Summary: It doesn’t take much to twist genuine faith into something sick and destructive. There is a fine line between an unshakeable faith in a God who will never let His holy city.
I’ve been to Jerusalem. It was nearly three years ago now, and my memory has faded somewhat, but I’ve got some slides I can show you!
No, don’t panic! I haven’t got them with me! In fact, I didn’t take any slides while I was there. I took some video, but I don’t have that with me either. At any rate, it was primarily video of prisons and riots and other life-threatening scenes associated with the release of my buddy, Morde Vanunu, which is why I was there. It wasn’t much of a holiday.
‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! What an enchanting city!’ Many people feel that. I’m not one of them. There are many cities around the world that I have had the privilege of visiting, and to which I would love to return one day. Jerusalem is not one of them.
On the contrary, my experience of Jerusalem was summed up by one aid worker who said to me, ‘you know that bit in the book of Ezekiel where it says how the Spirit of God up and left the city? It’s a lot like that here, isn’t it?’
So many people nonetheless do feel drawn to the city, and not only for sentimental reasons or out of historical interest, but for solid religious reasons. For Jerusalem is indeed the ‘holy city’ for not one but three of the major world religions!
People come to the holy city because it is a place where holy events took place and where some very special holy people once walked. And millions will testify that you can still sense the presence of the transcendent in that holy city, even though others, like me, sense only the stench of death.
Certainly, at any rate, I think we could all agree that Jerusalem is a unique city, as our Gospel reading today is a unique passage, for it is, as far as I know, the only recorded incident we have in the life of Jesus where He uses sarcasm:
“It is not right for a prophet to be killed anywhere except in the Holy City, Jerusalem”
Why is it only ‘appropriate’ or ‘fitting’ that Jesus be murdered in Jerusalem? Because it is the Holy City, where God chose to ‘make His name to dwell‘. Where else would we expect people to brutalise, mock and kill the very messengers that God sends to them? Jesus is being blatantly sarcastic, isn’t He? A modern translation might read, ‘I’ll be safe in Jerusalem, … NOT’!
Normally we associate this sort of sarcasm with cynicism, and with a negative outlook on life that is broadly hopeless and despairing, where one therefore laughs in order to avoid crying! This was certainly not Jesus’ mindset.
From where does the sarcasm of Jesus then arise? I think it must be simply from His appreciation of the tragic irony of the situation, whereby the holy city of God has become a focal point of destruction and death, though I believe in this dialogue, the sarcasm of Jesus extends beyond just the city itself, and is also a response to the other elements in the story. Let’s take a step back a bit.
We’re told at the beginning of Luke chapter 13 that this scene takes place on a Sabbath, after Jesus has been teaching people in a synagogue.
We assume this means He’d been invited to speak at the synagogue, though this is not necessarily the case. What is at least clear is that He had created quite a stir, and was subsequently approached by some Pharisees, who told him that he had better clear off!
“You must get out of here and go somewhere else”, they say, “because Herod wants to kill you!”
They seem to be genuinely concerned for Jesus, but it’s hard to know for sure what motivated them. Was the story about Herod true? Even if it was, were they really concerned for Jesus’ welfare or did they just want to get Him off their premises?
Perhaps these were the people who had invited Jesus to their synagogue, now realising that they might have bitten off more than they could chew when they welcomed Him through their door?
My guess is that their motives were mixed. Jesus, at any rate, ‘knew the hearts of men‘, we are told (John 2:25), and we know from His numerous encounters with these people that He never really trusted them.
This too is one of the great ironies of the New Testament, is it not - that time and time again it is the most seriously religious people that we meet there who turn out to be the most misled and dangerous?
We meet the Pharisees, in particular, frequently in the Gospels, but their appearance is almost always associated with something tragic or downright devious.