In the way that the Church keeps track of time, this is the second Sunday of Lent – Year C. And from today’s Gospel passage, it’s tempting to suspect that the very best material made it into Year A, while the pretty good stuff was placed in Year B, and here we are with the grade C material… At first glance this is not the most engaging section of Luke, nor does it seem to offer much for Lent. But what if we give a second glance…
To start off, we have this somewhat out of character exchange between Jesus and a group of Pharisees. Typically, Pharisees only show up to cause trouble. They ask trick questions and, in a stylistic sense, act as plot foils – Pharisees’ bad behavior shows off Jesus’ good behavior. But here the Pharisees seem to be concerned about Jesus’ health and safety. They warn him to get out before Herod kills him.
Herod is, keep in mind, one of the most truly dangerous leaders in scripture – perhaps even throughout history. He is corrupt, insecure, paranoid, narcistic and a sociopath, among other things. In Christian Tradition Herod welcomed Jesus’ birth by having all the male children in and around Bethlehem slaughtered. So, while the Pharisees may not be the nicest folks on the block, perhaps they can’t stomach Herrod either. Of course, Jesus is not stupid. He knows that Herod wants him dead without this warning from the Pharisee.
It’s possible that the Pharisees are not really worried about Jesus’ health and safety. Maybe they just want Jesus to go away and scaring him seems like a good plan. For most people it would probably work, but Jesus, as they say, is not most people…
Jesus tells the Pharisees to take a message back to Herod. That is interesting because nothing in Luke’s Gospel has indicated that they are working for Herod… Nonetheless, it does seem to validate the notion that Jesus knows that these apparently benign Pharisees are not so benign.
“You go and tell that fox…” is what Jesus says. Scripture seems to divide animals between predators and pray. Lamb, sheep, hens, and doves – pray animals, are used to depict the followers of Jesus. Predators – wolves, snakes, lions, and in this instance foxes, are used to depict evil and dangerous people. When Isaiah talks about the wolf lying down with the lamb, it is a vision of predators and pray living together.
Lions and wolves may be threatening, yet they also command respect. But Jesus has chosen a pretty un-admirable animal to describe Herod. Foxes, like weasels, just don’t get much respect… It is surely a careful editorial choice on Jesus’ part.
And what is the message for that fox? I’m going about my business. I’m not frightened of you. Jesus knows that death awaits him in Jerusalem, but until then Herod is powerless – like a fox against a larger animal.
The mention of Jerusalem seems to change the tone of the story. Now we have this lament from Jesus: Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to help. Jesus seems to be invoking the memory of the Book of Lamentations – the account of the destruction of the City of Jerusalem by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. If you are looking for an appropriate study book for Lent, Lamentations is a great place to start. But for now, let’s stay with Luke…
Jerusalem is more than just a great city… more than just the location of the Temple – God’s home on earth… Jerusalem is the very embodiment of the people of Israel, God’s chosen people. In our modern world I can’t think of any example where a city personifies a people. We could have a conversation about Cape Town, the Mother City, its strengths and failures, and I don’t think anybody would think we are talking about all South Africans, or even all people from the Western Cape… or for that matter, even all Cape Tonians… But those listening to Jesus are keenly aware that he is referring to all Israelites.
Jesus’ meaning is clear as it is bleak: The city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to help. God has tried time after time and in various ways to call the chosen people, the Israelites, Jerusalem, back to faithfulness. And these calls have fallen on deaf ears, even hostile ears. Thus, it will be for Jesus. His calls for repentance will be ignored and he will be crucified.
Page BreakJesus wants nothing more than to be able to protect Israel as a mother hen protects her brood. It is a beautiful image; made all the more poignant by the predatory fox, Herod, waiting in the wings. For as we’ve noted, the fox is an opportunistic predator, and nothing is a better opportunity than a brood of chicks.
Jesus knows what is coming, and we can feel Jesus’ heart breaking.
Of course, this is no longer a story about the people of Israel some two thousand years ago… it is a story about us, here and now, as well.
We are now part of Jerusalem. We are part of God’s chosen people – because God has a radical new way of choosing. Now God chooses everyone. It is one of the simplest and yet most difficult concepts of the Gospel.
Even Jesus seems to struggle with how radically inclusive God has become. He can’t see the Syrophoenician Woman as one of the chosen people until she opens his eyes. The state of our modern world tells us beyond doubt that we are a long way from recognizing that God choses everyone, not just those who look or think like we do.
The brood that Messiah gathers under her wings will be protected not because Messiah is a great and mighty warrior who will destroy the fox, or wolf, or whatever predator you conjure. We will be safe because Isaiah foresaw a place and time when the wolf and the lamb could lie down together. Martin Luther King dreamed of a place where all God’s children could play together. Archbishop Desmond Tutu saw that God had a dream, a vision, that all of creation could live together.
It is the vision that inspires Volmoed. It is a vision that we all experience in various times and places. It is a vision that has not yet become reality, but neither has it died. It is God’s vision after all, so it cannot die.
A vision of living in God’s Kingdom, Utopia, is one that has a strong pull on the human spirit. We can practically see it, but we can’t quite figure out how to get there from here.
More troubling, we don’t quite trust God’s radically inclusive vision. Too often we seem to be convinced that the way to achieve Utopia is to get rid of all the bad people, the predators. It seems like a reasonable plan. But Isaiah’s vision, God’s vision, is not a place free of predators, but a place where the lions and lambs can exist together.
Hitler wanted to build Utopia. That was his vision. In Hitler’s vision, if you could just get rid of the bad people, the result would be perfection. In reality, the result was hell on earth. Scripture says without a vision, a prophet, the people perish. And history shows us time and again that this is true.
And yet we still have voices among us, some claiming to be lovers of Jesus, who want to cleanse our world of the people God does not like. The problem is that God loves everyone.
In my human frailty I cannot manage to be as loving as God. I may not be ready yet to be all-loving, but I can work to get there. And that is the work of Lent. We are called to repent of our sins and grow toward a more Godly way of being.
Thomas Merton, a great Monastic visionary, described his journey, the monastic journey, the Christian journey as this: “I fall down. I get up. I fall down. I get up. I fall down. I get up.” The faithful journey is not defined by the falling down. It is defined by the getting back up.
As we continue this journey with Jesus through Lent… this journey that leads to Jerusalem, to Crucifixion, we can live with the assurance from Jesus that there is no fall from with we can’t get up. There is no way we can lose God’s love. God loves us not in spite of who and what we are, but because of it.
As we grow in the knowledge of God’s unconditional love, we can grow in our own ability to love our brothers and sisters and all of God’s creation with fewer and fewer conditions. This is the work of Lent: to purge ourselves of our past failure and prepare ourselves to rise in glory with Jesus.