WHEN people talk about using “Christlike” language, the words of Christ in today’s Gospel are not the kind of words which they have in mind. All too often, “Christlike” is used as a synonym for “gentle” and “conciliatory”, whereas, in reality, Jesus deploys a wide range of invective against the political and religious leaders of his time.
St Augustine suggests that, in calling Herod a “fox”, Jesus is referring to the violence of his reign, manifest both in his slaughter of the Innocents and his beheading of John the Baptist (Matthew 2.16, Luke 9.9). The image of a Herod as a predatory fox contrasts sharply with that of Jesus as a hen who longs to gather and protect her brood of chicks.
Jesus also has words of condemnation for the people of Jerusalem. It is a city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it”. And yet, in likening himself to a mother hen, Jesus reveals that his response is not rejection, but an “anguished yearning” for the children of Jerusalem (Judith Lieu, Epworth Commentaries: The Gospel of Luke).
In his words about both Herod and Jerusalem, Jesus shows that confrontation can be an act of love. While confrontations can undoubtedly be triggered by a lack of love, sometimes a confrontation arises precisely because we love someone: we love them enough to turn away from a less contentious path that would leave them unchallenged in patterns of behaviour that are damaging themselves and others.
As St Gregory the Great observes, “When a pastor has been afraid to assert what is right, has he not turned his back and fled by remaining silent? Whereas if he intervenes on behalf of the flock, he sets up a wall against the enemy. . . The word of reproach is a key that unlocks a door, because reproach reveals a fault of which the evildoer is himself often unaware.“
Jesus’s treatment of his adversaries shows us what it means to love our enemies. In the Gospels, his commitment to loving confrontation leads inexorably to the cross. At Calvary, Jesus shows us the depth of his love by praying once again for those who have condemned and crucified him.
In our epistle, we see that Paul is likewise unafraid of confrontation. He warns the Philippians that “many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears.” His willingness to confront false teaching is obviously an act of love towards the wider congregation in Philippi, but, once again, it is also an act of love to those whose teaching he is condemning.
As Stephen E. Fowl explains, the phrase “enemy of the cross of Christ” needs to be read in the light of Paul’s proclamation of the cross in 1 Corinthians 1. “To be an enemy of the Cross means to trust in human wisdom and power rather than in God’s redemption accomplished through the apparent weakness and folly of the crucified Messiah.” In our passage, Paul goes on to explain that these “enemies of the cross” have distorted patterns of thought, feeling, and action. As Fowl warns, “it is crucial for contemporary Christians to recognize the ease with which this can happen” (Two Horizons Commentary: Philipppians).
Distorted patterns of action (“their glory is in their shame”) are connected with false beliefs and priorities (“their minds are set on earthly things”). This is as true of Herod as it is of the “enemies of the cross” in Philippi. To confess the Crucified One as Lord involves a transformation in our understanding of where true glory and fulfilment are to be found.
In our Old Testament reading, the fruitful promise of the Lord brings hope to Abraham and Sarah in the midst of their barrenness. We are told that Abraham “believed the Lord, and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness”. As Walter Brueggemann writes, “those who believe the promise and hope against the barrenness nevertheless must live with the barrenness” (Interpretation Bible Commentary: Genesis).
The words of challenge uttered by Jesus and Paul are ultimately words of promise and hope. They invite each hearer to believe — even in the times of apparent barrenness, and in the face of the transient glory of this world’s empires — that it is the way of the cross that alone leads to fullness of life.