Luke 13: 31-35
As Luke tells it, Jesus has been in Jerusalem for some time, healing and teaching. He’s just told his followers to strive to enter through the narrow door in order to be saved. In Matthew 7:14 Jesus says that the way is straight and the door (or gate) is narrow. So the phrase, “on the straight and narrow” comes from scripture! And Jesus has just told them to keep to the straight and narrow, when some Pharisees come to see him.
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
Now in the other gospels the Pharisees are portrayed as the bad guys, but in Luke not so much. Some are portrayed as followers or at least sympathetic. So this is likely a kindly warning rather than any kind of set-up or deception. Jesus responds
He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me,
Herod considered himself a lion but Jesus calls him a “fox.” Actually, the original Greek the word could also be translated as “jackal,” which seems like even more of an insult. Jesus really had that opinion of Herod and many would have agreed, but few would have said it aloud in public. You can imagine some nervous laugher in the crowd. It was an act of courage, if not bravado. So Jesus goes on to ask the Pharisees to go tell Herod….
‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow
William Loder suggests that when Jesus talks about the healing he’s done it’s like saying, “What threat am I? Who’d want to kill someone who’s doing good work?” However, Jesus and others knew that he was doing much more than that – he was inciting a spiritual revolution, teaching people that they could be spiritually free no matter what their circumstances. This was a subversive message – one that would be threatening both to Herod and to the Roman Empire, which was pretty unstable in that region at that time. There was a lot of unrest, many uprisings against Rome.
and on the third day I finish my work.
Throughout the bible, “In three days” was a way of saying “in a short time.” He’s saying “don’t worry, I’ll be out of here soon” but he’s also saying he’ll do this in his own time, after he’s done with the work he came to do – teaching and healing. This is another bit of courage or bravado.
The part about “finishing his work” can be translated from Greek as “I will be perfected,” or “I am being matured,” but “I will be finished” may be a better translation. It has a double meaning - that he’ll be done with his work and also, it recognizes that Herod is likely to finish him off. Is he afraid? Probably - maybe that's where the bravado comes from. Courage is not the absence of fear, however.
So he’s saying something like, “I know what you’re up to Herod, you old jackal, but this is my work and I’m going to do it. You can’t rush me."
This indicates that he knows in order to be safe he has to do his work outside Jerusalem. It also shows he knows his days are numbered, that he expects to die in Jerusalem, as other prophets have done. The Greek word translated as “prophet” means, “one who tells the truth confidently before others.”
Anyone who speaks truth to power is in harm’s way. We know that – think of the assassination of more recent prophetic people like Ghandi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. They stirred things up, too. Jesus knew what happened to many of the other truth-tellers who came before him. He knew what happened to John the Baptist – Herod had him killed. Jesus knows that he’s likely to be next. How does he feel about that?
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!
He seems to feel sad, angry, and also protective. He switches from a sort of despairing bravado to a lament for the beloved city of Jerusalem. Another meaning of the word “prophet” is one who can foresee things. Perhaps he foresaw what would happen a few decades after his death. After yet another political uprising the Romans destroyed the temple and drove the Jewish people from the cherished homeland. It was called the Dispersion.
Jesus takes up the language of the psalms and of past prophets when he compares himself to a hen gathering chicks. The image of God’s people being sheltered under wings is common in psalms but usually they are eagle’s wings. The hen is a much more humble image. Why would Jesus use that?
It could be he is contrasting the difference in political power between him and Herod – a difference as great as that between a jackal and a hen. And we all know what a fox or jackal does to a hen. We all know how powerless the hen is to protect her chicks. Of course, she tries to protect them anyway. So it seems in this lament Jesus saying, as much as he would want to protect that city, he knows he cannot do it.
Jesus cannot protect Jerusalem from what is surely coming, and not even the kindliest Pharisees can protect Jesus from what is coming. Perhaps his lament is not only for Jerusalem but also for himself, and for the prophets who have gone before him. Like him they told the truth, pointing to the straight path and the narrow gate, but most did not listen.
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.”
The passage ends on a more positive note. This is in fact what happens when Jesus re-enters Jerusalem. The crowds chorus “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” when he returns on what we know as Palm Sunday – which we will celebrate in a few weeks’ time.
So there is a lot in this short reading. Jesus is saying that he has more work to do, and that he knows what's coming. He's saying he has the courage to come back and fact it. What enormous courage, to face his fears, to face his death.
We can learn from this example in our own lives. We can face what needs to be faced with as much courage as we can muster. We can go about the work we need to do even when disaster seems to loom. It takes spiritual strength to do those thins, but together we can find that strength.
Let me close with a prayer
Oh God who sees into our hearts and knows our deepest thoughts, we ask that you comfort us when we cannot protect people we love from suffering and from harm. Give us hope, and grand us courage to face our fears, to face our troubles, assured that you go with us even to the deepest valley.
Spirit who wills that the world become more just, more loving, and more kind – who wants a revolution of the spirit, give us courage to be a part of that revolution in whatever way we can, whatever our circumstances. And please God, protect our prophets.