Sunday, February 21, 2016

Second Sunday of Lent

Luke 13
31 At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
32 He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ 33 In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
34 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 35 Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’[a]”

You can’t do politics without the metonym.

What’s a metonym? A metonym is a figure of speech where a name becomes shorthand for something else. Turn on CNN and within minutes someone will mention ‘the race for the White House.’ White House is a metonym for the Executive Branch of the US government. It’s literally a house, painted white after a visit from some Canadian firebugs in 1814, but when you hear White House, you generally think ‘the president and his staff.’

Of course, the humble metonym is used beyond government (“hit the bottle” is a metonym) but somehow the ones we hear most frequently are political.

The Hill is a metonym for parliament.
Queen’s Park is a metonym for the Ontario government.
Number 10 is a metonym for the UK PM and staff.
Brussels is a metonym for the European Union.

In some ways, it is terribly unfair to someone new to our language, since the use of metonym is like a code you need to break to understand much of the news.

Think of Bay Street or Wall Street for finance.
K Street for lobbyists.
Hollywood for film.
Madison Avenue for advertising.
Nashville and Motown for music.
Scotland Yard for well, Scotland Yard.

Just yesterday we learned that Number 10 has a deal with Brussels that will soon be put to a referendum, and without the code you would be lost or think it odd that a number would negotiate with a city in Belgium.

Why share this, other than to further my belief that Lent is for learning? The reading John shared uses metonym, but it’s not entirely clear how. We think we know what it means, but it requires testing, since scripture is filled with symbolic language and figures of speech that require interpretation.

We begin with a visit with some Pharisees who warn Jesus to flee the area. Are they really helping him here? We know Jesus has a friend or two among the Pharisees, so we can assume this an attempt to help. And in response, Jesus has a few things to say:

I’m going to stick to my plan—healing, driving out demons—and on the third day I will reach my goal. Already we are deep into the symbolic language, since the ‘third day’ has meaning beyond the literal for those of us waiting for Holy Week.
He then says ‘I must press on, since no prophet can die outside Jerusalem. Here he might actually mean the City of Jerusalem, the place, and not the metonym that comes next.
Finally we enter the symbolic: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

When Jesus says Jerusalem, what does he mean? Is he referring to the people of Jerusalem, the same people who will form the crowd at the end of this journey and cry out for his death? Is he referring to the Temple, the temple administration, the chief priest and all who serve him, or the religious elite in general?

A good commentary will tell you that when Jesus says “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you” he’s being quite literal. Looking back, there are several examples of prophets treated poorly, and looking forward (which Jesus can certainly do) we see the death of St. Stephen (Acts 7) and the dangers that will appear for the disciples in Jerusalem. So Jerusalem is a literal city of trouble for some, but it’s also a symbol. And the clue is found in verse 35: “Look, your house is left to you desolate.”

At this point we can assume that friends among the Pharisees were friends no more. In what we might call ‘fightin’ words’ Jesus has just indicted everyone involved in the official religion of the day. Jesus has just pressed a rather large button that may serve to embolden his critics, and move him from a watch list to most wanted status. And it all starts with King Solomon.

Solomon, of course, builds the first temple, and creates the context for temple worship and the various assumptions that come with having God’s dwelling place in your capital city. Looking back at 1 Kings 9, we listen in on a conversation between the king and his God.

Solomon greets the LORD at the completion of the temple and God consecrates it and promises to make it a home, saying “my eyes and my heart will always be there.” God continues and promises Solomon a kingdom without end if he remains faithful to God’s laws and decrees. And then they get down to business.

God wants Solomon to understand that God is a jealous God, and a failure to be faithful will have dire consequences. This is the large button Jesus is pressing when he says ‘your house has left you desolate,’ suggesting to his former friends among the Pharisees that what Solomon hears next has come to pass. Pardon the long quote, but it’s a good one, and it hints at the way Israel and Jerusalem are symbols:

“But if you[a] or your descendants turn away from me and do not observe the commands and decrees I have given you[b] and go off to serve other gods and worship them, 7 then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my Name. Israel will then become a byword and an object of ridicule among all peoples. 8 This temple will become a heap of rubble. All[c] who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’ 9 People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the Lord their God, who brought their ancestors out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshiping and serving them—that is why the Lord brought all this disaster on them.’”

Jesus is suggesting that all everything that is wrong with the temple and the people who run it will result in the very thing God says to Solomon. Maybe he’s suggesting it’s already happening, and will happen in ernest in the time to come. Whatever the timeline, Jesus’ words are the first step toward turning the tables, the final protest that will lead to the cross. Jerusalem will kill another prophet, and we will await the third day.

While we’re on the topic of symbols, it’s unfortunate that Pharisee has become a metaphor for someone excessively legalist or hard-hearted. Yes, Jesus has almost continuous conflict with the Pharisees, and they get to fill the role of ongoing adversaries, but this may have more to do with the story that comes later than the conflict presented in the Gospels themselves.

After the temple is destroyed, and the remnants of Judaism regroup, it is the Pharisees who take the lead, and become the chief representatives of the religion that will soon compete with the emerging church. This is already happening when the Gospels are being written, and making the Pharisees into villains serves the needs of the early church.

In fact, there are some scholars who suggest Jesus was a Pharisee, or at least represented the views of various schools of thought that were active in the first century. True or not, Jesus is part of an internal debate in his own religion, and his criticism should never be considered anti-Judaic.

For us, in this Lenten season, we are left with a jealous God who continues to return to this idea of serving other gods. And following what seems to be the theme of the day, these gods are mostly symbolic. What do we put before God? Who or what do we serve that distracts us from the command to love God and love our neighbour?

Jesus has set the scene that will soon follow: last minute healing with inevitably lead to Jerusalem. There will be a triumphant entry, with joyous crowds that will soon turn. There will be a three-day movement, a movement that will mean death to Jesus and life to us. And resurrection will follow. For now, though, we are still on the margins, on the very edge of something profound, and so we wait.

May God encourage us on our journey, and when we need help, to turn to God alone. Amen.


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