Painful Path, Strong Faith: Reflections on Luke 13:31-35

Lectionary Reflections
Luke 13:31-35
February 24, 2013

Before I went to Honduras for a week a couple summers ago, one of my well-traveled students gave me this advice: "You're going to a poor area of a two-thirds-world country. Just expect to be uncomfortable. That will make it easier to endure."

In Matthew, the lament over Jerusalem comes after Jesus has entered Jerusalem as a despairing conclusion to his ministry. It conveys the pathos that it is the one who loved the nation most who has the mission of pronouncing its doom.

In Luke the lament comes much earlier, in chapter 13, at the heart of Luke's Travel Narrative, in the middle of Jesus' journey to Jerusalem. In Luke I hear, not a note of doom, but of determination, the determination of the Messiah not to stop until God's plan is achieved and repentance and forgiveness of sins are preached to all nations (Lk. 24:47). (Jensen, 155)

It's akin to my student's warning, "Expect to be uncomfortable," with the element of death thrown in for good measure. "Expect resistance and rejection to litter your path as you proceed to Jerusalem. Expect your journey to end in your death."

The lament over Jerusalem this early in the game is a tipoff that it is not going to end well. How could it? Just think where Jesus is going. To Jerusalem, acity that stands as a symbol for Israel as a whole, that exists under the judgment of God (19:41-44, 21:20-24, 23:27-31). Jerusalem is the city that "kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it" (Lk. 13:34). How could it be anything other than the end of the road for Jesus' earthly life?

How could it end well? Just think who Jesus is. He is a prophet like Elisha and Elijah. Luke highlights the parallels between Jesus and Elijah back in chapter 7. Elijah healed a widow's son in 1 Kings 17:8-24, and Jesus heals a widow's son in Luke 7:7-17. Elisha healed Naaman in 2 Kings 5 and Jesus heals a centurion's slave in Luke 7:1-10. But, as we learned as early as Luke 4:24, "No prophet is accepted in his own country." On the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:19-21) the disciples explain to Jesus the details of his own identity in a way that is almost comical to us. We already know that he was a prophet mighty in word and deed who was rejected and killed. Luke 13:31-35 was just one of several spoiler alerts (Lk. 7:24-30; 9:7-9, 18-23, 9:51-56).

Jesus is a prophet like Moses and given a similar cat herding task—to reunite the scattered people—a frequent theme in the Old Testament and one reflected in Luke 13:34. (Tinsley p. 150) In Psalm 106:23 Moses is described as the prophet who suffered for the sins of the people and stepped into the breach between them and God.

How could the journey of a prophet to Jerusalem end well? Maybe if the prophet realized the danger, was overcome by the prospect of discomfort, and turned back. But Jesus is a determined sort. "I must be on my way" (Lk. 13:33). "There is a sense of determination and inevitability in Jesus' view of his journey toward Jerusalem.

I admire people who have this kind of determination. I sometimes think that if I had known what I was getting into, I wouldn't have gotten into it. You can apply that to whatever situations in your life you like, and I'll do the same. At the first sign of discomfort, I think why did I make this commitment to . . . It seemed like a good idea at the time, but now I can't remember why . . . This is harder than I thought it would be . . . I didn't sign on for this . . . No one told me about this . . .

In my United Methodist tradition, we baptize infants, whether they like it or not. Babies often cry when they are baptized. There are various theories as to why. The water is too cold. Their little white dress is itchy. My theory is that if they could talk they might say something like, "Wait a minute . . . what are you committing me to? What am I signing on for? Can you promise me that the life of faith will be easier than its alternative?" They can't talk and so they cry.

Nobody likes discomfort along the journey of life. That's why we coin little sayings to help us along the way like, "I can stand anything as long as I can whine about it," or "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

Neither of these sayings, however, fits our Savior's situation in Luke 13. He has signed on willingly for a journey whose path he knows will be littered with resistance, rejection, and likely death. He is not whining. He is lamenting. The context is an intense conflict of wills: the intention of Jesus' adversaries, the determination of the Messiah, the unwillingness of Jerusalem, and the determination of God to fulfill the divine will. Who signs on for this kind of drama?

How could it possibly end well? Jesus' faith in a redemptive outcome flows from his sense of mission and his deep relationship with the Father. Luke in turn offers his readers reasons for hope amid a difficult journey. There is the memory of the prophetess Anna's prediction that the child would redeem Jerusalem (Lk. 2:36-38). There is the reference to Jesus' finishing his work "on the third day" (13:32). "After three days" was a commonly used idiom to indicate "in a short time." Luke's readers would have seen in it a reference to Jesus' death and resurrection on the third day. I "finish" my work. This has the connotation of "perfect," or "consecrate." It is the word used for the consecration of priests in Exodus 29 and Leviticus 8. In Hebrews 2:10, 5:9 it describes Jesus' consecration through his death and resurrection to his high priestly work. (Ellis, 190)

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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.