Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 •Psalm 27 •Philippians 3:17-4:1 •Luke 13:31-35
|Abraham and the three angels - Marc Chagall|
The Gospel for this Sunday is short and puzzling, just seven sentences without any immediately obvious connection between them. Perhaps the most perplexing of them is this: “Today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem”. What can this mean? Is Jesus saying that faced with threats from Herod, he will be safe if he avoids Jerusalem? That is a natural way to read it, until we remember that Jesus is already on his way to Jerusalem, and rejecting those who want to warn him off. A different translation renders the meaning more clearly. “It is unthinkable for a prophet to meet his death anywhere but in Jerusalem”. In other words, Jesus knows his death is approaching and that it has to take place in Jerusalem. So sooner or later he must press on there. But why?
It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of Jerusalem, and especially the Temple, for Jews at the time of Jesus. For Muslims, Mecca figures in something like the same way. Christians, on the other hand, have no equivalent. At the heart of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, God’s own dwelling place, a place to be entered very occasionally, only by specially appointed people, and with the utmost awe. Now it is about this exceptionally sacred place that Jesus says “Your house is left to you”, or in another translation, “There is your temple, forsaken by God”. It does not take much imagination to feel the deep outrage that such a declaration would cause among the devout and faithful.
|Return of Christ to Jerusalem -- Giotto (1320)|
The point is this. The religion of the Jews was founded in Abraham's great faith in God's promises recounted in this weeks reading from Genesis. But it has become ossified and dissipated in an unhappy mix of ritualism, political compromise and nationalistic fervor, further distorted by a profoundly mistaken conception of the Messiah who is expected to put it right. Renewal and redemption will come only through the death of yet another prophet in the heart of the holy City. But this time, the 'seed of Abraham' will cease to be ethnically defined, and reconceived to include all those who can put their faith in Christ.
Christian faith too, of course, is easily ossified. Like the Phillipians whom Paul addresses, we tailor it to our requirements, adjust it to our convenience and smother it with familiarity. No less than the Pharisees, we need a redeeming sacrifice to renew and restore us. That is why the events of Holy Week and Easter have to happen again for us, and why it is so important to make Lent a period of preparation for their happening.