete my work. Yet I must be on my way (the same word for the third time) today, and tomorrow, and the next day, for it is impossible for a prophet to die anywhere but Jerusalem.' Not only is the tone bitter, uncharacteristically so even for conversation with the Pharisees, but the content adds insult to injury. For the Pharisees were hardly coming from Herod, that Jesus should send them back with a message for 'that fox' (itself not a compliment!). No doubt the irony of the situation in part accounts for this, for in essence what Jesus is saying is, 'I need have no fear of Herod; I cannot die here in his jurisdiction, but only in Jerusalem.' But Jesus is sending a message not so much to Herod as to the Pharisees and by extension to us: he is saying something important about the nature of his work. It includes healing and casting out demons, but it also includes faithfulness in the face of danger and death. It is the work of a prophet.

That is one reason why the church, in the Sundays leading up to Lent, chooses as readings the calls of the great Old Testament prophets, and why Lent itself begins with Jesus' own call. Of course, he is more than a prophet: he is also the Word of God incarnate, but Christians throughout history have used many human categories, like prophet, teacher, and healer, to express how the Son of God worked among us; some of those categories were also used by Jesus himself to describe how he went about his saving work. So here he is telling us and them that he knows both what he has to do and what the consequences are, and he has accepted both. Consider Jesus' situation -- he knows he is going to die, not just sometime as we all know it, but exactly. He is literally on his way to die, in Jerusalem, because he is a prophet of God.

The sense of irony shown here no doubt gives the next section, the lament over Jerusalem, force but there is more there than that. Jesus' ironic appreciation of the fact that Herod cannot hurt him because only Jerusalem can be the site of his death is transmuted into love and sorrow as he addresses Jerusalem and by extension the whole house of Israel. All his love, that is, divine love itself in human form, cannot save a Jerusalem which will not be saved, Pharisees who will not recognise the Messiah in their midst. So he goes on his way with only a small group of followers, when he wanted to lead all Israel into a new covenant with God, that convenant to which we have now been admitted through our baptism.

Unlike the first part of this story, the lament over Jerusalem can also be found in Matthew, where it is linked with the "little Apocalypse" in which Matthew blends Jesus' prophecy of the destruction of the temple with other teachings about the end of the age. It does not seem to fit so well into that context as it does here, although if Matthew was unaware of this encounter between Jesus and a group of well-meaning Pharisees, it makes sense he would associate the lament with other teaching about destruction in Jerusalem. It concludes with as explicit a prophecy of the circumstances of Jesus' death as can be found in Luke; he will not come to Jerusalem until the time when they will say "Blessed is he" -- in short, Jesus tells his hearers that he will die that Passover.

This passage is meat and drink to those to want to understand what the mind of Jesus may have been on his last trip into Jerusalem, and that is, in and of itself, a spiritual exercise of no mean value. Luke shows us here, and in much of his gospel, Jesus 'on the road,' as a traveler on a journey. Throughout Christian history, many have understood our lives too as a journey, not from Galilee to Jerusalem, of course, but through our earthly lives to our death and our new life in heaven. Seen in that way, our lives parallel Jesus' last trip. In Lent, we are called to make that such parallels explicit and intentional, by striving to understand and imitate the mind of Christ, especially on this last journey to Jerusalem.

In today's epistle, St Paul calls the Philippians to imitate his example, a call which must be understood in light of the earlier passage in that same letter in which he speaks of his goal in life being 'to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable to his death, in the hope that I may somehow attain resurrection from the dead.' Such passages as this help us to know the fellowship, or community, of Christ's suffering, which (Luke's story shows us) was the natural outgrowth of his faithfulness to God's work on earth. We know from this story as well as from the events in Gethsemane that Jesus was not eager to suffer for suffering's sake (who in his right mind would be!), but that he accepted it when necessary as a consequence of doing his Father's will. In such a situation, the alternative to death is not life, but rejection, the same rejection of God's love which caused Jesus to grieve for Jerusalem. May we learn with him to embrace faith fulness to God, no matter what the price.