As the end-of-the-liturgical-year apocalyptic scale ratchets up in the weekday lectionary, we recount more of Jesus’s cautionary tales and warnings regarding discipleship. Today’s Gospel passage from Luke 21:12-19 offers one such instance:
Jesus said to the crowd:
“They will seize and persecute you,
they will hand you over to the synagogues and to prisons,
and they will have you led before kings and governors
because of my name.
It will lead to your giving testimony.
Remember, you are not to prepare your defense beforehand,
for I myself shall give you a wisdom in speaking
that all your adversaries will be powerless to resist or refute.
You will even be handed over by parents,
brothers, relatives, and friends,
and they will put some of you to death.
You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
As the New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson reminds us, the author of the Gospel of Luke portrays Jesus first and foremost as a prophet in the mold of the Hebrew Bible. It appears at first that Jesus is forecasting the future, and to a degree he is, but this predictive testimony is rooted in the experience of his life and ministry now as the announcer and agent of the Reign of God.
Just as Jesus is to be handed over by his family and friends (most notably in the disciple Judas Iscariot, but we can imagine others as well, including the deniers and abandoners like Peter), so too Jesus warns that following God’s will can lead to a destiny that no one would choose for themselves. And yet, like Jesus, whose words were not his own but an expression of the Will of the Father, we too will be given the “wisdom in speaking” necessary to stay true disciples; that is, if we really are committed to doing so.
In our own time this Gospel passage is strikingly relevant. At a moment in our national history when division is irrefutably present and hatred has boiled up in many corners of society, to stand up to injustice, to do the will of God, to maintain one’s discipleship as a follower of the Prince of Peace brings a certain risk of suffering the sort Jesus describes here. And yet, as Christian women and men what choice do we have but to give testimony? That simple word, testimony, says it all in its original Greek form: eis martyrion, “the chance to bear witness,” the risk of becoming a martyr.
In the face of popular hatred and discrimination, perhaps even a majority sentiment of discontent with equality and justice for all, we Christians are called to embrace the eis martyrion about which Jesus speaks, the chance to bear witness to the world of another way. In the end, it may mean our suffering as it did for Christ. But then again, nobody ever said it would be easy to be a Christian; in fact, Jesus said exactly the opposite.