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

“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.”

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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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The Color of Clarity — Two Books by Jemar Tisby (Read them!)

The images of the insurrectionist invasion of the United States capitol on January 6, 2021, are saturated with Christian symbols and words. From the erection of a large wooden cross on the capitol grounds to that of one of the terrorists holding a Bible for the camera to the numerous banners proclaiming “Jesus saves” (and some declaring “Trump saves”), this disgusting display of systematic hatred was wrapped in a veneer of Christian nationalism.

The immediate reactions were denial and disbelief. “This is not America,” some said. “These are not Christians,” some said. Those reactions are understandable but false. This is not all that is America, but it is some of it. This is not the kind of Christianity I embrace or practice, but it is that for some. Denial is debilitating. Examining reality is actionable.

“I think that [the demonstrators and rioters] believe that God has a specific plan for this country,” noted Andrew Whitehead, co-director of the Association of Religion Data Archives and professor of sociology at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, “and that their vision for the country has been given to them by God. Christian nationalism at its core,” he concludes, “is this desire to see Christianity be privileged in the public sphere.”

(See https://sojo.net/articles/they-invaded-capitol-saying-jesus-my-savior-trump-my-president).

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

I am grateful for the work numerous scholars and journalists who help us to see beyond the denial and disbelief and who equip us for both deeper analysis and realistic responses. I have written before about the work of Robert P. Jones in White Too Long and Jennifer Harvey in Dear White Christians. The collusion of institutional Christianity (not only of the “evangelical” type, I’m sorry to say) with the systems and structures of White supremacy continues to be documented and derided.

I want to review and recommend the work of Jemar Tisby in this regard, both for his clarity and his courage in speaking and writing. I have read two of Tisby’s works – The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, and his more recent work, How to Fight Racism: Courageous Christianity and the Journey toward Racial Justice.

The first book has more of the character of a diagnosis of the illness. The latter has more of the character of some modes of treatment. Together they offer a potent primer on how we White Christians got here and how we might move in a different direction.

In The Color of Compromise, Tisby charts the complicity and collusion of White Christians with the institutions and actions of White supremacy from our earliest days on this continent. More than that, he describes how White Christians have participated in the active construction of White supremacy as the ideology that undergirds slavery, Jim Crow, the covert institutional racism of the last sixty years, and the active prosecution of the “cold Civil War” which we currently face. Like racism itself, this White Christian involvement and leadership has never disappeared even though it has evolved and adapted over time to changing conditions.

“The festering wound of racism in the American church must be exposed to the oxygen of truth,” Tisby writes, “in order to be healed” (page 15). That’s the burden of The Color of Compromise. It’s not just the pornographic misuse of Christian symbols by a mob of ignorant fools searching for selfies and souvenirs. Those arrogant and ignorant jackasses are symptoms of far deeper problems in White churches in general.

“Historically speaking,” Tisby writes, “when faced with the choice between racism and equality, the American church has tended to practice a complicit Christianity rather than a courageous Christianity. They chose comfort over constructive conflict,” he asserts, “and in so doing created and maintained a status quo of injustice” (page 17).

Tisby notes that “complicity” is far too gentle a description for the role we white Christians have played in the ongoing obscenity of Christian nationalism. “Complicity connotes a degree of passivity—as if Christianity were merely a boat languidly floating down the river of racism,” he writes, “In reality, white Christians have often been the current, whipping racism into waves of conflict that rock and divide the people of God” (page 17).

What happened at the United States capitol was not like a passing weather front. It was the result of centuries of policies and practices, decisions and deeds, heritage and hatred, embedded in White Christian churches across the country. The fact that White supremacy inside and outside the church has been chosen is, in part, the good news. As I have learned from numerous thinkers in this area, what has been chosen can be unchosen.

“One notable theme is that white supremacy in the nation and the church was not inevitable,” Tisby reminds us. “Things could have been different. At several points in American history—the colonial era, Reconstruction, the demise of Jim Crow—Christians could have confronted racism instead of compromising” (page 18). This is the opportunity White Christians have in the present moment – to confess and acknowledge, to repent and repair, to make different choices in order to be different people. “Christians deliberately chose complicity with racism in the past,” Tisby notes, “but the choice to confront racism remains a possibility today” (page 19).

Tisby is realistic about the possibilities for a full recovery. White supremacy appears to be a chronic and long-term malady that will require ongoing vigilance and treatment. “History demonstrates that racism never goes away,” he reminds us, “it just adapts” (page 19).

In The Color of Compromise we get a concise history of our pernicious path to the present. If you don’t know that history and you’re a white Christian, then read Tisby’s book or one like it. He also offers a crisp diagnosis of the malady. For the prescription, he has written How to Fight Racism. His latest book is targeted to churches seeking a different path forward, but it has broader applications in other organizations and groups.

If you can only read one of the two books, then read the second one. You will get some brief reminders of the pathological history of White supremacy in and through Christian churches. You will also get suggestions for concrete actions you might take as a member of a Christian church, as an individual Jesus follower, and as a member of the larger American society.

I appreciate the many polarities that Tisby is able to hold in tension as he writes. Of course, they are largely false dichotomies created to give White people an out for their racism. But White people embrace them nonetheless, and Tisby understands that they must be addressed. For example, he rejects the notion that one either sees racism as systemic or individual.

“In this book, I am not seeking to pit the personal against the systemic,” he declares. “Individual agency matters significantly, even in a world where institutions wield enormous power. And institutional policies and practices can limit the personal choices and the number of good options that individuals have available to them. Racial justice must occur,” he asserts, “at both the individual and the institutional level” (pages 12-13).

The heart of his analysis and response is the model he calls the “ARC of Racial Justice.” “ARC” is an acronym of Awareness, Relationship, and Commitment. Anyone who knows me will not be surprised to hear that Tisby had me at “acronym.” He uses the model to structure the sections of the book and of his chapters as well. The chapters unfold with “Essential Understandings,” that lead to “Racial Justice Practices” for each of the dimensions of the model.

Tisby is clear that this is not a checklist or a linear model. The various practices are highly contextual, and readers need to pick and choose for their settings. I can see this as an extremely helpful book for White Christians to read in congregational groups and then to enact in concrete changes in practice and culture in congregations.

Every day I hear the plaintive longing to “go back” to some mythical time when things weren’t so hard, so complicated, so fraught and fearful. Of course, “going back” is only good news for those who benefitted from the previous status quo. If White Christians “go back” to normal, we will continue to construct and underwrite the ideology of White supremacy and Christian nationalism that got us a ransacked capitol and a crippled government.

“Going back” is not an option. But it is precisely what will happen without a set of different decisions. We can’t keep making the same choices and expect different results. A wise person I know says regularly that nothing changes until something changes. Tisby’s books can provide one set of tools for ongoing reflection, repentance, and repair. That’s as far as we’re going to get for a while, but that would be a long distance for White churches to cover.

I am deeply fearful that the moment will once again pass after the glass has been swept up and some new fencing has been installed. I am deeply fearful that most White Christians will be neither touched nor moved by this moment. Please don’t let that happen.

In my tradition this Sunday we will remember the Baptism of Jesus. In that reading, we also hear about folks who streamed to see John the Baptist, confessing their sins. We White Christians have much to confess if we are to be faithful to our baptismal identities. And we will need to continue that confession for the rest of our lives. The good news is that repentance and repair are possible when we come clean about our brokenness. Tisby’s books help with that process.