Luke’s story of the Pharisees warning Jesus about Herod depicts Jesus as being particularly tenacious and heartbreakingly poignant.
To repaint the scene, some Pharisees warn Jesus to leave the area because Herod is out to get him. This seems to be out of genuine concern (we’re not told otherwise, and there are no parallels in the other gospels). In any event, Jesus had no plans to remain, though this had nothing to do with Herod. To make that point clear, he urges them to go to Herod (even if only rhetorically), to tell him that he’s not going to stop doing what he’s doing. Jesus will continue his journey to Jerusalem because he must, because it is impossible to think that a prophet would die elsewhere. This determination to make his way to Jerusalem reinforces Luke’s overarching journey theme, which began when Jesus ‘set his jaw for Jerusalem’ (9.51).
There is a justifiable tendency to read ‘necessity’ in such texts. It is easy to think that Jesus was fated to die, that his death was somehow preordained, that the blood sacrifice had to be made for our salvation. For better or worse, that is one way of reading the whole story from Candlemas (with Simeon’s prophecy of Mary’s sufferings) to the cross. However, the descriptions of Jesus’s resoluteness ought to undermine such thoughts of fatalistic inevitability. The more obvious narrative explanation is that Jesus’s death owes more to his decisions, to the logic of what he said and did, than to any pre-written script. There is undoubtedly a strange rightness to his ending up in Jerusalem, but that rightness is appreciated not by a glimpse into fate, but by the realisation that any other choice would have been the end of it all — instead of the culmination of it all.
It is sometimes helpful to wonder what might have happened had Jesus kept his head down, had he stopped preaching and healing. What if he’d refused to go to Jerusalem, what if he’d stayed on the periphery and not gone to the holy city itself, not proclaimed his message there, where it really mattered? What if his fear of death had been stronger than his belief in the coming Kingdom? Safe to say, it would have been all over. The dream would have fizzled; his disciples would have scattered. Seen in this light, Jesus’s death has nothing to do with fate, and everything to do with faithful choices. Indeed, the Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan suggested that Jesus’ sacrifice is best understood first in terms of Jesus’s choice to put his life on the line, and only secondarily in terms of his actual dying — the former is something he did (it was his sacrifice), the latter was something done to him. (Lonergan’s view of the Eucharist is similar: we are invited to share in Jesus’s attitude rather than in his physical death — the former is something actual, the latter is something we do symbolically, as a way ‘to put on the mind of Jesus’.)
But there is still more to this passage. Jesus’s decision to go to Jerusalem is not a political or dramatic calculation, even though the text suggests finality or even fulfilment. Neither is it a provocation or a grand geste. Though Jerusalem may well stone and kill the prophets, Jesus nonetheless longs for something else: he has longed to gather the people safely together, as a hen might gather her brood under her wings — to protect them from themselves. Later, in the nineteenth chapter (v. 41), Jesus actually weeps over Jerusalem for much the same reasons.
Jesus’s willingness to die, to put his life on the line for those who could hear his message — this was not a test of obedience to a divine decree (‘I must go on my way’), but was rather the out-flowing of his compassionate love. There is a strange rightness here, but there is no line of inevitability apart from the trajectory of love’s ‘dart to the heart’. Though we are smitten, we must still choose.
Joe Cassidy is Principal of St Chad’s College, Durham.