Writings from the ministry team
for your refreshment
Luke 13:31-35 21 Feb 2016
Jesus, the Fox and Jerusalem
Some of the gospel stories about the earthly life of Jesus are easy to understand, so we can follow what’s happening, who the characters are and what they represent. But today’s short Gospel narrative raises all sorts of questions. Questions like, “I thought the Pharisees were the baddies – the guys in the black hats – so why these Pharisees warning Jesus to get out of town, before Herod has him arrested and killed?”
And that begs another question - “Why does Herod want to kill Jesus?” And, perhaps, “Isn’t Herod dead by now?” Then, “When is this all happening – Jesus mentions Jerusalem but is that where he is now, or is that where he’s going?”
As usual with much of what Jesus is reported as saying there’s plenty of the enigmatic. So let me unpick this short passage for you. First let’s find out where and when we are in the 3-year ministry of Jesus.
By comparing the gospels and applying information from contemporary historical sources, theologians and biblical scholars have been able to come up with a varied timeline of Jesus’ ministry. I think that this part of Luke’s gospel tells us of when Jesus and his band of brothers were travelling from Galilee in the north to the south, through the territory of Perea, on that long, final journey to Jerusalem.
So where does Herod come into the picture? Well, the Herod that Luke mentions here is Herod Antipas. He was the third of four sons of Herod the Great; the Herod we first hear of in the Christmas story. After his death, about 4 or 5 years after the birth of Jesus, Palestine was divided up into four regions. Governance of them was given to Herod the Great’s sister and 3 of his sons. By the time that Jesus left home, Herod Antipas had been ruling Galilee and Perea for about 25 years. It was Herod Antipas who’d succumbed to the charms of his niece, Salome, and had ordered the execution of John the Baptist.
And that had happened only a few months before the time of today’s story. So the Herod Antipas had form.
So let’s now turn our attention to the guys in the black hats, the Pharisees. It’s difficult to evaluate their motives in this story. It’s also difficult to evaluate whether or not their warning is either sincere or representative of a real threat.
As in all the Gospels, the Pharisees in Luke are usually antagonistic to Jesus, and Jesus is usually antagonistic to them. However, there are hints elsewhere in Luke, of a more positive reception by some Pharisees, in that they invite Jesus into their homes (although the scenes do not play out well for them), and in the Book of Acts we read that some Pharisees had actually become Christians. So we can’t dismiss the Pharisees’ motives as negative. So maybe the Pharisees that warned him were those who were starting to believe in him.
On the other hand, perhaps the word had got round the Pharisaic grapevine that the government’s case against Jesus was building nicely. So they didn’t want the impulsive Herod Antipas arresting and executing Jesus before their religious and political masters in Jerusalem had had the chance to put Jesus on trial and give him a very public execution; so hopefully stopping this new strange, heretical and dangerous sect in its tracks. So, if this was the case, the warning was designed to prevent this happening and persuade Jesus to head towards Jerusalem.
Either way, the Pharisees’ report seems problematic. Earlier on Luke suggests that Herod’s interest in Jesus was not in killing him, and when given the chance to condemn Jesus on Good Friday, Herod Antipas refuses to do so. So we can’t be sure of Herod’s motives in this passage.
Whatever their motivation, Jesus tells the Pharisees to go back to Herod, who was someone they didn’t much care for anyway, and tell him where to get off.
Jesus calls Antipas a fox; this was genuine Jewish insult. Foxes were vermin that were good for nothing; anyone who keeps chickens knows that! In any case Jesus is now becoming more convinced that he should go, at the next Passover, to Jerusalem to seal his fate. He even hints at that fate by saying that after he’s carried on his daily ministry he will go to Jerusalem, but only when he’s ready.
Whatever the purposes of the Pharisees and Herod, Jesus uses the threat to make clear the nature of his upcoming death as a part of his mission. Jesus is going to die, but it will have nothing to do with the threat from Herod. Rather, his death is the completion of his present ministry. He characterizes this ministry as “driving out demons and healing people”. Both activities are by themselves important: driving out demons is part of Jesus’ battle against the devil, and healing people is a fundamental part of Jesus’ mission. Both are about the establishment of God’s kingdom in the world. To reinforce that Herod Antipas has no control over him, Jesus adds that he will be doing these things “today and tomorrow.”
When Jesus says “today and tomorrow” he means every day. His mention of “the third day” probably sounds like a reference to his resurrection. Perhaps it is meant to be included, but the following verse makes it clear that Jesus primarily has his death in mind: he says, ‘In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day – for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!’
The important point to note is that Jesus’ death is in continuity with the rest of his ministry: “today,” “tomorrow,” and “the third day”, go together. Jesus’ death isn’t separate from his ministry while he was alive: everything is about establishing the kingdom of God. Holding together Jesus’ life and death helps us to make better sense of both.
He aligns himself firmly with those many Hebrew prophets who were killed in the past. And that thought triggers enormous sorrow that comes from deep within his divine soul; he shares God’s anguish at the way his chosen people have constantly rejected him.
In an echo of his reference to Herod as a fox, he uses the image of a mother hen guarding her chicks from a hostile world. And he closes his comments with a look forward to the next time he will enter the gates of the capital, riding on a donkey with the people calling out a greeting that goes all the way back to King David, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
So that’s the story unravelled. What can we draw from it? Well, that Jesus was undeterred by the rejection that he was so often received with. He persevered against all the forces against him in his God-given mission to let the world know that God loves all of his creation, but he loves us humans most of all. All we have to do is accept that love, through what we call God’s grace, even when we might feel we don’t deserve it. Jesus went to Jerusalem and certain death for us – it wasn’t for anyone else.
Paul understood that and that’s why he wrote, in the friendliest of his letters, to his Christian brothers and sisters in Philippi the following words:
"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 Lord in this way, dear friends!"
Amen to that!