Rewriting the Angels’ Song, The Politics of Luke 19:28-40

Lectionary

At Jesus’ birth the angels herald his arrival with an acclamation to shepherds in the fields:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”  (Luke 2:14)

As the time of his death draws near, Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem is heralded with a similar acclamation, this time, sung by the multitude of Jesus’ disciples to the people they encounter along the road:

“Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!” (Luke 19:38b)

 

In one sense, this is a continuation of the themes of peace and glory in the establishment of Jesus’ messianic kingship that has permeated the Lukan narrative from the start.  However, in another sense, the change from earth to heaven represents a marked shift in the politics with which Luke depicts Jesus’ reign.  No longer is Jesus’ reign (if it ever was) understood to bring peace on earth.  Instead, as confirmed by Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem in Luke 19:41-42, it is understood that Jerusalem (as representative of the whole country) is, in its present reality, incapable of living into the real peace of the messianic kingdom.  The human divisions are too great.

 

As early as the twelfth chapter of Luke, Jesus himself confirms this shift, pointing to the great responsibility of those with whom God has entrusted much and challenging his disciples,

“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?  No, I tell you, but rather division!” (12:51)

Such division can be seen in the protestation of the Pharisees as Jesus’ disciples sing their acclamation.  Indeed, it should come as no surprise, since the deeds of power on account of which the disciples are praising God at this moment have been the very sites of conflict between Jesus and the religious establishment in the past.

 

Such division, however, does not properly come from Jesus himself, but rather, is engrained in the fabric of his society by the Roman colonial powers.  In order to maintain control over such a vast domain the Roman Empire engaged in a system of divide and conquer—pitting local groups against one another.  In the case of the first century Jewish population of Palestine, this was achieved through a systematic undermining of the religious leadership.

 

Richard Swanson explains,

“To dominate a subject people, you must create an organ of liaison, some official link between the colonial power and the local population.  To be effective, this organ of liaison must be close to the heart of the subject people.  That does two things: it guarantees that the orders communicated through this organ of liaison will be heard and listened to by the subject people, and it undermines the subject people at its very heart.”[1]

 

Consequently, when Jesus enters Jerusalem with a crowd of his most loyal followers (disciples) acclaiming him as “King”, those in positions of religious leadership, acutely aware of the privilege under which they served the Roman Empire, were forced into a position of defense.

 

If only Jesus had toned down the political tone of his message.  If he had walked with his disciples into Jerusalem, quietly chatting about God’s glory and majesty, Jesus’ presence would have posed little threat.   However, when Jesus enters riding atop a donkey “saddled” with a layer of cloaks, to the tune of his disciples’ praises and acclamations, something has to be said.  Can Jesus ask his disciples to stop?  How many times in your congregation has a similar concern come your way – “Pastor, that message puts people a little bit too much on edge…  I like your message, but, could you make it a little less challenging?  A little less divisive?”

 

Jesus’ answer to such questions is a resounding “NO!”  If the disciples were to stop, the stones themselves would cry out.  Jesus’ message is a message of peace for the favored ones, who in Luke’s narrative, are quickly identified as the downtrodden and outcast.  It is a message of division for those who resist it, and glory for the God in heaven who promises to secure it.  Jesus’ kingdom is not a kingdom on earth, tethered to the same political games and maneuvers of Rome and its supporters, but rather, a Kingdom sanctioned by God in heaven that brings to earth, with deeds of power, a different way of living.  And this kingdom, this message, cannot and will not be quieted for the sake of peace or good order.

 

As we hear these powerful cries from the disciples this Sunday, as we enter into Holy Week and the height of the church year, their song seems to reverberate against the placid angels’ carols of the Christmas season.  Jesus’ disciples in today’s gospel are not just rewriting the angels’ song, they are challenging us sing our own songs of God’s glory and reign.

 

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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.


[1] Richard Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Luke (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2006) 134-135.

[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 david.true@wilson.edu.]

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