Grace Presbyterian Church
March 17, 2019, Lent 2C
The Destiny of a Prophet
What happens to prophets?
While prophets and their words are scattered liberally across scripture, we often don’t find out in scripture what actually happens to those prophets. The prophet Samuel grows old and dies, and the prophet Elijah is ultimately taken up into heaven in that chariot of fire, but otherwise we generally don’t hear what happens to the likes of Nathan, the prophet who rebuked King David, or those whose names (like Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and such) whose names are on so many of the books of Hebrew scripture.
Clearly, though, those in Jesus’s time seemed to have a couple of “old sayings” on the subject. We’ve already heard Jesus, earlier in the gospel of Luke, quote one such saying, about how a prophet would be respected anywhere but his hometown. In today’s reading Jesus seems to be citing another such popular belief when, in his answer to those Pharisees who come to warn him about Herod, he says “for it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem,” from which he launches into a lament for the city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!”
Much as the biblical record doesn’t tell us much about the accuracy of this statement, the historical record outside of scripture doesn’t help much either. However, Luke’s readers would have some more recent examples of potential “prophets” who did indeed meet their demise in Jerusalem. The earliest example was James, the apostle best known as the first half of “James and John” in much of the gospel. Those who read part two of Luke’s account, what we know as the Acts of the Apostles, would also know the story of Stephen, the deacon turned apologist who was stoned to death in that city. Of course, by the time Luke’s gospel was being disseminated both the apostles Peter and Paul had been executed in Rome rather than Jerusalem, but even then the agitation against them that led to their respective executions had its origins in Jerusalem. The city, and the authorities both religious and political situated there, could be deadly for those charged to speak a word from God.
Besides the saying itself, its delivery to a group of apparently helpful Pharisees is also rather baffling. In the gospels and Acts Pharisees end up with a bad reputation, often portrayed as implacable enemies of Jesus. As is usually the case, the truth is a bit more nuanced. They were the target of much of Jesus’s denunciation, and they were often portrayed as setting “traps” for Jesus hoping to trick him into saying something they could use against him. But also, Pharisees keep inviting Jesus over for a meal, and (as here), there are those Pharisees who seem to want to keep Jesus from harm or at least want to hear more from him.
Jesus’s response here is less concerned with the messengers than the source of the message, Herod the tetrarch of Galilee (tetrarch = “not quite king”, a title meant to remind Herod of the limits of his authority in the Roman Empire). The term “fox” is not a compliment; foxes were regarded as clever but destructive creatures. While this answer overall is a bit tricky to untangle, the gist of it is this: Herod can’t touch me. I have my work to do, and God is the one who controls that. And my destiny is Jerusalem.
That last has been the case for a while in Luke’s gospel. As far back as 9:51, shortly after the Transfiguration, we are told this:
When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
“Set his face” is about as much resolution, determination, and fierceness as one can act upon. Even from this point, Jesus knows his destiny, and it ends up in Jerusalem, at the hands of the authorities there. It won’t necessarily be that direct a route, and there will be a lot of stops on the way, such as we are witnessing here in chapter 13. There is teaching to be done, there are illnesses to be healed and demons to be cast out, but all of these things take place in the context of a determined journey with only one possible final destination. And even here how that finale will play out is foreshadowed, with that oblique “on the third day” reference that Luke’s readers could not miss. None of this was at all affected by anything Herod could possibly do.
Just because Jesus knew what was coming in Jerusalem didn’t mean Jesus held any sort of grudge or animus against that place. The oft-quoted lament, heard everywhere from impassioned sermons to the music of Felix Mendelssohn, contains some striking imagery (the hen gathering her chicks under her wings is a particularly interesting way of portraying God) and makes clear the distress of God at that city’s long historical unwillingness to be gathered in. His reaction to Jerusalem is one of grief, not anger.
Even if this passage makes a little more sense in the context of Jesus’s resolve to go to Jerusalem, it’s still an awkward fit in our ears in some ways. What exactly does this mean for us? What do we do about all this?
I’ve never been one for using the image of a “Lenten journey” for this liturgical season. This passage is an example of why. The journey isn’t ours to make; as Luke makes clear, the journey that matters is Jesus’s. We don’t make our own journey; we follow Jesus on his journey.
Even that, though; what does it mean? Let’s face it, we don’t live in a society where we are all that likely to suffer physical persecution for our faith, no matter what certain commentators try to say. We are relatively safe from any kind of authoritarian suppression, unlike many in the world. But what does it mean to follow a Jesus who determinedly “set his face” towards a violent fate?
Maybe this is where the “journey” part matters. As noted before, on this journey it’s not as if Jesus has suddenly stopped teaching and healing. As our book group members know, there are still a lot of meals to be shared. There’s still the Lord’s Prayer to be taught to his disciples. In this last portion of Luke, after 9:51, we get the parables of the Good Samaritan; the thief in the night; the banquet the lost sheep, coin, and son (we call that one the “prodigal” son); the dishonest manager; the rich man and Lazarus; and many more (and that’s just through chapter 15). Zacchaeus’s is still to come, as well as that of blind Bartimaeus.
Maybe the point of this passage is to listen to what Jesus teaches, and to “go and do likewise.” Maybe the point is to see what Jesus does, and to “go and do likewise.”
Maybe we are supposed to be following Jesus in order to be like Jesus, not by ending up slated for an execution but by speaking and teaching good news and ministering healing to those who suffer; by standing up for and standing with those the world deems expendable and oppressable and undesirable; by being the agent of Christ’s work in God’s world. Maybe that, more than anything, is the point. It’s probably uncomfortable, and it’s definitely challenging, but it’s hard to see how it’s not the point here.
The only journey we’re really interested in is Jesus’s. The only fate or destiny that really matters to us is Jesus’s, especially that “on the third day” part that is the whole reason we can even bother with enough hope to minister this way in a world where shooting forty-nine Muslims at prayer in New Zealand gets tacit approval from our authorities, and where the only ones who seem to care about our ongoing destruction of our planet are the children who have to live with the consequences.
So, we minister, we proclaim, and we wait with Jesus, and we watch for that third day, when despite all opposition and oppression Jerusalem can muster, Jesus completes his work.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #12, Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise; #450, Be Thou My Vision; #828, More Love to Thee; #543, God, Be the Love to Search and Keep Me