The Vulnerable God
Gospel: Luke 13:31-35
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, ‘Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.’ 32“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. 33Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.” 34Jerusalem, 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! 35See, 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.” ’
The Vulnerable God
How do we live? How do we make some sense of life when everyone else seems to know what they are doing, but we have no idea? Who can you tell?
As I entered my twenties, these questions would not be silenced. Those around me said Jesus was the answer, and I believe he is. But following the Jesus I had heard about seemed, more and more, to involve believing in some magic transaction done on the cross, combined with keeping my nose clean of a particular list of sins. The Faith seemed to amount to an heroic persistence in a denial of myself, and of reality, until I died. I began to wonder if these heroics were merely a tragic foolishness, but how can you tell when everyone else seems to know what's going on, and when to admit such doubts is a matter of shame?
The doubts became as persistent as my first questions about the meaning of life. My first job was in a cross cultural situation where the cultural relativity of sin and morality was undeniable. Newly married, working with people whose culture was being torn apart, I began to see that much of what we called 'faithfulness' and 'right living' before God, was a cover for the powerful to stay in charge. Much that was allegedly God-ordained was simply the abuse of privilege and power. I did not have the words to say this, and far less could I see just how endemic it was, and is. But I was forced to realise that I had seen it happening, even as a child. My eyes were opened to the systemic abuse of women, the first peoples, and those who were poor, in my own home town.
As I learned to read Scripture more closely, the whole transaction of the cross which saved us ceased to make sense. No matter how I read it, no matter how its apologists twisted and qualified their arguments, here was a God who was the worst of all abusers, condemning his son for the sake of his own pride. Just as Jephthah (Judges 11) and Herod (Mark 6:21-29) could not honour the life of another because of their oaths, it seemed that even God was too proud to let go of his wounded honour. God was less powerful than some human notion of 'honour' founded in blood revenge. To worship this God was, finally, to worship the power to kill.
What I began to see was that the kind of faith I had received, and nurtured in myself, was ultimately little different from the society around me. For all my efforts to be faithful, to be different, to be Christian, very little in me had changed, or been healed. In some ways I felt worse; if I took my eyes off the latest hobby or preoccupation, I was more unhappy than ever. Death remained on the horizon, life was a burden under which I had begun to crumble, and I was powerless. I had failed at the human game of power and success, and decided that it didn't work anyway. But when you are the minister, who can you tell?
Brene Brown says that we cannot selectively numb our emotions. When we numb pain, we numb joy. I experienced the truth of this: I lived in a perpetual melancholy, a sort of subacute depression. In the same way, when we numb our vulnerability; that is, when we silence our fears of failure, and of not measuring up, we numb our ability to see and articulate the world. In other words, we blind ourselves. It has taken me forty years to articulate in a few paragraphs what a part of me saw with great clarity, although I had no words for it, as a small child! The point I am wanting to make here is that this process of growing up to a mature vision of life is not simply a matter of gaining intellectual maturity. Until we can be honest about not knowing what is going on in life, we box ourselves in with the fear of life and death. It's this fear, of course, which starts the whole cycle. I wonder how different life would be if we could tell someone, "I don't know what is going on. I am afraid."
This all brings us to Herod, for Herod holds the power of death. He is at the top, in charge. Apparently, he knows what is going on, for he has 'made it.' But Jesus' response is that Herod is irrelevant. There is no bravado here, just fact. "I am doing what I must do. Herod is not a part of this. 'It is impossible for a prophet to be killed away from Jerusalem.'" He does not deny Herod's power, but the pioneer of our faith simply sees it as irrelevant. He has stepped out of the human game of power and success. The power of death, according to Jesus' words and actions, is no power at all.
This is no fatalistic acceptance of destiny on his part. This is a choice which Jesus has made, and a choice he could refuse, just as Jerusalem will refuse him. I see something willing, active, and deliberate in him. It is quite different to the resigned, almost hopeless faith which I naively mocked in others when I was a young man, and then found myself falling into.
On the third day, says the NRSV, I will finish my work. (32) The Greek root is τελειόω, which is "to make perfect or complete." It also has the sense of "to carry through completely, to accomplish, finish, bring to an end." He is saying that his death (that's what the third day refers to) will be a completion of who he is. Not that he will save us, but that he will be made complete!
What if Jesus is not about some formula which gets us off the hook? What if the way Jesus saves us is by showing us how to live as human beings, by being the pioneer (Hebrews 12:2) for our faith in God? What if choosing to walk towards death, rather than seeking to avoid it for as long as possible, is the thing which will complete us and open us to the presence of God? What if embracing the anxiety and vulnerability of life is to follow the path to salvation? Does he show us a way to be free of the burden (and trap) of being a hero and amounting to something?
What I know in myself, and what I hear from congregants is that death is not the only bogey. For many of us, the bogey is tomorrow. How do I keep going? How can I keep pretending? Where can I get the energy to keep going when none of this makes sense— how can I do this for another twenty years!?
At verse 34, Jesus shifts from speaking in his own human voice to the Pharisees who seek to warn him about Herod, and speaks to Jerusalem, the city of God's people, as God: "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!"
How powerless is the mother hen! All she can do is offer shelter to little chicks. What I want to say is that when Jesus went to Jerusalem, he was neither fatalistic and giving up, nor in the role of the conquering king. He himself was going home to the mother hen, to the God who lives in vulnerability. Adapting David Lose's words, parenting leaves us profoundly vulnerable and promises a level of suffering that we simply would not endure if we had not bound ourselves so fully to our child.
Our family spent months involved in a situation which slowly 'undid' us. "You must get out of this," people counselled. They were right, but there was no stepping away from the situation. We had to submit to it, and at the end, we were badly damaged. I think I had borne the lightest load, but now, free of it, I could not function at all. I began to visit a colleague, a wise priest with whom I had trained. She could do nothing for me, except listen. She could only offer sheltering wings, making herself vulnerable to my pain. On the first visit it seemed that the hour passed very quickly. Down in the street, I discovered that she had listened for over two hours, almost three. And she did it again and again. She sheltered me. She saved me!
We fear a life without a big god who is in control. We desire a god who is greater than Herod. But God actually looks quite powerless and vulnerable. God speaks with the voice of vulnerable love. God listens. My friend's love allowed me to be vulnerable at last. She taught me to risk, to finally own to myself that I could do nothing. I could only shelter like a scared little chick. This is all God asks of us.
Jerusalem cannot believe this. Jerusalem thinks it must save itself, keep God happy, and be powerful, so that it can be safe. Yet all human power is a pretence, a little fence we use to hide the world from us; it does not work, and does not even have the warmth of the mother hen's wing around us.
We make much of the fact that Jesus comes as the King of Peace, but fail to see what it means. To reject the path of the conquering king is to accept the way of powerlessness. It is to admit the truth of reality, which is that even Trump and Putin and Kim have no power. They are just pawns in the machinations of a terrified humanity. The empire always falls.
"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.'" There is no vengeful God; our house is left to us! It means that when we seek to live behind city walls we will live unfulfilled, temporary lives until the next conqueror comes. We are the ones who destroy our own cities, not God. And we will see no Christ until we say "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord," which means until we run to the one who is for us the mother hen God.
Here, I hope, you will see the point of my long introduction to the text. God models not power and certitude, but vulnerability. It is in being vulnerable, owning our fears, that we come safe under the wings of God. Sin is not morality. Sin is the pretence we can do it all ourselves1, and be like the gods of the empires who model violent overcoming power. (All our immorality flows from that!) Vulnerability saves us, for the essence of God is vulnerable suffering love.
Power for living grows through owning, confessing, and living, as the vulnerable creature we are. We have downgraded the image of God as the mother hen to a minor metaphor in the New Testament— so minor that many of us do not recall it, so strange that few of us can see it is a picture of the Christ to whom we sing love songs. It is the major image of God to which we men become blind through our fear of letting anyone see, "I don't know what is going on!" We long for the embrace of a woman who can be mother to us... but of course no mother is big enough to be God, so we resent the women, keep them silent, and get on with doing it all ourselves, even though the little boy inside cries, "I don't know what is going on!" But who can you tell?
Andrew Prior (2019)
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
1 cf The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker p169
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 13:31-35 - The Narrow Door (2010)
Luke 13:31-35 - We are all Jerusalem (2013)
Luke 13:31-35 - To whom do you belong, and to what do you lay claim? (2016)