In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus is a short distance away from Jerusalem. He is on his way to suffering and death.
Now Jesus is, mildly said, a controversial figure, revered by some, loathed and even feared by others. There are those who see Jesus and his teachings of the kingdom a heaven – a realm that is so different from any kingdom or empire on earth, a realm where everything is turned upside down and where worldly merits and success don’t count – as a wonderful vision, as something to strive for – but some see it as a threat. A threat to their comfort, a threat to their way of life, a threat to their understanding of the world, a threat to their influence and power. Among them is Herod, king of Galilee and Perea, Jesus’ sovereign, a puppet king whose power depends on the Roman Emperor’s favor – and the military strength of his protector.
We tend to think of Pharisees as the bad guys in the gospels, but it has been pointed out by some modern scholars that in the Jewish tradition, scholars of the Torah, like the Pharisees, argued about God and the world and the holy writings with each other. That’s just part of their culture and tradition – to learn and expand their understanding through such discourses. To argue with someone doesn’t mean to despise them, no, if a Pharisee engages another in a theological discourse, it is understood as an honorable exchange; those who engage each other in such conversations actually show each other respect by doing so, basically letting their intellectual sparring partner know: I deem you worthy to challenge me as I challenge you.
They even were open to having their minds changed through compelling arguments. What a concept!
As the Pharisees mentioned in the gospels engage Jesus in discussions about God and the scriptures, they, in fact, show their respect for him and his teachings. I think this is a good thing to remember this in a day and age, when we assume that someone who challenges our thinking and reasoning is against us and automatically our enemy – in a day and age when, in this part of the world, we seemingly can’t have respectful discussions and arguments anymore. It’s good to remember that, throughout history, scholars engaged in such respectful exchanges – and that through such exchanges and challenges, new ideas were developed, and old ideas might have been improved. Without such discourses, there would have never been progress.
And today’s gospel lesson makes it very clear that there are those Pharisees who respect Jesus, even though they may not agree with him, and even try to protect him. ‘Get away from here, Jesus, Herod (who happens to be in Jerusalem for the Passover Festival) is trying to kill you!’
Now Jesus knows that his death is inevitable. And so he laments: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!’
Jesus laments the fact that those in power often don’t have the courage to face a challenge – and possibly come out better at the other end -, but are so afraid to lose their status and their power that they rather try to get rid of that which they perceive to be a threat – that they rather kill a person than face their own weaknesses. Cowardly tyrants throughout the ages and all around the world have operated that way.
Jesus could have spewed fire and brimstone against Jerusalem and its people, he could have condemned them, cursed them. But Jesus is not angry, he is anguished. He hurts for the people of Jerusalem, he even hurts for the people who are afraid of the new and different kingdom he proclaims in word and deed, the people who are afraid of this kingdom where love turns everything we know and cherish in this world upside down. And he longs for them to be gathered under his wings, under God’s wings, und to seek – and find – the shelter and trust and protection and security the psalmist writes about in the words we prayed and sang today – The Lord is my light, my light and salvation, in God I trust…even as we feel the threat of real or perceived enemies.
Now it would be easy for us to assume that Jesus’ anguish is limited to his immediate context and situation. But, of course, the complex and complicated context Jesus finds himself in is not just a sign of his times and Jerusalem of the early first century. People like Herod, the cowardly fox – people who fear for their privilege and way of life – people who use violence to get rid of those whom they perceive as a threat – have existed at all times and in many places. Many of them can be described through the suffix ‘-ists’: racists, sexists, extremists, fascists, nationalists, misogynists, supremacists, and so on. No matter what ‘ism’ you adhere to, you are afraid that your privilege, power and status will be taken from you by people who are not like you.
Just this past Friday, a white supremacist killed 50 people gathered for midday prayers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and injured dozens more, possibly aided by a couple of co-conspirators. It was a deliberate act of terror that had been announced via social media. The gunman even life streamed the murders on social media via a camera attached to his hat. The terrorists took this sick and twisted pride in their hateful deeds – and intended to spread the terror far beyond the city of Christchurch.
These attacks are shocking and despicable, especially because they happened at a time and in a place when the victims were most vulnerable: in a mosque as they gathered for worship and prayer in peace, at a time they trustingly gathered in the presence of God as chicks gather under the wings of their mother.
Of course this is nothing new: Just this past October, 11 people gathered for worship and study at ‘Tree of Life’ Synagogue in Pittsburgh were killed in a similar cowardly terrorist attack. In 2015, a white supremacist belonging to a church of the ELCA murdered 9 people attending a Bible study at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina.
These are but a few examples of violence perpetrated against those gathered in prayer. It happens all over the world, and it happens more often, than we think – for the most part, we just don’t hear about it. And the victims are Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, Buddhist or Hindu, usually those in the minority. All such acts of violence have to be condemned, because they represent a kind of religion and ideology that is blind and misguided and leads to a living hell rather than to the peaceable kingdom of God where the lion is able to lie next to the lamb.
Jesus’ words of anguish ring out through time and space: Jerusalem, Jerusalem! It is a cry of anguish that echoes into all the corners of our planet, into all those places where those in power ruthlessly use means of violence – military, physical, economic, religious and social violence – to silence and subdue those who are vulnerable and easy targets.
It is a cry of anguish meant for our ears as well. Because most, if not all of us, deep inside fear the loss of our comfort, our security, or our cultural identity because of a group of people that somehow is different. We may not go as far as to use violence against people because we somehow feel threatened by them. But it is so tempting to think of fellow human beings as the ‘other’ and to dehumanize them if they don’t look or live or believe or have the same political leanings like us. It is so tempting to look down on others and to deem ourselves better than them. It is so tempting to find fault with others and blame them for all kinds of misfortune in this world – and if we could only get rid of them or keep them behind walls, out of sight and out of our consciousness, everything would be better. It is so tempting to look the other way when any kind of violence against a vulnerable group is perpetrated.
The teachings of Jesus Christ challenge us to not give into that temptation, but to love neighbor and enemy and ourselves and to defiantly seek reconciliation with those whom we consider to be ‘the other’. Jesus’ cry of anguish over injustice and violence in this world is to become our cry.
Jesus Christ came into this world to heal and reconcile the rift between God and humanity as well as the rift between people. Jesus, through his living and dying and his resurrection, showed us the kingdom of God, a kingdom of peace. We belong to this kingdom. God is our light and salvation, in God we trust; we are gathered under God’s wings of mercy and care. Fear not!
Picture by Phoenix Han on unsplash.com
This post is also available in: German