Sunday’s lectionary reading from the gospels is Luke 13.31–35, and once again the lectionary does us something of a disservice by cutting this short passage off from its surrounding narrative. That is not such a problem in relation to what follows, since Luke begins chapter 14 with a clear narrative break, ‘And it happened, he [Jesus] going to the house of a Pharisee on a sabbath…’ which is emphasised in many English translations by starting the sentence with the time marker: ‘One sabbath, Jesus went to…’. But the there is more of a problem in the detachment of the lectionary reading from the passage that precedes it, for several reasons.
First, the previous pericope begins with a generalised reference to Jerusalem in Luke 13.22: ‘Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.’ Luke is not here offering any specific reference to allow us to locate the discussion that follows, but is reminding us of the ‘journey’ motif that he introduced in Luke 9.51, so that this second section of his account (following the opening Galileean ministry) pictures Jesus as travelling determinedly to the city, and that the challenge of discipleship is to join Jesus on this spiritual and metaphorical journey. That journey motif is implicit in our reading as background to the Pharisees’ question, and the reference to Jerusalem becomes explicit in Luke 13.34.
Secondly, although the temporal marker in Luke 13.22 is quite general, our reading is linked to it quite explicitly in the phrase ‘at that time’ (Ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ). This is quite emphatic, and is a phrase unique to Luke in the New Testament, occurring at Luke 2.38, 10.21, 12.12, here at Luke 13.31, 14.17, 20.19, 24.33 (seven times!) and in Acts 16.18 and 22.13. In other words, with dialogue with the Pharisees is explicitly located within the preceding conversation that took place on the journey.
Thirdly, both passages address the issue of the paradox of inclusion and exclusion in the kingdom which is characteristic of Luke’s gospel, as we shall see.
The two passages also share the same narrative dynamic: Jesus is asked a question, and that leads on to a discourse starting with an answer to the question, but moving on to related issues. We can see the same happening before, in Luke 12.41 and 13.1, and then in the following chapter at Luke 14.14, as well as elsewhere in the gospel.
The question of whether ‘only a few will be saved’ was a subject of lively debate in Second Temple Judaism. Although Jesus’ language of people coming to feast in the kingdom echoes the prophetic vision of Isaiah 25.6–9, this ‘universal’ vision had been transformed in 1 Enoch 62 into a vision of judgement of all people, and the Qumran community saw salvation as drawn even more narrowly, to exclude not only the Gentiles but also compromised Jews (1 QSam 2.5–22). A typical view of this perspective is found in 4 Ezra 8.1:
The Most High made this world for the sake of many, but the world to come for the sake of the few.
Jesus’ answer reads slightly oddly to anyone who knows Matthew’s gospel, since the discourse as we have it in Luke corresponds to a number of separate sayings of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (one of which is also found in Mark):
- Matt 7.13–14: enter by the narrow gate
- Matt 25:10–12: the door is shut…’I do not know you’
- Matt 7.22–23: ‘Depart from me, you evildoers’
- Matt 8.11–12: Many will come from the east and the west…wailing and gnashing of teeth
- Matt 19.30, 20.16: many that are first will be last (and in Mark 10.31)
There is no need to think that Jesus said any of these things only once, so bringing them together might not be just Luke’s editorial action—but there are plenty of other indicators that the gospel writers were happy to gather connected sayings of Jesus together when they had a theme in common.
But presented together in this way by Luke, Jesus’ teaching here has a striking effect. First, though it is unclear exactly who has asked the question, Jesus’ responses are clearly directed to the crowd around him, including the disciples: notice the repeated ‘you’, ‘you will stand…’, ‘you will say…’ in contrast to the reference to ‘they’ in the parallel sayings in Matthew. In contrast to some of the other voices in Judaism of the time, Jesus is being very clear that ethnic identity, in and of itself, is no guarantee of salvation; something more is required. More than that, mere proximity to Jesus is not sufficient either: ‘We ate and drank in your presence…’ ‘I never knew you’. This is an important insight into Jesus’ table fellowship with ‘sinners’ and is something that Luke has made explicit earlier. In response to criticism that Jesus eats with ‘sinners and tax collectors’, he is very clear of the purpose of this:
I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5.32).
Luke is bringing out an emphatic aspect of the challenge of Jesus to those who follow him: unless we both hear his teaching and do something about it (i.e. repent) then we remain ‘evildoers’ (compare Ps 6.8). There is an urgency to respond in the present to the message of Jesus, since there will come a time when it is too late. And the image of the narrow door (here and in Matthew) indicates ‘the arduous nature of discipleship: it is a struggle, not a stroll’ (Mikeal Parsons, Paideia Commentary on Luke p 222).
Alongside this emphasis on narrow exclusion, Luke puts next to it Jesus’ teaching on the broad inclusion of those ‘from the east and the west and the north and the south’. The parallel saying in Matt 8.11–12 in the context of healing of the centurion’s servant makes it clear that these people are Gentiles (and in that gospel it stands out against the general emphasis that the gospel is primarily for the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’). If ethnic identity is no guarantor of salvation, but response to Jesus in repentance and faith opens to the door to the kingdom, it follows (theo-)logically that anyone who responds in this way will be included.
In our lectionary reading, clearly located in the context of the preceding narrative by the ‘at this time’, some Pharisees warn Jesus about the threat of Herod Antipas. In Luke’s gospel, the Pharisees are not portrayed in a universally negative light, and there is no hint here that their intention is malevolent. But their warning illustrates the contrast between their view and Jesus’ perspective in two ways. First, they think it important that Jesus avoids opposition and the threat of death, where Jesus consistently has set his face to this destiny as the working out of God’s plan and calling. Secondly, there is the question of where Jesus will meet his end, and he is determined to follow the proverbial example of the prophets before him in facing his destiny in the Holy City, which stands eponymously for the nation of Israel. Will the people respond to the presence of God that has come to them in the ministry of Jesus?
The metaphor of ‘fox’ with reference to Herod could suggest either cunning or intelligence, but in context neither of these is likely. Another proverbial sense of the word is of malicious destructiveness; if you have kept chickens and been visited by a fox, you might have experienced the loss of one chicken and the pointless killing of the others, as though the fox just enjoyed the killing spree.
Upon hearing of Herod’s threat, Jesus pegs the Tetrarch as a varmint in the Lord’s field, a murderer of God’s agents, a would-be disrupter of the divine economy (Darr, Character Building cited in Joel Green’s NICNT on Luke, p 536).
This meaning would fit with the context here, and also the portrayal of Herod in Luke’s gospel. Apart from his involvement in the death of John the Baptist, Luke alone notes his role in Jesus’ own trial in Luke 23.7–12. Jesus’ description of his ministry being completed ‘on the third day’ is an allusion to his resurrection as the crown and fulfilment of his ministry.
Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem has clear connections with the themes already explored in this section—but sits oddly here in terms of chronology. Reading this passage on its own, you might expect that Jesus has already reached Jerusalem, and in the parallel passage in Matt 28.37–39 he already has. There, the lament comes between the seven woes proclaimed to the Pharisees and Jesus’ teaching in Matt 24 about the destruction of the temple, and since Jesus has already come to the city, he talks about them seeing him ‘again’, a word that Luke omits since it would make no sense in his temporal scheme which locates this saying prior to Jesus arrival. Perhaps this is a hint that all the synoptic writers were aware of Jesus visiting Jerusalem many times (indicated by Jesus’ comment ‘How often…’ Luke 13.34), as made explicit in John’s gospel—and something that any observant Jew must have done to attend the pilgrim festivals.
The phrase ‘until you say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”‘ is rendered with a temporal sense in most English translations. But the phrase is more commonly conditional, and is perhaps better translated ‘unless you say’. For Matthew, this challenges the inhabitants of the city to respond to Jesus in the same way that the pilgrim crowds welcomed him on Palm Sunday, recognising in Jesus the coming of God’s presence and his kingdom. But for Luke, with his narrative scheme, it raises the question ahead of time: how will Jerusalem and its leaders respond to Jesus? On the one hand, Jesus constantly holds out the hope of his embrace of love being received, expressed in the remarkable imagery of a mother hen concerned to protect her brood for any harm (including foxes!) that might come to them. And yet, fitting with both Matthew’s location of this saying between woes and destruction, and Luke’s account of Jesus’ foreboding comments about Jerusalem under siege in Luke 21.20, there is the ominous warning that ‘your house is forsaken’.
The present moment of urgent response has now passed for Jerusalem. But for Luke’s readers, including those of us reading today, this present opportunity of grace in which we hear Jesus’ challenge and invitation, remains open. How will we respond to it?
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