Jerusalem & Judgment in Luke

I’d say it’s common fare to point out the centrality of the Jerusalem in general, and the Temple in particular, in Luke’s writing. The whole thing begins with Zechariah in the Temple; Jesus’ parents bring him to the Temple when it’s time for Mary’s cleansing sacrifices; Jesus hangs out at the Temple when his parents leave him behind in Jerusalem as a boy. Each of these episodes is unique to Luke.

The other side of Jesus’ life is rather Jerusalem centered as well, with the resurrected Jesus appearing in Jerusalem rather than Galilee and the early followers worshiping in the Temple during their early days. As the narrative unfolds, the story spirals out from Jerusalem, with the action always coming back to that community. They don’t always go to the Temple, but the city is important as a hub of early Christianity.

In light of that, I find it fascinating that Luke takes a couple of steps to ensure that we don’t miss Jesus’ message of judgment on the city.

Luke  13:33-35 ties together Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, its praising of him at his arrival, their rejection of him, and the city’s destruction.

Jesus expresses a yearning to gather the children of Jerusalem, “but you would have none of it.” And so, he says “Your house is left desolate.” What house? Perhaps it is simply a metaphor indicating that the people of Jerusalem will be killed; perhaps it is an allusion to the house of God, being deserted by the divine presence.

Either way, Jesus shows up in Jerusalem as an agent of prophetic judgment. This part of the passage has always intrigued me. He says, “You will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

In Matthew, this saying material is placed in Jerusalem, while Jesus is teaching in the temple. Jesus had already been welcomed with the words, “Blessed is the one who comes…” and so this word of judgment is stored up for the future. Perhaps that time of acclamation is something that the community could look forward to in hope.

But in Luke’s Gospel, the prognostication is made in ch. 13, and the triumphal entry occurs several chapters later. In this way, the refusal to be gathered by Jesus comes together with their welcome of him into the city such that their affirmation of his divine mission becomes part of Jerusalem’s witness against itself.

Why is your house left to you desolate? Precisely because the one whom you acknowledged to be a blessed messenger of Israel’s God you then rejected and had crucified.

Incidentally, I think that this meshes quite well with the charges Peter lays out before the Jewish audience in Acts 2: God did great things and witnessed to this man Jesus, but you rejected him and handed him over to be killed.

You had enough to know his divine mandate, and you still rejected him. And this is why you must repent (Acts 2). This is why judgment is coming (Luke 13).

Luke 19 is where we hear the crowds taking blessing of Jesus to their own lips. While Jesus enters Jerusalem they say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In step with the pathos of Luke 13, here in Luke 19 Jesus weeps over the city: “If only you could see the things that make for peace! But they are hidden from your eyes!” Being gathered to Jesus as king makes for peace, but Jerusalem’s children were unwilling to be gathered.

And the result?

“Days are coming when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side!” (Luke 19:33, NRSV).

While Matthew and Mark have the cursing of the fig tree as an allegorical hint about the coming destruction of the city and/or Temple, Luke removes the fig tree episode and inserts this instead. No beating around the bush here. Jesus comes and lifts his prophetic voice to declare that the coming destruction of Jerusalem by Rome is a consequence of their rejection of the blessed king who has come.

One more change that Luke makes to his Markan source puts the final punctuation on this word of judgment. Where Mark 13invites his readers to interpret the cryptic saying that Daniel’s abominating sacrilege is standing where it should not, Luke spells things out.

When should those in Judea flee to the hills? “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Luke 21:20-21).

The destruction of Jerusalem is, for Luke, the great post-script to the ministry of Jesus. Paradoxically, Jerusalem is the epicenter both of the life-giving gospel message and the judgment that ensues for those who will not acknowledge that God was at work in Christ.

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