February 21, 2016
William G. Carter
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 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. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 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! 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.’”
From time to time, I have the pleasure of working with lay preachers, worship leaders, and others who read scripture out loud. Everybody who stands up here to speak wants to do a good job, especially if they are new. Sometimes they ask for some tips. “You have been doing this for a while,” they say, “so give me a few suggestions.”
The tips that I can offer are few, but they are important. Know your material before you stand up to speak. Look the people in the eye, but don’t stare at them. And maybe the most important advice: read the Bible passages out loud a few times before you read them out loud in church. It’s surprising what kind of confusion we might provoke if we don’t do that.
This paragraph from the Gospel of Luke is a good case in point. There’s a lot going on in a handful of verses. Some Pharisees come to warn Jesus that Herod is going to assassinate him. That is curious. It is different from every other account of the Pharisees that I’ve ever heard. In most stories, they are portrayed as moustache-twisting villains, the covert enemies of the Lord. Every time he says something, they are ready to find fault. Every time he does something , they are quick to accuse.
Here, it sounds like they are genuinely concerned for his safety. Or at least, some of them are. Luke does say “some Pharisees.” At least one scholar says, “Why not?” They are human beings. They are people of faith.
They knew what kind of person Herod was. This is one of the sons of the King Herod who dealt with the three wise men. He’s not quite as brutal as his father, and he’s nowhere as competent, either. The Roman Empire is really ruling over the land, this Herod, Herod Antipas, is a puppet who rules at Rome’s pleasure. His dominion is about a fourth of his father’s kingdom, and his primary job is to keep a lid on all the rabble rousing in Judea.
Herod has already proved to Rome how brutal he is – he has beheaded John the Baptist. Now he sets his sights on Jesus, the preacher and healer. He can’t quite figure out Jesus. One of the rumors is that Jesus is John the Baptist, back from the dead. Another is that Jesus is one of Israel’s prophets, like Elijah. Elsewhere Herod has said, “I want to meet this man who is doing all the miracles.”
But some Pharisees see through it and come to warn Jesus. “Get away from here. Herod wants to kill you.” That’s just how they sounded – urgent and concerned.
Yet Jesus responds with some sassiness. “Go and tell that fox that I’m too busy. I can’t be bothered. There are demons to cast out, sick people to cure, so much to do in so little time.” Now, what kind of retort is that? Obviously he doesn’t think Herod Antipas is worth the time of day. He has work to do, work for the kingdom of God, and he is not about to fuss over the second-hand threats of some drunken despot who loses his mind whenever a dancing girl twirls in his palace. Is Herod bad news? Yes. Is he a real threat to Jesus? No.
“I must be on my way,” says Jesus. “I must…” There’s a great force behind that phrase, “I must.” Jesus has a sense of purpose, a greater destiny. God didn’t send him into the world to be assassinated by a royal pretender who can’t even keep his crown on straight. “I must go on,” he says, as he said it before:
“I must be in my Father’s house” (2:49),
“I must preach the good news of the kingdom” (4:43),”
“I must face the chief priests and scribes (9:22),”
and now, “I must go to Jerusalem, because that’s where all the prophets get killed.”
This is how Jesus views his life’s work: he is a prophet. More than a healer, more than an exorcist who casts out evil, he is the Voice of God, in the human words of a prophet.
Luke has said this before. Jesus stood in his hometown synagogue, unrolled the scroll of Isaiah, opened the scriptures to his own people, told them two stories out of their own Bible – and for that, they ground their teeth and tried to throw him over a cliff. He told them the truth and his own neighbors wanted to kill him. Imagine what they will do when he gets to Jerusalem.
As someone says, “Prophets were always in trouble for telling the truth, for siding with the poor and oppressed, for not settling for the status quo – and for asking people to see a new vision of the world, the city, as it could be, as God wants it to be.”
A world twisted out of shape wants to silence such a Voice. The very leaders of the world who have capitalized on their own unfairness will not stand a prophet who calls them to God before they love themselves. And they will not abide the Voice that calls them to love their neighbors as much as they love themselves. Jesus has to be silenced. It’s just as simple as that.
But it won’t happen before he gets to Jerusalem. That is his God-given destiny.
The great irony of God’s plan is that the One who speaks to them on behalf of God will be rejected and killed by God’s own people. This is how Luke understands the cross. It is not the outsiders and the interlopers like Herod or Pontius Pilate who are guilty. It is the people of faith who have every reason to know better. They have the scriptures that tell them to share their food with the hungry outside their gates (16:19-31). They have the prophets, who speak repeatedly of justice and generosity (20:9-16). They know the things that make for peace (19:41-44), yet tragically they keep creating conflict among themselves.
And in a great burst of compassion, Jesus exclaims, “O Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings . . . and you were not willing!” That is the human situation in a nutshell. God comes to gather us together, and we say, “No, we don’t need that. No, we can handle it ourselves. No, we are fine just the way we are.”
Yet God still comes. Doesn’t wait to be invited, just comes.
In my reading last week, I found a quote from Thomas Merton. I was going to save it for Christmas, but there is no reason to wait ten months. Merton says, “In this world, in this demented inn, where there is absolutely no room for him at all, still Christ comes uninvited.” I love that – still Christ comes uninvited. He comes to cast out evil, heal the sick, and speak the truth, to a demented world that prefers its own illness and falsehood. There it is. And when he rides his donkey into the city, and everybody wave palm branches and shouts, “Blessed is he who comes into the name of the Lord,” even then they still won’t see him. For they will have missed the time of God’s visitation.
This is what Luke wants to say. A few friendly Pharisees came to fuss over Jesus and say “Get out of town and save your own skin.” But he wasn’t interested in that, for he wishes to save their skins, along with their hearts, souls, and minds. That’s what Christ comes to do, to a world that has not invited him. The good news is that Jesus loves us more than we hate one another. He will gather those who give up on their superiority and their independence. He will embrace those who welcome his motherly wings around them.
And he is going to keep at this, you know. Today and tomorrow, he is going to keep speaking and healing and embracing and gathering.
And when is he going to finish this work? You heard what he said: “On the third day . . .”
© William G. Carter. All rights reserved.