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Luke 13:31-35 - Lament over the City

31At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33Yet 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.’ 34Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 35See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Who was Luke? The authorship of Luke and Acts is unclear and hotly debated. Most believe that the Gospel was composed between 70-100 CE, after the destruction of the Temple and the fall of Jerusalem. Very early Christian tradition associates this author with the beloved physician alluded to in Col. 4:14. The Gospel neither confirms nor denies that. Still, you can sense in these two books the compassionate heart of one who longs for God’s people to heal from their hurts and live into the fullness of God’s love. As is true in each of the Gospels, the writer of Luke, inspired by the Spirit, writes to share not just facts with us, but a deeper divine truth. Because the gospels are theological writings and not simply historical writings, chronology is sometimes changed to support theology. Such seems to have been the case in today’s text. See the section on where we are in the story for more.

Jesus and Antipas: The keys to understanding today’s passage lie in understanding Jesus’ relationship with Antipas, and with understanding how Biblical prophecy works. We’ll start with Antipas. The Herod referred to in verse 31 is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. He had inherited his position after his father’s death but largely served at the pleasure of Rome. While Jewish, he was little more than a Roman puppet put in place to keep the peace. Many Jews hated him and those who served him (Herodians), seeing them as Roman collaborators. Apparently, Jesus had no use for him at all. He even refused to go to two cities that were especially tied to him. Why the antipathy? Several reasons occur to me. First, Jesus was intent upon calling his people to repentance and faith. He wanted them to recommit to their ancient faith and values after long years of accommodating Rome. Herod Antipas wanted to point the kingdom in a new way that was centered on Rome but kept a hand in both kingdoms. Jesus saw him as a threat. And Antipas, obviously saw Jesus as a threat as well. A second reason for the antipathy was that Antipas had executed Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist. Granted, his reasons for that were drunken and debauched but beneath that, Antipas was scared of John. His prophecy and large following were a threat, and he was happy to be rid of him. He seems to have viewed Jesus through that same lens and was anxious to rid himself of yet another meddlesome prophet. The conflict between these two forms the background of today’s text.

Biblical prophecy: In the Bible prophets are not seers, those who predict the actual future. As a matter of fact, seers are soundly denounced throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  Prophets, on the other hand, are people chosen by God to speak for God into the specific situations of the moment. Because God’s truth is always timeless, and what is true in one moment is also true in another, the prophecies of God’s chosen can seem to be about the future as much as the present. The important thing to remember about Biblical prophets and prophecy is that the prophets are so steeped in God’s word, presence and values, that they can see where human sin and faithlessness inevitably lead. That is hugely threatening to people with power, and heartbreaking to those who can see the course humanity is taking.

Where are we in the story? In Luke, this story is placed just as Jesus is preparing to enter into Jerusalem where he will be crucified. It comes at the close of a longer section that includes parables and teaching about repentance. Jesus longs for the people to turn and go another way. Repentance, remember, is not just feeling sorry about a wrong committed. It is the decision to change one’s total orientation, to change one’s worldview, one’s whole mindset. That is what the people then, and we now, need to do. It is not enough to feel sorrowful for error or consequences. Repentance requires a total change of heart and mind. As Jesus looks over the city, he longs to see that kind of turn around. His tears and lament come from not seeing what he knows is the only path to life for his people. They love their chosen way, even when they know it is not working. They don’t want to change themselves. They just want their circumstances to change. Jesus recognizes that as the road to heartbreak.

Word Study

The Greek here is straightforward if you understand the context above. Just a couple of words to note.

Vs. 31 – Pharisees – In Luke, the Pharisees are not universally seen as Jesus’ opponents. A number disagreed with him vehemently. Others seemed intrigued and protective of him.

Vs. 32 – fox – No one knows exactly what he means by this. In the Hebrew scriptures, foxes are seen as destructive. In Hellenistic culture a fox was seen as clever, but sly and unprincipled.

            On the third day – Clearly seen by post resurrection Christians as an allusion to the resurrection, this was a common expression for a brief or limited time to accomplish something.

            I finish my work – The word finish here means to complete a goal, to do something perfectly or in perfect wholeness.

Vs. 33 – impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem – This was a popular Jewish tradition that is not rooted in any Biblical texts that we have.

Vs. 34 – brood – This beautiful word has associations with God’s activity in creation when the Spirit broods over the watery chaos preparing to bring forth a new creation.

Vs. 35 – your house is left to you – The word here implies abandonment.

            Blessed is the one… This comes from the festal parades in Psalm 118:26

Questions for Personal Reflection

1. In what ways have you experienced frightened political powers trying to destroy the ones they see as threats? Have you ever experienced something like that on a more personal level?

2. Lament is an important part of faith. It is not just wallowing or getting lost in our sorrow. Lament is medicine. It is a way of redirecting our energy. Have you found positive ways to lament in your life? Who are the people with whom you feel it is safe to share lament?

3. When you look at the world, where do you see the greatest need for repentance and change? Where do you see that in your own life and family? Are there things that you still need to mourn in order to be ready to change and move forward?

4. Think about your community in specific. Are there aspects of your common life that reduce you to tears? In what ways might God be calling you to turn your tears into actions for the common good?