Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18; Psalm 27; Philippians 3.17-4.1; Luke 13.31-end
Almighty God, you show to those who are in error the light of your truth, that they may return to the way of righteousness: grant to all those who are admitted into the fellowship of Christ’s religion, that they may reject those things that are contrary to their profession, and follow all such things as are agreeable to the same; through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
SCHOLARS of St Luke’s Gospel have noted that Jesus’s reply to the Pharisees (Luke 13.31-33) does not sit naturally alongside the lament over Jerusalem which follows (Luke 13.34-45). One way to deal with this is to read the lament as referring to the final entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Luke 19.29-44).
That gives rise to a further question: is Jesus, as Luke has drawn him, predicting these events, or is the Gospel-writer providing the audience with a clue? Later on, anyone hearing the whole story for the first time might reasonably have said: “I should have known that something like this was going to happen.”
We can hold on to parts of both possibilities by assuming that, while Jesus was not offering a direct personal prediction, he was nevertheless seriously and purposefully committed to his larger project. He has “set his face towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9.51). This journey is in earnest, and every encounter along the route faces people with hard choices and unpalatable truths.
It is certainly not an attempt to court popularity. Jesus has already spoken critically to the Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 11.37-53); he has challenged the social and familial order (Luke 12.49-53); he has continued to heal on the sabbath (Luke 13.10-17). His brusque words to the Pharisees, who warn him about Herod, take him into potentially dangerous political confrontation.
Opinions vary whether the Pharisees’ intentions were kindly. G. B. Caird is adamant that they were not acting as Jesus’s friends (Saint Luke, Pelican, 1963). Jesus has nothing to lose by returning a frank answer. These are not times to say things that you do not mean, and he has every intention of continuing to Jerusalem.
The symmetry of “today and tomorrow and on the third day” and “today, tomorrow, and the next day” (Luke 13.32-33) returns to the problem of foreknowledge with which we began. Christopher Evans reviews a range of interpretations, and concludes that, once more, two sayings from different contexts might have found their way into alignment (Saint Luke, SCM, 1990). Again, the point is one of purpose. A short time will elapse, and then the next stage of this deliberate journey, focused on Jerusalem, must begin.
The value of wrestling with indefinite and possibly symbolic allusions to a period of time is perhaps greatest when it forces us to consider what lies between promise and fulfilment, between hope and its realisation, and even between looming tragedy and its working out. It is consequently frustrating that the lectionary omits verses 13-16 of Genesis 15.1-18 in Sunday’s Old Testament reading.
Abram’s vision of God, with its assurance of descendants who will inherit a land specially marked out for them, has a shadow side. There will be a 400-year period in which this chosen family will be slaves at the mercy of foreign masters.
The passage is surely stronger if it is allowed to tell its readers and hearers that God’s covenant can cope with human history. It speaks, in its unabridged form, of the conviction that a reciprocal bond of faithfulness can be the steady hope that keeps us on course, however difficult our circumstances become.
Under those conditions, omniscient characters are less of an encouragement to those who receive their stories than those who believed, even though time and mortality prevented their being finally sure that God would deliver on his promises.
Good models do not merely inspire us: they keep us going over the full course. Paul’s promise to the Philippians goes hand in hand with an emphasis on seeking good examples to imitate. He and his missionary colleagues have done their best to model the love, self-giving, endurance, and change of mindset required of Christ’s disciples (Philippians 1.12-14, 23-30; 2.1-5, 29-30; 3.15).
It is with genuine agony that he mentions those who have rejected this pattern, and chosen destruction over salvation, earthly things over heavenly values (Philippians 3.19-20).
For those who choose to live in a new way, there is also the promise of a country with rights of citizenship, but it lies beyond this lifetime. The compilers of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer added to the funeral commendation the promise that “our vile body” would be changed to become like Christ’s “glorious body” out of a wise instinct; but operated from a rather depreciatory view of human existence. Paul is more positive than that, in urging the Philippians to practise for heaven by living better on earth.