“Jerusalem, Jerusalem! The killer of prophets and the stoner of those sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children the way a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you wouldn’t have it! Behold, your house is lost to you.” (Luke 13:34-35a, my translation). Francis Weinert closely examines these words to interpret what Jesus means in this cryptic saying.
For a long time in scholarship, the thought was that the Lukan author was rejecting the Temple. “Luke, it has been said, is critical of the Temple institution,” Weinert notes, “he [the Lukan author] sees it as rejected, destined only to be destroyed and replaced by a superior form of worship” (page 69). Among those holding this view, according to Weinert are Conzelmann, Ellis, and Haenchen. Weinert argues that is perspective “distorts the Lucan data and should be abandoned.”
Weinert’s perspective has been adopted by many contemporary Lukan scholars. The passage that gives the most support to the anti-Temple thesis is before us this week – Luke 13:34-35. Weinert sees it as central to any argument about the Lukan evaluation of the Temple and Jesus. He compares the usage of the verses in Luke and Matthew to make his point (this material does not appear in the Markan composition). Most important for his argument, he proposes that the text does not indicate a permanent abandonment of Jerusalem or the Temple in the Lukan view.
“Here, Jesus’ saying about Jerusalem’s house emerges primarily as a prophetic lament,” Weinert concludes, “rather than as a judgment of inevitable doom” (page 74). Moreover, based on the vocabulary and usage of the Lukan author, the word for “house” here “does not primarily refer to the Temple. Rather,” Weinert continues, “it designates Israel’s Judean leadership and those who fall under their authority” (page 76). In other words, the reference to Jerusalem’s “house” refers to “some personal, collective entity, and not a specific place or building such as the Temple.
Most commentators think that Luke 13:31-33 and 34-35 were not originally combined in Jesus’ actual discourse. These sayings were combined, in all likelihood, by the Lukan author, since they don’t appear together in the Matthean account. This combination, for the Lukan author, creates “a prophetic declaration by Jesus to his opposition in Israel,” Weinert argues, “which for Luke is embodied mainly in its leadership” (page 76, my emphasis).
Weinert concludes his argument with these words. “In Luke’s hands this oracle becomes a prophetic lament which Jesus addresses to Israel’s leaders in Judah, from whom he expects no more warm a welcome than he has received from those in Galilee. Jesus declares that the situation between himself, the leaders of Jerusalem, and those who are under their authority will be left undisturbed for a while, but not indefinitely” (page 76). Jesus’ lament is about the people in charge rather than about a place or a population.
Weinert’s argument strikes me as convincing. But why does the Lukan author put this in connection with the ridicule of Herod Antipas as an inconsequential cog in the Roman machine? Frank Dicken argues that the Lukan author actually sees the various Herods and Herodians in the Lukan account as a “composite character.” The Lukan author refers to three different people in the account (including Acts) as “Herod.” This could have caused confusion for at least some of the Lukan readers and damaged the author’s attempt to render an orderly account of things.
Dicken suggests that the Lukan readers could assume that “Herod” was one character in the account, just as “Pharoah” is rendered as one character in the OT stories but may have been more than one person. The same is true, he argues of “Nebuchadnezzar” in Daniel. If this composite character argument works in the Lukan account, and I think it does, then Dicken leads us to wonder what such a characterization adds to the narrative.
He suggests that “composite characters serve in stereotyped roles in order to provide the reader with an example to follow, an enemy to distrust, a foil over against the protagonist(s), etc.” In the Lukan account, Dicken proposes that the Herod character “represents an actualization of Satan’s desire to impede the spread of the good news through his rejection of the gospel message and through political persecution.”
No matter how often Herod is portrayed as expressing curiosity about Jesus, he (they) is deeply implicated in Jesus’ trial and execution in the Lukan account. Herod is one of those powers that Satan possesses and manages (and promises to Jesus in the Wilderness Testing). Herod might have responded positively to Jesus’ preaching but in the end does not. “Luke’s Roman rulers represent a spectrum of responses to such preaching,” Dicken writes, “from belief to outright hostility, with composite ‘Herod’ serving in the stereotyped role of persecutor par excellence at the negative end of this spectrum.”
If Dicken is correct, then the connection between foxy Herod and the lament over Jerusalem is clarified. Jerusalem, why have you hitched your political wagon to such a bunch of losers? If that spiritually and morally bankrupt administration is the best you can do and the most you can want, then have at it! Jesus urgently desires that God’s people would choose the better course, but for now it seems that they will not. Thus, what they get is an “empty house (dynasty)” filled with “empty suits.”
Christian churches are often in danger of betting on the wrong horse when it comes to secular authorities and administrations. It is astonishing to watch how the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox church turns theological summersaults in order to maintain a favored position within the current autocratic system of Putinocracy. These theological gymnastics have led to a fracturing of the Orthodox communion and charges of heresy and the presence of the anti-Christ being thrown from one Metropolitan to another.
Dr. Chuck Currie (@RevChuckCurrie) put it this way on a recent tweet. “The Russian Orthodox Church provides theological cover for Vladimir Putin in much the same way white evangelical Christians provide theological cover for Donald Trump. If your Christian faith leads to Putin or Trump, you aren’t following Jesus.”
You can substitute whichever autocratic nationalist you prefer and insert whichever theological tradition has been most recently prostituted. For example, Luther and Lutherans have much to repent and repair still with Jewish communities around the world for the ways in which our founder and tradition were used to underwrite and cover the Nazis (for as long as some of us were useful).
Watching this “Christian nationalism” from a distance reminds us of the ways in which the White Church in America has hitched its political wagon to White American supremacy and exceptionalism. We should all spend time with Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States by Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry. They document the ways in which White Christian nationalism has been and continues to be the ideological and political underpinning for large segments of American Christian belief and practice.
Robert Jones makes similar points in his excellent book, White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity. “White Christian churches have not just been complacent; they have not only been complicit; rather,” Jones writes, “as the dominant cultural power in America, they have been responsible for constructing and sustaining a project to protect white supremacy and resist black equality. This project has framed the entire American story” (page 6).
It may be that Jesus is lamenting the commitment on the part of the Jerusalem elites to survival at any cost, even if that means getting into bed with the Herods and the Romans. Such a marriage of convenience can only ever be temporary in a universe created and ruled by the God of justice and mercy. If that is the anchoring upon which those elites choose to depend, that’s all they will be left with in the end.
I find that to be a helpful interpretive template for our text and our time. If we White Christians have anchored ourselves to White Supremacy and American exceptionalism as the place on which we will stand, that’s all we’re going to have for ourselves. If this is the case, it is no wonder that people are abandoning Christian churches as places of empty talk and hollow morality.
“The historical record of lived Christianity in America reveals that Christian theology and institutions have been the central cultural tent pole holding up the very idea of white supremacy,” writes Robert P. Jones. “And the genetic imprint of this legacy remains present and measurable in contemporary white Christianity, not only among evangelicals in the South,” Jones continues, “but also among mainline Protestants in the Midwest and Catholics in the Northeast” (page 6). And Jones has the sociological and survey data receipts to prove it.
Therefore, whoever makes up the “Jerusalem elite” in our system must carefully and relentlessly examine with whom we make our political and cultural beds. The temptation to put all our reliance on such political and cultural arrangements and accommodations will leave us theologically vacuous and morally bankrupt. When that happens, the destruction of our own temples will not be far behind.
Fortunately, the day comes when those who remain can cry out, Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord!”
References and Resources
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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