3/17/2019: Stoning the Prophets, Psalm 27, Luke 13:31 - 35
Stoning the Prophets
First Lesson: Psalm 27
Second Lesson: Luke 13:31-35
We noted a few weeks back that while we tend to associate Jesus in the Gospel of Luke with tender images of shepherds and mangers scenes and lost sheep—practically a Precious Moments catalogue—there’s an edge to Jesus in Luke. Some of the time this edge comes out when Jesus seems to be struggling with the reality of where his life is taking him, his coming suffering and death. It weighs on him and why wouldn’t it? But most of the time this edge is a prophetic edge, a righteous anger that Jesus wields on behalf of the poor or oppressed. But here in the 13th chapter of Luke, these two things come together.
We’re just past the halfway point in the gospel, with Jesus having taken his turn toward Jerusalem and all that waits for him there. The Pharisees—his nemesis in Luke and the other gospels—surprisingly appear here as his allies, warning him that the powers that be are onto him. Get away from here, they tell him, for Herod wants to kill you, to which Jesus responds with prophetic flare, “Go tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I’m casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work and I’ll be on my way to Jerusalem.’”
“Go tell that fox,” he tells them. I would love to see the Precious Moments version of this scene. Wide-eyed, cuddly-faced Jesus, holding a lamb in one arm, and waving the other arm around toward Rome. That’s a Precious Moment figure I could get behind. And then, in an abrupt sort of way, these words of warning to his enemies turn to a cry of lament for his people: Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often I’ve desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.
There may well be a Precious Moments figure for this part of the story, of Jesus weeping over the city and all the people and history it represents, righteous anger bleeding into parental love, which in the Bible is always how it is with God and us. God’s anger and frustration is most often described as that of a parent at her wit’s end. And once again in Luke, Jesus ties his own life and mission to those who came before, once again invoking that most irksome class of biblical characters, the prophets.
There may be no group of people in the Bible more misunderstood by the church than the prophets—especially we in the church who in most parts of our lives are standard-bearers for the status quo. Reasonably well-educated, reasonably well-off, reasonably well-behaved, reasonably benefitting from the systems that govern our lives and our economy and our politics and probably more things than we care to imagine. If that reasonably describes you, and it certainly reasonably describes me, it’s likely that your exposure to the Old Testament prophets begins and ends with the prophet Isaiah, specifically the handful of passages that Christians have interpreted to foretell the coming of Jesus, with a little Micah 6:8 sprinkled in for good measure. So we come to believe the work of prophets in the Bible is to predict the future. But the real work of the prophets was not to predict the future, but instead to read and interpret the present.
They didn’t look into a crystal ball and see what’s coming, as much as they looked around and saw with gospel clarity the way things were. They saw what most of us don’t want to see. They saw injustice and oppression, poverty and war, violence and death, cynicism and fear. They saw all of these things and held them up to the traditions handed down in the scriptures of the world God imagines and wants for us, and they saw the disparity in these things and said, This is not what God wants. And not only that, but it doesn’t have to be the way. In many ways the prophets art keepers of Israel’s holy imagination—that spark of an image that connects us to the kind of world God dreams for us. And using language that was rich and poetic and beautiful even when it was damning and hard, they imagined this different world, a just world, a peaceful, abundant world, a world of God’s own dreaming that would become a reality…if people would change.
Which brings us to the next thing about prophets that Jesus knew and points to here in Luke but we in the church don’t appreciate enough, which is that prophets were generally not well-liked. They were not popular people, because it turns out that no one likes being told they need to change. In fact, this how we know the main focus of the prophets wasn’t the future but the present. Predicting the future is not going to get anyone in trouble because nothing is at stake. If you’re right you’ll be celebrated. If you’re wrong you’ll be forgotten or laughed off, or if people’s memories are bad enough, which they usually are, they’ll forget your prediction altogether and you’ll be free to make more wrong predictions in perpetuity.
But telling the truth about the present—this is risky. Because now you’re drawing into question the way things are. And most people are very invested in the way things are. Telling the truth about the present brings us out of the realm of speculation and into the world of livelihoods and retirement portfolios. Of mortgages and career trajectories. It has to do with the decisions we make, our life choices, what we do with our money, who our associations will be, where we send our children to school, or if we send them anywhere at all—which as a parent to a soon-to-be kindergartener, is an incredibly fraught decision. It has to do with where we choose to live—Bob Lupton, the Christian missions and community development guru in Atlanta says that the single most theological decision most of us will make in life is where we will choose to live. Our neighborhood shapes so much of what and who we see and don’t see—it literally shapes our world.
And when we make decisions as a people about how we’ll organize ourselves, we call it policy. Which then leads us to the machinations of how these policies are made, which is what we call politics. Which in today’s world gets us pretty quickly in the realm of identity: who we understand ourselves to be. I’m told that it didn’t used to be this way, that there was a time when your political affiliation—be it party or ideology—wasn’t the primary way people identified themselves or, maybe even worse, others. But this is how it is in the world today.
Telling the truth about the present—lifting up the way things are, forcing people to see all the parts of the world and ourselves that we’d rather not look at or simply accept as given or inevitable, this kind of work does not win you many friends. In fact, if you’re good enough at it, it may even get you killed.
Jesus knows his history. He knows what happens to the prophets who bring visions of the world as it could be, and how the world as it is strikes back with a vengeance. And I suspect he knows that the same will soon happen to him. The life of a prophet is lonely. It’s marked by failure and frustration and anxiety and self-doubt. Most of all, I think the life of a prophet must be marked by an almost unbearable amount of heartbreak. To watch as the people you love choose something lesser than what is possible. To watch the world turn itself over with bloodshed, and then see how the news cycles invariably move on to the next story, the next scandal, the next outrage, the next tweet, while you yourself are there drowning in sorrow, screaming—it feels like—into the void, trying to keep the foxes at bay, and gather your brood under your wings, only to watch as they scatter.
Have you considered that out of all the images available to him from the scriptures and his own poetic sense to describe his love for the people he came to save, Jesus chooses a chicken? Not an eagle, swooping down to hover over her young, and even bearing them on her wings up and out of the fray. It’s much humbler than that. More down to earth, you might say. Maybe more incarnated. It’s as if to say that he won’t being flying high above our pain and distress, but will be down there in the middle of it with us, scratching and clawing to bring us home, come what may. Perhaps already sensing what was coming.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes beautifully about this scene: “Jesus won’t be king of the jungle in this or any other story. What he will be is a mother hen, who stands between the chicks and those who mean to do them harm. She has no fangs, no claws, no rippling muscles. All she has is her willingness to shield her babies with her own body. If the fox wants them, he will have to kill her first. Which he does, as it turns out. He slides up on her one night in the yard while all the babies are asleep. When her cry wakens them, they scatter. She dies the next day where both foxes and chickens can see her—wings spread, breast exposed—without a single chick beneath her feathers. It breaks her heart, but it does not change a thing. If you mean what you say, then this is how you stand.”
Prophets don’t predict the future as much as they tell the truth about the present—lifting up the way things are to the way things should be, and in God’s great dream, will be. This is lonely work and dangerous work, but—perhaps most importantly—it’s work that can only spring from a deep love for the world, for creation and all the people within in it.
Jesus understood his mission and ministry as a continuation of those prophets, those bearers of God’s imagination who came before, even as he offered a vision of this alternative world of God’s dreaming with new depth, new intensity. And so the prophetic task must be a part of how we in the church understand our mission and our ministry. To do our best to read the present—to hold our world up to gospel light. To not assume that “the way things are” are the way things must be. To hold fast to the vision of a different way we see in the pages of scripture and the life of Jesus, knowing that to do so will cost us. But perhaps most challenging of all in these days, we’re called to continue to love the world and all the people within it deeply. To continue to feel the world deeply—both its beauty and its pain. And this is getting more and more challenging. I was emailing this weekend with a church member after the shootings at the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand they confessed the fatalism they feel when news breaks of these mass shootings. The numbness, the acceptance, that this is just the world we live in now. I feel that way too. But I’m convinced this is the absolute worst thing we can do, to stop feeling. To stop being affected.
And so I wonder if right now this is what we in the church—we the followers of Jesus, the crucified mother hen— can do, what the world may need most from us right now: to be the ones who won’t let their hearts stop breaking. To be the ones who won’t stop feeling the world deeply. Who won’t give in to the wave of cynicism and fear and “othering” that seems so assumed right now. Yes, to continue to call out things like islamophobia and anti-Semitism and this troubling increase in right-wing, young, male, white nationalist extremism—at home and abroad—and all the more subtle ways the racial status quo is maintained. We need to confront these things in ourselves and in our culture. But perhaps before we can do that, or at least as we do them, we need to recommit ourselves to the work of letting our heart break. Which in the end is the real work of the prophets. It was the real work of Jesus.
This past week Audrey was putting Billy and Sidney to bed and they were having their nightly stream of consciousness conversation, when Sidney, who just turned 4, said, Mamma, I want to tell you about God. He said, God made everything, and then God gave it to us. And we broke it. But God promised he would fix it. And he gave Abraham alllll the children’s to help fix it.
Alllll the childrens, he said.
I’m not sure he understood just who would be included in that “all” of Abraham’s children.
But he does know what the word “all” means,” and that will take you a pretty long way.
 “As a Hen Gathers Her Brood,” Barbara Brown Taylor, first appearing in The Christian Century, February 25, 1986, p. 201. Accessed March 16, 2019. http://www.religion-online.org/article/as-a-hen-gathers-her-brood/