In the following commentary, we examine the lectionary text through three lenses: the ancient, Ἰησοῦς=Jesus, and modern.
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
Luke 13 begins with Jesus teaching on the nature of the kingdom of God and it concludes with our passage, in which Jesus has a conversation with a group of Pharisees warning Jesus about Herod Antipas’ (the Tetrarch)desire to kill him.
It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to connect the kingdom of God clashing with the kingdom of this world (Herod’s rule and desire to wipe Jesus out). Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, wrapping up his earthly ministry in Galilee and making this final descent (so to speak) into the spiritual and political capital of the Jewish people. He still has much to teach his disciples, but the trajectory of his earthly ministry has irrevocably shifted to its final destination, Jerusalem.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
Herod’s Desire to Kill Jesus: In the midst of this shift, a rather strange scene unfolds in our passage. A group of Pharisees approach Jesus with some news:
“Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.” (vs.31)
This is surprising not because Herod wants to take Jesus’ life, but because it’s the Pharisees who tell him. Herod (The Tetrarch) has already killed Jesus’ cousin John the Baptist for criticizing his divorce and remarriage.
Mixed Motives in the Pharisees?: Up to this point, the Pharisees as a whole (Nicodemus and a few others notwithstanding) have been constant critics of Jesus’ ministry, and it’s difficult to understand why they would offer this unsolicited help to someone they believed was an enemy of the true faith.
Luke does not comment on the motivations of the Pharisees and thus we have to do some inferring to come up with a reason for their supposed generosity. While there is some variety of positions as to these motivations, most scholars believe that at best, the Pharisees shared this information because it was somehow in their best interest.
At worst, they may have been part of a conspiracy with Herod against Jesus. As Leon Morris notes, “after his experience with John the Baptist [Herod] the tetrarch may not have wanted the murder of another prophet on his conscience; but he did want to be rid of Jesus.” (Tyndale Commentary, Luke)
So here we have a foreshadowing of the events to come, though, as Jesus makes clear in his response, no one, not even Herod will be able to get in the way of God’s will for Jesus’ life.
Jesus response shows that he is undaunted by this advice and offers a public criticism of Herod’s leadership:
“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.’ (vs.32)
In other words, no one is going to get in the way of God’s purposes, not even the Rome-backed ruler of Judah, Herod. Jesus then says he must press on, so that he might die in Jerusalem. This may seem an odd statement, but it, in combination with the next verse, demonstrates the tension that exists in Jesus’ eyes (and therefore God’s eyes) as it relates to Jerusalem.
Jesus (and God’s) Complex relationship with Jerusalem: Jerusalem is the spiritual city of God, Zion, the place where God’s very presence is housed (the temple). And yet it is also the place, as Jesus notes in verse 34, where “you kill the prophets and stone those sent to you.” It should be noted that this is not mere rhetoric, numerous prophets, faithful to God and not to the powers that be, were killed in Jerusalem, notably Zechariah and Uriah (see Luke 11:51 on the death of Zechariah and Jeremiah 23:6 on Uriah the prophet of the Lord)
Calling Herod a “fox” is another interesting part of the text. It isn’t difficult to see that Jesus has no love lost for the one who murdered his cousin for such arbitrary reasons. (you can see our guide on John the Baptist here)
A “fox” was, as R. Alan Culpepper notes in the New Interpreter’s Commentary Vol. VIII: Luke and John, “a metaphor that paints Herod as sly, cunning, and voraciously destructive.” And yet, no matter his cunning, Herod will not be the one to take Jesus’ life, that is already spoken for, in a matter of words.
Jesus’ response to this is not mere judgment, though that too takes place in verse 35 (an omen of what is to come as the temple is destroyed in 64 A.D.), but also a care and desire to nurture the people of the city of God. Jesus goes on:
How often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. (vs.34)
These words draw from a number of Old Testament passages, where Jesus “speaks in the first person for God, as is typical of a prophet, and explains how he has longed to care for and protect Jerusalem as a hen cares for her chicks (Deut. 32:11, Ruth 2:12, Ps.17:8, Isa.31.5).” (Darrell Bock, NIVAC Commentary: Luke), Darrell Bock continues, “Is there a more tender image than this? However, the chicks did not want to stay in the nest, an allusion perhaps to the nation’s lack of desire to be gathered again before him in the protective care of his salvation.” (NIVAC, Luke, p.382). So Jerusalem comes into view, as both the place of God’s presence but also the location Jesus will be put to death by the unjust powers of the day.
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
I want to focus this section on one particular application of this text, and I’d like to do so by telling a story from my own life that I think helps articulate a significant dynamic in this text:
When I first felt called to start The Pastor’s Workshop, there was a good variety of responses from friends and family. Some were excited and encouraging, some were skeptical but remained positive, and then there was the one interaction that I will never forget.
We happened to live in Colorado Springs, which of course was known for its wealth of Christian nonprofits. One of my biggest questions was, “how am I going to fund this project and make it financially sustainable?” Through a mutual friend I was able to secure an appointment with a well-known fundraiser who had helped countless missionaries raise support.
I had begun to share the story and the vision of TPW and after a few minutes realized from this person’s facial expressions that he was completely skeptical, if not hostile towards what I was saying. It took me by surprise, if I’m honest, but I decided the proper thing to do was to stop what I was talking about and face the skepticism head on.
I said something like, “Joe, I’m getting a sense that you are not really interested in what I’m talking about.” Joe’s response was even more intense than I was expecting, he said something to the effect of, “this just sounds like a business and 9 out of 10 businesses fail in their first 5 years. This seems like a waste of time.” It felt like I had been run over by an emotional bulldozer.
I tried to recover and share why that was not the case, though in the back of my mind all I wanted to do was get the heck out of that restaurant. I happened to be going back to my church after that appointment for a virtual conference and I ran into one of the pastors of my church (sometimes even pastors need pastors!)
He asked how I was doing and I didn’t have the ability to fake it, so I just shared the experience I had just had with him. I’ll never forget what he said, “If this vision is God’s will, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If you believe this is what God has called you to, ignore the critics.” It didn’t take the sting out completely, but it did help considerably, and it’s something I’ve come back to time and again when times have been tough at The Pastor’s Workshop.
It seems to me this is a very similar message that that Jesus shares with the Pharisees when they try to warn him of Herod’s desire to have him killed. Jesus’ will will be done, no matter what. Nothing will be able to deter it.
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down… all values are transformed… God refuses to play games of power and prestige on human terms.
Richard B. Hays
And in His will is our peace.
Dante, Paradiso, Canto III, line 85.
A Reminder of the Paradox of Christian Power and Authority
When you go into one of the great basilicas of the late Roman empire and you see a mosaic of Christ enthroned at the far end, you’re looking at the place where the emperor would sit. And the emperor would be sitting there either dressed in his armour or in cloth of gold with a diadem around his head.
So you’re looking to the throne, but who’s on it? This rather curious and disreputable wandering teacher. So you have a bit of a paradox in visual form there. The person who holds the emperor’s authority in cosmic terms isn’t just another soldier or administrator in uniform, but a philosopher, a sage.
So something’s being said there that is on the edge of paradox. It’s been suggested, quite credibly, that some of that tradition of representing Jesus borrows from the ways in which late Classical art used to depict Plato the philosopher or Homer the poet. So it’s a poet, a philosopher, it’s a wordsmith who’s sitting on the throne.
Article: “Rowan Williams & Neil MacGregor Discuss Faith and Visual Imagination,” The Telegraph, 2013.