A sermon on Luke 13:31-35 by the Revd Dr Colin Hunter
The Gospel reading from Luke represents a major turning point in the story of Jesus. If it were a modern Hollywood blockbuster it would be the beginning of the second ‘Matrix’ movie or perhaps the third ‘Lord of the Rings’ movie. The first Gospel episode is about Jesus’ origins and the location of his early life in history and place and theology; the second is about his ministry in Galilee where he is portrayed as the itinerant preacher and healer who is revealed in word and deed as the Messiah promised by the prophets; the third episode begins with today’s lectionary reading.
Jesus is warned by some Pharisees (there are some good Pharisees in the Gospel stories) that Herod wants to kill him, and this shocking news galvanises him into initiating the journey towards the final episode which is the Passion of the Christ in Jerusalem. We are in the season of Lent, and what more appropriate observance could we have than a controversial movie about Christ’s Passion, which has always been a matter of controversy, as Paul says, ‘a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles’.
The Gospel according to Mel Gibson may not be the same as the Gospel according to Luke, but we must not forget that the Gospel according to Luke is not the same as the Gospel according to John, and neither Luke nor John was an eyewitness to the crucifixion of Jesus any more than was Mel. They are all representing the story of the Christ from the standpoint of faith. It may not be accurate, nor a very good movie, but it does I gather starkly confront the viewers with at least one brutal execution.
Jesus’ response to the warning of the Pharisees is distinctly uncomplimentary towards Herod, ‘Tell that fox that I’ll do what I have to do and I’ll choose the time of my dying myself’. It’s a powerful statement that speaks about destiny – ‘It’s not possible for a prophet to be killed anywhere else but Jerusalem’. There is the sense that the powers and authorities of politics and religion are not able to thwart the purposes of God, even when those powers crucify the hopes and legitimate aspirations of individuals and communities.
Jesus turns his face towards Jerusalem and the end is inevitable – but is it the work of Herod and Pilate? Or is it the work of God? Or Jesus? Human suffering as a consequence of inhuman behaviour is a mystery to me and a powerful challenge to faith. I cannot comprehend how one human being can intentionally inflict pain and even death on another human being. And like many others I wonder about the agency of God ‘when bad things happen to good people’ as Rabbi Harold Kushner so aptly described it. If God is powerful and loving why does not God prevent tragedies like Iraq and AIDS and Bali. Rabbi Kushner in his book says that there is really only one question, and this is it; ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ And he spoke this question out of the experience of having a son who developed a premature aging disease and died an old man at the age of fourteen. If the crucifixion has any meaning at all it must be able to speak into this question; it must be able to give some meaning to the mystery of seemingly meaningless suffering inflicted on people who are essentially innocent and undeserving of the affliction that has been visited on them. And it can’t be the neat ending to the book of Job, where Job suffers terrible afflictions but is recompensed in the end by God. And the rationale that God allowed the suffering because Satan wanted to test Job’s righteousness when all of the material props to faith were removed just won’t wash in our modern world – it is clearly laced with mythology which boggles the scientific mindset. Besides, Job’s afflictions were caused less by human brutality than by natural disasters – ‘acts of God’ as the insurance industry would describe it.
The problem of evil and human suffering, whether through natural causes or human agency, has always been and will always be a mystery. But I am not so much interested in a rational or philosophical understanding of suffering, as in knowing how to respond. For instance, when a great tragedy occurs, like an earthquake, or famine, people can respond with great compassion and generosity. But we can quickly forget, or become cynical when despots hijack the aid intended for victims. The magnitude of human suffering can overwhelm even the best intentioned of us and leave us despairing that we can change anything. So how can we sustain a commitment to justice in a world that is patently unjust?
‘Today and tomorrow and the third day, I will cast out demons …’ Focus on what is at hand, on what can be done, on what we are called to do. Like Neo in ‘The Matrix’ or Frodo in ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Jesus had a choice to make. They had to decide whether or not they would stay in the safety of the known and follow the dangers and terrors of the unknown for the good of the world. Jesus could allow himself to be silenced by Herod’s threats and live in safe obscurity. He could stay in Galilee and challenge Herod to carry out his threats. Or he could begin the journey to Jerusalem. Jesus’ choice was between the natural human instincts of flight or fight, and the third way of obedience to God.
Our choices are less dramatic, and yet just as real: choosing between safety and authenticity; the way that is right for us yet incomprehensible to others.
‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that stone the prophets and kill those who are sent to you’. ‘Blessed are you who mourn’. Somehow Jesus recognises that the forces arrayed against him are more than human, or as Paul says ‘We wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers and …’ I think it is this higher view that both gives Jesus the courage to set his face towards Jerusalem and the capacity to pray ‘Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing’.