The Politics of the Dangerous City—Luke 13:31-35 (Mark Davis)

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his trial, suffering, death, and resurrection, bring into full circle his journey to Jerusalem that was not shaped by Herod’s murderous threat but by his redemptive obedience to God’s will.

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32 He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox for me, “Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34 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! 35 See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” ’

I have written elsewhere how these five verses from Luke’s gospel seem to be stitching together previously independent sayings. What threads them together effectively is the theme of ‘place.’ (Another promising approach to this text might be the politics of time—but that is for another day.) From the Pharisee’s initial “Get away from here” to Jesus’ abrupt change of topic from Herod’s murderous intentions to Jerusalem’s murderous propensity, from the safety of tucking under the hen’s wings to the house bound for destruction, this text bounces around from here to there and back again. These spatial references invite us to see this text as a reflection on the exercise of power in both its best and worst respects.

Luke previously stated that Jesus was visiting town after town, making his way toward Jerusalem. The “here” of the Pharisees’ warning “Get away from here” seems to indicate that Jesus is now entering the proximity of Herod’s reach, where Herod’s murderous intent becomes an actual threat. Whether these Pharisees are motivated by a genuine concern for Jesus—which would require us to hold our stereotypes of the Pharisees in check—or whether they are re-living Amaziah’s ill-intended attempt to push Amos away from Jerusalem, is a matter of interpretation. What is clear is that there is a space where one can be on Herod’s enemy list but out of his crosshairs. And there is the space of Jerusalem, where Herod’s hatred and his ability to kill are one.

While Jesus embraces Jerusalem as the place of his forthcoming death, he does not accept Herod’s threat as a reason to avoid the city. Already the presumptions of power in imperial politics are overthrown. Rome thrived, not just by its military conquests, but particularly by the fear of death that it could exploit among its vassal states. One very effective means of asserting the power of fear was Rome’s dedication to public relations through monuments, well attested in Jonathan Reed and John Dominic Crossan’s In Search of Paul: How Jesus’ Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. Such monuments were visual reminders of Rome’s politics of fear to the conquered peoples. If nothing else, the Pharisees’ warning to Jesus fits Rome’s fearful narrative perfectly. Jesus’ terse response, calling Herod a ‘fox,’ shows that his journey to Jerusalem was fueled by a different narrative, the story of Jerusalem’s ambiguous relationship with God’s prophets, from Rome’s narrative of fear. Jesus’ journey is not about his encounter with or fear of Herod, but of his ongoing ministry of liberation from demons and disease that demonstrate the presence of a different empire, the Empire of God.[1]

Jesus’ words about Jerusalem are more than just an accusation of Jerusalem as the location of rejecting prophets. He longs to gather Jerusalem’s inhabitants, as a hen offers herself as a shield when gathering her brood under her wings. Jerusalem’s resistance to being gathered, however, is the mark of her destruction—perhaps a foreshadowing from Luke’s gospel of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The final reference of space in this pericope is Jesus’ words that Jerusalem would not see him again until they say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” This event takes place in Luke 19:37-38: “As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, saying, ‘Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord! Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest heaven!’” Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, his trial, suffering, death, and resurrection, bring into full circle his journey to Jerusalem that was not shaped by Herod’s murderous threat but by his redemptive obedience to God’s will.


[1] The term, τὴν βασιλείαν τοῦ θεοῦ, usually translated “the kingdom of God” uses the same term, βασιλείαν, that was used to describe the Empire of Rome.

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