In Review

Today, Tomorrow, and the Next Day

By Matthew Ichihashi Potts

31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. 33 Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ 34 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! 35 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 13:31–35 (NRSV)

We come to this lesson from the Gospel of Luke early in the season of Lent this year. Lent is the 40-day season of fasting and preparation that precedes Easter. And the Revised Common Lectionary, the schedule of scripture readings we share with many Christian churches, usually approaches Lent narratively. That is to say, in the several weeks before Holy Week and Easter each year, we tend to focus in our Sunday lessons upon the different accounts of Jesus’s journey from Galilee, toward Jerusalem, and his final days there. We hear stories of Jesus leaving his local ministry and making his way toward the holy city of Jerusalem, ministering and healing and teaching along the way. The scripture I reflect upon here falls in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. In Year C we hear Luke’s version of this journey, and Luke 13:31–35 is read on the second Sunday in Lent in Year C. So Jesus and his disciples are right at the beginning of their travels toward his passion, and so are we, on this second Sunday in Lent.

Now, each of the gospels is structured differently, and one of the interesting things about the Gospel of Luke is that about half of it is actually an account of Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem, a lot of which is read during Lent. In the first seven or eight chapters of Luke’s gospel, we find the Christmas story, followed by Jesus’s early ministry in Galilee. Then Jesus is transfigured and, once he goes down the mountain, he heads out toward Jerusalem. Most of his major teachings happen on the way from Galilee to Jerusalem, as well as many of his miracles, including the most important healing miracles.

In Luke 13 Jesus is on his way, but he’s taking some time to parry with the Pharisees, who play an important role in all the gospels and also in the Gospel of Luke. The Pharisees are often set as opponents to Jesus, and it’s probably fair to say that the gospels present a caricature of the Pharisees. It’s certainly true that the Christian tradition has unfairly caricatured the Pharisees at best and vilified them at worst. But the truth is, in ancient Judea, at the time of Jesus, the Pharisees and Jesus had a lot in common. Their teachings were very similar, and there are clues to this similarity in our Gospel of Luke, where Jesus is usually arguing with them, but he’s doing so over dinner, at their houses. These are theological conversations, not sectarian confrontations. Jesus invites them over or they invite him over, and they talk, because they want to have a conversation, because they respect him as a teacher and they want to ask him genuine questions.

This is true in other gospels as well. In the Gospel of John, for example, Nicodemus, who receives Jesus’s body after his crucifixion, is a Pharisee. While the Pharisees are portrayed as antagonists and opponents in the gospel, they are also fellow travelers. They ask similar questions, and sometimes they are students at Jesus’s feet. They invite Jesus to dinner, to converse with and learn from him. A further reason we might have some sympathy with the Pharisees in the Gospel of Luke is that Jesus tends to start these arguments. In a preceding passage, one of these Pharisees invited Jesus to dinner, and immediately Jesus started haranguing him for inviting the wrong people. And so the context of this journey of Jesus and the Pharisees is complicated, and we should be careful not simply to assume a straightforward antagonism.

The Pharisees also have no love for the tetrarch Herod, who is like a minor king in Galilee, and who is the son of Herod the Great, who was king of the region when Jesus
was born. In the first line of our gospel reading, the Pharisees come to Jesus and say, “Get out of here, because Herod wants to kill you.” I think this is a genuine warning. Some in the history of the church have read this invocation of Herod as a ruse: the Pharisees just want to get rid of Jesus, so they invoke Herod’s name to scare Jesus off. But I don’t think so; I think this warning is sincere. Herod was the ruler of Galilee, and Galilee was not part of Judea at the time. The Pharisees were coming and warning Jesus to get out of Galilee, to get out of Herod’s jurisdiction: “Herod has just killed John the Baptist, and now he wants to kill you. Go be safe somewhere else.”

IN SCRIPTURE

This essay is an edited version of a sermon delivered on Sunday, March 13, 2022, at the Memorial Church, Harvard University.

medieval drawing of three chickens on top of a fox

CC-PD

What the Pharisees don’t know, or perhaps don’t realize, is that Jesus is already on his way out of town, already leaving Herod’s jurisdiction for Jerusalem. So Jesus’s rejoinder is: “Go and tell that fox for me, . . . today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will finish my work. Today, tomorrow, and the next day I am on my way.” He calls Herod a fox.

I am half Japanese, and in Japanese culture, the fox—the kitsune—is a mythic trickster. He’s a shape-shifter, often getting into trouble, manipulating humans, and doing devious things. This is true in ancient Western literature as well. In the Greek literature that would have been current at the time of this gospel’s writing, the fox was known as sly and devious. So Jesus is insulting Herod with his retort, “Go tell that fox that I’m leaving anyway.” You can imagine the tone here: “Okay, I’m going, but not because I’m scared of him, just because I was already going.”

Then this insult is followed by a verse of lament, with Jesus expressing a longing to protect Jerusalem and the Judean people. This lament is made more poignant when we know that this gospel was written after the destruction of Jerusalem. In the year 70 AD, the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem, destroyed it, tore down the temple, burned buildings, and killed perhaps tens of thousands of people, crucifying many of them and making slaves of thousands more. A city besieged, civilians assaulted by devastating military forces, and innocents ruthlessly killed: this is a familiar story for us today, I’m sorry to say. And in the midst of all this, while Jesus is lamenting the fall of Jerusalem and all of this death and destruction for the people he so longs to protect, Jesus compares himself to a chicken.

Almost a year ago now, my family and I moved to Cambridge after living 10 years in Falmouth, Massachusetts, down on Cape Cod. While we lived in Falmouth, we kept chickens, six of them, all named after saints. My stepfather-in-law and I built a chicken coop that was in the shape of a church in the backyard of our parsonage. I learned a lot about chickens—that they’re not very nice to each other, for example. They constantly peck each other, and they have a “pecking order,” a strict hierarchy of control and authority, and often even of abuse. One chicken was always in charge, and her name was Julian, after my favorite saint, Julian of Norwich.

Another thing I learned is that anybody who keeps chickens for very long loses chickens, because almost everything in the wild that eats animals, eats chickens. And so, when my parents would bring their dog into the backyard, all the chickens would run into the coop—except for one. The one at the top of the pecking order would stay outside. And when the hawk would fly into the trees above our backyard, all the chickens would run into the coop, except for one, who would walk back and forth, outside, in front of the coop. Almost everything in nature eats hens. Hawks eat hens, weasels eat hens, even raccoons will kill a chicken and eat it. And perhaps most famously, as the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor has observed, another creature that loves to eat chickens is the fox. When the fox shows up, the hen stands firm and the other chickens scatter to hide. The defense strategy of chickens is sacrifice.

medieval drawing of three chickens on top of a chicken coop

Detail from “The Hen House and Its Predators” in Cynegetica by Pseudo-Oppian (3rd CE). Illuminated Greek manuscript, 11th CE Alfredo Dagli Orti / Art Resource, NT

So when Jesus turns to the Pharisees and says, “Today, tomorrow, and the next day, I must be on my way to Jerusalem,” we who know what will happen in Jerusalem understand what Jesus is saying. He is not just getting out of town, he’s not just traveling, and he’s not just running away from Herod. He is running toward Pontius Pilate. In fact, in Luke’s version of the gospel (and only in Luke’s version), Herod happens to be in Jerusalem when Jesus gets there, and Jesus is brought before Herod as part of his trial. So Jesus is not running away from Herod at all. He is running toward Herod, running toward his own death. What Jesus is saying to the Pharisees and to the readers of this gospel is: “Herod is a fox, and I am a hen, and you are the brood. And you will all scatter.” And they all do. None of these disciples who listen to Jesus, who follow Jesus, who call him their friend and teacher and master, none of them will be by his side when he meets Herod in Jerusalem and dies at the end of this season of Lent on Good Friday.

Jesus’s message in this gospel passage is a message for the journey of Lent, but also for beyond Lent. This day, and tomorrow, and the next day, Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem. Over the course of Lent, as the weeks of this season pass, Jesus will draw closer and closer to Jerusalem. We readers will travel with him, and we will watch the disciples scatter at the end of Lent on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

This year, though, there’s also something different in Jesus’s message, at least as I read it. The lament for Jerusalem, as I noted before, sounds terribly current and contemporary, because we have seen bombs and missiles falling in Ukraine, because we have seen civilians targeted, and because we have seen people scattering. In the space of two months, thousands of civilians have been killed and thousands more have been wounded and more than 4.8 million people have fled Ukraine, with over 7 million more having been displaced within the country itself.

Every one of those people has a story, a life as real as yours or mine, and they are scattering everywhere, even to Cambridge. Just two weeks into the war, a young girl from Ukraine arrived at my eight-year-old son’s school here in Cambridge, arriving with her family in our town with nothing but the clothes on their backs. I am moved by this analogy of the fox and the hen that Jesus gives us, and I see Jesus going before Herod and Pilate, and I know what will happen at the end of Lent. But I’m also asking, as I watch these millions of people flee: What about the brood? What about all those who have been scattered? What do they do now?

There is an answer in this passage, I think, but also a way to misread the answer. Jesus says, “Today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way.” And he also says, “Today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work.” He specifies in this phrasing the “third day,” and for those of us who do know what happens in Jerusalem at the end of Lent, it is hard not to hear echoes of resurrection here. The resurrection, Easter morning, is what happens on the third day, and resurrection is what is promised to the brood. That is when Jesus finishes his work, and that is when this is all resolved. This journey to Jerusalem that we take with Jesus is not just a journey to Good Friday. It’s also a journey to Easter morning, of course. But we who read the gospel closely and we who look at the news closely today must also face facts. The brood was just as scattered Easter morning as they were Good Friday afternoon. On Easter morning, when the women go to that tomb, the flock is still far-flung and the tomb is empty.

One of the resurrection appearances that is unique to the Gospel of Luke is the Emmaus story, which takes place right after the events of Easter morning, on Easter day. Two disciples are running away from Jerusalem, getting out of town. And for good reason: this man who they followed was just tortured and murdered in front of them. All their friends have run to the winds, and they are running too. These two men see Jesus, but they meet him as a stranger on the road. Over supper together, they recognize him as Jesus, but as soon as they recognize him, he disappears from their sight. The flock is still far-flung. The tomb is still empty. And even when Jesus appears, he’s gone as soon as you see him.

So what is the difference between Sunday afternoon and Friday afternoon in Jerusalem? The difference is found within those disciples at Emmaus, because after Jesus disappears from their sight, even though he has disappeared from their sight, they look at each other and say, “Let’s go back to Jerusalem.” The difference is that this vision, this appearing, inspires them. It makes them resolve to step into Jesus’s place and to take up Jesus’s ministry as their own. They resolve to serve the poor and to care for the wounded and to comfort the frightened and to welcome the refugee in Jesus’s place, in his stead and in his name. They stop running away, and they turn around and run back.

Today, tomorrow, and the next day people are fleeing from violence. The brood is scattered again and again. We can see it on the news. It is happening in Ukraine, now, but this is not new. The Romans did this to Jeru-salem: the buildings were burned, the city was razed, and innocent people were murdered and enslaved and massacred. Among those killed, we may be sure, were many of the Pharisees Jesus is talking to and other followers of Jesus. And it’s not new in our day, either. What Vladimir Putin’s army has done to Ukraine, it has also done to Chechnya and to Syria in recent years, and I am worried by how little attention we gave to those conflicts, worried that—because those people were less white or less Christian—perhaps we deemed them less worthy of our attention and our sympathy.

Today, in Yemen, another government attacks civilian populations. In our own hemisphere, in Central America, people flee violence, persecution, and terror. According to the words of this gospel, Jesus longs to gather these folks together, to protect them, but instead they gather to us, looking for refuge, for comfort, for care in our country, in this city, and even in my son Danny’s school. “Today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work,” Jesus says. But the work continues. It remains unfinished, because it has been left to us, to you and to me, to our today and to our tomorrow and to all our days to come. It has been left to us as our commission and our work and our gift, both to accept and to accomplish.

Matthew Ichihashi Potts, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard Divinity School and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, analyzes Christian ethical and sacramental practices while employing resources of theory, Christian theology, and literature. He is author of Cormac McCarthy and the Signs of Sacrament: Literature, Theology, and the Moral of Stories (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015) and Forgiveness: On Accountability and Atonement (Yale University Press, forthcoming).

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