“May you live in interesting times.” I don’t think this saying is a blessing or a warning. It is a curse. My interest in these times has peaked. There’s a pandemic. There’s the threat of World War III. That’s way too much interesting times.
Two of the questions that nag at me are, why did Putin do something so dumb? Why did Pilate do something so dumb? Well, the first answer for both could because they could. For Pilate, he was okay as long as he maintained order, kept his head down, thereby keeping his head. For Putin, he assumed omniscience and omnipotence and if pushed, he could lie and bully his way toward his goal or out of trouble. How’s that going for you Vladimir?
Then we have Herod Antipas, not to be confused with his father, Herod the Great. Herod the Great assumed the Roman tradition of naming a male child after the father. Only Herod didn’t know when to stop. So, there were Herods all over Palestine in the first century. Antipas’ brother, Herod Archelaus, was king of Judea. Archelaus was even too ruthless for Rome and was replaced by a Roman governor.
Antipas lived in Rome for many years making friendships with Emperor Tiberius’ family. When he returned to rule Galilee, like Pilate, he would survive by keeping order, keeping his head down, thereby keeping his head. In addition, he needed to get along with the Roman governor of Judea. Though he had friends in high places, he was still not a Roman.
I have just mentioned powerful people. These particular people have proved that they have little regard for human life. Might makes right is their creed. They invoked fear and in Putin’s case it is turned to the present tense. There are now laws in Russia against criticizing the state. Western reporters interview Russians who speak out against Putin anomalously for fear of arrest.
Jesus comes along and says things like, “blessed are the poor” and “love your neighbor as yourself.” How can one of these people keep a populous in check by fear if the people are loving their neighbors?
It upsets the apple cart. It overturns the world order. Anyone spreading this stuff needs to be dealt with. Putin could not control Ukraine if its President was intent with fraternizing with western European countries and worse, the United States. I wouldn’t be surprised if Putin tried to take out Zelenskyy earlier and having failed, decided to go all in. Now thousands on both sides are dying.
In these scenarios, people who promote a world view that opposes the power structures and thereby gaining a following are dangerous to the state. Jesus is on the move and he is teaching, preaching, and healing as goes on his way.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. Luke has a long journey or pilgrimage section of his gospel, narrating Jesus’ trip leading to the climax of the story. Every town Jesus visits on his way to Jerusalem gives us, the reader, hints of what is to come. As Jesus gets closer to Jerusalem, the suspense builds. Luke is dramatic.
Jesus was doing some harsh teachings in an unknown town when a group of Pharisees caught up to him. Normally when we read about Pharisees talking to Jesus, they are usually there to start a theological argument.
This particular group of Pharisees are there to warn Jesus that Herod Antipas wants to kill him. Herod already had John the Baptist beheaded. So, this warning was believable. Yet, the Pharisees don’t seem to explain why Herod wants Jesus dead. They are telling Jesus to flee from the town, implying that Herod knows where Jesus is.
On the one hand, it appears that these Pharisees are genuinely concerned with Jesus’ wellbeing. Herod certainly doesn’t want any insurrection in Galilee. His Roman friends might take it out on him. On the other hand, Herod may have sent the Pharisees to scare Jesus into going south into Pilate’s jurisdiction. Except Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem. Jesus seems to assume the latter hypothesis.
As Luke puts it, Jesus’ face is toward Jerusalem. It is there that Jesus’ fate lies, not with a puppet king who likes to exaggerate his importance.
Jesus tells the Pharisees to send Herod a message. Jesus insults Herod by calling him a fox. Herod adapted to Roman ways and survived through alliances with powerful Roman families. Herod also survived his filicidal father. Like a fox, Herod wants no one to challenge his territory and authority.
Today calling someone a fox might be a compliment. Not so in ancient Palestine. In Jesus’ time, calling someone a fox would either imply that the person is wickedly crafty, is worthless, or an insignificant person, or some combination of those three attributes. The prophet Ezekiel called false prophets foxes. Jesus seemed to have no problem provoking Herod.
Jesus wants them to tell Herod what Jesus is up to. Jesus is casting out demons and healing people. When someone is healing people in a town and soldiers show up to arrest that person, well, I would hate to be one of those soldiers.
Jesus might confuse the Pharisees because he changes the time line. Instead of healing and finishing up, Jesus is going to travel over the next three days. Jesus is confident Herod won’t kill him because prophets can only be killed in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is also out of Herod’s authority. Jesus is not running away from Herod or Herod’s threat. Jesus is going to his death in Jerusalem.
Since the time of King David, Jerusalem was the center of Israelite activity. It was the place of government and with the temple, the center of religion. The temple in Jerusalem forced the rural priests to move to the city. This caused the people to move their religious observances from rural areas to Jerusalem. Most people could only afford to do this on the high holy days. These several times a year pilgrimages were also a boon to local merchants.
Since religious activity was centered in Jerusalem and its temple and its seat of government, prophets were also compelled to go to Jerusalem to say what God compels them to say. Oftentimes, prophets had messages concerning the rich and the powerful, including the kings.
Powerful people don’t always take criticism well. Too often, prophets paid with their lives for the sake of their ministry. This is why Jesus says he can only die in Jerusalem and not at Herod’s hand, the ruler of Galilee’s hand. Herod will have a role in Jesus’ fate in Jerusalem.
After Jesus delivers his message to the Pharisees, he launches into a lament over Jerusalem. Jesus is referring to Jerusalem as a person. It is not the kings that kill the prophets, it is Jerusalem. The holy city acts violently toward God’s emissaries. Nehemiah and Jeremiah both refer to Jerusalem’s violence against the prophets.
Then Jesus expresses his fondness for Jerusalem, his nurturing care for Jerusalem. Jesus has a desire to gather the people of Jerusalem as a hen gathers her brood. Yet Jerusalem rejects Jesus. Jerusalem rejects anyone who cares for her, anyone who wishes to set Jerusalem on a right path.
Almost everyone who heard Jesus knows how a hen protects her chicks from predators. Have you ever seen a chicken hawk go after its prey? The hawk hovers around, casting its shadow on the ground. The old mother hen is often aware of the presence of the hawk in time to gather her chicks under her wing. With a furious fuss she squawks till her brood is safe by her side. She fluffs out her wings and protects them with her own body.
The chicken hawk dives and the old hen turns her body toward him and keeps a wary eye without moving from her children. The predator comes in again for the kill and the mother spreads her wings even wider. A third time he dives only to be thwarted by the determined self-sacrifice of the mother hen. She is too big to be a target and the chicks are too safe to be seized so he flies away.
Jesus has the same care and fierce determination to protect Jerusalem. Jesus wishes to protect the people of Jerusalem. Jesus is invoking scriptural metaphors found in Ruth, and Psalms 17, 36, 57, and 61. A common predator of hens and chicks are foxes. Jesus wants to protect Jerusalem from Herod. But Jerusalem rejects Jesus and favors Herod the fox.
Jerusalem is emblematic of the Israelites, the children of Jacob. They follow God, but only when it is convenient. If any hardship happens, then God is rejected for another way or for other gods, just like the Israelites in the Sinai wilderness. A hen knows how to protect her chicks and the chicks respond to the hen. Yet Jerusalem lacks the wisdom of a baby chicken.
Jerusalem’s house, the temple, is forsaken. Israel will not heed God’s word. Jeremiah, centuries earlier, condemned the temple. Other prophets warned Jerusalem that the temple would fall and it did. Jesus repeats those warnings. Forty years after Jesus’ death, the temple was destroyed for good. It was never rebuilt.
In frustration, Jesus declares that Jerusalem is not willing to be protected by Jesus. Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and his fate. Jesus has saved others, but he cannot save himself. (Luke 23:25) Jerusalem has made its choice. Jesus has given up on them. It seems that these words are directed at the Pharisees as being representatives, not of Herod, but of Jerusalem.
Presumably, the Pharisees are from the religious center, Jerusalem. Jesus, like a long line of prophets, is warning the Pharisees of what is to come. Like the Israelites of old, they too will fail to see and plan for disaster.
The next time the Pharisees see Jesus will be when they say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” (Luke 13:35b) We now call that day Palm Sunday. But these words from Psalm 118 are also read at Passover. Jesus will see these Pharisees again, in Jerusalem at Passover.
Even in a city that kills prophets, Jesus wants them protected. Even in a city that kills prophets, Jesus will not stay away. Jesus’ mission is love. It is that mission that makes enemies for Jesus. In a world where might makes right and the poor are to be exploited and where wealth is concentrated in only a few, Jesus’ mission is not welcome. It sort of sounds like modern Russia. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
It is interesting, at least in Luke’s mind, that after Jesus says “Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last,” (Luke 13:30) some Pharisees show up to warn Jesus that his life is in danger. Jesus is signaling an uprooting of the world order.
We are baby chicks. Jesus desires to gather us under his wings. When it seems like the world has gone way off its tracks, there is someone who will be with us to protect us and guide us. Might does not make right. Love does.
Text: Luke 13:31–35