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

“He said to them…’Look, I am casting out demons and performing healings today and tomorrow, and the third day I am reaching the goal. Nevertheless, it is necessary for me today and tomorrow, and the next day to keep on going, because it is inconceivable for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem’” Luke 13:32-33, my translation).

What about the “divine necessity” in the Lukan account? Perhaps the Lukan author is a theological (pre)determinist. Or it could be, as some commentators suggest, that the Lukan author has been influenced by Greco-Roman conceptions of an impersonal and inexorable “fate.” Does the Lukan author have a theology of irresistible Divine Providence or something like that? What are we to make of all this talk in the Lukan account about things that Jesus “must” do?

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The Lukan account contains at least forty instances of the Greek verb, dei, “it is necessary.” Cosgrove writes that at least thirteen of these instances are “ordinary” – “one can hardly construe them in terms of any kind of divine necessity or fatalistic compulsion” (pages 172-173). These “ordinary” usages in the Lukan account, Cosgrove argues, “provide a control in Luke-Acts against too quickly reading predestinarian or fatalistic overtones into the Lukan dei” (page 173).

At least fifteen instances of the verb, by Cosgrove’s count, refer to proofs from prophecy regarding Jesus’ mission and identity. Eleven instances refer to the necessity of Jesus’ passion in Luke-Acts. The verb “is therefore a typical Lukan vehicle for describing the necessity that God’s plan, as expressed in Scripture, be fulfilled” (page 174).

The Lukan account, however, has an additional element according to Cosgrove. “Whereas in Matthew or Paul, for example, an Old Testament text is construed as prophetic ex post facto as a stamp of divine endorsement,” Cosgrove writes, “Luke introduces Scripture prophecy not only after its fulfillment (as a proof) but also narratively before. In the latter case,” he continues, “it functions both as a proof of divine endorsement and as an imperative to be obeyed” (page 174).

In other words, the Lukan account portrays Jesus not only as “fulfilling” Scripture but also as “obeying Scripture.” Cosgrove argues that “Luke exploits Jesus’ messianic self-consciousness with regard to Scripture fulfillment in a way that is at best only implicit in Matthew (or Mark)” (page 175). We know that especially in Luke differences with the other Synoptics can make all the difference.

The Lukan account portrays certain actions and paths as necessary for Jesus if he is to be the Beloved Son of God. To do otherwise is to violate, and ultimately reject, that identity and vocation. Cosgrove (page 175) notes the example in Luke 19, the story of Zacchaeus. Jesus says it is necessary for him to stay at Zacchaeus’ house in order to fulfill what it means to be the Son of Man. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10). If Jesus had not gone to Zacchaeus’ house that day, he would not have been the Divinely called Son of Man.

Cosgrove suggests that this understanding of Divine necessity is carried through in the ways that Paul’s mission is reported in Acts. “The dei of Luke-Acts characteristically carries this two-fold edge of divine attestation and divine summons to obedience,” Cosgrove proposes, “and Paul’s own conversion (commission) is best understood in terms of these very elements” (page 176).

This Divine necessity does not, however, entail a kind of rigid determinism of action, according to Cosgrove. Instead, this Divine necessity leaves room for and even requires (!) improvisational responses on the parts of Jesus and Paul in Luke-Acts. “Not only does Luke present the mission of Jesus or Paul as obedience to the divine mandate of Scripture,” Cosgrove writes, “he highlights their creative initiative in bringing about the fulfillment of their own particular Scriptural ‘assignments’” (page 179, my emphasis).

This makes me reflect on my own experiences of “call” into particular places for ordained ministry. Early in my ministry, I expected to get a clear sense of where to go and when to go. And, for the most part, I got that sense through the unfolding of circumstances and the discernment of the Spirit. That sense of specific clarity, however, became less and less pronounced as I got older and more experienced. I had expected more clarity, not less. For a while I found that puzzling and more than a bit troubling.

It took time for me to realize that I could fulfill my “call” in a variety of settings and circumstances. It seemed to me that the Holy Spirit had less of an opinion about precisely where I should serve and much more of an opinion about the kind of servant I was called to be. If I pursued my vocation with integrity and trust, I could serve that vocation almost anywhere. What was “necessary” was faithful response more than a particular course of action.

I’m not prescribing a particular theology of call for anyone. I’m just reporting my experience in light of Cosgrove’s interpretation of our text. The notion of “creative initiative” as a possible and proper response to the work of the Holy Spirit makes a great deal of sense to me. In fact, I might have fulfilled my vocation in work completely outside of the organized and institutional Church, if that had really presented itself to me.

That would require that others would have a similar “creative initiative” understanding of responding to the Holy Spirit. By and large, I have not found that to be the case when people think about ordained ministry. At one point I applied for several “secular” jobs for which I was qualified and in which I could have functioned well and faithfully. One interviewer in particular regarded me as unqualified because I was a pastor, and “once a pastor always a pastor.” So much for “creative initiative” in that position!

Cosgrove argues that in the Lukan account, Jesus “virtually engineers his own passion” (page 179). He points to the Nazareth sermon and particularly to Jesus’ conscious fulfillment of the Isaiah passages he read. Remember that it is Jesus who causes the trouble at Nazareth, in spite of the fact that he was well-received initially. “Jesus is no passive pawn of divine necessity in Luke’s Gospel,” Cosgrove writes, “he is the executor of that necessity.”

Cosgrove lists some of the ways that Jesus “executes” that necessity. He goes willingly to be tested by the Diabolical One. He instigates the conflict in Nazareth. He sets his face toward Jerusalem in Luke 9:51. He chooses the moment of his death in Luke 23:46. Jesus organizes the entry into Jerusalem to ensure the charges of desiring to be a king. He even appears to permit Judas to be overpowered by Satan and to hand Jesus over (could Judas have exercised “creative initiative” and done otherwise?). Paul exercises a similar degree of “creative initiative” throughout the latter half of Acts.

“The God of Luke-Acts is not only the creator and sustainer of the world,” Cosgrove suggests, “but one by whom history is overturned, even overpowered, by surprise attack and cleverness. And when tensions emerge within the Lukan presentation,” he continues, “they are a result of Luke’s kerygmatic, as opposed to systematic, treatment of God’s relation to history” (page 183). In other words, God is both the sovereign author of history and able to intervene in the most surprising ways within that history.

Cosgrove argues that the use of “dei” in Luke-Acts is at least three-sided. The gospel history is first of all rooted firmly in God’s plan. The divine necessity functions, second as a summons to obedience. Third, God is the one who guarantees this necessity, even if that requires upending the normal order of things through miraculous intervention. The Lukan author is not a systematic theologian. Divine necessity is always in service of the Gospel story, not the other way around.

As a result, divine necessity has a fourth and overriding dimension in the Lukan account. Cosgrove argues that “the logic of divine dei in Luke-Acts involves a dramatic-comedic understanding of salvation history as a stage set time and again for divine intervention, so that the spotlight of history continuously turns to God’s saving miracle. To this extent,” Cosgrove concludes, “Luke-Acts functions as a doxology to the God of surprise and reversal” (page 190).

In Acts, Cosgrove suggests, that surprise and reversal is extended to the life of the Church. “The miracle of God’s presence in the ministry of Jesus,” he observes, “is extended to the ministry of the church” (page 190). History may seem to have a sort of inevitability to it. The Herods of this world seem too often and too easily to get their way, as if it’s all a set piece, determined in advance. Normal history looks at Jesus and concludes that he can’t “win” and didn’t “win.”

Yet, think about the experience of those disciples on the road to Emmaus. They were sure it was over, a done deal, kaput, finito. “We had hoped…” they murmured wistfully. Then Jesus opens the Scriptures to them, how it was necessary for all the events to transpire as they did in order for the Kin(g)dom to come and the Gospel to be proclaimed.

In the Church these days, we live with a great sense of inevitability, I fear. We are sure the Church is failing, at least in the West, and no one can do anything to stop it. I am guilty of that sense of resignation far too often. That may well be true, but that doesn’t mean that God is failing. Here in Luke 13, we get a glimpse of Divine necessity that calls for faith, hope, and love in the face of what seems inevitable but may not be.

What “creative initiatives” does the Spirit call forth from us in this time and place so that we may be true to our vocation as partners in the Gospel project?

References and Resources

Cosgrove, Charles H. “The Divine Δεῖ in Luke-Acts: Investigations into the Lukan Understanding of God’s Providence.” Novum Testamentum, vol. 26, no. 2, Brill, 1984, pp. 168–90, https://doi.org/10.2307/1560636.

Jones, Robert P. White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

WEINERT, FRANCIS D. “Luke, the Temple and Jesus’ Saying about Jerusalem’s Abandoned House (Luke 13:34-35).” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, Catholic Biblical Association, 1982, pp. 68–76, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43716183.

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