Join together in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Saviour from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body. Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Holy One in this way, dear friends!
At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
Jesus replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of our God.’”
Will you pray with and for me? Holy One, speak to our hearts in words our minds can understand; give us the grace to hear the message you have for us today. In all your names, amen.
The first thing that jumps out from this gospel reading is that the Pharisees are warning Jesus about Herod--and yet in other places, the Pharisees are supporting Herod. What is this about? Were they hypocrites, or trying to cover all their bases, or whatever? Well, some of them may have been acting out of those political motives, but we need to also remember that the Pharisees were not a monolithic group. Some supported Jesus, some did not. Look at the variety of Christians, of Baptists, of Anglicans, of MCCs in the world today—the same was true then. Some Christian denominations are very misogynist, or homophobic, or racist--and others are not. Some are very involved with social justice issues, and others stay away from anything to do with political issues. It was like that then too. And this highlights something deeper, which is what I want to talk about today.
As we go deeper into Lent, we will be aware of many statements in our Bible readings that have been interpreted as anti-Semitic, and some truly are. Let me try to paint a picture for you of what the times were like when the gospels were recorded, which was probably in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, so they are not really eyewitness accounts. Think of events from three hundred years ago—the colonization of North America, for instance. We’re only now coming to the real truth of what happened, and most historians of today prize accuracy. That wasn’t the function of historians in the first few centuries of the Common Era. At that time, history was about recording the deeds of famous people—men, of course—and the details didn’t really matter much. If you’ve ever read any Greek or Roman historians, like Tacitus or Herodotus, or even better, Josephus, who was a Romanized Jew—that is, he was born Jewish, but took on Roman customs in order to curry favour with the Caesars--you will recognise this. Josephus wrote at about this time, his most famous work being titled The Jewish Wars, telling the story of the Roman conquest of the Jewish territory and leveling the Temple in Jerusalem. However, a lot of what he reports in terms of actions, speeches, casualty numbers, and so on are exaggerated or downright fabricated. What was important was that the story was told, and told impressively.
So those first recorders of the Gospel stories—who may or may not—probably not—have been the apostles who gave them their titles—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—these writers were not interested in accuracy so much as in making their point. For Josephus, the point was that the Romans were unconquerable; for the gospel writers, it was that Jesus was the child of God who had been killed unjustly, who rose again in spite of being executed and now rules beside God in heaven.
But they faced a problem. Jesus was Jewish; he had been executed by the Romans, who had conquered the Jewish people and destroyed their most sacred site. So the Romans were in power when these writers were recording their gospels. Remember that accuracy is not a requirement for them! So since the Romans could not be made the villains--because they were in power and fully capable and willing to destroy the infant Christian movement--the Jewish people were made to bear the blame instead. It is barely present in Mark, the earliest gospel, and has flowered into the monstrous 'blood libel,' as it is called, in John, who has the Jewish crowd at Jesus' trial take the blame for Jesus' death on themselves. There are several reasons why this whole idea of the Jewish people--or even the elites--forcing Rome to execute someone is nonsensical, but I won't go into them here.
We might say, "what does that really matter today? We know of the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust, and the terrible uses of those lies. We are do not support such garbage anymore."
That may be true for our sensitivity to anti-Semitism, in fact it certainly is, to the point where we sometimes ignore poor behaviour by the state of Israel to avoid being accused of anti-Semitism.
But do we recognise our own attempts to marginalise other groups? And by "we" I mean all of us. Humans can always find an "other" to exclude--someone living with mental illness, a physically disabled person, trans* persons, Muslims, black people, women, poor people, Asian people, atheists...
Jesus' response to the sight of Jerusalem is sorrow and pity. He wants to gather Jerusalem to himself and care for the city like a mother hen, and protect it from marauding foxes like Herod. Jesus' focus is not on punishing or excluding or denying. Even though Jerusalem has a record of killing prophets like him, he isn't fearful or vengeful--he is tender and caring.
The poet Edwin Markham wrote:
“He drew a circle that shut me out-
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle and took him in."
This is what Jesus is doing. He is not pulling away in anger, or turning and walking away. Like a wise parent with a child who is throwing a tantrum, Jesus reaches out and gathers the fearful, hurting, tired city of Jerusalem to his heart, wanting to offer comfort and healing. This is not something Jerusalem wants, though--always and always the city turns away, rejecting the prophets and Jesus.
Paul in his letter to the church at Phillipi, is encouraging the members there, who are experiencing that same rejection and hatred and marginalization. He offers them hope in the face of persecution and possibly even death, reminding them that they have higher hopes than this temporary world can offer.
As 21st century Christians, living in a prosperous country in which Christianity is widely accepted and practiced, with our freedoms of speech and religion protected, with a charter of rights and freedoms to guarantee us equitable treatment--this feels a bit over-dramatic and removed from our reality. But what if we looked at ourselves not as those early Christians but as Jerusalem?
Maybe it is time to examine our prejudices and fears. Who are we excluding--maybe without conscious intent, but nevertheless. We draw circles, don't we?
So here is your question for this week. Who do we exclude, and why? And who do we include, and why? When we are willing to ask those questions, to really engage with them and with the answers, we may be a step closer to that eternal church, to God's realm.
In all God's names, amen.