Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets...
[If it hasn't been read, read Luke 13.31-35]
There are two alternative lectionary readings for this Sunday – one is the gospel passage that we've [just] heard, the other is the passage known as the Transfiguration. I'll just remind you of what happens in the Transfiguration narrative as I think that both texts work together. Jesus and Peter, John and James went up a mountain to pray, and there, Jesus is transformed in front of their eyes into a radiant being, and two men appear alongside him who the disciples understand to be Moses and Elijah. The three transcendent beings talk together about Jesus' upcoming death which he is to accomplish in Jerusalem. God affirms the Sonship of Jesus in a voice from the cloud, naming him as the Chosen One, and then Jesus is left alone. After a brief blurt about making tents for the visitors, all the disciples keep silence after this encounter. Something has happened that has broken their categories and taken them beyond words.
Jesus then sets off for Jerusalem. The text in chapter 9 tells us that he 'resolutely turned his face towards Jerusalem and sent messengers ahead of him.' And there's an interesting detail where a Samaritan village won't receive Jesus on his way 'because he was making for Jerusalem.' For the Samaritans, the city of Jerusalem represents everything that rejects them and invalidates their religious and cultural practice. The City of Jerusalem is the place where Judaism is practised most rigidly. It is the place of the temple, the temple authorities, the law teachers and the most fervent groups like the Sadducees. While I imagine in the rural areas there was some interplay – however mistrustful – between Samaritans and Jews, Jerusalem is anathema to this kind of interaction – it is the bedrock of religious purity.
I want to pause and consider the symbolism of the Transfiguration, before coming to our text for the day. Jesus is preparing himself to go on a journey that leads not finally to his death, but through his death to his full, risen and realised divinity as the Christ. The glimpse the disciples had of him conversing with Elijah and Moses is a glimpse of his deification, his glory. But the story is very clear that the pathway to this resurrected beatific state is through his own imminent and violent death.
The appearance of Elijah and Moses is significant because of the aspects of historical Jewish religion that they represent – two poles of Israel's self-understanding. Moses is the law-giver, the one who brought the stone tablets down from the mountain, who sets out the instructions for the tabernacle and its sacrifices, the one who establishes the tradition and the structures of religion. He represents the same things as the Jerusalem temple had come to represent for the Samaritans – the cluster of rules and teachings that define what one must be and do in order to be correct, to be righteous, to be in favour with God by way of the tradition.
Elijah represents the prophets, those who were aflame with accusations that Israel's attempts at law-keeping blinded them to justice, to the needs of the poor and the oppressed, and to faithfulness of heart. The prophets were risky, because they called for ongoing conversion and transformation of heart and the practice of justice even when this seemed to contradict the law and the tradition. The prophets were always a threat to the ruling power, because not only did the rulers benefit from the stability that the tradition and the law maintained, but the prophets actively challenged the way they used their power to keep people fearful or oppressed.
In our story from today, Jesus' lament over Jerusalem, it's clear that he is identifying himself with the prophets, in that he sees his death as being in line with the deaths of previous prophets in that city. But he's doing more than that. In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus unites the poles of Moses and Elijah within himself as the Chosen One. Neither Moses or Elijah is the Chosen One, Jesus is. He is the fulfilment of the law, and the fulfilment of prophecy. He is the one who contains in his vastness the poles that are necessary to all human community.
Communities that are all prophecy and no law often have no rhythm, no container for the messy business of human conflict and change, of human growth and transformation. Structure and tradition offer safe harbour for souls in chaos, and an anchor for the growth of young people or those new in faith whose needs are more concrete and black and white than those who are older. Times of transition and flux are necessary, but service of others and the ability to reach beyond the group in compassion to those outside it often require a 'rule' of some kind, some shared defined values and practice that set out the character of the community and its intention. A strong and clear place from which to springboard into risk and change.
On the other hand, communities that are all law and no prophecy become stale, resistant to change, and unable to respond to the wind of the Spirit calling them to new tasks and new places. Where there is a shared 'rule' of whatever kind, this can be used for controlling, for unhealthy power plays, for creating hierarchies of worthiness. Right behaviour and morality become more important than having soft, responsive hearts and a dream and vision for a just world. Too much Moses leads to defensiveness, and institutional stasis.
A community that is in Christ, that is being transfigured into the Body of Christ, is called to hold these tensions, and to find the place of unity between these poles, while often in reality moving between them in different times and seasons. Jesus in his identity as the Risen One invites us to embrace this tension, these polarities of Moses and Elijah. We embrace them within ourselves – our impulses to conserve and contract, our impulses to break free and reject. We embrace them in others – those who share our community and in their words and behaviours represent similar and opposite tendencies from ourselves.
Which brings us to today's text. Jesus is warned to go away from Jerusalem because Herod wants to kill him. He affirms though that his road takes him directly to Jerusalem in full knowing that this will be his end and the accomplishment of his work. And then he segues into a lament, placing himself at the end of a long line of prophets whom the powerful people who control the religious life of the people have failed to heed. Prophets who were killed, as he expects to be killed.
Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you that kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings and you refused!
This is now Jesus speaking from God, his Father, the God of Abraham and the God of the people of Israel. And this speaking is a lament because God longs for God's people to be held in love, but they have not been willing to hear the message that invites their homecoming. They haven't heard the wooing of God through the voice of the prophets, they have only heard threat to their tradition and their systems and categories. The prophets spoke words of inclusion and invitation, of the great banquet to which all the nations would be invited, and the temple teachers could hear only a rejection of their careful legal systems and their taxonomies of rights and wrongs. The prophets invited a risky journey of being led by the inward experience of the Spirit of God, and the descendants of Moses heard a dangerous departure from the holy texts and their traditional interpretations. And so they have held on to their sacrifices and their exclusion, their laws and their heavy burdening of the poor. And in doing so they have forgotten God, and lost the ability to shelter and abide in God. The lifeblood of being in connection has drained away. They didn't want to be embraced if that meant being embraced under the same wing as those they had learned to despise.
Which of course raises questions for us:
- how clearly do we hear the voice of God, the mother hen, yearning to gather us in?
- What is it in us, what need to protect against change, that distorts or silences that voice of welcoming embrace?
- What aspects of our religion or morality or personal conviction are actually draining our life, rather than connecting us to the real nourishment that is Christ, the vine?
- Where do we find ourselves on this spectrum from Moses to Elijah, and what ideas or practices represent those poles for us? Can we find a way to embrace and be embraced in a unity that holds this difference?
Let's take some silence to dwell with these questions or any other nudge or image or feeling that this text has brought up for you...