[This post is part of our series on the politics of scripture, which focuses on weekly preaching texts. We also welcome commentary on sacred, classic, and profane literature, film, and artistic expression. Submissions may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.]
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (13:34)
Jesus’ is a powerful lament. For those seeking a feminine presence of God in the Scriptures, he conjures a beautiful image of God as the mother hen, holding her children safely beneath the folds of her wings. When I hear this passage, the image that most readily comes to mind is Greg Olson’s painting of a placid Jesus sitting atop a hill, looking over the city of Jerusalem in lament.
Yet, our Mother God is not placid – when her children run astray, she stays the course–not simply in spite of them, but for their sake. Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem is not spoken in solitude. It is not a wistful prayer of a regretful parent. It is shouted into the face of those who would seek to persecute and condemn him—those who would prevent God’s action on behalf of her children. In Luke’s account that we read for today, the lament is Jesus’ response to those who report the Pharisees’ intent to kill him and is directly connected with Jesus’ own mission and impending death. In Matthew’s account, it is the decisive conclusion to the eight woes that Jesus pronounces upon the “scribes, Pharisees, and hypocrites” and is prefaced with a longer account of prophets rejected in Jerusalem’s past (Matthew 23:34-35).
And so it is to Jerusalem that Jesus must go. Why Jerusalem? How would the scene have played out differently if the Pharisees, in their plotting, had simply arranged to have Jesus murdered on the road – on his way to the city? What if Jesus had never come to Jerusalem? To the temple? What if he died and even was resurrected while preaching the good news of God’s Kingdom in Galilee? What’s so special about Jerusalem?
I’d suggest that in this saying and the narrative attached to it, in which Jesus sets his face upon and meets his ultimate end and resurrection in the vicinity of Jerusalem, is imbued with a politics of place. Jesus’ death and resurrection could have happened anywhere. But it didn’t. It had to happen somewhere, and that somewhere was somewhere very intentional and very specific.
Jesus, according to Luke’s gospel, was born in Bethlehem, but when he was only an infant his parents brought him to the temple in Jerusalem (2:22). Each year following that, Jesus’ parents (and presumably, the young Jesus) went up to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast (2:41). After Jesus’ baptism, the devil leads him to the pinnacle of the temple in Jerusalem to test him (4:9). When crowds gather around Jesus, Luke is sure to note that they have come from all the surrounding area “and Jerusalem” (5:17, 6:17). And, finally, Jesus sets his face upon journeying to Jerusalem (9:51).
So what is so special about Jerusalem? Jerusalem did, indeed, have a notorious past in relation to God’s prophets (see Jeremiah 26:20-23). But Jerusalem was also the center of the religious life of God’s people. It was the location of the temple – the one place here on earth where God promised to reside. The place where many devout believers trusted Elijah would return in his time. It was also, a result, the home to the religious leaders of God’s people – the very people whom Jesus so acutely criticizes in Matthew’s account.
And so, why Jerusalem? Why march on a nation’s capital when bearing a political burden? Jesus is a mother hen, seeking to gather together her children and bring them under her protection and salvation once again. He carries a great religious burden. And so he laments. He laments, and he travels – to Jerusalem … the city that stoned the prophets, the city that houses the temple, and the city in which those people who have wrested control of God’s people – control of the religion of Israel – away from their mother God. Jesus marches on Jerusalem in order to address the corruption and to meet his opponents at home, not to make for great drama or to meet a most certain end, but because to do otherwise would not have gotten to the heart of the problem. To gather the children, the mother hen must go to where her children are.
The Rev. Amy Allen is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a fellow in theology and practice at Vanderbilt University in the area of New Testament and early Christianity. She and her family reside in Franklin, Tennessee where they attend the Lutheran Church of St. Andrew.