Indeed, some are last who will be first and some are first who will be last.
This is the verse that directly precedes today’s gospel passage. It comes at the end of a series of parables all having to do with repentance. This may help us to understand what Jesus is getting at in his reply to the Pharisees who, supposedly with compassion, want him to know that Herod wants him dead.
But as we consider what’s contained in todays’ gospel lesson, let’s step back and recall that reflection upon the inward and outward journey is especially appropriate in this season of Lent. And in our recollection, know just how often obstacles beset our spiritual growth, and yet how tenacious we can each be in clinging to our hopes – hopes for new direction in the knowledge of God – especially as we know it in Easter.
What aspects of his life and journey do you suppose are in the front of Jesus’ mind as, in our lesson today, he turns from teaching his disciples and toward responding to these temple windbags?
In the final weeks of his life, Jesus moves closer to Jerusalem. He is certainly aware, as anyone would be who is familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures, that great prophets have, in the past, been ignored, despised, and often killed. He might have thought of Jeremiah, who wrote during the Babylonian exile some 500 years before the time of Christ, prophesying that God’s intention for us had evolved – that God’s New Covenant now rests in our hearts and not our lands. This kind of talk got Jeremiah into big trouble (Jer 11:18-23)!
Jesus may well have identified with the likes of Jeremiah – and any other prophetic voice that drew the wrath of the Jerusalem elite.
Furthermore, aspects of Jesus’ final pilgrimage were informed by another prophet who preceded him by some 700 years. During the reigns of Ahaz and Hezekiah and the siege of Assyria, Isaiah also challenged the predominant Jerusalem theology. Isaiah’s was a voice in opposition to the prevailing interpretation that, as a result of the line of David, the presence of God in the temple was the final fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Walter Brueggmann, noted scholar of Hebrew scripture, refers to this kind of thinking – several hundred years in development – as what he calls “royal consciousness”. No longer, claims Brueggmann, was Moses’ community living freely under the laws of the covenant. Instead, “the abstractions of God’s will came to be realized upon the apparatus of the state.”
And anyone who spoke out about this kind of development and the fact that so much of faith experience in and around Jerusalem had becoming misguided and self-involved, anyone who dared challenge the established powers could expect to meet challenges from those very powers. They would likely be ignored, despised or even killed.
Jesus was journeying to such an end – and he knew it.
But not the threat of the temple community, and not even the threat of great harm from Herod Antipas (executioner of John the Baptist, you’ll recall), could distract him. His journey was sacred – ordained by God – and not to be thwarted, especially by human, fear-based behavior.
• Note Luke’s pattern here also: Jesus’ calling had not been foiled by Herod’s father at the time of Jesus’ birth, nor by the crowd in the Nazareth synagogue intent on throwing him off a cliff.
• These were only momentary obstacles…
Jesus’ harsh words for Herod the fox declare his complete confidence in God’s will and his firm belief that God will provide. It is a confidence that extends to all the world.
You see, prophets regularly arose as this development of “royal consciousness” progressed. They tried to remind kings and their minions of their duty within the context of the covenant. And while their prophetic speech fell affirmingly on the ears of the truly faithful, most who heard them forcefully opposed them. Prophetic ministry butts up uncomfortably – even disastrously – with the powers of the world.
Now this is not to discount the faithful. It also appears throughout the story of salvation that a faithful remnant remains. Even throughout the history of Jerusalem, the hope of a just and righteous community that lives according to the spirit of the law rather than end-running that spirit with technicalities – this hope was never far from the consciousness of many among Jerusalem’s faithful. We can see the language of this hope throughout Hebrew Scripture, as swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks – images that echo the original call to Adam – and to us – as stewards of creation.
But such a righteous community – and all the prophetic speech about it, speech that tugs at the hope within us, the hope that will not die – none of this could ever come to be as long as the faith of Israel remained tied exclusively to the primacy of the temple. Jeremiah knew this well. No. God would have to do a new thing.
Something like the development of this “royal consciousness” may well have been on Jesus’ mind as he set his face toward Jerusalem.
Considering the parables preceding this gospel moment, and the message it contains, we can say that repentance was very much on Jesus’ mind. He is as determined as the hope inside the hearts of the faithful. And it seems clear that he hopes, himself, to renew our commitment to the spirit of our ancestral traditions.
He does this in the face of Herod, who calls the people to a new world in which Rome’s values are central and opposed to the values in the gospels. He does so in relation to Jerusalem the city that kills its prophets – challenging its children to remember the divine origin of mission and message – his and theirs. It’s important to note his response to this city that is so conflicted and potentially dangerous to him. In the only moment where he is specifically referred to with feminine imagery – as a mother – he responds with an impulse to nurture and to care for. He did so in this gospel moment and he does so now. And that’s true of his nurturing presence in our outward journeys as well as our inward journeys.
Let’s consider what that means.
This sermon was delivered by The Rev. Edwin Chinery on February 21, 2016.