Saturday, February 23, 2013

Black and White...

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Luke 13:31-35
At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He said to them, "Go and tell that fox for me, 'Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet 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.' 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! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'"

This is the Word of the Lord.

Well, that’s odd, isn’t it? Pharisees actually trying to help Jesus, warn him to get out because Herod has it in for him.

I mean, the Pharisees are the bad guys, right? Them, the Sadducees, the scribes, those are the Gospel’s team of black hats, facing off against Clint Eastwood Jesus, they are the Lex Luthors of the Bible, doomed to defeat by Superman Jesus, but defiant to the end. Oh! Oh! And of course they are all in league with Herod Darth Vader against Luke Skywalker Jesus, too.

Life isn’t a spaghetti western though, is it? It isn’t a comic book or a science fiction movie. Things are rarely so black and white, and people, even groups of people, even groups of people in the Scriptures, are complicated.

Nicodemus, who visited Jesus in the dark of night in the third chapter of John’s Gospel, was a Pharisee. Joseph of Arimathea, who, following the crucifixion, got Jesus’ body from Pilate and gave it a decent, if temporary, burial, was a Sadducee. There are many occasions in Scripture where Jesus eats dinner with one Pharisee or another, and not every encounter with a scribe is a bad one.

To set the scene a bit, Jesus has been traveling around Galilee preaching and teaching. Now, he is headed out, on the road to Jerusalem both literally – I mean, that’s where the road goes, after all – and figuratively, because he is determined to fulfill his Father’s will, to meet and defeat death on the cross.

Galilee is Herod Antipas’ home turf, his tetrarchy. Now, I think it is safe to describe Herod as a weirdo, and a dangerous one. This is the guy who divorced his wife and married his brother’s wife, and when John the Baptist spoke out against that act, Herod killed him. What’s more, when Herod hears about Jesus, and the miracles he performs, Herod makes the wild logical leap that Jesus is John come back from the dead.

Add to that the things that Jesus has been saying, even in the verses right before today’s reading: those who are first shall be last, and the last shall be first, many of those who think they are going to get in to the eternal Kingdom of Heaven won’t, and the very people they hate and exclude and oppress will. It isn’t much of a stretch to believe that Herod, who is mad as a hatter and not above killing even his own family anyway, might hear what Jesus is saying, interpret it as a call to overthrow him, and be scared enough of Jesus to want him dead.

So that being said, why would the Pharisees want to protect Jesus form Herod’s wrath? Well, in many ways, these things that Jesus is saying are right up the Pharisees’ alley.

Here’s what I mean: the Pharisees are, in point of fact, not exactly what we have come to think of them as: tight-laced keepers of tradition, bent upon keeping everyone in lockstep to the rules and traditions of Judaism. We tend to group the Pharisees and Sadducees all together in our minds, yes, but they were in fact two religious factions who were vehemently opposed to one another.

The Sadducees were the upper echelon of Jewish society, according to the historian Josephus. They were in charge of the Temple, and had control over all of the religious and political affairs of the province. The priests who served in the Temple were Sadducees, the members of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees, the Sadducees collected the taxes, represented the interests of Judea internationally and were responsible for normalizing relations with the Roman occupiers. They considered only the first five books of the Bible to be God-inspired and authoritative, did not believe that the soul was immortal or that there was any reward or punishment following death, and did not believe in a resurrection of the dead. For them, the center of worship, the path to relationship with God, was through the systems and rituals of Temple sacrifice.

We get a hint about the Pharisees from their very name, which translates “set apart ones.” Separatists, a group intent on changing the way people understood their faith. They believed that the worship of God extended beyond the Temple, into the affairs of everyday life, that God was interested and invested in the normal and the mundane. What we do and why we do it was important to the Pharisee because they very much believed that the soul is immortal, and that reward or punishment followed death, and they believed in a resurrection of the dead and a Messianic age. To this end they held Scripture and oral tradition to be equally authoritative, ands were intent on, as closely as possible, adhering to each of the Mosaic laws.

The Pharisees were at different times in history a political movement, a religious sect, and a school of thought. Following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, the groundwork laid by the Pharisees became the foundation of modern, or rabbinical, Judaism.

So you can see that in the grand, overarching themes, the Pharisees and Jesus would have been in general agreement. They both sought to make God accessible to all people, not just those in the elite or who had access to the Temple and the resources for all the offerings and sacrifices. They both understood the reality of eternity, and the hope of the resurrection. Where they differed was in the matter of keeping the traditions and the Law of Moses. The Pharisees emphasized them, and Jesus dismissed them. Maybe these dinners and discussions were, up to a point, an attempt by the Pharisees to correct the minor flaws in Jesus’ theology, I don’t know, but we all know that in the end it didn’t work and the Pharisees wanted Jesus just as dead as the Sadducees did. But it is possible that perhaps, just perhaps, in this case, this small group of Pharisees were concerned for his safety and saw themselves as doing Jesus a favor.

That, or they just wanted him out of town and out of their hair as soon as possible.

But of course Jesus isn’t fazed. He in effect says, “Herod, Schmerod. When you happen to see that fox, you let him know that I’m doin’ my work, and if he wants me, he can find me in Jerusalem, because he can’t do anything to me anywhere else. After all, prophets don’t get killed anywhere else than Jerusalem.”

And it would be a really good story if it stopped right there, but instead, something interesting happens. It is at this point that the text changes dramatically, doesn’t it? Jesus goes from dismissive defiance to lament in the space of the period at the end of a sentence. It is as if Jesus’ very heart breaks at the mention of Jerusalem.

After all, Jerusalem is the center of a nation which was supposed to have been a beacon to all nations, an example to all people, the shining light on a hill which drew them to the knowledge and worship of the one true living God. It is no mistake, no mere poetic mechanism, that causes Jesus to liken himself to a mother hen bent on protecting her chicks against the fox in the henhouse, and no mere clever twist of phrase when Jesus identifies Herod as that fox.

Herod represents the forces which would sell out to Rome, which for the sake of personal power and security and financial boon, would forsake all that is good and holy, would reject the God that loves them, would enslave themselves and everyone else to a bloodthirsty, insatiable, pagan entity bent on global dominion.

And the Jerusalem that Jesus laments, that Jesus weeps for, isn’t the dot on the map. It isn’t the geography, the buildings and the streets; it is the people, all of them: the Sadducees and the Sanhedrin, the Pharisees and the scribes, the moneychangers and merchants and the men and the women and the children. Yes, he weeps for those who lay out the palm branches and cloaks when he rides in to the city… but he also longs to gather in, to protect, to save the very ones who welcome the fox, and all that the fox represents – the ones who literally or figuratively bow their knee to Herod and to Rome, who, for the sake of their own little bit of power and influence and security and money, put politics in place of God. Jesus longs to gather in, to protect, to save all who love him, who follow him, and all who reject him, who speak out against him, who even now are plotting his demise, who soon will scream “Crucify him!” in Pilate’s courtyard…

And on that day that Jesus hangs naked and bleeding and suffering and suffocating on the cross, and he cries, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” he is pleading not simply for the Romans who drove the nails, who roll the dice for who wins his clothing, but for the ones who plotted for his death, and for the ones who remained silent when a word would have set him free.

And Jesus dies, and rises, and lives and loves all of them. The Pharisees who cared enough to warn him that day on the road out of Galilee, and the ones who plotted to have him killed. The Sadducees like Joseph who followed him, but only secretly, and the ones who populated the Sanhedrin in an illegal mock trial to facilitate his torture and execution. The men and women who openly followed him, like James and John and Mary Magdalene, and the ones who couldn’t give up what they had in this life to gain eternal life. Jew and Gentile, slave and free, oppressor and oppressed, Jesus lived and died and rose and ascended and lives and loves all of them, and yes, all of us.

I started out by saying that life, and that people, aren’t a spaghetti western or a comic book or a science fiction movie. Things are rarely so black and white as that. People are complex beings, and life is nothing if not complicated.

I will tell you this, and I believe it with all of my heart: there is an absolute, there is something that is black and white, that there are no shades of grey to, no ifs, ands, or buts.

God loves you. God loves us. All of us. Whether we would most realistically identify with the fox in the henhouse, selling ourselves to the highest bidder regardless of the consequences, whether we are the ones screaming “Crucify!” in the courtyard, or whether we are the ones weeping at the foot of the Cross, Jesus longs to gather us in, to save us, to nurture us in the Holy Spirit, to bring us into fellowship with the one true and living God and into citizenship in the now and coming Kingdom of God. Yes, the best of us and the worst of us, the ugliest and the most beautiful, yes, emphatically, all of us.

And in this season of Lent, God calls us, all of us, to lay down the things we have chosen as more dear, to tear down the altars to that which entertains us and which we think give us security and assurance, to hear Jesus stand at the door and knock, and not just open that door but tear it off its hinges, to at long last look to Him and say “blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

Alleluia, amen.

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