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Who is the Lord of Israel?

By Wesley Hill

As we continue making our way through the Gospel of Luke during Lent, we find ourselves this week in the middle of the long central portion of the Gospel usually described as Jesus’ “way to Jerusalem” (9:51–19:48). More overtly than in the other Gospels, here Jesus takes up the mantle of Moses leading God’s people through the wilderness. “When the days drew near for him to be taken up,” Luke tells us, “he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51, AV). Just prior to Luke’s introduction of this purposeful travelogue, Jesus, on the mount of transfiguration, was met by Moses and Elijah who, we’re told, “were speaking of his departure” —his Moses-like exodus, as the Greek text has it — “which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (9:31, NRSV). So Jesus, as we meet him in our readings this week, makes “his way to Jerusalem” (13:22).

Our daily readings for this week come from the middle of chapter 11 (beginning with v. 14) and continue through the end of chapter 14. Mostly they appear to be disconnected anecdotes and bits of Jesus’ teaching. We see Jesus pronouncing blessings (11:27-28), issuing warnings (11:29–12:12), spinning memorable stories (12:13-21, 35-48; 13:6-9, 18-30), offering consolation (12:22-34), and restoring physical health to sufferers (13:10-17), among many other things. Throughout all this, we sense we are in the presence of Someone who is utterly fearless and solemn, unwavering in his sense of mission, and filled with impulses of justice, compassion, sensitivity, and even grief. Francis Spufford has put it beautifully in Unapologetic:

Anyone can claim his time, if they can find a way to him through the crowd, and when someone does, whatever their reason is, he speaks to them as if the dust and the noise and the reaching hands had receded and nothing else were going on in the wide world but he and they talking. All his conversations seem to be personal.

In short, there is much we could choose to linger on in this portion of the Gospel. But my eye is especially drawn to the final story in our readings, the story of Jesus pausing mid-thought with, probably, a lump in his throat. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” he cries, “the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!” (13:34). His mind wanders back over the long centuries in which the Holy City, David’s crown jewel, refused to listen to God’s emissaries and tried to put them out of sight (see, for one instance of this, Jer. 26:20-23).

“How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! 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.’” (Luke 13:34-35)

At least two details in this story are truly surprising. In the first place, Jesus seems to be implying that he — a first-century Jewish man approximately 30 years old — has been gazing in love at Jerusalem all through the long years of Israel’s travails. Earlier, in chapter 11, Jesus said something similar: “Therefore also the Wisdom of God” — a kind of title for Jesus found throughout the New Testament — “said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ so that this generation may be charged with the blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world” (11:49-50). In other words, Jesus not only stands among his disciples and the crowds as a young adult speaking person to person with them; he also somehow stands above and beyond history, positioned as the one responsible for God’s long appeal for his people’s affections. In the language of later Christian faith, Jesus seems somehow to be both human and divine. C.S. Lewis captures this curious feature of the text well in God in the Dock:

On one occasion this Man is sitting looking down on Jerusalem from the hill above it and suddenly in comes an extraordinary remark—‘I keep on sending you prophets and wise men.’ Nobody comments on it. And yet, quite suddenly, almost incidentally, He is claiming to be the power that all through the centuries is sending wise men and leaders into the world.

The second feature of the text that draws my attention is how Jesus predicts his soon-to-happen arrival in Jerusalem. The crowds, spreading out their cloaks so that Jesus can ride into the city on a kind of makeshift red carpet, will cry out, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.” Presumably, what they mean is, “How fortunate and happy is Jesus, the one who comes bearing the blessing and authority of our God, ‘Adonai,’ the One Who Is.” (“Lord,” after all, was the common Jewish substitute for God’s proper name, the unutterable Tetragrammaton, “YHWH.”)

The reason this is a noteworthy thing is that throughout the Gospel of Luke Jesus himself is often called by this same title. In our readings for this week, consider these two examples: “Then the Lord said to [a Pharisee], ‘Now you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness’” (11:39). “But the Lord answered [the leader of a synagogue] and said, ‘You hypocrites!’” (13:15).

Jesus is called “Lord,” just as Israel’s God is called “Lord.” What should we make of this?

The best explanation I know of comes from the scholar Kavin Rowe, a professor of New Testament studies at Duke Divinity School. Carefully sifting all of the uses of this word Lord (kyrios in Greek) in the Gospel of Luke, Rowe concludes that the author intentionally binds together, by means of this designation Lord, the identities of both Jesus and the Lord of Israel. There is, in Rowe’s scholarly jargon, a “kyriotic [or ‘lord’-ly] overlap” between Jesus and God. Jesus and God are one. As Rowe puts it succinctly, “[T]o ask after the identity of the kyrios [‘Lord’ in Luke’s Gospel] is to answer theos [‘God’] and Iēsous [‘Jesus’].” Jesus, in other words, is not other than the God of Israel, and the God of Israel is not other than Jesus the Lord. They are, together, the one Lord whom Israel has always longed for and prayed to. This is a great and high mystery — and one that wouldn’t fully be worked out in adequate theological language until the later church councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon.

Which explains, ultimately, why our readings for this week begin with Jesus’ announcement: “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (11:20). “Look around you,” Jesus says in effect to the crowds following him. “As you see me deliver people from demonic oppression, you are watching God’s healing reign take shape before your eyes.”

Jesus is not merely a storyteller or an effective counselor or a compassionate physician or a prophet for social change. More fundamentally — and more mysteriously — he is the God of Israel “in person.” He is the Lord whose finger imparts the saving reign of God that Israel had long anticipated. And for that reason, we can trust him when he says, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).



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