Much has been made lately of a “king Jesus” gospel that turns the focus of the biblical drama to the kingdom of God, along with Jesus’ lordship over that kingdom. This makes saving faith for some commenters more a matter of allegiance than trust. Will we be loyal subjects of the king? The emphasis on Jesus’ lordship related to the kingdom is not wrong as clearly the gospels and other NT texts make connections between Jesus and David. Luke clearly does as well. But I want to suggest that this is not the primary way that the gospel writers in particular want us to think of Jesus. In Luke, the majority of the biblical allusions refer not to David, but to Moses, Elijah, Daniel, an indication that Jesus is fundamentally the prophet of God.
So, for Luke and the other gospel writers, Jesus is not so much a king-prophet as a prophet-king. And I think this distinction is an important one. The most problematic aspect of Israel’s faith was what Brueggemann refers to as the “royal consciousness,” the idea that the crown and the temple are inviolable, which inevitably allows those in power to ignore the poor and needy. The persistent form of “royal consciousness” in Christian history, particularly in the West, is triumphalism. The “king Jesus” gospel just invites these vulnerabilities to be foregrounded.
The antidote to the royal consciousness has always been the prophetic voice, and in Luke this is the primary form the ministry of Jesus takes. The gospel in Luke is good news for the poor, the lowly being lifted up and the powerful being pulled down from their thrones. In Luke Johnson’s words, we have a prophetic Jesus and a prophetic church.
As in all the gospels, the meaning of the whole story turns on the death and resurrection. The gospel writers do not leave us with a single interpretation of Jesus’ death, but give us four distinct pictures. Luke’s portrayal ties the significance of Jesus’ death to the death of the prophets that came before him. His death is the prophetic sign of his ministry.
At a strategic moment in Luke’s gospel, after having already predicted his death on two occasions, Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). A few chapters later he offers a lament over Jerusalem: “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!” (13:34). This lament over Jerusalem matches woes he delivers to the Pharisees in 11:37-52. Here, at the conclusion of a string of woes, Jesus implicates them in the killing of God’s prophets from “Abel to Zechariah.”
“Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed. So you are witnesses and approve of the deeds of your ancestors; for they killed them, and you build their tombs. Therefore also the Wisdom of God 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, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be charged against this generation” (11:47-52).
In setting his face to Jerusalem, then, Jesus is clearly aligning his death with the “blood of all the prophets shed since the foundation of the world,” for which “this generation”” will be held responsible. The judgement against “this generation” finds an echo in Peter’s sermon in Acts 2. After calling the crowd to repentance and baptism, “he testified with many other arguments and exhorted them, saying, ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation’” (Acts 2:40). Jesus’ death and subsequent resurrection in Luke clearly has something to do with this identification with the righteous who have suffered unjustly throughout history. His own death at the hands of those within this generation will pull back the curtain on all that has gone before.
The cross is not merely atonement for personal sin in Luke. It’s not personal guilt that Jesus is concerned about in Luke 11 or that Peter is in Acts 2. The problem is much bigger than personal guilt. The problem is the way the world works. The problem is that God keeps sending prophets and the world as it is arranged keeps killing them.
At the climax of the scenes related to Jesus’ trial, Luke makes it clear that his killing is a group effort. “Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people,” he reports. This is bigger than the decision of an evil person or group of people. The momentum that leads to Jesus’ death sentence feels more like a social contagion. This
is underlined by Pilate’s repeated findings of Jesus’ innocence. Four times, including three in this climactic scene, Pilate finds “no grounds for sentencing him to death” (23:4,14,22). But the crowd is unmoved by Pilate’s finding and shouts over him, “Crucify him!” They prefer that Pilate release Barabbas, a convicted insurrectionist and murderer. This is a lynching. An innocent man, an unruly mob, complicit authorities, all overcome by a certain social momentum.
Trading Jesus for Barabbas makes no sense from a public safety standpoint. The crucifixion of Jesus is not about justice or safety, but unmasks a deeper motivation to maintain social control and cohesion. Though Pilate finds nothing in Jesus to sentence him to death, he gives in to the crowd’s desire to crucify him, conceivably to avoid the social unrest that might come if he refused. More, Luke reports that one result of the series of interrogations that Jesus faces is “(T)hat same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies” (23:12). Herod, Pilate, the chief priests, and the people all find a place of unity in the violent death of Jesus. The killing of Jesus has kept, and even made, an unholy peace.
The thing about belonging to a way of being in the world that keeps the peace through violence is that the victims need to stay dead. Jesus knew this. His woes against the Pharisees and lawyers seem to indicate this. He compares the Pharisees “to unmarked graves, and people walk over them without realizing it” (11:44). He seems to be saying that their surface observance of the law obscures the neglect of deeper matters related to justice. Their piety, in this case, covers death. The words with which Jesus condemns the lawyers, however, makes the point more directly. The lawyers build tombs for the prophets whom their ancestors killed. This might have two interpretations. One interpretation which is supplied by the text is that by building the tombs, they approve of the activity of their ancestors. I think the implication of Jesus’ words, however, runs deeper. They are honoring these whom they have unjustly killed, blunting the offense of the violence, burying it, literally. They are using the deaths of the prophets as propaganda for the very system that killed them.
I can’t help thinking of the monuments and streets and commemorations made in our day for prophets like Martin Luther King, Jr. The very system that builds monuments to him, still suppresses minority voting, incarcerates young black men at appallingly high rates, and pro- vides limited access to quality schooling and housing. King is publicly championed as advocating that people be judged, not by their race, but by the content of their character. Suppressed are his attitudes about war and poverty and systemic racism. In this way, the monuments serve as propaganda for the very system that killed him. I think something like this is what Jesus has in mind in Luke 11.
The inconvenient matter in the killing of Jesus, however, is that he didn’t stay dead. He refused to be a monument or a street name. The amazing scene of Acts 2:1-4, including a violent wind and tongues of fire, is explained by Peter as the result of God having raised this Jesus from the dead. The remarkable thing from Peter’s sermon at Pentecost is the offer of peace to those complicit in the death of Jesus. “Repent and be baptized everyone of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, so that your sins might be forgiven and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, and your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Acts 2:38-39). Jesus offers peace, not through scapegoating or retributive violence, but through the giving of his own life that pulls back the curtain on the myth of redemptive violence, showing it for what it is–injustice. More, the risen Jesus offers life under a different power than that offered by the rulers of this “corrupt generation” who rule at the end of a sword. Jesus offers instead the Holy Spirit, power for a life that makes peace in a way other than control, coercion, and state sanctioned violence.
Jesus lives and performs his ministry in the power of the Spirit. The same Spirit that animated the prophets before him, rests on him and marks him as God’s anointed one. His death serves as a prophetic sign against those in power, the rulers of this age and the corrupt of this generation. His death makes it plain that the killing of the prophets before him, those who stood on behalf of the poor against rulers and powers, is unjust and noticed by God. His resurrection is the sign that the power of the Spirit is among the poor, lifting up the lowly, and creating bonds of solidarity–a new community– beyond the power of rulers and kings.
In the next post, I want to write a little about how some of the parables function in Luke to give us surprising insight into who Jesus is and what his ministry entails.