“Teacher, order your disciples to stop” (Luke 19:39).
Luke’s account of Jesus’ triumphal entry emphasizes Jesus’ refusal to avoid the public eye. With this passage before us, preachers may invite congregations to consider the temptation to back out of the spotlight when faithfulness to God’s way raises the specter of resistance.
Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem marks a turning point in Luke’s story. Till now, the narrative pointed ahead to this moment. We have been told to anticipate Jesus’ “exodus” (that’s the Greek word) that Jesus will “fulfill” in Jerusalem (9:31; NRSV “accomplish”). We also recall that long ago Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). Since that point, the entire middle section of Luke has led us toward Jerusalem.
Now Jesus arrives. “The whole multitude of disciples” praises God. And the Order-Keepers implore Jesus to shut the thing down (19:37-39). The whole story has anticipated this moment, and we find ourselves in the midst of conflict. “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.”
The attentive reader is not caught by surprise. We’ve been warned: “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (13:33). Indeed, Jesus has alerted the Pharisees — and us readers — to prepare for precisely this moment: “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’” (13:35; echoed in 19:38). Well, here we are.
Preachers might devote some time to the question, “Why do the Pharisees want Jesus’ disciples to hush?” We should avoid random psychological speculation, just as we’ll avoid inventing some motive for the Pharisees based on our assumptions about them. We don’t know if the Pharisees dislike the messianic implications of “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord” (19:38). We don’t know if the Pharisees are simply trying to keep the peace. And we don’t know if the Pharisees simply resist Jesus and his popularity.
It’s okay not for preachers not to know. Instead, we approach the question “Why do the Pharisees ask Jesus to silence his disciples?” from two perspectives: one literary and one pastoral.
Pushing It on the Down-Low: Literary Observations
From a literary perspective, Luke has lots to say about the Pharisees. Luke’s characterization of the Pharisees stands out among the Gospels. Whereas Mark presents the Pharisees as hostile to Jesus from the beginning (they want Jesus dead by Mark 3:6), Luke’s Pharisees hold Jesus close. Three times Pharisees invite Jesus to meals (7:36-50; 11:37-54; 14:1-24). In one case the encounter leads to outright hostility, as Jesus condemns the Pharisees and they in turn seek to entrap Jesus (11:37-54). On the whole, however, Luke’s Pharisees come across as flawed but mostly benign characters.
One might say Luke’s Pharisees seek to keep Jesus in check rather than oppose him outright. They want Jesus to keep his teaching and activities “safe.” They want him to suppress the radical challenge his ministry poses to the rich and powerful (16:14-17). In Mark the Pharisees oppose Jesus after his arrival in Jerusalem (Mark 12:13-17). In Luke, however, the Pharisees disappear after Jesus’ entrance into the city. Having asked Jesus to silence his disciples, they never make another entrance.
One other scene, a scene closely paired with Luke 19:29-44, brings out this conflict between the Pharisees’ down-low approach and Jesus’ public role as a prophet. We have already seen that Luke 13:35 foreshadows the crowds’ acclamation of Jesus in 19:38. Luke 13:31-35 also features Jesus’ lament concerning the holy city, again foreshadowing 19:41-44:
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I have 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.”
This speech represents Jesus’ response to the Pharisees. They have approached Jesus with a warning: “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you” (13:31). It’s most natural to assume the Pharisees are genuinely concerned for Jesus and want to keep him safe. It’s also possible that Jesus’ presence poses a threat to order, and they want him to leave. It’s even possible the Pharisees have invented the threat altogether in an effort to distract Jesus. Just the same, Luke 19:39 represents the second time the Pharisees have nudged Jesus out of the spotlight.
The Down-Low, Palm Sunday, and Discipleship: Pastoral Reflections
Jesus, of course, refuses the Pharisees’ request. “If these [disciples] were silent, the stones would shout out” (19:40). He further recognizes the source of the danger he faces: where he offers “the things that make for peace” (19:42), the holy city cannot perceive this truth.
We should be suspicious of those Christians who seem to seek out conflict. Yet I write this commentary on the week of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday and significant issues divide our nation. What price do disciples face when speaking “the things that make for peace” with respect to gun control, unrest in Mali, a budget crisis in the nation that stands seventh in the world on military spending as a percentage of GDP (per the World Bank)?
Observant preachers will look for those occasions when ordinary believers face the dilemma of speaking up or hushing up as they face conflicts between the flow of culture and the path of Christ. We do not seek conflict, but Dr. King’s disappointment with the “white moderate” haunts us still. The temptation lies ever present, to be “more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice” and to prefer “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”1
1See Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter From Birmingham City Jail.”