The Sarcasm of Jesus (Luke 13:31-35)


At that same time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “You must get out of here and go somewhere else, because Herod wants to kill you.”Jesus answered them, “Go and tell that fox: ‘I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I shall finish my work.’ Yet I must be on my way today, tomorrow, and the next day; it is not right for a prophet to be killed anywhere except in Jerusalem. “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! You kill the prophets, you stone the messengers God has sent you! How many times I wanted to put my arms around all your people, just as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would not let me! And so your Temple will be abandoned.I assure you that you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘God bless him who comes in the name of the Lord.’ “


I’ve been to Jerusalem. It was nearly three years ago now, and my memory has faded somewhat, but I’ve got some slides I can show you!

No, don’t panic! I haven’t got them with me! In fact, I didn’t take any slides while I was there. I took some video, but I don’t have that with me either. At any rate, it was primarily video of prisons and riots and other life-threatening scenes associated with the release of my buddy, Morde Vanunu, which is why I was there. It wasn’t much of a holiday.

‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! What an enchanting city!’ Many people feel that. I’m not one of them. There are many cities around the world that I have had the privilege of visiting, and to which I would love to return one day. Jerusalem is not one of them.

On the contrary, my experience of Jerusalem was summed up by one aid worker who said to me,‘you know that bit in the book of Ezekiel where it says how the Spirit of God up and left the city? It’s a lot like that here, isn’t it?’

So many people nonetheless do feel drawn to the city, and not only for sentimental reasons or out of historical interest, but for solid religious reasons. For Jerusalem is indeed the ‘holy city’ for not one but three of the major world religions!

People come to the holy city because it is a place where holy events took place and where some very special holy people once walked. And millions will testify that you can still sense the presence of the transcendent in that holy city, even though others, like me, sense only the stench of death.

Certainly, at any rate, I think we could all agree that Jerusalem is a unique city, as our Gospel reading today is a unique passage, for it is, as far as I know, the only recorded incident we have in the life of Jesus where He uses sarcasm:

“It is not right for a prophet to be killed anywhere except in the Holy City, Jerusalem”

Why is it only ‘appropriate’ or ‘fitting’ that Jesus be murdered in Jerusalem? Because it is the Holy City, where God chose to ‘make His name to dwell‘. Where else would we expect people to brutalise, mock and kill the very messengers that God sends to them? Jesus is being blatantly sarcastic, isn’t He? A modern translation might read, ‘I’ll be safe in Jerusalem, … NOT’!

Normally we associate this sort of sarcasm with cynicism, and with a negative outlook on life that is broadly hopeless and despairing, where one therefore laughs in order to avoid crying! This was certainly not Jesus’ mindset.

From where does the sarcasm of Jesus then arise? I think it must be simply from His appreciation of the tragic irony of the situation, whereby the holy city of God has become a focal point of destruction and death, though I believe in this dialogue, the sarcasm of Jesus extends beyond just the city itself, and is also a response to the other elements in the story. Let’s take a step back a bit.

We’re told at the beginning of Luke chapter 13 that this scene takes place on a Sabbath, after Jesus has been teaching people in a synagogue.

We assume this means He’d been invited to speak at the synagogue, though this is not necessarily the case. What is at least clear is that He had created quite a stir, and was subsequently approached by some Pharisees, who told him that he had better clear off!

“You must get out of here and go somewhere else”, they say, “because Herod wants to kill you!”

They seem to be genuinely concerned for Jesus, but it’s hard to know for sure what motivated them. Was the story about Herod true? Even if it was, were they really concerned for Jesus’ welfare or did they just want to get Him off their premises?

Perhaps these were the people who had invited Jesus to their synagogue, now realising that they might have bitten off more than they could chew when they welcomed Him through their door?

My guess is that their motives were mixed. Jesus, at any rate, ‘knew the hearts of men‘, we are told (John 2:25), and we know from His numerous encounters with these people that He never really trusted them.

This too is one of the great ironies of the New Testament, is it not – that time and time again it is the most seriously religious people that we meet there who turn out to be the most misled and dangerous?

We meet the Pharisees, in particular, frequently in the Gospels, but their appearance is almost always associated with something tragic or downright devious.

This is not the way things should have been!

These were the clergy of the people of God! These were persons who had given their whole lives over to prayer and to the study of the Scriptures. These were men who traced back their ancestry to the noble Hasidim – literally, ‘God’s loyal ones’ – who survived the takeover by the Babylonians, Persians and Greeks while refusing to compromise their spiritual beliefs or values.

These are the direct spiritual descendants of men like Ezra, who wrote down the words of the Lord and the traditions of the Jewish people, to provide a godly inheritance for the generations to come. These are the men who had fought to maintain the cultural identity of the people of Israel, to prevent them from simply being absorbed into the overpowering cultures of Greece and Rome, with all their immorality and excess.

And these are the men who were chiefly responsible for murdering the Son of God!

We are familiar with this irony, but we should not allow ourselves to be dulled to the tragedy of it. The priests and teachers of first century Israel had been tragically corrupted, and it was a corruption that flowed from the top on down.

‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem’ says Jesus, and no doubt His lament embraced these people too.

The other character in the story of course is King Herod, and if you know anything about Herod in the New Testament, you’ll know that he was a complete disaster.

My father, as a historian of the Ancient Near East, used to describe the Herod family as a great pile of maggots, with Herod Antipas (the Herod we read of today) not being the biggest maggot in the pile but quite possibly the fattest!

Herod ‘the Great’ – Antipas’ father – was the one who made his mark in the New Testament by ordering the murder of all the little boys in Bethlehem – an act of atrocious violence that was horribly typical of his life – the man having murdered many of his own family members in order to gain the throne.

Antipas, the son, appears to have had no more moral fibre than his father, and is best known in the New Testament for his dual crimes of marrying his brothers wife, and murdering John the Baptist after the preacher drew everybody’s attention to the corrupt nature of his ruler’s marriage.

Jesus refers to Herod in today’s reading as a fox, which in the language of the day was quite a contemptuous term, implying not only that he was devious but also insignificant. And it is indeed the insignificance of Herod in the greater plans of God that is the thrust of Jesus’ response to those who warn him of Herod’s impending action against Him.

Jesus is unconcerned about the plans and aspirations of this foxy maggot. “Go and tell that fox”, He says, “’I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I shall finish my work.’ “ (verse 32)

In other words, ‘you can tell Herod that I have my own agenda thank you very much and I am not the slightest bit interested in whatever it is he has planned for me.’

Jesus later meets Herod of course. If you remember the details of that encounter, you’ll remember that Jesus says nothing to him, possibly again a sign of contempt.

The great tragedy of Herod, of course, from a Biblical point of view, was that he was sitting on the throne of David! He was the ‘King of the Jews’ and from his position, he could have accomplished a great deal of good.

Herod could have been a sympathetic mediator between his people and their Roman overlords, campaigning for freedom of religion and helping keep the peace.

He could have been an inspiring example to his people, demonstrating to all what it meant to be a member of the people of God in a foreign culture.

He could, at the very least, have made some attempt to uphold the divine principles of integrity and justice in the way he dealt with his subjects.

Instead he, like his fathers before him, became a drunken, lustful, power-hungry maggot – a carbuncle on the backside of first century Judea. And so Jesus says, ‘Go tell that fox that I am sooo not interested in what he has planned for me!’

Hence the sarcasm of Jesus, shown towards the ‘holy city’, – “It is not right for a prophet to be killed anywhere except in Jerusalem” – extends, I think, to the so-called ‘holy men’ who dialogue with Him, and most certainly to that most unholy ruler, Herod, who sits, however inappropriately, on the holy throne of David.

Why is it always this way?

Why is it that the most scheming, devious and uncompromising manipulators are so often religious people? Why is it that the most violent and terrible wars are regularly religious crusades? How did it ever happen, that God’s own people came to destroy God’s own Son?

I gave some thought to this, and reflected back on my own relatively brief history, on all the people who have damaged me – from the people who turned their back on my mother when her relationship with my father broke down, to those who subsequently tried to sabotage the career of my father, to those who left me to rot when my marriage broke down, to others since who have slandered me, betrayed me, made up stories about me, and done their best to destroy me, and it occurred to me that all these people have one thing in common. They are all Christianpeople, and, most of them, I think, are basically good people too!

Most of the Pharisees were also, I suspect, good people for the most part. Herod wasn’t, but most of those people, who did so much damage, like most of their contemporaries today, were decent people, and the very people you would find worshiping alongside you on the Sabbath!

This is the way life is – that terrible of things are regularly done by very decent people, and often for the very best of reasons.

Those who killed Jesus were religious people who had ideals and values and a desire to protect their community, and for sure their motives were mixed, but they had their own good rational religious reasons as to why, logically, Jesus had to be silenced and put out of the way.

It doesn’t take much to twist genuine faith into something sick and destructive.

I look at the people of the Old Testament. There was a fine line between their unshakeable faith in the God who would never let His holy city be violated, and their fatuous optimism in the face of their own sinfulness. It doesn’t take much to turn a blessed assurance in God’s love for us into a horrible arrogance for people who have not experienced such grace. It’s not a big move, to go from standing up for what you believe to trying to smash down those who don’t agree with you.

How do we prevent these fundamental elements of our faith – our assurance and hope from becoming the basis of arrogance, prejudice and even violence? That’s a subject for another sermon. Today let it suffice for us to observe the response of Jesus:

“Jesus answered them, “Go and tell that fox: ‘I am driving out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I shall finish my work.’ “

God’s will will be done. Regardless of the obstructions of the government or of the machinations of men, God’s will will be done!

People will be healed, demons will be driven out, the work of God will be completed, regardless of all the foxes, magot, and decent-if-misguided people who get in the way.

‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem’. It is painful to see the good things of God twisted and perverted to the point where they oppose the very work they were supposed to support. Even so, the work of God goes on. God’s will will be done.

First preached by Father Dave Smith at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, March 2007. 

Rev. David B. Smith

Parish priest, community worker,
martial arts master, pro boxer,
author, father of four.


About Father Dave

Preacher, Pugilist, Activist, Father of four
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