The City that Kills Prophets: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 28 February 2010

Revised Common Lectionary Readings for 28 February 2010 (Year C, Lent)

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18 •  Psalm 27 •  Philippians 3:17-4:1 •  Luke 13:31-35

Abraham’s story is one that tempts me towards sloppy thinking in all sorts of directions.  When I’m tempted to regard Hebrew traditions before Jesus as obsessed with bloodlines to the exclusion of other realities that define human existence, there’s the promise of offspring.  When I’m tempted to think of “the Jews” before the Rabbis as unable to expand their imaginations beyond the Mediterranean, there’s the promise of the promised land.  When I’m tempted to a sort of bodiless neo-Platonism, there’s always Paul to misread as “spiritualizing” Abraham.

This week’s Genesis reading, though it does not dispel those temptations, at the very least makes them harder to hold in my pocket comfortably.  Abraham, after all, does become father in a biological sense to a great many, but many slaves join them and become Hebrews in some sense on the way out of Egypt (Exodus 12:37-38).  Moreover, the biology isn’t supposed to work that way; in some sense, but not in a disembodied one, Abraham produces offspring by the grace of God, and in the face of his great age.  Moreover, God communicates these realities to Abraham at once in a mystical trance, in the midst of animal sacrifices, and by the vehicle of a disembodied fire pot.  No matter where my stereotypes want to turn, they get pounded.

And just when I’m fairly convinced that Jesus is one who is entirely done with Jerusalem and its temple, he begins weeping for the city.  But when I think that he clings very closely at all to the city, here comes today’s Luke reading, in which he calls its king a fox and sneers about a city so wicked that prophets are entirely safe outside of it.  (I remember Augustus Caesar’s one-liner about Herod the Great: it’s much safer to be his pig than his son.)  There were times when Jesus wanted to protect them from themselves, but Jerusalem continued on its path towards self-destruction, refusing to be the place that welcomed the Son of David, instead killing the one who would speak the truth.

And when I think of these two difficult passages, I realize just how radically Paul re-divides the world in Philippians.  Folks like me who dig the Anabaptists often talk about being citizens of Heaven as opposed to subjects of the king or members of the Party or partisans of other sorts.  But we often forget Paul’s follow-up punch, namely that those who are not citizens of Heaven are not properly Romans or Soviets or Patriots at all but in reality serve “the belly” (one wonders whether Jesus knew the story of Coriolanus) and whose minds are set on “earthly things.”

In other words, and I realize that I’m mangling both Luke and Augustine here, but preacher-types are allowed to do that, Paul seems to realize that any City of Earth is liable to be a City that Kills Prophets, that even Jerusalem, the City of David, spiritual center of the land that God promised Abraham, is nothing but dirt unless animated by God’s Spirit that moves in the world.  Ultimately, though God might in God’s wisdom bless this or that city or nation or even flag for a season, still those who claim such things instead of the LORD as their strongholds ultimately become murderous, glorying in their shame even as they cry out “Lord, Lord.”

May God save us from the idols whom we call LORD.

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