Luke 5 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Gathering of Disciples
Jesus' gathering of disciples was not unusual in his time and Jewish setting. Many rabbis would gather students around them to teach Torah. But the kind of disciples Jesus gathers is unusual--they are not theological professionals. Fishermen, tax collectors, former revolutionaries and just plain old sinners make up this new community. Jesus launches them on a journey with God, a walk in which God begins to work in their lives. The lesson is that we need not be perfect to come to God; rather, we need to trust God and let him do his gracious work in transforming our lives.
The various "call scenes" that appear in this section underline the nature of the new community (5:1-11, 27-39; 6:12-16). It does not shun sinners, but invites them to come and meet God and his healing forgiveness. Even the miracles of this section show how much Jesus identifies with those he gathers to himself. These unusual events underline the authority he has in creating this new band of followers (5:12-16, 17-26; 6:1-5, 6-11).
The gathering of this unorthodox group of followers and the practices they engage in heighten opposition. Jesus' ways are not the ways of the Jewish leadership, nor are they the ways of a self-righteous elitism. He attracts those who know that they need God and that Jesus has the authority to forgive their sin (5:24, 31-32).
Besides teaching and miracles, Jesus' ministry centers on his disciples. Luke 5:1-11 details how Jesus confirms the call of four disciples to serve with him. In this passage, miracle, teaching and discipleship form a collage that explains mission and who is qualified for it.
Jesus performs a nature miracle, but the saying in verse 10 turns the entire miracle into a picture of mission. Here event and symbol merge. The event signifies not only what disciples are called to do but who disciples are as they do it. Simon Peter and Jesus represent different sides of the theology that undergirds the community Jesus is forging. Simon, for his part, knows that he is a sinner who is not worthy to experience the benefits of God's power and presence. There is no presumption that God owes him anything. Jesus, exemplifying God's grace, makes it clear that such a humble approach to God is exactly what God will use. Jesus calls these fishermen to fish for people rather than for finned water-dwellers. Luke presents these two truths quite dramatically and vividly.
Jesus' preaching is popular, so he must ask Simon to let him teach from his boat in the Lake of Gennesaret, better known as the Sea of Galilee. If this is an average ancient fishing boat, it would be twenty to thirty feet long (Stein 1992:169; Wachsmann 1988).
Much in this event is ironic. When Jesus tells Simon to put the boat out and cast down his nets, it is a carpenter's son and teacher telling a fisherman how to fish. It is a little like a pastor telling a CEO how to run technical aspects of his business! Not only that, but Simon's response makes it clear that conditions for fishing are not right, since a major effort the night before had totally failed. Yet despite appearances and against his professional judgment, he follows the teacher's command to let down the nets. Simon Peter is responsive to God's messenger and thus an example of faith.
The result is success and near disaster at the same time. The nets are filled to overflowing, and so is the boat! The fisherman is desperate for help to bring in all the fish. The boat is so full it begins to sink. Jesus has guided Simon to a great catch, but that catch is a picture of how he will guide the disciples in other, more spiritual affairs.
Simon Peter realizes he has been brought into more than a successful commercial venture. As nice as it would be to have Jesus as a permanent fishing guide, God's messenger is in their midst, and the fisherman knows enough about God's holiness to know he is at risk. So Simon falls to his knees and confesses his unworthiness, asking Jesus to depart. He understands that sin produces distance between himself and God. Surely God wants nothing to do with a simple, sinful fisherman. It is best that Jesus go. In fact, Jesus is addressed as "Lord," but not because Peter understands that Jesus is God. It will take events in the next few chapters to lead Simon to confess Jesus as Christ (8:22-26; 9:18-20). Rather, Jesus is Lord here because he is God's agent. Nonetheless, Jesus should go, for Simon Peter is not worthy of the agent's presence.
The size of the catch tells Simon and his companions that this event has been no accident. The greatest moment in their fishing career causes them to stop and ponder what God is doing. Jesus has taken Peter's humble faith and scared him to death with God's presence. But in the uncertainty that often surrounds faith comes the divine honoring of its presence and a calm voice that says, "Don't be afraid." Grace is active. Simon Peter, James and John learn that God will take the faith of humble fishermen and ask them to join him in catching other people for God.
Simon Peter represents all disciples. His humility and awareness of his sin do not disqualify him from service; they are the prerequisite for service. Simon's response recalls the reaction of earlier great servants of God like Isaiah and Jeremiah, who also bowed low in humility when they caught a glimpse of God's presence (Is 6; Jer 1:1-10). Jesus does not call those who think they can help God do his work. God does not need or want servants who think they are doing God a favor. Jesus calls those who know they need to be humble before his power and presence. From now on Simon will be casting his nets in a different sea, the sea of humanity's need for God.
A genuine meeting with Jesus alters one's perspective. An encounter with God's power is no reason to draw back from him, but an opportunity to approach him on the right basis, in faith and dependence. In catching fish, Jesus has caught Simon Peter.
The mission is to catch persons alive. The figure involves rescue from danger, since those caught are caught alive (on the term "alive," see Num 31:15, 18; Deut 20:16; Josh 2:13; 2 Maccabees 12:35; on the "fisher" and being hooked, Jer 16:16; Ezek 29:4-6; Amos 4:2; Hab 1:14-17). In the Old Testament this kind of symbolism is usually negative, but for Jesus it is clearly positive.
The response is instantaneous and total. When the boats come in, the former fishermen leave everything behind and follow Jesus. The call had gone to Peter in verse 10, but all those who experience the catch follow Jesus. The fishing expedition has brought in its first catch. Sinners are transformed into servants of God. That is how great God's holiness and grace can be.
If the call of the disciples shows Jesus reaching out to sinners, his healing of the leper shows that Jesus is also concerned for the total outcast. For a modern parallel to the leper, we may think of victims of AIDS. Just like the AIDS victim, the leper of the ancient world was ostracized from society and largely forgotten. True, today the victims of AIDS get much publicity, along with a great clamor to fund research to fight the HIV disease, but many people would prefer to forget these victims of disease and shunt them off to the fringes of society. To get close to them or touch them would be to risk too much.
I think of an attempt to launch a cooperative ministry to AIDS patients in my area. Many churches responded that the goal was admirable and they would offer moral support, but what would they do if AIDS patients came to faith and wanted to come into their church? The risk was too great, so they opted out of supporting the effort directly.
I wonder if Jesus would have responded this way. Jesus said he came to minister to those in need, and Luke 5:12-16 shows how that ministry extends to the very bottom rungs of the social ladder. No one is beyond the potential touch of Jesus' love.
Luke narrates this miracle with extreme economy. Jesus is in one of the towns. The leper humbly implores Jesus to help him, confident that if Jesus wills it, Jesus can make him clean. Clearly, word about Jesus had spread even to these marginal colonies in the society. Make me clean, though literal, suggests a real cleansing of the person (remember, all the miracles in this Gospel have a "picture" element). The leper knows Jesus' capability, but he is uncertain of the extent of his compassion. The extent of Jesus' compassion is revealed here. In the modern world it is perhaps the exact reverse. Today's person on the street does not doubt Jesus' compassion but does question his capability. Accounts like this demonstrate that Jesus opened himself to all.
Jesus' touching the leper is significant, since such contact rendered him ceremonially unclean (Lev 13:42-46; all of m. Nega`im). The physical communication of charity meant suffering ceremonial uncleanness that could affect his involvement in corporate worship. Given that Jesus' other miracles have occurred through the mere speaking of his word, it's clear that the act of touching is conscious. The healing is immediate; the compassion is demonstrable. Jesus is able and willing.
Jesus tells the healed leper to show [himself] to the priest, which fits with the command of Leviticus 14:1-32 about dealing with healing from leprosy. Beyond this, however, the healed man should keep silence about what has happened. This part of Jesus' instructions is perplexing. We would think Jesus would appreciate the public relations coup such a healing represents. Think of how we broadcast even the claim of such events today. The contrast is significant.
There are various explanations for the silence. One part of the explanation seems to be that Jesus wants to quell excessive excitement about his healing ministry so that the message he brings does not get lost in a flurry of requests for miracles. It may also be that the man is to keep silent only until the priest formally declares him clean. Regardless, it is clear that Jesus approaches his ministry of miracles circumspectly (Mk 8:11-13; Jn 6:26-27). Perhaps because the miracles are pictures of deeper realities, he wants people not to be overcome by their more obvious, surface meaning--a tendency that proves hard to avoid.
The instruction to go to the priests serves as a testimony to them. Is them a reference to the priests or to all people? The stress on obeying the Torah suggests that those who receive the testimony are the priests. In the next event Luke explains that the Jewish leadership is present, so clearly the testimony gets their attention. As 7:22 makes clear, the cleansing of lepers is a sign that "the time of fulfillment" has come.
Word does spread. Crowds gather (v. 15). Luke 4:44 is being fulfilled. Mark 1:45 notes that the crowd is growing to crushing levels. Nevertheless, Jesus periodically withdraws to collect himself and commune with God (v. 16). Seeking time with God is key to ministering effectively. In fact, numerous conflicts follow in Luke, so the Gospel writer is making it clear that before Jesus meets with trouble, he communes with God.
Sometimes reaching out to outcasts is unpopular. Sometimes conflict for doing so is not a sign of failure.
Luke narrates yet another miracle, the healing of the paralytic. This miracle is significant for five reasons. First, it shows that Jesus' authority extends even to the forgiveness of sins. Second, the entire affair is witnessed by the Jewish leaders, the Pharisees and the scribes. They make an instant theological assessment and recognize that Jesus is making unique claims--claims that are blasphemous if they are not true. Third, this is the first time God vindicates Jesus' claims during his ministry. Later Judaism would teach that God does not help sinners or liars (t. Nedarim 41a), so if Jesus is not who he claims to be, then this man should not walk away healed. The fact that the paralytic walks away healed means that some type of transcendent power operates through Jesus. Later Luke reveals the debate over what or who that power is (11:14-23). Fourth, the miracle pictures what Jesus can do for people. The paralytic is stationary and totally helpless. But after his healing, he can walk through life and praise God. Finally, the text shows the importance of faith. It is the faith of those who bring the paralytic to Jesus that is highlighted. This detail seems to indicate that God honors us as we seek to lead others to the Lord.
Though Mark 2:1 mentions that this event takes place in Capernaum, Luke simply tells the story. The presence of Pharisees and teachers of the law shows that word about Jesus has spread to the upper echelons of the Jewish faith. The Pharisees were a nonpriestly, lay separatist movement whose goal was to keep the nation faithful to God. Their name is probably a transcription of an Aramaic term meaning "separated ones" (Fitzmyer 1981:581). To prevent violations of the Mosaic law, they developed an elaborate system of traditions to codify practice (Meyer 1974:11-48; Josephus Antiquities 13.5.9 171; 13.10.5-6 288-98; 17.2.4 41-45; 18.1.2 11; Jewish Wars 2.8.14 162-63). They desired to "build a fence around the law" to prevent it from being violated (Pirqe `Abot 1:1). The teachers of the law, also known as the scribes (v. 21), helped to study legal questions and develop the tradition (Jeremias 1964c:740-42; Rengstorf 1964:159). The word sometimes translated "scribes" has roots in the postexilic period to refer to one learned in matters of the law (Ezra 7:6, 11; Neh 8:1). Luke reveals that these leaders have come from as far away as Jerusalem.
In the midst of such traditional religious authorities, God's power rests on Jesus. He has the power of the Lord . . . to heal the sick. Luke is going to great pains to indicate that Jesus did not require official endorsement from the Jewish hierarchy. His commission was unique, coming directly from God, as his baptism had made clear (see 20:1-8).
The paralytic comes on a mat (kline, Luke and Matthew) or a pallet (krabbaton, Mark). But the crowds prevent access, so the friends must scale the ladder on the side of the house to get up on the roof, where they can cut through the roof and lower the man in front of Jesus. Needless to say, such activity is highly distracting. The man ends up right in front of Jesus. So now the Teacher must act. What will he do?
Jesus pulls a surprise. No doubt the crowd has expected a healing, since Jesus' reputation has spread far and wide already (4:40-44). But instead Jesus talks about sin. And thus again a miracle becomes a parable. This time it pictures the presence of the destructive forces of sin in the world. This man is a painting of the effects of the Fall. Such a linkage is not surprising in a Jewish setting (1 Maccabees 9:54-56; 2 Maccabees 3:22-28; 3 Maccabees 2:21-22; Jn 9:2-3). Jesus claims to have the authority to reverse those effects, so he says, "Friend, your sins are forgiven." This theme is frequent in Luke (5:29-32; 7:34, 36-50; 15:3-7, 11-32; 18:10-14; 19:8-10; 23:40-43).
The remark elicits an instant theological critique from the religious experts present. They began thinking to themselves, "Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?" The Pharisees get high marks for perceiving the theological significance of Jesus' statement. They see the stakes correctly. They understand how great Jesus' claim is. The issue of blasphemy will become a central concern at Jesus' trial, as Jesus reiterates an authority for himself there that the leadership will question (22:67-71). To blaspheme was to perform an action that violated God's majesty. Claiming a prerogative that was only God's would be such a violation. So the issue raised by the act and its proclamation is authority pure and simple. Jesus has implied the same authority in Luke 4:18. In his own eyes, Jesus is more than a teacher of ethics.
It seems likely that the Pharisees' musings are private, because the text goes on to note that Jesus knew what they were thinking. Usually when Jesus is reading someone's thoughts, a rebuke or challenge follows. Such is the case here.
Jesus poses a conundrum: "Which is easier: to say, `Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, `Get up and walk'?" Now there is irony here. It is easier to say sin is forgiven, since one cannot see it. But actually to forgive sin is the harder thing to do. Still, the healing of a lame man could be corroborated visually; one could see its success immediately. Jesus' remarks, however, link the two actions. Healing will reveal the authority to forgive--and in the process raise many questions about who Jesus is. So Jesus says, "But that you might know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins . . . I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." This moment in the account calls to mind the modern sports expression "crunch time." Either the man gets up and walks or he continues to lie there. Either Jesus' claim comes through, or he is utterly embarrassed. God does not help sinners, so what will happen? Jesus has put theological stakes on the event. Will God vindicate him?
This text is important for another reason. It is the first time Luke uses the important expression Son of Man. Later in this Gospel it is clear that he is using the term as a title. In Aramaic this phrase was an idiom that either meant "someone" or served as a roundabout way to refer to oneself. Be aware that at this point the Old Testament background for this term has not yet been revealed. Jesus will do that later in his ministry when he ties the title to imagery from Daniel 7:13-14. All son of man meant to the audience here was "some human being." But of course, the moment Jesus forgives and heals the paralyzed man, Son of Man becomes a very specific reference to him, since the authority he is claiming is not generic to all humans but is his alone.
In sum, Jesus' claim to have special authority and so to be a unique human being is the issue of the passage. The beauty of Jesus' use of this idiom alongside his action is that it allows him to raise a question about his identity in terms that honor both his unique authority and his humanity. The claim, however, rides on what the paralytic does in the next few moments.
Immediately he stood up in front of them. The man's walk means God has talked! As the former paralytic praises God, amazement overwhelms the crowd. They have seen remarkable things. The Greek term used here is paradoxa, a word from which we get our word "paradox." But in Greek the term simply refers to unusual events. Again Luke ends the passage asking the reader implicitly to ponder what has taken place. What happened? What has been claimed about what happened? Events speak louder than words (7:18-23): the Son of Man has authority to forgive sins.
Jesus has just painted a picture that speaks more than a library full of books on Christology. He has backed up his words with action. God is vindicating Jesus' claims. At crunch time Jesus applies his authority with great skill. As the paralytic walks, the question becomes who will walk with him and share the forgiveness Jesus has pictured. Fence-sitting is no longer possible, given the nature of Jesus' claims.
Again Jesus' attention turns to a social outcast, in this case Levi the tax collector. Luke has already discussed tax collectors when he described the ministry of John the Baptist (see 3:10-14). Jesus initiates relationships with outcasts, even though pious people in Israel challenge such associations (7:36-50; 15:1-2; 19:1-10). As the earlier account with Peter showed (5:1-11), Jesus calls sinners to righteousness and to share in mission with him. Jesus does not merely forgive sinners, he openly associates with them.
But why? Why does Jesus associate with sinners when so many righteous people do not want to have anything to do with them? Many people think one must choose absolute separation if one is to remain pure, but for Jesus this is a false choice. Jesus views people in terms of what God could make them into, rather than pigeonholing them into who they currently are. There is no compromise with holiness in his relationships with sinners, because one of the very characteristics of God's holiness is the way he reaches out in mercy to those in need (1:46-53). God graciously takes the sinner who is responsive to him and begins the work of transformation.
The story in this passage proceeds simply. Jesus observes the tax collector Levi at work and calls him to follow (9:23, 59; 18:22). Levi's response is total--he got up, left everything and followed him. The instantaneous and comprehensive nature of the decision to join Jesus shows both the reputation Jesus has and the quality of an exemplary response to Jesus. Levi has put Jesus first. To follow him is a priority.
In fact, Levi wishes to celebrate by introducing Jesus to his friends. Such is often the case with recent converts to Jesus. Unchurched friends are often the first to hear about the new discovery. So it should be. The tragedy is that after people have been in the church for a time, they find it hard to relate to outsiders. Jesus does not suffer from this problem; he consciously makes an effort to associate with those outside his community. He does not run or hide from the world in need, but engages with it realistically so its real needs can be addressed. Often what wins an outsider to God is a genuine friendship. Despite Levi's low social status, he feels free to associate with Jesus. Jesus' invitation has made that clear.
A contrasting attitude emerges in the grumbling among Jewish leaders. Their commitment to purity, their sense of what God requires of them and their fear of risking exposure to the world cause them to shun outsiders and criticize those who try to relate in a healthy and engaging way to sinners. Table fellowship in the ancient world meant mutual acceptance. So at stake in the Pharisees and scribes' response is a worldview question. Should we really get close to the socially objectionable, to people like tax collectors and sinners? The Greek word used for their complaint, egongyzon, is significant because it is the term Numbers 14:26-35 LXX uses to describe the nation's grumbling to God in the wilderness. This word sounds like its meaning; we can almost hear the harsh tone of voice as we read the words (7:34 repeats the complaint).
Jesus' reply makes it clear that recovery, not quarantine, is the message of his ministry. Jesus pictures himself as a doctor who treats the sick, not the strong. The remark takes the Pharisees' perspective, though it does not endorse their righteousness. Jesus' point is that those who know they need help will respond to the Physician. Often the unrighteous are aware of their need, whereas the unrighteous "righteous" are not. The unrighteous need a breath of potential acceptance and a whiff of God's grace to open up to his work. The appeal to physician imagery is common in Judaism (Is 3:7; Jer 8:22; esp. Sirach 38:1-15; Bovon 1989:259, n. 24).
Jesus' second point is a mission statement that explains why he seeks the outsider. This is one of several such mission statements in Luke (7:34; 12:49, 51; 18:8; 19:10). Jesus has come to minister to those who have need of repentance. He calls to them to repent. Repentance is a major Lukan theme, and only Luke mentions it in this scene (3:3, 8; 13:1-5; 15:7-10; 16:30; 17:3-4; 24:47). Here Jesus offers a picture of true repentance: it is like going to a doctor for help. The "cure," if it is to come, must come from outside of oneself. A repentant heart is open to God and to his administering the necessary medicine for life. God graciously gives this medicine to those who seek forgiveness through him. Jesus sees opportunity for restoration for sinners and works to achieve relationship with them so they can experience the healing they need. When tax collectors and sinners come to the table in the clinic, Jesus, the Great Physician, is not about to turn them away. As in the other events chronicled in Luke 4:31--5:32, Jesus reaches out to all types of needy people. All can benefit from the power of his healing presence.
Some are still uncomfortable with such an open ministry, but this is evangelism in its most authentic form. Jesus' ministry is about compassion and grace. When Jesus proclaims God's love, the outsider knows Jesus means it. Both his words and his actions show it. In his openness Jesus risks criticism and ridicule. But given that Jesus pursues such contacts with gusto, can his disciples do otherwise?
People have trouble accepting those who are different. When someone marches to the beat of a different drum, we are forced to ask questions about them and ourselves. Jesus' outreach to sinners was a different way of doing things, and so was his approach to traditional customs of piety.
Finally the Pharisees get up the nerve to ask why Jesus' disciples do things differently. Of course, they are really asking about Jesus. He is their major concern. When it comes to ascetic practices like fasting, Jesus is not like the Pharisees, or even like his forerunner John the Baptist. So Jesus' meal with sinners is not the only thing that bothers the leadership. He hangs out with outsiders and he does not follow the usual practices of piety. Why is that?
Specifically, they ask him about fasting and prayer. The ancient practice of fasting had a rich heritage in Judaism. It was a highly regarded act of worship. The Day of Atonement was celebrated with a fast (Lev 16:29, 31). A four-day fast commemorated the fall of Jerusalem (Zech 7:3, 5; 8:19). Fasts could be acts of penitence (1 Kings 21:27; Joel 1:14; Is 58:1-9) or could be associated with mourning (Esther 4:3). Pharisees fasted twice a week, on Monday and Thursday (8:12; Didache 8:1; Behm 1967a:924-35). Fasts are serious expressions of worship.
Jesus' reply not only explains why his community does not engage in such practice but makes an additional point about what his presence represents. Jesus' simple answer is that now is the time not for fasting but for celebration. He compares himself to a bridegroom at the time of his wedding. His presence marks the beginning of a new era. You do not fast at a wedding! The marital imagery pictures God's relationship to his people in the Old Testament and in later Judaism (Is 54:5-6; 62:4-5; Jer 2:2; Ezek 16; Hos 2:14-23; 4 Ezra 2:15-41). But nowhere in Judaism do we have the image of the Messiah as bridegroom. The New Testament uses this imagery often (Mt 22:2, 25:1; Lk 12:35-36; Eph 5:22-33; Rev 19:7; 21:2). Jesus is saying that the present is a special time to celebrate the arrival of a new point in God's plan. Later, when the bridegroom is removed (4 Ezra 10:1-4), there will be time to fast. This reference to removal is Jesus' first hint that rejection will come. Then there will be need for reflection and fasting. People will long for the ultimate redemption that the bridegroom's initial arrival promised (Rom 8:17-30; 1 Cor 15:20-28; Rev). Jesus does not regulate or legislate fasting. He says simply that it will become appropriate again.
But Jesus does not stop there. He drives home the point that his presence represents something new in God's plan, calling for a new way of ordering the spiritual life. Luke 5:36-39 gives three pictures, what Luke calls a parable (parabole), to make the point.
Jesus is like a new piece of cloth. No seamstress worth her salt would take a new piece of cloth and patch it onto an old garment. Such a match produces two problems. The new cloth will tear the old, and the pieces of material will not match. There is irony here: the patch that is supposed to fix the garment would end up ruining both. This new era Jesus brings simply cannot be wed to the old practices. It is new and requires new ways.
The second picture involves wine and wineskins. In the first century, wineskins would have been made of goatskin or sheepskin taken from the neck area of the animal (Gen 21:14-15; 19; Ps 119:83). Again, the result of putting new wine into old skins would be disaster, a tragic waste of wine. The new wine would ferment and cause the old wineskins to burst--the new wine would then be lost and the wineskin rendered useless.
There can be no syncretism between what Jesus brings and the old tradition of Judaism. If it were tried, both would be destroyed. Jesus brings a new era and a fresh approach to God that cannot be mixed with the old traditions. In many ways the book of Acts is the historical outworking of this point. The gospel is a new way, so the practices of Judaism cannot contain it. This is why Luke will later call Jesus a prophet like Moses (Lk 9:35; Acts 3:12-26; see Deut 18:15). Jesus, like Moses, is the leader-prophet of a freshly formed community of God, revealing the new ways the new movement requires.
So new wine must be poured into new wineskins. Jesus' presence requires a new way, new forms and a new spirit. Even when fasting continues after the bridegroom is gone, it will be different. It will always be done in hope of his return.
Next Jesus faces the possibility of rejection. His third picture involves someone satisfied with the old wine: "No one after drinking old wine wants the new, for he says, `The old is better.' " This is probably a warning and an explanation. Jesus knows that some, especially among the Pharisees, will not come to him, because they are satisfied with the wine they have. Nothing will change their mind. Rejection by some is inevitable. Jesus' presence means a choice between him and the old style of Judaism. With Jesus' presence things are different. To mark the difference, Jesus does not fast. New times require fresh ways.
Jesus does not specify here exactly what makes his way new. The association with practices of eating and fasting suggests that piety motivated by law and tradition may well be in view. The new dynamic Jesus brings will rely on the Spirit of God (Acts 10:34-43; 15:1-21). Things done merely for the sake of tradition will not be persuasive anymore. Jesus' new way brings freshness and a dynamic, responsive quality to our walk with God.
The discussion over the disciples' plucking grain on the sabbath is the first of two consecutive sabbath controversies Luke now narrates. The tension about the grain incident comes because of tradition about the sabbath in Judaism, since it was a day of rest on which all labor was prohibited (Ex 20:11; m. Sabbat 7:2; m. Pe'a 8:7). Jesus' reply escalates the tension by raising an example involving David that was clearly outside the normal limits of Old Testament law. The legal discussion turns into yet another battle over authority, only this time it is the holy day of the sabbath and the right to interpret the law that is disputed. Both of these matters were of deep concern to many Jews, so the debate is very significant.
Jesus is different from other teachers before him. He and his disciples conduct themselves as if certain practices of the law are not matters of major concern. Why is he different? The previous passage made the case that Jesus' presence means the arrival of a new period. Here Jesus begins to explain why a new period is present. He possesses unique authority. He can evaluate the law and is Lord of the sabbath. It seems that Jesus is advocating an ethic in which people have more value than rules--at least this is suggested by the example Jesus cites from David's life. What is harder to tell is whether Jesus is arguing that the Torah was always intended to lead to love, relationship and holiness or whether he is bringing a new law marked by new freedoms. Neither of these options makes Jesus an antinomian. Rather, the question is how we should view some aspects of the law. Whichever option one takes here--and it is not clear--it took the disciples years to sort out the theological issues involved in this dispute, as Acts 15 shows.
The event starts innocently enough. The disciples move through a field and pick some of the grain that has been reserved for those in need (Deut 23:25). The taking of the grain is not a problem; the issue is their "labor." The question comes, "Why are you doing what is unlawful [ouk exestin] on the Sabbath?" The Pharisees are saying that such labor is not permitted. So their question is really a rebuke and a warning. The fact that the leaders kept such a close eye on the disciples shows where things stood between the two groups.
Jesus replies with Scripture--"Have you never read . . . ?" He appeals to the story of 1 Samuel 21:1-7 and 22:9-10. Some of Jesus' points build on implications in this passage. The story records how David entered the tabernacle and procured for his troops consecrated bread that only priests were permitted (exestin) to eat. Jesus notes explicitly that this was not legal according to Torah (Ex 25:30; 39:36; 40:22-23; esp. Lev 24:5-9). First Samuel 22:9-10 suggests that the priest inquired of the Lord and then gave the provisions, so the act was appropriate. In sum, David received legally prohibited bread for his troops and was not judged negatively for it.
Jesus' analogy is neat, because it raises an example, sanctioned by Scripture, where the letter of the law was not kept. Thus Jesus becomes an interpreter of the law, either by interpreting its real intended scope or by bringing a new law that shows the old law is passing away. Unfortunately, it is not clear from this Lukan text which direction is in view. But the declaration of Jesus' authority is clear, for he explains, "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath."
The analogy is neat for another reason. David and his troops were the ones who took the consecrated bread, so the parallel to the disciples' violation is clear. Now Jesus might be saying that just as David, as the national leader, could procure such bread for his troops, so may I. Or he may be making a greater claim: I have authority over the sabbath. The illustration means that if the leadership condemns Jesus, they had better be ready to condemn David and reject the testimony of Scripture. But Jesus' remark raises the stakes and claims that Jesus rules over elements of the law as important as the sabbath, a day that was sanctified in the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:8-11).
In Jesus' reply both the term Lord (kyrios) and the title Son of Man are important. They focus the entire reply on Jesus. This is unlike the parallel in Mark 2:28, which highlights the issue of the sabbath being designed for human beings as well. The Markan reply suggests that Jesus is arguing about what the real limits of the sabbath law are. There has been no violation here, since the sabbath, designed for humankind and not against them, was never intended to prevent someone from eating.
The battle over the grain becomes yet another discussion of Jesus' authority. He is not just a teacher, a great example or a moral-religious leader like other greats of history. He claims to possess authority over laws and institutions that God has ordained. Again, the event forces a choice. Is Jesus right or wrong about himself? Does he reveal the way of God or pervert it? It is either one or the other. Making a choice is necessary, since even being neutral is choosing.
This passage completes a sequence of three controversies that started in 5:33. Jesus has explained in the earlier passages that he brings a new way and that he has authority over the sabbath. When Jesus moves to heal a man on the sabbath, he provides an additional and fundamental explanation for his action. In other words, in Luke's thinking the three controversies form a unit that helps to reveal the rationale for Jesus' style of ministry. If Luke's major lesson is "like teacher, like disciple," then what Jesus teaches here about love's function reveals a central attitude that others are called to follow. The "law of love" demands that Jesus heal on the sabbath. Such a law of concern for others may well be behind the expressions "Christ's law" in 1 Corinthians 9:21 and "royal law" in James 2:8. The law about the sabbath was never designed to restrict one's ability to love and meet needs. Compassion is always appropriate.
Luke begins the account by noting that this healing takes place on another Sabbath. As Jesus ministers, his every move is watched closely. The term used to describe the observing scribes and Pharisees is extremely significant. They were looking (pareterounto) means they were spying on him, watching him out of the corner of their eye. This adds a sinister mood to the story (Riesenfeld 1972:147; Ps 36:12 LXX; Dan 6:12 Q). The text is also clear that the motive for their intense scrutiny is that they are looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. They cannot wait to catch him.
Once again Jesus knows the thoughts of his opponents, and again he acts to deal with their thinking by turning their private thoughts into a topic of public reflection. By doing so he again raises the issue of his authority. If they wish to challenge him secretly, he will turn their challenge and doubt into a public hearing. Jesus' openness contrasts with the leaders' covertness. His question gets right to the point and is loaded with irony: "I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?" Luke has already revealed the leaders' motives by noting that they have been watching Jesus closely; now Jesus exposes their desire. In attempting to defend the truth of sabbath tradition, they plot harm on the sabbath, while Jesus seeks to meet needs. Who is violating the sabbath? There is a sting in the question.
Zeal often leads to unrighteousness, as ends are cited to justify questionable means. Sometimes in seeking to prevent murder or unrighteousness, God's people engage and even justify acts that are just as reprehensible. A Christian leader once told me that certain people were out to get him for "doctrinal defection." They were watching his every move and examining his every sentence. In their attempt to get hard evidence they had broken into his office, searched his desk and even tried to open his computer files. Apparently trespassing along with breaking and entering was all right in the name of righteousness! The pursuit of righteousness should never cause us to resort to tactics that reflect unrighteousness.
Jesus seeks to do good on the sabbath, but the Pharisees seek to do harm and destroy. Jesus' reply is in the spirit of Old Testament prophetic rebukes (Is 1:11-17; 58:1-14; Amos 4:1-8). God puts a high priority on how people are treated and how needs are met.
So Jesus acts, asking the man to stretch out his hand. The very act will show that healing is present. There is irony in Jesus' response. Can you sense how hard Jesus has labored here, uttering just one command? Will God vindicate Jesus' effort? The text tells of the command's success ever so briefly--the man did so, and his hand was completely restored.
How will such a good act be received? Surely wonder and rejoicing will follow. But instead hard hearts react in fury. Again, the term Luke uses here is crucial. Anoia refers to a blinding, irrational rage that is likened to insanity (Behm 1967b:963; Schurmann 1969:309 n. 69). The religious leaders refuse to consider the evidence and are enraged about the facts God had laid before them. God is not supposed to help sinners or heal through a sabbath violator, yet right in front of them a sabbath violator has healed a sinner on the sabbath against their interpretation of truth and tradition. Jesus' action has confounded them. What can they do? They consider what they might do to Jesus. He must be stopped.
The stubbornness of the leadership's opposition is highlighted here. When we are in sin, we resist reconsidering the route we are taking. In fact, sin that is not repented of often leads into further sin.
Nevertheless, Jesus' action shows that the sabbath, like any day, is an appropriate time to minister and meet needs. It is perfectly permissible to do good on the sabbath. Jesus does not merely proclaim his authority; he lives it. This sabbath healing supports Jesus' claim that he brings something new, while highlighting what should have always been a characteristic of the sabbath: the ministering of good to others. The withered hand's restoration is a vote of confidence for Jesus and a visible rebuke to the leadership.
But that vote of confidence strengthens the opposition party's resolve. The opponents begin to discuss with one another what they might do to Jesus. Often the product of rage is more folly. Jesus' ministry has produced opposition, even though he has tried to do good to others. The narrative leaves the question for readers to ponder: was Jesus a troublemaker, or did the trouble originate elsewhere? Sin often blindly deflects blame and then compounds its error by seeking harsh means to remove the reminder of its failure. For Luke there is no doubt where blame lies, as well as who has authority to point the way to God.
Jesus knew that he was doing something new. Because opposition was rising, he needed to form a new community around him. If Jesus were to be taken out of the picture, something else would need to be in place. New leadership was required. Thus it is no accident that Luke places the choosing of the Twelve immediately after the remark about the beginnings of a plot against Jesus.
The selection of those who would end up leading the new community after Jesus' departure was no minor affair. It was a matter of prayer--in fact, Luke shows that the choices followed a full night of prayer. The presence of prayer shows the action's importance. No other New Testament passage speaks of all-night prayer. Jesus knew this step was the first of many actions to put something new in place that would outlast his earthly ministry.
This text is one of several where Luke associates an event with prayer (1:13; 2:37; 3:21; 5:16; 6:12, 28; 9:18; 11:1-2; 18:1; 22:41, 45). Dialogue with God is crucial to spiritual well-being for Luke, particularly a humble attitude as one approaches God in prayer (18:9-14). For Luke prayer is a concrete way of expressing our necessary dependence on God.
The twelve men Jesus chose would be specially trained to lead the church. Only Luke among the Gospel writers calls them apostles at this point. He tells the story aware of where Jesus is taking them. Even though only some of them are mentioned later in Luke's writing, the whole list is important for two reasons.
First, there is an instructive variety in the figures named. In the group we have fishermen like Peter, Andrew, James and John. We also have a despised tax collector, Matthew. On the other hand, we have a "Zealot," Simon. The juxtaposition of Simon and Matthew should not go overlooked. One would have collected monies for Rome, while the other would have fought to overcome Roman sovereignty. Yet in Jesus they became part of the same community, functioning side by side. These are people from diverse strata and perspectives, woven together by Jesus into a newly formed community. Finally there is Judas, who is named with the note that he would betray Jesus. Even the seeds of discord and rejection were present in the inner circle. So it was after a night in prayer.
Second, the selected group numbers twelve. This appears to be no accident. Jesus is forming a new, specially trained group of disciples, but the number twelve mimics the structure of Israel. The echo could hardly be missed. The point is not that this new group of disciples is intended to replace Israel permanently. An examination of Acts shows that the disciples present their message as the natural extension of promises made to Israel. These promises are now meeting their fulfillment in this new community. The Twelve represent something new and something parallel to Israel. The new community is both distinct from and connected to God's promises for the nation. This is why Jesus promises them authority over Israel later in Luke (22:30). Jesus is building a new structure, but one with points of contact to the old. The leaders of what is to become the church reflect the variety that will always be present in the body. That variety does not emerge by accident, but is the result of Jesus' conscious selection.
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