In the world of opera, a leitmotif is a passage of music that is used to identify a particular character. Thus, when a certain character enters or leaves the stage, or sings an aria that is particularly associated with them, this passage of music is played first, acting as a kind of cue to the audience: it tells them who is about to appear or depart, or who is taking centre stage in the action. Thus, for example, in the opera La Boheme, the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini wrote a particular passage of music which is exclusively associated with the central characters Mimi and Rodolfo; it is present when they sing a pair of matching arias in Act One, and again when they sing a long duet in Act Three. This leitmotif both identifies them as individual characters, but also represents their relationship; whenever the leitmotif is played, the audience knows that something associated with Mimi and/or Rodolfo is about to happen.
Of course, the leitmotif is a device that is not restricted to musical composition; it is also present in disciplines as varied as architecture and fashion, cuisine and art. And so it should come as no surprise to discover that the leitmotif also crops up in the Bible; the authors of the various biblical texts use the leitmotif to encapsulate their key themes, to alert the reader to the “bigger picture” that is happening through and around the particular scenes and episodes depicted in any given passage.
The Gospels are no exception, and I have spoken before about the need to pay attention to the theological themes that form the superstructure around which each of the Gospels were written. We must always remember that the Gospel writers were not simply writing biography or history as this is understood in the modern context – they were also trying to convey a message, a response to the question: who was this person Jesus? And in order to provide an answer to that question, they developed themes or leitmotifs that acted as cues to the audiences to whom they were writing.
In last week’s reading, we explored how Luke used religious and political themes to explore who Jesus is, and who he isn’t. In doing so, we saw how Luke used these themes and what they reveal about Jesus as a kind of premonition about what would happen to him and why; how Jesus’ liberating mission would be confused with the messianic expectations that were common at the time, and how this confusion would frame the response of both his followers and the religious authorities.
This week’s reading, from much later in Luke’s Gospel, acts as a kind of reprise: once more, the religious and political themes emerge; and once more we have this exploration of who Jesus is and isn’t. But whereas last week’s reading acted as a kind of premonition of the danger into which Jesus would travel and the fate that would await him, this week that danger and threat are front and centre; and we see Jesus’ own reaction. But that reaction itself is instructive: for it reveals something of the nature of God, and of the purpose for which Jesus was sent.
Today’s passage occurs in the midst of a long sequence in Luke’s Gospel in which Jesus is teaching about the Kingdom of God through a series of parables. And the message of these parables is clear: the grace and mercy of God subverts the assumptions and conceits of the powerful and the respectable, so that the Kingdom of God exists as much (if not more) for the outcast and the despised as for the righteous and the devout. And when you have a political and social system that is predicated on the pre-eminence of the self-styled elect, this is an explosive message: it contains the seeds of revolution, of the overthrow of the established order.
So some Pharisees come and warn Jesus that he has earned the wrath of the King, Herod Antipas, the son of Herod the Great. Herod has already disposed of John the Baptist for his outspoken criticism of the king’s conduct; now, the Pharisees warn Jesus, the king has him firmly in his murderous sights. Why the Pharisees, with whom Jesus repeatedly clashed, would warn him, is not clear: perhaps they just wanted to get rid of Jesus by frightening him off; perhaps, like Nicodemus in John’s Gospel, some of them were becoming curious about this Galilean who taught with such power and authority; perhaps they feared Herod’s response to their own ineffectual efforts to tame this unruly preacher from the backblocks. Whatever the reason, the message is clear: Jesus has trodden on some powerful political toes, for which the consequences will be dire.
Jesus, perhaps suspecting the Pharisees’ motives, gives an unusually blunt response; but even in its bluntness, there are layers of subtlety and meaning.
By calling Herod a “fox”, Jesus is mocking his pretensions to royalty. Whereas the ancient kings of Israel were known as “lions” and held power in their own right, Herod is nothing more than a client of the Romans; he rules only at their sufferance. So Jesus is saying, in effect, that Herod is to a real king what a fox is to a lion. But he is also contrasting Herod’s kingship to Jesus’ own Lordship: whereas Herod rules a patch of dirt at the behest of an earthly power, Jesus is Lord of all through the sovereignty of the God he calls his “Heavenly Father”. Jesus is Messiah and Redeemer, whose rule and Kingdom are not to be confused with the earthly dimensions of petty despots.
But Jesus also knows that foxes can be dangerous, and in this respect Luke has him engaging in an intriguing bit of word play. The word in Greek which means “finished” – teleio – is ambiguous: it could mean that Jesus is saying his work will be finished soon; or it could mean that Jesus knows that he himself will shortly be finished. In other words, this nicely ambiguous word has Jesus recognising that Herod would like to get rid of him, to “finish him off”, just as he did John the Baptist. But here again we have the irony of contrasts: for although Jesus knows Herod is a threat to him individually, and has the power to have him arrested and killed, this threat will not “finish” the work Jesus has begun. Post Pentecost, the Holy Spirit will be both the ongoing presence of God in the world, and the agency through which Jesus’ ministry will continue; the Church, as the “Body of Christ”, is charged with receiving the Spirit just as Jesus did in his own baptism, and in proclaiming the Kingdom of God over against the oppressive powers of human societies and institutions.
But there is also the recognition of a wider threat. Writing in the second half of the 1st century, Luke knows that the incompetence and political machinations of Herod Antipas and his family will eventually force the Romans to impose direct rule on the Jewish people; and that the indignity of this imposition will be one of the factors that provoke the Jewish revolt of AD68-70 – a revolt that will end up with the destruction of the Temple. And this reality ties into Jesus’ lament for Jerusalem: for just as the prophets witnessed that the corruption and evil of the kings brought destruction upon the people of ancient Israel, so the corruption of their present institutions would do likewise for the Jews of Jesus’ generation. Again, this contrasts with the nature of God’s rule, which Luke articulates through Jesus’ own longing for Jerusalem; the Kingdom of God is not that which, through corruption, brings down death and destruction. Rather, God’s longing is to draw humanity into that transformed and restored condition that is the Kingdom of God, in which creation is liberated from, rather than enslaved to, the powers of death. And in this contrast lies a warning: just as Jesus rejected the temptation to earthly power, so must the Church; otherwise, the Church becomes just another instrument of oppression and death. Luke was saying to his community that their powerlessness in the face of despots and tyrants was not a disadvantage but a necessary condition; for we can only be free once we lay aside those powers. Liberation was not a matter of holding power, but of freeing oneself from the necessity of wielding it.
A freedom that is itself expressed through the image of the hen sheltering her brood under her wings. Confronted by a fox, a hen sheltering her chicks is likely to be killed along with her young; but this is exactly the kind of self-giving love which Christians are called on to be and embody, to emulate the Lenten journey to the Cross which Christ himself travelled in his own life and ministry. This is not the vainglorious martyrdom of the fanatic, but the measured realisation that our faith calls upon us to give of ourselves for the sake of others, just as God in Jesus gave up both godhood and life for the sake of humanity. And just as Jesus, through his self-giving love draws humanity into the life of God, so we are called upon to give of ourselves so that we may become the agents through which others are drawn into the orbit of God’s grace. We will be mocked and reviled, we will be persecuted and marginalised; but if we love the world regardless, then we will prevail. Not in the sense of getting our own way or converting everyone to our view; but in the sense that love will continue to abide in the world, and the powers of death and oppression will not go unchallenged.
For what the leitmotifs from this week’s and last week’s readings from Luke’s Gospel remind us is that Christianity is not apolitical. Which is not to say that Christianity is politically partisan; but that all political viewpoints are critiqued from the perspective of the Gospel. And when any of those viewpoints – whether progressive or conservative, traditional or emerging – enslave human dignity to the prerogatives of power and ambition, then Christians are called upon to proclaim the Gospel message of liberation and redemption for all. And if that means we must be hens among foxes, if that means we must place ourselves at risk in order to speak truth to power, then we should remember two things: firstly, that we serve a Lordship and a Kingdom that, while not of this world, is for this world, and is motivated only by love; and, secondly, that we do not undertake this journey on our own – for in a broken and bleeding body unjustly nailed to a Cross we have God’s companionship with us in the depths of our own brokenness and suffering; and in Jesus’ outstretched arms we have the power of love that encompasses the whole of creation, and which declares: Do not be afraid, for you are mine.
 Loader, William, “First Thoughts on Year C Gospel Passages from the Lectionary: Lent 2”, located at http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/LkLent2.htm, accessed 22.2.13