Tender Mercy: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Lent 2
Lent 2 (Year C): Luke 13:31-35 and Genesis 15:1-12,17-18
1) This is the second week of Lent, the 40-day pilgrimage to the “Holy Weekend” of Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday - cross, tomb, and resurrection.
2) The central section of Luke’s Gospel - from 9:51 to 19:27 - is Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. This week’s passage is in the middle of that itinerary, and his remarks echo what we heard a few weeks ago, at the Transfiguration: “They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure (Greek: exodos), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).
3) This month is Women’s History Month, and this week’s passage includes one of the New Testament’s most striking woman-centered images for God: Jesus’ portrait of himself as a mother hen, extending her wings to gather her chicks.
4) The passage from Genesis depicts God twice assuring Abram that the divine promises are trustworthy, the second time by making a covenant with Abram, drawing on ceremonial forms from an ancient sacrificial rite (see Jeremiah 34:18-20). It’s worth recalling here that, for Luke, Jesus’ ministry is also covenantal, including making a “new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).
1) Pharisees are often Jesus’ opponents in the Gospels, but in this episode they apparently offer him help by warning about Herod’s intent to kill him. It’s a reminder that the Pharisees, like all groups who encountered Jesus, responded to him in various ways. Indeed, in Luke’s sequel, some Pharisees join the Jesus movement (Acts 15:5).
2) Foxes were considered wily, destructive threats - but for “that fox” Herod, Jesus refuses to change his plans. On the contrary, rather than flee, Jesus will continue his journey toward Herod, right into the heart of Jerusalem: “I must be on my way” (Luke 13:33). Even the “fox” epithet itself embodies this defiance, since a “lion” would have been the customary, flattering icon for royal authority (for example, compare 1 Kings 10:18-20).
3) Just as he responded to John the Baptizer’s followers by instructing them to “tell John what you have seen and heard,” so he instructs his listeners to “tell that fox” about the healing and liberating fruits of his ministry (Luke 7:22; 13:32). In both cases, the message is essentially the same: the Messiah has come; the signs of healing and deliverance are clear. A new day, the Great Jubilee, has dawned (Luke 4:18-19; Isa 61:1).
4) And then Jesus evokes his resurrection: “on the third day I finish my work” (Luke 13:32). His death is in view up on the horizon, and he purposefully moves toward it - but the completion of his work isn’t the cross. It’s the empty tomb.
5) And so Jesus will not be deterred. To die and then to rise “on the third day,” he will make his way to Jerusalem. Oh Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills prophets! As we’ve seen, “prophet” is a term Luke frequently uses as a shorthand for Jesus’ identity (for example, see Luke 24:19), placing Jesus within the venerable lineage of Jewish prophets rejected by the powers that be (2 Chr 24.20–22; Jer 26.20–23).
6) And here the story comes to its pivotal point. Everything up to now would seem to justify Jesus’ wrath: Herod’s reportedly murderous intent, Jerusalem’s lamentable history of rejecting prophets, and the imminent rejection of Jesus himself. And sure enough, Jesus does pronounce words of judgment against the city (“your house is left to you”) - but in a striking reversal of expectations, those words are framed and upstaged by words of mercy. First, Jesus pictures himself as a mother hen longing to protect her vulnerable chicks under her wings; and then, echoing Psalm 118, he anticipates the city’s welcome with palms and celebration: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (Luke 13:35; 19:38; Psalm 118:26). Even as he laments, Jesus holds out hope for Jerusalem yet.
1) At its heart, this passage illuminates what Jesus’ mission is all about. He’s on his way to Jerusalem, the place where his work will culminate. Some sympathetic Pharisees warn him that Herod wants to kill him, effectively casting Herod as an icon of the powers that be, and in particular, the power of death. And in Jesus’ defiant response, it’s as if he says, Tell death (that fox!) that my mission - to heal and liberate, to restore and deliver, to care for humanity like a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings - cannot and will not be denied. The powers will try to intimidate me, but I must be on my way. They will arrest and abuse me, and in the end they will kill and bury me (Oh Jerusalem, who kills prophets!), but I must be on my way. For on the third day, I will rise. Death and hate and violence will be vanquished, and that Great Jubilee, that New Exodus, that new day of redemption will dawn. I must be on my way!
2) For Luke, then, while the cross is essential to this choreography, the resurrection is the culminating focal point of Jesus’ saving work. The Way of Life will vanquish the powers of death - and that victory culminates not when Jesus breathes his last, but when he leaves the “linen cloths” of death behind (Luke 24:12). And where does the risen Jesus go? You guessed it: to Jerusalem (Luke 24:33-36). All is not lost - for the city who kills prophets is also the city where the new day, the New Exodus, the new movement begins: “and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47).
3) Finally, if Luke’s focal point for Jesus’ saving mission is the resurrection, the overall tone and theme for that mission is a fierce, tender mercy. Think of it: though humanity will reject and kill him, Jesus nevertheless pictures us not as jackals but as vulnerable chicks he longs to gather, “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (Luke 13:34). Like a loving mother bird, Jesus desires to shield and save her children from the powers of death. She longs to spread out her arms, her great wings sheltering all creation, all that God has made. Keep this merciful, maternal, outstretched posture in mind - and you’ll never see the cross the same way again!