Second Sunday in Lent

The Gospel lection for this Sunday represents a challenge for preachers on several levels.

Luke 13:32
"Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work." Photo by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash; licensed under CC0.

March 17, 2019

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Commentary on Luke 13:31-35

The Gospel lection for this Sunday represents a challenge for preachers on several levels.

Many Biblical scholars break the pericope into two units. They argue that verses 31-33 offer an apothegm (a saying) that ends with the word Jerusalem while verses 34-35 voice a lament that begins with a two-fold repetition of the word Jerusalem. Some exegetes puzzle over the near repetition of the triad “today, tomorrow, and the next/third day” in verses 32 and 33. Could it be that scholars have two textual units here, barely hanging together by a repeated keyword and a duplicated triad that sounds like a passion prediction? Many exegetes are also baffled by the role of the Pharisees who issue the warning to Jesus about Herod in verse 31 — are the Pharisees acting as friends, foes, or somewhere in between?

So many scholarly questions; so few verses! What is a Gospel preacher to do?

We begin by trying to read Luke 13:31-35 hermeneutically within its narrative context: from parts to whole, as it were. We note first of all that these five verses are situated in a Lukan journey from Galilee that begins at Luke 9:51, when Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The apothegm, the repeated triads about days, the lament, the multiple references to Jerusalem begin to make more sense if we don’t treat them antiseptically. Instead, we can allow them to do their puzzling work in the midst of the several-chapters’ long journey that is Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem. Whatever these five puzzling verses are about, they are set within an intentional Lukan narrative set in Galilee, but looking toward Jerusalem, and all that the city means to Luke.

This hermeneutical frame begins to help make sense of the beginning of Luke 13:31-35. Pharisees approach Jesus, warn him about Herod, and urge him to move on. The text does not speculate on the motives of the Pharisees (at other points, Luke seems willing to disclose their motives), so we do not need to assume deception on their part. In verse 32, Jesus turns to compare the necessity of attending to Herod’s threat to kill as opposed to what God deems necessary for Jesus to do. The fact that Jesus views it more urgent to go to Jerusalem because of God’s will than to heed warnings about Herod, seems to indicate that the ultimate concern is theological.

This theological perspective is indicated first in the little passion prediction of verse 32 by the presence of a divine passive at the end of the first triad: today, tomorrow, and “finished” on the third day. The things being finished are Jesus’ day-by-day works of God’s kingdom: healings and exorcisms. Herod is just a clever little fox; God is in charge.

That said, verse 33 picks up the triad of days and takes them to the ultimate destination: Jerusalem. Here Luke indicates the divine will through his use of the Greek word “it is necessary” (dei), a term typical of the evangelist’s theological narrative. The contrast here is not simply repeated triads about days, or even relative threats from local rulers like Herod, but an inexorable divine will. For it is God’s concern that impels Jesus to the journey’s end in Jerusalem, where he fulfills a prophet’s destiny.

This theological coupling of divine will and the prophet’s role helps to smooth over the rough boundary between the apothegm of 13:31-33 and the lament of 13:34-35. Both are concerned with Jerusalem because they in turn confront the city and grieve its pain. In the lament of verses 34-35, Jesus’ words compare his desire to shelter with a mother hen’s poignant attempt to protect her brood with extended wings — no matter the threat.

Please note, the prophetic voice of Jesus’ lament is in the second person: Jerusalem and its unwilling children are addressed as “you.” Here, the lament extends the prophetic word of the inexorable divine will in 13:31-33 into the equally prophetic divine pathos that lies in the heart of the prophet who speaks for God. The lament is rounded out with a faint hope reminiscent of Psalm 118:26. Jerusalem’s people will not recognize him until they one day acclaim him themselves, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Luke joins together in 13:31-35 what seems to us units of tradition that do not really follow. Set in the extended story that begins with 9:51 and ends in Jerusalem, however, and with attention to Luke’s theological way of narrating, the puzzling fragments begin to make a bit more sense. Jesus’ future is not Herod’s to decide. God is setting the travel agenda. Thus, for prophets like Jesus, Jerusalem is the place to move toward: both the focus of his prophetic task and the object of his prophetic pathos in lament.

Preachers would be well advised to mind what the pericope both says and does not say. The text joins together Jesus’ prophetic resolve with his equally prophetic pathos of the mother hen. The image Jesus invokes is both fierce and vulnerable. The hen iconically holds together the tensions of the prophetic tradition as a whole even while it underlines the scandal of Luke’s vulnerable crucified Lord.

What Luke 13:31-35 does not say, however, is just as important. The rejection of the prophets is part and parcel of the Jewish tradition. It is not a license of contemporary interpreters to turn Jerusalem into Jesus’ enemy, or to treat Judaism in any sense that contradicts Jesus’ own maternal concern and embodied engagement for Jerusalem’s children. Gospel preachers need to know and name the difference.