To you, my friends, I say: Do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more (cf. Lk 12:4).
Jesus’ words here are bold words. I imagined myself there, at the scene, part of that huge crowd of thousands. I am hungry for Jesus’ truth. How would I have reacted to his words? Sure, I would have liked well enough being included among those whom Jesus calls his ‘friends’. But I must confess that I would also have felt a subtle resistance to the rest of that sentence, I think. He says, Do not be afraid of those who kill the body, but after that can do no more. I don’t think I would have wanted to hear about killing and being killed.
But Jesus, in this passage, is determined to challenge us, and to make his audience face the deepest of mysteries. He is going straight for what we most fear, straight for the most horrific thing we can imagine: our death. The very subject of death touches the rawest of raw nerves. In the face of death, if we are honest about our feelings, our sense of bewilderment, horror, loss, grief, disorientation, fear and even injustice and outrage surfaces – usually overwhelmingly. And this is the subject Jesus raises. Then, with simplicity, and without a hint of melodrama, he says that we have no reason to fear death, or to fear those who, out of malice, may cause our death. Recall: there are thousands listening to this speech. He wants everybody to know.
Why is Jesus talking about death? It now comes home to me that he does this because he alone, as Son of the Living God, is the only human being – ever – with authoritative knowledge of death. His teaching about death, therefore, is an integral part of his mission – it is his mission. It is even the Good News. Jesus is, I realise with a new clarity, about death. Or that’s one way of looking at it. Granted, perhaps it is far better to say it the other way round: that Jesus is about eternal life. But this way of putting it is extremely difficult to maintain at every moment of our existence because eternal life can only be fully experienced once we have died. And dying, despite everything Jesus teaches, looks exactly the same as it ever did. Moreover, the human species, by God’s design, is hard-wired to perpetuate its existence on earth; it therefore has a God-given, spontaneous recoil from death in the workings of every human instinct, appetite, and mental process.
But Jesus cannot NOT talk about death to us – not only because he knows that he will be put to death, but most importantly because death is our most fearsome enemy. He must tell us what he knows to be true about death. And he must give the example. How? By speaking the truth, even if it enrages the religious establishment to the point of wanting to kill him. And then by going courageously toward his own death on the Cross.
What are my personal feelings now as I ponder this episode from Luke? I am lingering over the idea of Jesus’ authoritative knowledge of death, trying to trust it. I want to trust it, but it is hard. My brain keeps thinking of arguments against this being true. How does he have this knowledge of death? Then I realise that we will never have the full answer to the question of Jesus’ knowledge – of anything. That is not information to which we have any access. Nevertheless, the gospels record that Jesus does know about death. He even foretells both his death and his resurrection long before it happens. We cannot know how he knows, but we can deduce from the things he does and the miracles he works that he is Lord, and that he speaks the truth.
Shall we stop for today, leaving these deep ponderings in the hands of the Holy Spirit, asking that we may be led to a new understanding? We will continue tomorrow.