Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 21, 2016
Luke 13:31-35 Commentary
Luke knew how to spin a tale! Today he’d likely be a best-selling writer no matter what his genre: novels, biographies, essays. Luke had style, narrative panache. Dip into any of his stories in The Gospel that bears his name or in The Book of Acts (that he also authored) and you see this readily.
That’s why I cannot quite figure out this quirky 13th chapter in Luke’s Gospel much less make a lot of sense out of the five short verses the Lectionary carved out for this Lenten lection. Before we look at those “foxes and chickens” verses, consider the whole chapter.
Jesus seems to be bobbing and weaving a lot here. On the one hand he issues warnings about the doors of the kingdom snapping shut on you at a moment’s notice, on the other hand he seems to say the kingdom of God is wide open, it’s on the move, it’s as huge as a giant mustard tree and as pervasive as the presence of yeast in a ball of dough. We’ve got fig trees that get a second chance and people coming from all points of the compass to sit at God’s banquet table. Then again, we’ve got knocking and pleading and a curt rebuff from the master of a house whose front door just won’t open for certain folks.
Then after all that we have the counter-intuitive event of some Pharisees seemingly trying to protect Jesus, which in turn elicits from Jesus some odd statements about today and tomorrow and the next day and gathering up chicks.
Winston Churchill once sent a pudding back to a restaurant kitchen complaining that “It lacks a theme.”
Well . . . just what is the theme of this chapter, dear Luke?
Maybe it’s that the kingdom of God is mysterious but also wonderful. Maybe the theme here is that the kingdom is everywhere to be seen, everywhere to be accessed such that if the day comes when you find yourself forever and anon outside of that kingdom, maybe it was because you were all along too busy being obsessed with pesky rules that kept you from seeing real people as real people, from seeing real miracles as miracles, from rejoicing over the north, south, west, and east people sitting at the table with you because you were too hung up on how strange and foreign they seemed to you.
God will give the “fig tree” of your life every second chance he can. He’ll perform wonders before you like healing a crooked woman’s spine. And all the while his kingdom is growing up around you like a mighty tree and is spreading all around you like invisible yeast that is even now poofing up the whole ball of wax into something that will glorify the Lord. But if at the end of the day all you can do is wish for Jesus to move to another neighborhood . . . well, when the day comes when all the pounding your fist can handle on God’s front door does you no good, don’t pretend to be shocked.
Because, you see, I am convinced that the Pharisee’s “warning” to Jesus about Herod is a feint. It may or may not have been a fabrication, an outright lie, but it was conveyed to Jesus not to protect him but to get him out of their sight. They couldn’t pin anything on Jesus, and his teachings and healings were generating palpable enthusiasm among the masses. Jesus was already far more popular than the Pharisees had ever been (and this should come as no surprise to anyone in that the average Pharisee was about as much fun as an impacted wisdom tooth). Their left-handed attempt to hustle Jesus away only showed how content they were to stay on the outside of whatever kingdom Jesus was talking about.
So when Jesus tells them to go tell Herod “that fox” that he wasn’t going to take his marching orders from him, he was really telling these foxy Pharisees to take a hike, too. Yet there was enough love and compassion (and grace) in Jesus that he couldn’t leave it at that, either. If Herod and these Pharisees were the fox in this scenario, then Jesus was the mother hen trying to gather up chicks under his wings. Of course, in their encounters with foxes throughout history chickens have not tended to fare well and, indeed, very soon Jesus will die and even the chicks who had stayed closest to him the longest will scurry away and scatter. But for those who ultimately come back to Christ the Hen, for those who see in him even so a sheltering wing that can protect them into the kingdom of God for all eternity, there will be new life after all.
Because the kingdom is growing steady and sure, its branches reaching up to heaven by now, its yeasty presence permeating and having its wondrous effect throughout the very fabric of existence. In the Lenten Season this odd passage from the end of this quirky chapter reminds us both of the kingdom’s reality and of our need to rejoice in that kingdom no matter how many surprises it delivers.
The world is still filled with foxes, and we chickens don’t always think we have a chance. Thankfully we now know that the Mother Hen under whose wings we take shelter has some other names, including the Lion of Judah.
It reminds me of the time Winston Churchill—to mention him again!—brought down the house at the Canadian Parliament when he mentioned that Hitler and his generals had said that when it came to conquering Britain, Germany would wring Britain’s neck like a chicken.
Churchill then paused and said, “Some chicken! Some neck!”
What did Jesus mean about “today and tomorrow and the next day” as he twice references such a three-day sequence in this passage? He cannot mean that literally in that he is a long ways from dying and rising yet. It seems that this phrase is reflective of a deeply Jewish way of referring to a key period of time. Things that come in three-day sequences are fraught with significance. We know that the premiere example of this is Jesus’ crucifixion and burial followed by his being raised on the third day. Indeed, the line from the Creed “the third day he rose again from the dead” is perhaps one of the most well-known lines to Christians all over the world.
In this passage Jesus may not be referring to his resurrection but he is referring to something very significant taking place on that third day when, as he says, he will reach his goal. In fact, the word in the Greek that Jesus uses in Luke 13:32 and that is translated as “reach my goal” is a cognate form of the verb teleo, which Jesus will utter from also the cross in declaring “It is finished.” However, Jesus does not utter that particular word from the cross in Luke’s gospel. So it could be that his use of this word here serves as a kind of substitute for Luke’s having him say it from the cross.
The verb teleo carries with it more than the sense of being finished with something in the sense of having crossed the goal line or something. Rather, there is more than a hint of fulfillment, of summing up all things, of consummation in ways that have significant eschatological overtones. But the Lenten irony to be savored in all this as it comes to us in Luke 13 is that this consummation, this fulfillment of all things, is tied up with Jesus’ death. Twice here Jesus repeats this three-day formula. The first time in verse 32 he says that he will reach his goal. The second time in verse 33 he indicates that part of the goal is his death in Jerusalem (and not outside of it).
As noted elsewhere in this set of sermon commentaries, it’s unlikely that the Pharisees were really trying to protect Jesus from the clutches of Herod. But whatever the ins and outs of that may be, the fact is that the Pharisees thought they could scare Jesus out of Jerusalem by holding out the prospect of death. What they did not know—but what Jesus increasingly senses—is that far from running from death, Jesus sees death as the key to his being able to fulfill all things.
We need to recall that this incident takes place well after that turning point in Luke’s gospel at Luke 9:51 when Jesus resolutely set his face toward the Holy City. All of these subsequent chapters, leading up to the Triumphal Entry in Luke 19 and then all the events leading up to the crucifixion, take place in the context of Jesus’ grim determination to fulfill all righteousness and bring about cosmic salvation through the paradoxical avenue of his own sacrificial death.
This may not be the most savory example but the spectacle in Luke 13 of the Pharisees approaching Jesus to help him and protect him allegedly from Herod reminds me of the scenario that dominates the last part of the landmark movie The Godfather. As the aging Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) approaches the end of his life, he hands the reins of power in their nefarious mafia business to his son, Michael. But the old Don has been around long enough to know that once he is out of the way, all bets will be off and the other East Coast mafia families will move in and try to kill Michael. And he knows something else: the betrayal will come from a trusted friend who will suggest to arrange a meeting between Michael and the next-most-powerful mafia kingpin, Don Barzini. “And at that meeting,” the Don tells Michael, “you will be assassinated. So whoever comes to you with this Barzini meeting, that’s the traitor. Don’t forget that.”
No sooner is the old Don dead—indeed, at his very funeral—Michael is approached by long-time family friend Tessio (played by the recently departed Abe Vigoda) who says he’s got things all arranged to make peace with Barzini if only Michael will come to a meeting. Michael agrees but, of course, never goes to any such meeting. He knows that this “friend” trying to help him is offering him no real help at all.
When the Pharisees come to Jesus in Luke 13, they appear to come as friends, as people who have Jesus’ best interests at heart. Herod has been making ominious noises, they claim, so you’d best get out of town. But even as Michael knew that Tessio was only pretending to have Michael’s best interests at heart while actually plotting his downfall, so Jesus could see right through the Pharisees here. In a nice twist of irony, Jesus tells the Pharisees to go back to Herod and deliver the message that Jesus is not about to stop.
This, by the way, neatly trapped the Pharisees. After all, what were they doing talking to the Jewish enemy, King Herod? If they really had such easy access to him as to be able to deliver Jesus’ message back to the King, just what did that say about the Pharisees? Did they or did they not have the best interests of their fellow Jews at heart?
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