Second Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day
God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross you promise everlasting life to the world. Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy, that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not! Behold, your house is forsaken.” Luke 13:35.
New Testament scholars are in virtual agreement that the Gospel of Luke was composed anywhere from fifteen to thirty years after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Many of them are also inclined to view this saying less as a reflection of Jesus’ sentiments upon his arrival in the city toward the close of his ministry and more as the early church’s effort to provide a theological explanation for the Temple’s destruction. No doubt Luke’s telling of the story is colored by the church’s experience of historical events that followed the ministry of Jesus. That said, I don’t think it is possible to divorce Jesus from his dire judgment upon the Holy City. All four gospels contain Jesus’ words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt leadership. One of the more serious charges leveled against Jesus at his trial was his alleged claim that he would “destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days…build another temple not made with hands.” Mark 15:58. Furthermore, Jesus was not the first prophet to pronounce a judgment of destruction against Jerusalem. Jeremiah and Micah similarly warned that, however much God might treasure the Temple and the city of David, neither could be used as a shield against God’s punishment for injustice and unrighteousness. The judgment against the Holy city brought about in Jeremiah’s time by the Babylonian invasion served as a solemn warning for all subsequent generations. It is hardly surprising that Jesus should draw upon this prophetic tradition in speaking to the Jerusalem of his day.
Yet Jesus takes no delight in pronouncing Jerusalem’s doom. He does not speak here as an angry firebrand. His mood is sad more than it is angry; heartbroken more than outraged; tired more than inspired. He is a man resigned to a violent death at the hands of his own people for the sake of a new age he will not live to see. Unlike the parallel account in chapter 23 of Matthew, Jesus does not weep. He just takes the next step in his journey to Jerusalem toward which he “set his face” back in Chapter 9. Jesus displays a grim determination to complete this race in which he is hopelessly behind and cannot hope to win. And he calls us to follow him.
This isn’t a very attractive picture of discipleship. But there are plenty of disciples of Jesus who will tell you that it is often accurate. St. Paul preached the Body of Christ throughout his ministry. What he got was churches like the one in Corinth-fraught with conflict, torn by power struggles and unable to comprehend the good news for which Jesus lived and died. I wish I could tell you about all the aid workers I have met over the years who have spent their lives in refugee camps throughout the world sacrificing ties of family and friendship at home, sacrificing their health and safety abroad for wages that ensure they will never live far above the poverty line. When their service is done they often leave a situation that has deteriorated further despite their faithful efforts. There are millions of church leaders throughout the world who volunteer their time, efforts and resources to build up the Church of Christ after spending a full day at their “real” jobs. These are the folks on the church council; the Sunday School teachers, youth leaders and trustees. Some of them toil away in churches that, in spite of their best efforts, are losing membership and financial support. Often times, they go without proper recognition and even face unjustified criticism. That is why I try my best to make these folks understand how precious and important they are. When people ask me why fewer and fewer people are involved in the church these days, I am tempted to reply that I often wonder why anyone at all is still there.
I hope we are all still here for the right reason-the same reason Jesus continued putting one foot in front of the other on the way to the cross. I hope we keep plodding on because we believe that God is serious about creating a new heaven and a new earth. I hope we struggle forward because we believe that God will finish what our lives can barely begin. I hope we embrace the cross because we understand that it is the shape the reign of God must take in a world that kills the prophets and stones the messengers of reconciliation sent to it. I hope we remain faithful because we believe that the prophetic word finally will be heard. I hope we are driven by the conviction that God is able to raise up the shattered pieces of our broken and seemingly ineffective efforts to be disciples just as he raised up the broken and lifeless Body of Jesus from the grave.
Why would a man take a bunch of animals, cut them in half and make a path through the two halves of each of the bloody carcasses? In order to answer this question, we need to take a trip back in time to the Bronze Age. Society is made up of city states that owe their allegiance to larger kingdoms that in time will become the empires of the Iron Age. Obviously, such alliances are not agreements between equals. The ruler of a smaller state received a promise of non-aggression from the larger kingdom in return for payment of tribute and a pledge of military support if required. If this sounds rather like a protection racket, it is because that is essentially what the agreements were. These lopsided alliances were sealed by covenant ceremonies in which numerous animals were slain and cut in two. The subject king would then swear absolute allegiance, promise tribute and pledge military support to the dominant king. The dominant king would then force the subject king to walk on the bloody path between the severed animal parts. It was supposed to produce the same effect as the horse head next to which Jack Woltz woke up in the movie, The Godfather. “See these hacked up animals little king? This is what happens to little kings that try to cross the Big King? Any questions?”
In Sunday’s lesson from Genesis, God stands the whole notion of covenant making on its head. Abraham asked God “how am I to know that I shall possess [the land of Canaan]?” God’s response is to make a covenant with Abraham. Usually, it is the weaker, vassal king who seeks covenant protection from the dominant king. But here God is the one seeking a covenant with Abraham. In near eastern politics, the weaker king is the one who makes all the promises. In this case, God is the one who makes an oath to Abraham. Instead of forcing Abraham to walk between the mangled carcasses, God passes along the bloody path saying, in effect, “Abraham, if I fail to keep my promise to give you a child, a land and a blessing, may I be hacked in pieces like these animals.”
This remarkable story illustrates what one of my seminary professors, Fred Gaiser, once said: “The Old Testament tends toward incarnation.” The New Testament witness is that the Word of God became flesh, that is, became vulnerable to the rending and slaughter experienced by the sacrificial animals used in the covenant ceremony. In fact, we can go further and say that God’s flesh was torn apart, God’s heart was broken and that this rending of God’s flesh was the cost of God’s faithfulness to the covenant. So understood, it is possible to recognize the cross in this strange and wonderful tale from dawn of history.
The scholarly consensus seems to be that this psalm actually consists of two psalms, the first being a prayer of trust not unlike Psalm 23 including verses 1-6. The second is a lament consisting of verses 7-14. However that might be, I still believe the psalm fits together nicely as a unit. It is precisely because the psalmist has such great confidence in God’s willingness and power to give protection that the psalmist feels free to cry out for that very protection in times of danger. Though as previously noted the commentators characterize verses 7-14 as a lament, it concludes with an affirmation of confidence in God’s anticipated salvation and an admonition to “be strong, and let your heart take courage; yea, wait for the Lord.”
Two things are noteworthy. First, this psalm is focused on dangers posed by enemies. By enemies the psalmist does not mean people who are merely disagreeable or less than friendly. These are people who “breathe out violence.” The psalmist’s response to these enemies is prayer. He or she does not strap on a six shooter with the intent of “taking care of business.” Instead, s/he calls upon the Lord to deal with the enemy. This is the characteristic approach of the psalms. Even when the psalmist expresses a distinct desire to see the enemy punished in very violent and graphic terms, the psalmist leaves the business of retribution to God. That, of course, is precisely in line with what Jesus teaches his disciples in the Sermon on the Mount.
Second, the last verse of the psalm is very telling. The psalmist encourages his hearers to “wait for the Lord.” The odd thing about the psalms is that, although they are prayers addressed to God, they often contain admonitions from God in the psalmists’ mouths. Sometimes the psalmists seem to be conscious of an audience listening in on their prayers. God hardly needs to be reminded to “wait on the Lord.” Biblical prayer is a dialogical process. The psalmists’ outpouring of prayer to God is only one side. God responds to the psalmists. Sometimes these responses are oracles delivered by a prophet or priest that have become imbedded in the psalm. See, e.g., Psalm 60:6-12. Often these prayers are sung as praises by the psalmist in corporate worship where they give encouragement to the assembly. See Psalm 27:6. For Israel, prayer was never an entirely personal matter. The confidence of this psalmist is drawn as much from God’s faithfulness to Israel throughout history as from his or her own experience. So also, the psalmists’ personal struggles become a public arena for God to demonstrate his compassion and salvation to Israel.
To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
This Sunday’s reading comes from the third letter warning the Philippians to beware of the teachings of rival missionaries who were evidently teaching gentile Christians in Paul’s congregations that they needed circumcision in order to be full members of the church. In years past, scholars referred to these folks as “Judaizers,” but that name is somewhat misleading. The false missionaries with which Paul was contending were probably not Jews at all. Most likely, they were local people, probably gentiles who had received circumcision and took pride in the depth of commitment it demonstrated. Paul responds by pointing out that if such things as circumcision were really a source of pride, he could make a much stronger case on his own behalf than his adversaries. In verses 4-6 of chapter 3, Paul points out that he has a real Jewish ancestry that he can trace; circumcision done strictly in accordance with the law and a first rate Hebrew education. But of all this St. Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Knowing all of this makes it a little easier to stomach Paul’s call to imitate him. Paul is not just being a pompoms ass here (though I suspect that he could be just that at times). It isn’t his moral example or his sterling character that Paul calls us to imitate. Rather, he calls us to imitate his indifference to racial identity, cultural status and religious achievement. You don’t come into the church through your success in living as an observant Jew anymore than you win God’s love by living as an observant Lutheran. You come into the church by Jesus’ invitation. Everything else you bring with you is just excess baggage.
This encounter of Jesus with the Pharisees needs to be placed in the larger context of Luke’s story about Jesus. Recall how two Sundays ago Jesus stood with Moses and Elijah discussing the “Exodus” he was to accomplish at Jerusalem. From that point on, it was clear that something big was about to occur in the Holy City. So when we read in Luke 9:51 that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” it is clear that the time is at hand. From here on out, everything that occurs is leading up to the final confrontation that we know is approaching with every step Jesus takes toward his goal.
The Pharisees warn Jesus that Herod Antipas is seeking his life and urge him to flee. We do not know their motivation. Though the Pharisees were often hostile toward Jesus, this was not always the case in Luke’s gospel. In fact, in the very next chapter Jesus is invited to dinner at the home of a very prominent Pharisee. Moreover, the Pharisees had no great love for Herod. However much they might have disagreed with Jesus over any number of issues, Jesus was still a Jew that cared deeply about the Torah. Herod was a thug and a bully appointed by Rome who cared little about anything beyond his own comfort. As between the two, it is likely that the Pharisees would have sympathized with Jesus.
Of course, it is also possible that the Pharisees were trying to intimidate Jesus. Perhaps they felt that raising the specter of Herod might frighten him away from Judea and back into the more remote parts of Galilee where he would be someone else’s problem. In either case, Jesus will not be deterred from the course he set out in chapter 9. So far from fleeing, Jesus sends the Pharisees back to Herod with his travel itinerary.
Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem is one of the most moving passages in the gospels. We seldom get a glance into the head of Jesus. It seems to me that all four gospel writers are intent on preventing us from doing that. We are almost never told how Jesus felt or what his thoughts were about the things taking place around him. This passage marks one of the rare exceptions to that rule. Unlike the account in Matthew, Luke does not tell us that Jesus wept over the city. Nevertheless, his lament is filled with compassion. Jesus is resigned, it seems, to failure. The city that kills the prophets and stones the messengers sent to it will deal likewise with Jesus. Its people will not be gathered together by Jesus. Jesus is going to die without seeing the consummation of the reign of God to which he has given his life.
As indicated in my introductory remarks, New Testament scholars tend to read Jesus’ words of judgment against Jerusalem as an attempt to provide a theological explanation for the destruction of the Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. Again, I do not doubt that Luke had this event in mind while composing his gospel. Still, I believe that Jesus’ own remarks about the Temple and the wealth of prophetic tradition from the Hebrew Scriptures were Luke’s principle sources of inspiration. As pointed out previously, all four gospels have Jesus uttering prophetic words of judgment against the Temple and its corrupt worship practices. Moreover, the prophets were frequently unsparing in their criticism of the Temple and their threats of judgment. See, e.g., Jeremiah 12:7; 22:5. Consequently, I believe that Jesus’ address here in its Lucan context is directed more generally to Jerusalem and the people it represents who have a long history of resisting the messengers of the Lord calling them to repentance. This saying should not be read, in my opinion, to suggest that the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome was God’s punishment specifically for Jesus’ crucifixion.
Jesus’ statement, “How often I would have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood,” calls to mind a host of images from the Hebrew Scriptures. See e.g., Deuteronomy 32:11; Psalm 17:8; Psalm 36:7; Psalm 57:1; Psalm 91:4; Ruth 2:12. The shelter Jesus promises affords the kind of protection proclaimed in Psalm 27, our Psalm for this Sunday. Jesus makes it clear to us that he knows he is walking into a conflict that will claim his life. He does so with the confidence that God will see to the completion of what his “Exodus” in Jerusalem will begin and that the people will one day cry out, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”