Commentary on Luke 13:31-35
Luke 13:31-35 begins with a warning from the Pharisees for Jesus about Herod’s plan to kill him, but it becomes a reflection on the nature of Jesus’ life and mission (which reach their ultimate goal in his death) and then on the tragic role played by Jerusalem in the life of Jesus and other prophets.
The passage invites Christians today to reflect on the meaning of Jesus’ life and death and on the role we play in the continuing mission of Jesus.
The Pharisees and Herod
It is difficult to evaluate the motives of the Pharisees in the story. It is also difficult to evaluate whether or not their warning is either sincere or representative of a real threat. As in all the Gospels, the Pharisees in Luke are largely antagonistic to Jesus and Jesus to them. There are hints, however, of a more positive reception by the Pharisees. In 7:36 and 14:1, for instance, Pharisees invite Jesus into their homes (although the scenes do not play out well for them), and in Acts 15:5 we hear that some Pharisees had actually become Christians. We thus cannot dismiss the Pharisees’ motives as necessarily being negative.
On the other hand, their report seems problematic: Luke 9:7-9 and 23:8 suggest Herod’s interest in Jesus was not in killing him, and when given the chance to condemn Jesus in the Passion account, Herod refuses to do so (23:6-12). We cannot be sure of Herod’s status in the passage, however, because of course Herod had both imprisoned and executed John the Baptist (3:19-20; 9:9).
Jesus’ Death a Part of His Mission
Whatever the purposes of the Pharisees and Herod, Jesus uses the threat to make clear the nature of his upcoming death as a part of his mission. Jesus is going to die, but it will have nothing to do with the threat of Herod. Rather, his death is the completion of his present ministry. He characterizes this ministry as “casting out demons and performing cures” (verse 32). Both activities are by themselves important:
- The significance of casting out demons for Jesus’ ministry is given in 11:20: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you.” Casting out demons is part of Jesus’ battle against the devil (see further 11:21-22) and thus a part of his establishment of the kingdom of God.
- Performing cures is likewise a part of the fundamental character of Jesus’ mission, announced in 4:18-19 as being “to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind” (quoting Isaiah), also a statement about the establishment of God’s kingdom.
To reinforce that Herod has no control over him, Jesus adds that he will be doing these things “today and tomorrow” (verse 32, emphasis added).
When Jesus follows this statement about “today and tomorrow” by saying that “on the third day I finish my work,” it is perhaps not apparent from these words alone what he means. Indeed, the reference to “the third day” probably sounds to most readers like a reference to the resurrection. Perhaps the resurrection is meant to be included, but the following verse makes it clear that it is his death that Jesus primarily has in mind: “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” (verse 33).
The important point to note is that Jesus’ death is in continuity with the rest of his ministry — “today,” “tomorrow,” and “the third day” go together. Jesus’ death is not of a fundamentally different character than his ministry while he was alive: They are all about establishing the kingdom of God. Holding together Jesus’ life and death helps us to make better sense of both.
Jerusalem: A Tragic Role
Jesus has been journeying to Jerusalem since 9:51, a journey that lasts all the way through 19:28 in Luke’s Gospel (often referred to as Luke’s “Journey Narrative”). Jesus’ mention of his death there leads him to reflect on the tragedy that Jerusalem had been in Israel’s past and will be in Jesus’ future, even though its role is a necessary one, as the end of verse 33 makes clear.
Jesus’ prophetic reflection alternates between denunciation and compassion:
- He first indicts Jerusalem as “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (verse 34). The irony is heavy. Jerusalem, after all, is “the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there” (Deuteronomy 12:5). That the city of God’s habitation becomes the seat of such violent opposition to God is part of the ironic tragedy of Israel’s own story, including Jesus’ story.
- Immediately following this indictment we have the compassionate and agonized plea of v. 35b: Jesus (speaking for God?) longs to shelter the children of Israel like a mother hen does for her brood.
- Nevertheless, punishment is announced in verse 35: “your house is left to you desolate” (NIV; the NRSV’s overly literal translation misses the point), probably a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple (the “house” of God) in A.D. 70.
- But Jesus ends with a recognition that Jerusalem will, at least for a moment, recognize him (verse 35b). He refers, of course, to his triumphal entry on Palm Sunday.
Jesus’ Mission and Death, and Our Own Sometimes-Tragic Role
Throughout Lent we are preparing ourselves to experience Jesus’ cross. This passage calls us to do so by considering whether our lives lead appropriately to that cross. Can we make sense of our lives as a part of the establishment of God’s kingdom in our world? Or are we frightened from our mission by the threats of earthly rulers? Moreover, if Jesus were to speak prophetically to us, what would his message be? How have we resisted God’s messages and kingdom? Paul refers to the church as a temple, as the dwelling of God’s Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16-17). So how have we played the tragic role of Jerusalem? On the other hand, how have we recognized God’s messages and kingdom, and how can we continue to do so?