Luke 11. 47-end and Romans 3.21–30
“I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute.”
Being a prophet is a dangerous game. Jesus himself recognised that ‘a prophet is never welcome in his own town’ (Luke 4.24). In today’s passage (from Luke 11) he expands on that theme. He appears to quote from Scripture, when he says that the Wisdom of God has said ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute’ – but actually, there is no single verse of the Hebrew Bible which puts the case in quite that way. Nevertheless, it is a consistent general theme of Scripture – and Jesus is effectively summarising it for his listeners.
He does so as part of a blistering attack on the religious leaders of his day – who he has just accused (in earlier verses) of complete hypocrisy. He describes how they tithe their wealth, but fail to lift a hand to help or bless the poor. He rails at them for their greed and their injustice, and for how they love to take the places of honour in gatherings. He roundly criticises them for loading people with rules and regulations, rather than showing them love and generosity.
But now, in today’s passage, he takes special aim at the way these religious leaders love to build tombs and memorials for the prophets of old, without paying any attention to what those self-same prophets taught and preached in their lifetimes. This is of course a tendency that we all share, to a greater or lesser extent. We are all very capable of putting notable dead people onto pedestals, without necessarily living, ourselves, by the principles they espoused. Or we are very capable of choosing only those parts of a prophet’s wisdom that are most convenient for us to follow.
What do I mean?
Well let’s consider a prophet like Moses. He was, in so many ways, the single most influential prophet (other than Jesus himself) in the history of Judaism and Christianity. He codified, in clearly written laws, how we should behave towards God and one another. These were, of course, summarised in the 10 Commandments, which at the Reformation were legally mandated to be nailed to the wall of every church in our land. You can still see examples of them in churches all over this area. But those ’10 Commandment Boards’ were like the tombs and memorials erected by the religious leaders against whom Jesus railed. They were nailed onto the walls of our churches by the command of a monarchy and church hierarchy who, themselves, often had no interest in living by the self-same commandments. How could a King who wanted to conquer France ever claim that he was not coveting his neighbour’s possessions?
And we, too, treat Moses in a similarly selective manner, don’t we? We all agree - I hope – with his command not to murder each other – unless a criminal has done something really horrific, and then the cries of ‘bring back hanging’ quickly surface. And what about his command to give a tenth of all we earn to the work of God? The church’s bank balance tells me what we answer. Or his prohibition against graven images of things in or above the world? I’m looking at stained glass pictures of angels, right now. Or his command to keep the Sabbath holy? How many of us cause our neighbours to have to work on Sunday (the Christian Sabbath) – in Waitrose or the Coffee Shop - for our convenience?
We do the same to modern prophets too. Who here would deny that Mother Theresa was a living Saint? And yet how often do we rouse ourselves to give aid to the poor, as she did? Who could deny that Martin Luther King was not a modern prophet? And yet, how often do we tut contemptuously at footballers taking the knee.
No, just like the religious leaders of old, we are fully capable of raising up great prophets as examples to follow – and then steadfastly refusing to actually follow their examples ourselves. This is our human curse. We are completely capable of holding two completely opposite views in our head at the same time. We can agree with all our heart that such and such a course of action is the right one to take, and then at the same time utterly fail to do that very thing.
St Paul recognised this essential weakness in our human nature. As we heard in our reading from his letter to the Romans, he knew that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’. Perhaps this ability to hold two entirely contradictory ideas in our heads is exactly what falling short of the Glory of God means. God cannot be anything but consistent with who God is, and what God knows to be right. He would not, and cannot, act contrary to his (or her) own nature, and contrary to what he knows to be right. But we can. That is our sin, our hypocrisy, and our curse.
But thanks be to God, that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, celebrated at this and every Eucharist, we have been given a way to be restored to a God-like state of harmony. Through living and active faith in Jesus, we have a way to resolve the conflict with which we all live. How? By simply asking ourselves in every situation that our hypocrisy inspires the simple question, ‘what would Jesus do?’.
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