February 28, 2010
Commentary by Russell Pregeant
See also: [Year C Archive]
Genesis 5:1-12, 17-18
The Gospel of Luke, as is well known, lacks a notion of the atonement. Although it emphasizes Jesus’ death and resurrection, there is nothing in Luke that suggests the redemptive character of these events. Nor is it legitimate to argue that this motif is implicit. A comparison of Luke 19:10 with the parallel verses in Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28 shows that the author of Luke has replaced the description of Jesus’ mission as giving “his life as a ransom for many” with “to seek out and to save the lost.” And no matter how many times Jesus’ death and resurrection are proclaimed in Acts, the speakers never link them to salvation. It is also clear, however, that Luke no less than the other gospels views Jesus’ death as in some sense a necessity. So, the question arises as to why Jesus must die in Luke, if his death is not salvific; and the answer to this puzzle seems to lie in this Sunday’s gospel lesson. In response to a warning by the Pharisees of Herod’s intentions toward him, Jesus declares that “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside Jerusalem.” The theme of prophets and prophecy is prominent in Luke-Acts, and Jesus identifies himself as a prophet both here and in 4:24. Jesus must die, in Jerusalem, in order to play out the prophetic role God has assigned him.
The specification of Jerusalem, moreover, helps us to place Jesus’ prophetic role within the larger context of the entire Luke-Acts narrative. The gospel begins in Jerusalem, with the angel’s visitation to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist; and it ends in Jerusalem, as Jesus’ followers stay in the city, as he has commanded them, to await the coming of the Holy Spirit. In Acts, not only does the Spirit descend in Jerusalem, but in a replay of the ascension scene Jesus sends them out into the world on a mission that must begin in Jerusalem (Acts 1:8). If we add to this the broad motif of the fulfillment of prophecy from the Hebrew Bible through the ministry of Jesus, we can see that Jesus is the prophet whose life, death, and resurrection constitute the “middle of time” (Hans Conzelmann), between the era of the “law and the prophets” and that of the church. Prophecy provides the continuity that runs throughout the drama of God’s relationship with Israel and, through Israel, with the world. And Jerusalem is the focal point of the drama. As the heart of Israel, God’s chosen people, it must be the base from which the mission to the world proceeds. But its goal is, of course, “the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
Jesus demonstrates one aspect of his prophetic status in the first part of 13:35: “See, your house is left to you.” This is clearly a pronouncement of future judgment, although it is uncertain whether it refers to the coming destruction of the temple or simply a judgment upon the people. The second part of the verse is also prophetic: “And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” However, as Robert Tannehill argues, it is unlikely that this is a reference either to Jesus’ final coming in judgment or to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem in 19:38-39, as some commentators claim. Those about to suffer judgment would be unlikely to proclaim Jesus king, and in the triumphal entry it is not the people of Jerusalem but Jesus’ own disciples who make this declaration. “The function of 13:35,” Tannehill argues, “is not to anticipate what will happen in 19:37-38 [the triumphal entry] but to lament what will not happen.” (The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts, Vol. 1, 155). Jesus is aware, in other words, of his coming rejection. However, the final saying does in fact speak of a future date on which Jesus will be recognized. Thus Tannehill suggests that “Jesus holds open the possibility that at some future time Jerusalem might welcome its king and share in the messianic salvation.” (Tannehill, 144) And if this is so, then we must also grant that Luke’s scheme of salvation-history is not as deterministic as it might seem in some passages.
In any case, Jesus’ prophetic role in Luke is not limited to statements that foresee the future or pronounce judgment. As his inaugural sermon in 4:16-19 shows, he also takes on the prophetic role of advocacy for the poor and oppressed; and this theme is developed throughout the gospel through reference to both his words and his deeds. He associates with outcasts (e.g., 7:34, 36-50) and preaches a radical message of advocacy for the poor (e.g., 6:20-26).
One aspect of Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in vv. 34-35 might seem strange, since he has not yet visited Jerusalem: “How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings…” R. Alan Culpepper offers as an explanation the comment that “Jesus need not have been in Jerusalem himself in order to have desired to gather to him the children of Jerusalem.” (“The Gospel of Luke” in The New Interpeter’s Bible, Vol. IX, 282) This a valid point, but the first part of v. 34 suggests a different explanation: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.” The references to killing and stoning do not reflect Jesus’ own experiences with either Jerusalem or the people; they reach back into Israel’s long history that involves a pattern of rejecting God’s messengers. So, although Jesus speaks here as a human being, a prophet who represents God, he also speaks from God’s perspective. More specifically, he speaks from God’s perspective through the persona of divine Wisdom, through whom God has sought to engage humanity through the ages and whom Jesus quotes in 11:49-50: “Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute, so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed from the foundation of the world.’” Jesus’ lament 13:35-35 is thus the lament of the Wisdom of God, and Jesus’ human agony here is an expression of God’s own agony over human rebelliousness.
This theme, the agony and suffering of God, is one that process thought is particularly well-equipped to explicate. Traditional theism has tended to understand God as impassive, despite much biblical testimony to the contrary. But God’s relatedness to the world, and hence God’s vulnerability to pain and disappointment, are key aspects of the process perspective. To say that God is vulnerable—not just through the incarnation, but essentially so—is not to impugn God’s power or sovereignty but rather to deepen it. To be the supreme suffer, the one who shares in the sufferings of every creature, but also the one who redeems all suffering, is the mark not of insufficiency but of perfect sufficiency.
The reading from Genesis, which describes God’s covenant with Abraham, can be related to the gospel lesson by virtue of the fact that the notion of covenant is central to the whole salvation-history that pervades Luke’s narrative. Although God’s intention, from the moment of Abraham’s call (12:1-3), has been the redemption of the world at large, the choice to work through one couple (Abraham and Sarah) and the new ethnic entity they establish adds an indispensable note of particularity to the biblical message. There are, to be sure, biblical witnesses to non-covenantal revelation (e.g., John 1:1-3, Romans 1:20). But the weight of emphasis is upon a particular people, a specific messianic figure who appears among them, and the new community that emerges following his death and resurrection.
The epistle lesson may be linked to the Lukan text in a very different way. Paul’s exhortations reflect a strong sense of the alienation of the community of faith from the surrounding culture: “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.” (3:18) Paul himself suffered rejection, as did Jesus before him, and part of the imitative process he points to in v. 17 is the acceptance of the trials that seem to come as a consequence of following Jesus. Just as Jesus’ rejection is finally overcome in the resurrection, however, so Paul also promises that Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” (3:21)
Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).
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