Readings: Genesis 15:1-12,17-18
The small section of Luke’s gospel that we’ve just heard comes in the middle of a long series of parables and healings. If you go back four chapters you find that Luke sets them in the context of Jesus going to Jerusalem, of Jesus setting his face to go to Jerusalem. And Luke also sets them (that’s the parables and the healings as well as today’s gospel) in a bigger context. That’s the context of the agenda Jesus sets out when he read from the prophet Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry: 18 “THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME, BECAUSE HE ANOINTED ME TO PREACH THE GOSPEL TO THE POOR. HE HAS SENT ME TO PROCLAIM RELEASE TO THE CAPTIVES, AND RECOVERY OF SIGHT TO THE BLIND, TO SET FREE THOSE WHO ARE OPPRESSED, 19 TO PROCLAIM THE FAVORABLE YEAR OF THE LORD.” That’s his agenda for what he calls the Kingdom of God. And the stories he tells are mostly about this Kingdom of God. There are two aspects to it. One is about a new order of things in this present world. A new order where much that is assumed and familiar is turned upside down. Like Luke’s version of the first beatitude, which we heard a month ago. Blessed are you who are poor for yours is the kingdom of God. That’s one aspect of what Jesus means by the coming of the Kingdom of God. The other is summed up by “The kingdom of God is within you”. It’s about changes in the way that we think and act. I’ve said all that because it’s the background to the first bit of to-day’s gospel. The story of some Pharisees coming to warn Jesus that Herod wants to kill him. No great surprise in that. If he had heard anything about what Jesus was saying. He would have assumed that Jesus was after his literal kingdom. Commentators on this passage divide into two groups. One group sees these Pharisees as well wishers who are concerned for Jesus’ safety. The other group see them as hostile to Jesus and wanting to get him to Jerusalem so that the Sanhedrin can arrest and deal with him.
I think this second group are influenced by the bad press which Pharisees get in Matthew and Mark. If you look carefully at Luke, this is much less marked in his gospel and Jesus is shown having lots of dealings with Pharisees. Luke of course was an associate of Paul, who writes that he was a Pharisee. Actually knowing an individual from any group tends to change how we think about the whole group. So I think the first lot of commentators are right. This group of Pharisees were genuinely concerned for Jesus. And I think there is a message in the debate among the commentators. The message reminds us of the dangers of stereotyping. Of assuming that we know how a particular person or group of people will react and what they believe. It happens all the time. And it’s encouraged by the press, by populist leaders and it can be amplified by social media. It happens say with our expectations of young men with dark skin. It happens because a few Muslim people have been radicalised. It happens with our expectations of Christians from other traditions. And on a more trivial level I notice myself doing it with people who drive SUVs. It’s happening all the time with people who we see as different.
Thinking like this is deeply embedded in the way that we humans are. Lent is amongst other things about repentance. Repentance is more about changing the way that we think than about regret for sin. One the changes in the way that we think is being ready to notice when we are responding to a particular individual or group of people in this way – and then challenging our own thinking. Now there is something which is really worth trying to give up for Lent – and not just for Lent. It’s really important because stereotyping can slip over into seeing the other as bad as dangerous and as a threat. And that can lead to attacks like happened this week in Christ Church New Zealand. Now I want to back to the Gospel and Jesus’ response to being told about Herod. Essentially he’s saying that he is going to go on with what he’s doing. But it includes the rather strange statement “on the third day I will have finished my work”. The Third Day – that sounds as if it could be a reference to his resurrection. In the gospels Jesus seems to know just what is going to happen to him. I suspect that he was in fact much less certain and that whatever he said became much more specific as it was retold over many years by people who knew what had actually happened. By the time Luke was writing his gospel, Christians had come to think of Jesus as God. Their experience was of the post resurrection Jesus. And there was always a tendency to see the pre-resurrection Jesus through their experience of the post resurrection Jesus. So they came to expect the pre-resurrection Jesus to be less limited by his humanity than he actually was. And the problem with that is it makes him less human and so less like us. So I would guess that he knew very well what was likely to happen to him but I would be very surprised if he really expected his resurrection. And I would guess that he knew that the greatest risk would come from the temple authorities in Jerusalem. But I also think that he knew that if he was to get any lasting changes to the Judaism of his time it would have to be in Jerusalem. And I expect he was also familiar with the sort of images that come in the book of revelation about a New Jerusalem. This New Jerusalem is actually another image for the Kingdom of God. And it was a type of writing that was in wide circulation at the time.
All that is a prelude to saying that Jesus was very clear what he had to do and was not going to be put off by threats from Herod or the Temple Authorities – or by his own fears about what was likely to happen to him. And for me and perhaps for you it raises the question How willing am I to follow his example. For us it’s very unlikely to lead to a sentence of death: more likely just to ridicule or simply being ignored. I heard tell of a brief exchange at a Pride March in London a few years ago. A gay man was commenting that in his circle it was much harder to come out as a Christian than it had been to come out as gay. So that’s essentially two points that I’ve linked to the gospel reading. There is a third. You will probably be aware of the benefice prayer initiative for Lent – Living Bread. For this week the heading is Jerusalem, Jerusalem. It’s about Jesus’ desire for the good of Jerusalem in his own time and also for the New Jerusalem which I just pointed out is an image related to the Kingdom of God. St Paul is very fond of talking about being “in Christ”. Which is about coming to see the world through Christ’s eyes. And coming to share some of his vision. And that will include sharing some of his grief and sorrow for the world as it is: a grief expressed in the second part of the gospel reading. It’s usually thought that Luke wrote his gospel after the destruction of the temple in AD 70. So the grief expressed in the gospel will include all the feelings about that.
In living Bread, the other suggestion for this week is to ponder what contributes to human and social flourishing. All I will suggest about that at the moment is to remember my first poin. And think about how important it is to value difference and to be ready to look for the good in other cultures. And to be ready to challenge ourselves if we find ourselves coming think that badness lies in the people we don’t like or don’t agree with.