Text Study for Luke 13:31-35 (Part One)

“When the Diabolical One completed all the testing, he departed from [Jesus] until the right moment” (Luke 4:13, my translation). Welcome, friends, to one of those “right moments.” So, Jesus, you turned down the opportunity to rule all the nations of the world, eh? Let’s see how that works out for you when even a petty and puppeted pretender to power places you under threat. How’s that wilderness testing looking to you now, huh?

“In that very hour,” the Lukan author writes, “some Pharisees approached, saying to him, “Get out of here and go, because Herod wants to kill you!” (Luke 13:31, my translation).  Commentators debate at length about the intention and motivation of these Pharisees as they warn Jesus. In much of the Lukan account, Herod ranges from curious about Jesus to positively disposed toward him. In that light, the Pharisaic warning seems like a duplicitous attempt at manipulation.

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On the other hand, the Pharisees are not painted uniformly in the Lukan account with the “villain” brush. Jesus spends time in the homes of Pharisees and engages in collegial debates with them. Jesus is not complimentary to them, and they often reply in kind. But the relationship is ambiguous. There may well have been Pharisees who, at the very least, didn’t want to see yet another Jewish public figure hanging from a Roman cross to shame the nation once again.

In addition, it is likely that none of Jesus’ adversaries operates with unmixed motives here. Herod Antipas could certainly be fascinated by a local holy man, such as John the Baptist, and still decide that he was more trouble than he was worth. The Pharisees could certainly hold a need for Jewish solidarity and a desire for Jesus to be silenced in the same strategic basket. The human exercise of power is rarely a clear and clean transaction.

In this post, however, I want to focus on the threat itself, regardless of its source or credibility. We see here the threat of violence used as an administrative tool. Whoever is the source of the threat, that one wishes to use the threat of violence to manage power and change behavior. That is a reality common to human experience, including human church experience.

I spent time in the past working with conflicted congregations. One of the most common features of congregational conflict was anonymous communication. A leader in the conflict would note, with great sincerity and an attempt at pseudo-intimacy, that people had been talking about the pastor or the situation or the conflict or the other “side” or all of the above.

The anonymous communication always carried a camouflaged threat of some kind. Often, there was the concern that if things didn’t change in the right way, then the pastor would have to be removed. The threat that offerings would be withheld and/or that people would attend another congregation was often part of the package. Rumors and gossip about the pastor’s behavior, family, or finances were not out of bounds. The same sorts of destructive allegations about other congregational members sometimes surfaced.

Most of the time, these allegations were unfounded. Often, they were pure fantasy or delusion. Sometimes they were complete and intentional fabrications. The intention was rarely to state a truth. Rather, the intention was to curb unwanted behavior and to manage the other “side.” Rumor and gossip were used as methods of social control in violent and coercive ways. “Stop doing what you’re doing, because Herod wants to kill you!”

I wonder if Herod’s minions were collecting a file on Jesus as he moved through Galilee and toward Jerusalem. Our anti-racism book group is going to discuss the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, this week and next. The documentary notes Baldwin’s FBI file and then quotes a bit from it. The file in total contains 1,884 pages of information observations, and conclusions. Baldwin was stalked, harassed, and censored by the FBI. His phone was tapped, and he was followed by agents posing as ordinary people.

The purpose of collecting such information on Baldwin was to equip the United States Government to intimidate and manipulate Baldwin, should the opportunity present itself. He was associated with Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nina Symone, Lorraine Hansberry, the Black Panthers, the SDS, and various so-called “communist fronts.” Thus, he was regarded as a potential “asset” as well as a threat. The collection of information on Baldwin was part of an attempt to manipulate, intimidate, and coerce him and other leaders in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements.

We see similar efforts at information control and fabrication as we watch the Russian propaganda machine at work. Our American electoral system and numerous government agencies have been deceived, deterred, and derailed by Russian disinformation. At times, people in power in the country have been used by Russia and used Russia for their own purposes and power. Twenty-first century examples of “Herod wants to kill you” abound in this space.

When the threat of violence is not sufficient, then power structures move on to the real thing. I must think about the uses of threats, intimidation, and lynching as ways to intimidate, coerce, control, and exploit Black Americans from 1865 to the present day. “Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation,” writes Bryan Stevenson in the report, Lynching in America, “a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime.”

This use of the threat and then employment of violence to control a subject population is one of the ways in which lynching and crucifixion are quite similar. “The crucifixion of Jesus by the Romans in Jerusalem and the lynching of blacks by whites in the United States are so amazingly similar,” James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree, “that one wonders what blocks American Christian imagination from seeing the connection” (page 31).

With threat of violence in the text, we see the shadow of the cross falling upon Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. Today we have a preview of the “right moment” for the Diabolical One.

Jesus replies to the Pharisees, “You go and tell that fox…” It’s hard to know how to play that particular line in the drama. Does Jesus speak the words with steel in his voice, a growl curling from his lips? Perhaps. Or does he laugh with derision at the thought that one of Caesar’s lap dogs might intimidate him with a little yip of warning through secondhand channels? I lean toward playing the line that way.

I don’t think Jesus minimizes the risk or the danger. All we have to do is read the rest of the text with its language about Jerusalem as the executioner of prophets. But Herod is not going to deter Jesus from his path. Jesus will not be intimidated or manipulated, or coerced from his mission. Rumors of disapproval and threats of violence will not determine his route to the cross.

I write these words on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 1965. White Alabama authorities (the only authorities under the Jim Crow system) were determined to keep Black citizens from registering to vote. In protest, marchers decided to walk from Selma, Alabama, to the state capital in Montgomery in order to protest these crimes against human dignity and the American constitution. As they came to the Edmund Pettus Bridge, state troopers fell upon the marchers and beat them nearly to death. Jimmie Lee Jackson was murdered during the series of protests as was James Reeb.

The intention of the violent response was twofold. First, the powerful intended to stop the protest itself. Second, the powerful intended to send clear communication to all who were watching that the status quo would remain in place. Quite the opposite happened, of course. This was a televised revolution, and Americans were horrified at the inhuman brutality visited upon the marchers. One result was the rapid signing of the Civil Rights Act into law, the very thing the White authorities sought to prevent.

Jesus did not respond to the Pharisaic warning with false bravado. The violence was coming, and he knew it. But it was going to be on his terms, for his purposes, and in service of his goals. He would not be deterred from his path today, tomorrow, and the third day.

We can perhaps wonder about the ways we react to threats and intimidation, whether internal or external. We can wonder about that in our personal lives. I’m far more easily frightened by secondhand threats than I care to acknowledge. I worry about being physically attacked or legally sanctioned if I protest or resist injustice. I don’t even like the confrontations that might happen with family members about divisive social issues. Too bad for me…Come, Holy Spirit.

I know that White, mainline congregations are routinely terrified of pissing off members by being too confrontational or political. So, we typically choose silence and the status quo rather than shaking things up. Jesus is clearly comfortable with stirring up trouble and getting powerful pushback. I think, as I have noted before, that I (and we) need a lot more practice in tolerating good trouble as White people and white congregations…Come, Holy Spirit.

Well, there’s a start, eh?

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