Commentary on Luke 13:31-35
The passage consists of two pericopes, “The Warning against Herod” (Luke 13:31-3) and “The Lament over Jerusalem” (13:34-35).
They are located within the so-called Travel Narrative in the Gospel of Luke (9:51-19:27). Ever since 9:51, Jesus and his followers are on a long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem.
Although the section is designated a “narrative,” there is actually not much narrative in it. It contains teachings primarily; for example, most of the parables of Jesus that Luke has collected appear in this section. The teaching materials consist primarily of:
1. Instruction for Jesus’ disciples
2. Controversies with opponents
3. Words of judgment
The two passages being discussed here fit into the latter two categories.
The first of the two pericopes appears in Luke without parallels in the other gospels. It is special Lucan material. The second has a parallel at Matthew 23:37-39. The wording is almost identical in Matthew and Luke. Consequently, the passage is considered to have been based on Q by those who accept the two-source theory of synoptic relationships.
The first of the pericopes begins with the approach of some Pharisees who warn Jesus about “Herod,” which would have been Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee (technically a “tetrarch,” or ruler of a fourth of the former kingdom of Herod the Great), 4 B.C.–A.D. 39. Why this Herod would have sought to kill Jesus is not said. The most plausible reason would be that he thought of Jesus as, in some way, a successor to John the Baptist; some had even claimed that “John had been raised from the dead” (9:7), and that Jesus was he.
In any case, Jesus was an enigma and a threat, and in 9:9 Herod declares concerning John and Jesus: “John I beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” To which Luke adds, “And he tried to see him.”
The response of Jesus to the Pharisees in our story (13:32-33) appears dismissive, but it is also a challenge to Herod. Calling him a “fox,” Jesus implies that Herod is a deceptive or wily person, perhaps both. Jesus says that he must continue the course of his ministry day by day. He is on a course that cannot be interrupted, for he had “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51). That includes a ministry of exorcisms, healings, and ultimately (by implication) his suffering, death, and resurrection. The latter is alluded to in the statement “on the third day I finish my work” (9:32). Jesus must continue on his journey to Jerusalem.
The lament over Jerusalem in 13:34-35 seems to be out of place. Jesus is still in Galilee in Luke’s narrative. He does not arrive at Jerusalem until 19:41, when he weeps over the city; an event located some six chapters later in Luke’s chronology. Matthew’s placement of the lament is more fitting for anyone who seeks to construct a chronology of Jesus’ ministry, for he places the lament at 23:37-39 after Jesus’ entry into the city (21:10).
But Luke’s placement of the lament makes sense within Luke’s overall purpose. It helps to develop the narrative by appearing nearly half-way between 9:51 and 19:41, sustaining the tension, and leading up to the tragedy that is to come in Jerusalem. The course has been set; there is no turning back, even though the news about Herod’s threat upon Jesus’ life is ominous. Jesus must go on to Jerusalem, and that is where his death shall occur.
The lament is tinged with great sadness. Jerusalem had already been the place where prophets had been killed (Jeremiah 26:20-23; cf. Matthew 23:29-30; Acts 7:52) and where early Christian witnesses, including Stephen and James, would be martyred (Acts 7:59; 12:2). Jesus cries out, using feminine imagery of a hen with her chicks, saying that he would gladly have protected the city, but the people would not listen.
At first sight, the verse seems to imply that Jesus had been in the city previously, and that his ministry there had been rejected. Yet the verse expresses a desire that Jesus had had, nothing more. From the beginning of his ministry, the leadership in Jerusalem had been involved in provoking people to reject him and his ministry (cf. 5:17).
Jesus pronounces doom upon the city, which was to be followed eventually by its destruction in A.D. 70. The passage ends with Jesus’ declaration that the people of the city will not see him until the messianic expectation of Psalm 118:26 is fulfilled: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” These words are similar to the words that the people cry out who welcome Jesus as he rides into Jerusalem on the Sunday prior to his death: “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” (19:38).
The two brief pericopes that make up this reading challenge the preacher and the congregation at worship to deal with Jesus’ judgment upon the holy city. Jerusalem refuses to listen to those messengers who proclaim the justice and the reign of God. For that reason, the city stands under divine judgment.
It is right, even inevitable, when dealing with this text, to ask about the present. Who or what is the ‘Jerusalem’ of the day in which one lives? Is it the political and civic sphere? Is it the religious sphere? Or is it both? Jerusalem was a center of both political and religious power and activity in the days of Jesus, but it refused to heed its prophets, of which Jesus himself was one.
It is important at the same time to recall that, when judgment is declared, the purpose for such is that those upon whom the judgment falls may come to know their plight, repent, and be renewed. Judgment is pronounced for the sake of salvation.
And what about laments? On the one hand, they express sadness and describe a distressing state of affairs. But on the other hand, they presuppose that God exists, hears one’s cry, and has the power to turn that which is lamentable into something that is good.
And so the church looks to the future, standing on the side of God’s will for a just, secure, and peaceful world. Its hopes may not be realized completely in history, but they will be fulfilled at the coming of the Blessed One, who comes in the name of the Lord — in God’s own time.