Luke 12 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Know the Time: Israel Turns Away but Blessing Still Comes
In this section the tension with Israel continues to grow, so that by its end the Jewish nation's rejection of Jesus is virtually inevitable. Warnings, rejected sabbath miracles and prophetic laments set the tone. Perhaps typical of the unit is 13:31-35, where Jesus issues a prophetic declaration that Israel's house is now desolate. Its isolation will remain until it recognizes the Messiah. After this section Jesus' attention will turn to instructing his disciples in light of his approaching departure. They must be made ready to live in his absence.
In three short passages Jesus characterizes the times. Things are not going to go smoothly. Jesus' ministry will bring division (vv. 49-53). But anyone who is observant can read the times and know that God is at work (vv. 54-56). Most important, the disciples had better settle their spiritual debts with God. A failure to pay up will mean one will pay every last penny (vv. 57-59). This final remark sets up the discussion on repentance in 13:1-5. The theme of all these statements is the need to understand the time that encompasses Jesus' ministry. He is not one of many options for knowing God; he is the way.
Jesus came to do God's will. In his first statement he shows how ready he is to get the job done: "I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!" This is one of several mission statements Jesus makes ("I have come to . . .": 5:32; 7:34; Jn 3:2; 5:43; 7:28; 12:27, 47; 16:28; 18:37). The reference to fire appears to suggest judgment (Lk 3:9, 17; 9:54; 17:29). In the Old Testament fire often refers to the stinging word that came through the prophets (Jer 5:14; 23:29). Division is clearly the result, as the following verses show. Sometimes the truth is painful and divides.
Jesus speaks of the baptism he must face before he can finish his work. This must be a reference to his approaching death (Mk 10:38-39). So Jesus fully anticipates that the opposition forming about him will lead to his death. More specifically, baptism probably alludes to the "inundation of the waters of divine judgment" (Oepke 1964a:538-39; Job 9:28-30; the "floods of persecution," Ps 18:4, 16; Is 8:7-8). So Jesus understands that he will bear the force of judgment, a judgment that will be propelled by persecution and rejection. Luke later will portray Jesus as "accursed" in his death by hanging on a tree (Acts 5:30-31; 10:39-43). God's plan and the Spirit's judging work cannot come until Jesus dies.
The judgment work of separation will split families; it will not bring peace. "There will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three." Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mothers-in-laws and daughters-in-law will stand on opposite sides of the divide. Jesus forces choices about what God is doing, and family members will choose differently. The imagery is from Micah 7:6. Jesus' point is simple: "Expect division. Opposition to me is a given."
As Jesus speaks of his ministry, he asks the multitudes to think of a weather forecast. Unlike meteorologists today, who work with satellite images and Doppler radar, the ancients had one weather tool, their eyes. They could predict the weather in Palestine by making a few simple observations. A westerly wind meant that moisture from the Mediterranean was riding in and clouds and rain would follow. Southwesterly breezes meant that heat from the desert was on the way and a rise in temperature could be anticipated. The signs of the times were indicated by the breezes.
Such meteorological expertise is common among the people Jesus addresses. But they cannot tell what breezes are blowing through their lives from Jesus' ministry. Or as Jesus says, "Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky. How is it you don't know how to interpret this present time?" The signs of the time are everywhere, and so was spiritual blindness. Not reading this weather correctly is dangerous--more dangerous than missing a hurricane.
Having issued warnings of approaching division and the nature of the times, Jesus calls on the multitudes to make one other judgment. He actually calls for their reflection: "Why don't you judge for yourselves what is right?" The picture is a simple one. The judgment in view is a legal, civil dispute, since Jesus mentions settling accounts before a praktor (NIV officer), a tax collector and general financial official. In this context the official figure is a sort of bailiff in charge of the debtors' prison (Maurer 1968:642; Rengstorf 1972:539). Jesus' advice is simple: better settle up accounts and avoid prison. In fact, his imagery is graphic, for those who fail to settle accounts and are found guilty will be "dragged away" to prison. The warning of shame is obvious. Jesus closes by assuring them that negligent debtors will certainly have to pay the debt, down to the very last copper coin. The use of the Greek double negative ou me makes his statement emphatic--you will never get out without payment. A lepton (NIV penny) was the smallest coin in circulation, worth only a fraction of a penny. In the ancient world, family members had to pay the full debt before a jailed debtor could be released.
Such a prospect is painful and embarrassing, though of course the comparison is not exact. The point is our accountability before God--at least this interpretation makes the most sense contextually. Jesus is not talking about relationships with other people here but about our relationship with God. Having warned about division and failing to read the sign of the time correctly, he warns of the need to repent. We all have debts before God that need paying. To settle accounts with God, we must come to grips with Jesus. His presence forces choices and brings the potential for division. We need to look at the ledger. Bankruptcy and debtors' prison will be the results of rejecting God. Only Jesus can pay our debt.
The presence of evil in our world is always disturbing. Tragedy surrounds us on every side. Whose fault is it? In the ancient world, unlike the modern, people were slow to attribute evil to the deity's carelessness or noninvolvement. Certainly they believed in evil spiritual forces, but they assumed that tragedy generally reflects God's judgment for sin committed. If tragedy comes, responsibility lies with the person who experiences the tragedy.
This supposition leads Jesus to respond to public comments about a pair of recent Palestinian tragedies, in a passage that is unique to Luke. Jesus takes popular assumptions and turns them into an opportunity for public reflection. Rather than engage in abstract discussion about others, he asks questions about us.
Extrabiblical sources tell us nothing about either of the incidents the crowd raises. The first event involved Pilate: the state had slain some Jews and allowed their blood to be mixed with that of the sacrifices at the temple. We do not know if this was a reaction to an act of rebellion or if it was a pure governmental abuse of power. Only the result is noted. Five candidates for this event have been suggested out of the writings of Josephus, but none of them is an exact fit in timing or detail (Jewish Wars 2.1.3 8-13; 2.9.2-3 169-74; 2.9.4 175-77; 13.16.4 372; Antiquities 18.4.1 85-87). What these extrabiblical texts do show is that such incidents did occur periodically.
It is hard for us to appreciate how significant this event would have been in Jewish circles. Such an attack in a sacred setting was sure to raise religious passions to a high level. Imagine if someone marched into church and started slaying people as they prayed, as happened recently in South Africa. Or recall the 1994 slaying of Muslims at a mosque in a region Israel controlled. The reaction was emotional and widespread.
In Jesus' time this atrocity may have raised nationalistic questions as well. Did Jesus think Rome was right? Was this a judgment for sin? So Jesus asks, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?" Such a question would be natural to a Jewish mind (Strack and Billerbeck 2:193-97). Often in the Old Testament a tragic event is seen as the product of sin--this was the interpretation of Job's friends.
But before the philosopher-theologians in the crowd can get lost in the various possibilities raised by the question, Jesus personalizes it. "I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish." There is a more fundamental issue than "them" and "their sin." Mortality is evidence of the presence of sin in our world (Gen 3). More important than the timing or cause of death is this: only repentance can change death from a tragic end into a bridge to a new kind of life (Lk 3:8; 6:24-26; 10:13; 12:58-59; 15:7). The event shows life's fragility. Disaster looms for the unresponsive.
Now some see Jesus' remarks as national in character, in light of verses 6-9; in other words, Jesus is calling for national repentance. But this seems unlikely, for it requires a very indirect allusion to corporate needs. It is better to see the individual call in verses 1-5 and the national one in verses 6-9. The individual reading has continuity with the debtor imagery of 12:58-59, the general call to repentance through the gospel and the Jewish view that repentance is a part of the eschaton (1 Enoch 98:3, 16; 99:9; 103).
Jesus cites a second event to make the same point. Rather than a political tragedy, this is a natural catastrophe, something akin to a hurricane or tornado: a tower at Siloam collapsed and eighteen died. Siloam was the location of a water reservoir for Jerusalem on the south and east walls of the city (Josephus Antiquities 18.3.2 60; Jewish Wars 2.9.4 175). Here was an event apparently beyond anyone's control. Perhaps the persons who died were worse sinners, or, as the Greek text puts it, "worse debtors" (NIV more guilty). Maybe natural disasters are different.
Jesus' interpretation is exactly as before. Without repentance all die similarly. What is imperative is that each person repent.
The passage is significant because Jesus constantly avoids letting the question get off-track; he keeps people considering their own sinful state. I am reminded of the standard question that comes up in evangelistic contexts, often to shift the subject: "What about the heathen in Africa [or some other remote area]?" This abstract question is often posed to deflect a personal confrontation with our sin and our need for God. In former days when confronted with such a question, I would wax eloquent on the evangelistic possibilities or lack of possibilities for those distant folk in need. Recently, thinking of this Lukan exchange, I have tended to quickly refocus the question by assuring the listener that God is perfectly capable of handling the needs of those distant folk, but the real question for us to discuss is what we will do with God and his call to turn to him.
Also, Jesus is again stressing that the real fact of life we must face is mortality, not the timing of death. More important than determining death's cause or timing is dealing with the fact of death and subsequent judgment. This quickly levels the playing field and calls on each person to consider where God stands in the equation--or better, where one stands before him.
Now a parable expands Jesus' point by raising a national dimension. The fig tree is a common scriptural image. Israel is often compared to some botanical plant, especially a vine; vines were plentiful, and their destruction was a sign of judgment (Hunzinger 1971:755-56; 1 Kings 4:25; Ps 80:9-18; Is 5:1-7; Jer 5:17; Hos 2:12; Mic 7:1). The problem is what to do with a tree that uses up scarce nutrients but yields no fruit. Jesus' words are a clear rebuke to Israel. If the nation is at risk of judgment, then so are its individuals. The owner desires to chop the tree down because it has had the necessary time to bear fruit and has failed to do so. The vineyard keeper asks for one more year to fertilize--just a little more time. Perhaps extra care, a little loosening of the soil and fresh nutrients will do the trick. If after a year the tree still hasn't produced fruit, then . . . The conclusion is obvious: judgment draws near unless there is a change. Unless repentance comes to the nation, the national tree will be judged. But God's willingness to hold off shows his patience (2 Pet 3:9).
Jesus tells both individuals and the nation that the clock is ticking. God is watching over his vineyard. If his plant does not bear fruit, he can find other ways to get fruit. The commentary on this passage is Romans 11, where Paul speaks of grafting in new branches. In this passage it is clear that God did not cut away the vine; instead he did radical botanical surgery on it. Romans 11 also makes it clear that God is not yet done with that surgery. One day Israelite branches will be grafted in again (Rom 11:26).
The healing of the bent-over woman is not just another miracle. Luke has been silent about miracles since 11:14 and the Beelzebub controversy. He has not included a detailed miracle report since 9:37-43. In the meantime he has called for repentance. This miracle repeats work Jesus did earlier in his ministry (4:31-41; 6:6-11). It is a "mirror" miracle, for it repeats earlier work in the hope that perhaps Jesus' warnings have been heeded. In addition, the discussion of conflict with Satan is continued in verse 16, as is the theme of God's compassion. In many ways this scene and another like it in 14:1-6 summarize the reaction to Jesus' ministry. Since the account is unique to Luke, we can assume it is particularly important.
Once again Jesus is in a synagogue teaching. This is the last time in Luke that Jesus appears in a synagogue. As he is teaching, a woman possessed by a spirit for eighteen years is in the audience. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. The mention of the spirit is important, because the woman's opponent is not merely mortality or the natural process of aging but a spiritual agent. The age of her condition indicates how serious it is. This is not a cramp; it is an ongoing condition. Considered medically, the condition has been interpreted as a type of bone fusion or muscular paralysis (Wilkinson 1977:195-205). Unable to stand, the woman pathetically pictures the crippling effect that evil can have on us.
Jesus takes the initiative--a significant act in a culture that tended to shun women (see discussion of 8:1-3). He shows his authority when he declares, "Woman, you are set free from your infirmity." With the laying on of hands, her back is made straight and she praises God. For the first time in almost two decades she can stand up straight. She has been released and is no longer in bondage. Her praise confesses that reality.
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler speaks to the crowd. Rather than address Jesus directly, he complains to the people, "There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath." He ignores the liberation of this woman from her pain. He ignores the release of power through Jesus that has allowed this to take place. He gives no indication of compassion or of joy that God has worked.
This is too much, so Jesus responds: "You hypocrites! Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" It is a stinging rebuke, as well as an indication that the leadership has failed to heed any of Jesus' calls to repentance. They have learned no lessons.
Sabbath activity such as Jesus describes was often allowed. The Mishna lists rules allowing cattle to drink, along with the "forty less one" practices that were prohibited on the Sabbath (m. Sabbat 7:2; 5:1-4; 15:1-2; m. `Erubin 2:1-4). In contrast, at Qumran such aid was often denied to animals (Cairo Damascus Document 11:13-14). Jesus' point is simple: if animals can receive basic care on the sabbath, how much more human beings, especially a woman of promise, a child of Abraham! In effect, Jesus says, what more appropriate day to release her than the sabbath? What better day to reveal Satan's impotence? The synagogue leader's and Jesus' views could not be more opposed. The great division Jesus predicted is evidenced here.
Luke summarizes by noting that Jesus' opponents were put to shame by his words, at least in the eyes of the people, who were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing. Thus the passage ends by noting the choice people must make about Jesus. Will we side with the leaders or react with the people? Jesus' exercise of power and compassion requires that we choose sides. Do not ignore the sign of the times. Will you choose Jesus or take the view that Jesus acts at the wrong time and in the wrong place?
Jesus preaches about the kingdom and illustrates it with parables. Two such parables appear here. What is the kingdom's character? What does it look like? The mustard seed and the leaven help us to grasp how the kingdom operates.
The general Jewish expectation was that the messianic kingdom would be established suddenly and decisively. So the surprise in these parables is the almost subtle initial form that the kingdom takes. Both mustard seed and yeast are very small in the beginning but produce something much larger. The kingdom as described in the parables is a presence that begins almost invisibly yet eventually comes to dominate.
It is perhaps fitting the parables are set here after the account of how a woman under the grip of Satan was healed. Once again Luke associates Jesus' healing activity with a picture of the powerful presence of the kingdom. One illustrates the other.
Most of Jesus' parables have a surprise, a twist, that helps to explain their point. The parable of the mustard seed is no exception. The mustard seed's growing to become a tree is surprising, almost unnatural. Here is supernatural, creative growth. Some readers miss the surprise (or complain that the image's unusual nature shows it does not come from Jesus); but the entertaining and instructive "twist" in many of Jesus' parables is a characteristic device that helps to unlock his teaching. The type of tree Jesus is envisioning here is debated. Is it the twenty-five foot Salvadora persica or the ten-foot Sinipis negra? If the latter, then he is talking about a member of the mustard family. It is not clear which is meant, though the birds in the limbs suggest Old Testament imagery (Ezek 17:22-24) of a large cedarlike tree. The point, either way, is what starts out small will end up big--big enough to make a home for many birds.
The bird imagery is significant. Three Old Testament texts have this image (Ps 104:12 and Dan 4:10-12, along with Ezekiel mentioned above). Daniel's image is interesting: the great tree of the worldly kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar is reduced to a stump by God. But the closest parallel is Ezekiel. Picturing the restoration of Davidic rule, his cedar tree sprouts from a sprig (is the sprig in turn an allusion to Is 11:1-2?). This goes in the exact reverse direction of the Nebuchadnezzar image. In this tree the birds, representing the people of the nations, will dwell in peace. In sum, the kingdom grows in surprising ways but is a place of shelter and calm for those who rest in its branches. God is restoring the work of the house of David, and all the world benefits.
The parable of the leaven is similar. Yeast slowly permeates bread dough and eventually penetrates it through and through. The woman in this parable is making a huge loaf. Three measures (Greek; NIV a large amount) of flour would probably be three seahs, or about fifty pounds. The point of this parable is not so much growth as contrast. What starts out as a pinch of yeast in a huge batch of dough ends up present throughout it. Permeation is inevitable once yeast is introduced. Implied is a growth that is slow, almost invisible, but this is not the point. Be sure of one thing, Jesus says: we may seem like a small movement, but eventually we will permeate the world.
These parables issue a call to trust the way God is developing his program. They also serve as a kind of commentary on the previous healing. Luke's reader can have hope that despite the humble beginnings of this community, the kingdom will come to have a dominating presence and will provide shelter and calm. God's plan is advancing. Opposition, whether human or spiritual, cannot stop its realization in the world. Trees built with earthly hands, like that of Nebuchadnezzar, will become stumps, but the branches of God's kingdom provide shade forever.
The time is short, and the kingdom comes, but how important is it that a decision be made? Jesus' parable of the narrow and soon shut door makes it clear that making a decision, and the right one, is crucial. In Western culture many people believe that there are many ways to God, that the road to heaven is like the interstate highway (or motorway) system--there are many available routes. In contrast, Jesus compares spiritual blessing to entering a banquet room where, once the door is closed, entry is no longer allowed.
After noting that Jesus continues his journey to Jerusalem, Luke turns to a parable that responds to the question "Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?" Apparently Jesus' teaching has created the impression that salvation will be restrictive. Again Jesus takes a general theological question and personalizes it.
Jesus is clear from the start: "Make every effort to enter through the narrow door." The verb here, make every effort, or better "strive" (NRSV; Greek agonizomai), suggests great labor and struggle in the effort to get through the door. The verb is used in other contexts of an athlete in training (1 Cor 9:25). Our world places many obstacles before us, as does our own pride. Access to God is not a wide-open, take-anyroute-you-want affair. He sets the route's ways and means. So many . . . will try to enter and will not be able to. Such restrictiveness would not surprise this Jewish audience, since it was already taught that Israel was God's elect nation (m. Sanhedrin 10:1; 2 Esdras 7:47; 8:4--9:22). Second Esdras 8:3 reads, "Many are created, but few are saved." The surprise in Jesus' reply is not that access may be limited, but who gains entry.
There will come a time when the householder arises and shuts the door, announcing that the time for filling the room has come to an end. Those on the outside of the closed door will knock, seeking entrance, but it will be denied. The basis of the refusal is the Master's declaration that he does not know those who knock. Earlier, when there had been opportunity to get to know the Lord, those outside had not been interested. So the Lord now says, "I don't know you or where you come from." The Lord's denial perplexes those who appeal for entry, since they once had meals in Jesus' presence and listened to his teaching in the streets. But Jesus' reply makes it clear that exposure is not knowledge. Something more than presence is required in coming to know Jesus. So he tells them, "I don't know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!" Outward contact with Jesus means nothing; inward reception is everything (6:46-49; Jn 1:12). There is no bargaining with the Lord here. The issue is simply, Did you know him?
Rejection means weeping and gnashing of teeth, the pain that comes from knowing one has been excluded from blessing (Mt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30). Contrary to some popular perceptions of the deity, he can and will say no. Jesus' audience will see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. The parable warns people not to assume they are in the kingdom on the basis of exposure to Jesus or on the basis of elect ethnic origin. The patriarchs of Judaism will be there, but that does not mean every physical descendant of Abraham will. One had better decide for Jesus while the door remains open and there still is time. A responsive heart to Jesus is what God seeks.
In fact, there is another surprise: people will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. This means that the nations will be blessed at God's table. The blessed of God will come from everywhere. The disciples did not immediately grasp this truth and its implications. The special vision of Acts 10 was needed to reveal how it would work. Even today, though Israel has a special place in God's plan, others are not excluded from blessing. We all have equal access to God's blessing through Jesus (Eph 2:11-22). Even the promise to Abraham stressed how the world would eventually be blessed through the patriarch's seed (Gen 12:1-3). Galatians 3 explains how that promise is realized now in Jesus.
So Jesus closes his parable of warning with a note of eschatological reversal. Expectations are overturned as there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last. Many will get to the table, including some surprises. All are on the same footing. In today's context the warning of this passage might be that those who are first (who have exposure to Christ through attendance at the church) may turn out to be last (excluded from blessing) if they do not come personally through the door by personally receiving what Jesus offers. Simply put, knowing Jesus is the issue. As John 10:7 puts it, Jesus is the door for the sheep.
But really Jesus has turned the question around. His questioner had asked, "Will the saved be few?" Jesus replies with the question, "Will the saved be you?"
Jesus has warned Israel repeatedly of the consequences of rejection. Now with language reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets, he begins to spell out the result of the nation's failure to embrace him. As sand trickles through the hourglass, a warning about Jesus' well-being prompts his expression of concern for the nation's welfare. As occurs frequently in this journey, words addressed to Jesus lead to a challenge of popular perception.
The warning is that Herod wishes to kill Jesus. It is debated whether the warning was sincere or a ruse to get Jesus out of the area. Nothing hints at a ruse. Regardless, Jesus does not fear Herod. He tells the Pharisees who warn him, "Tell that fox, `I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.' " By calling Herod a fox Jesus may be saying either how clever Herod is, as in the English idiom, or how destructive he is, more consonant with ancient expression (Neh 4:3; Lam 5:17-18; Ezek 13:4; Darr 1992:240-46 prefers the latter). Contextually an allusion to destructiveness is slightly more likely. Jesus' fate on the third day has to do with completing his course with his death. He has nothing to run from.
Jesus knows his fate. Prophets perish in Jerusalem. His ministry will continue until that time has come. If this Gospel were a movie with music in the background, the beat and mood would suggest time's quick and fateful passing. Jesus knows the clock hands are moving toward to midnight and the bell will toll for him. But he will face this as his destiny (note in v. 33 the use of dei, "it must be").
But even though Jesus is headed for death, the tragedy is not his. It is Israel's. In a strong prophetic lament, Jesus cries out for the nation and its capital city: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem." Its life story has been to kill and stone the prophets. It has made a pastime of rejecting God's will. Speaking for God and using the first person, Jesus declares how God has longed "to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings." Here is a tender portrait of God's mothering love. It has been God's desire to love and protect his people. But you were not willing. Israel has consistently rejected such gentle care.
So the judgment comes: your house is left to you desolate. The language recalls the words of the prophet of exile, Jeremiah (Jer 12:7; 22:5), warning of approaching exile for a disobedient nation. Jesus makes clear later that what awaits the Jewish nation now is a similar judgment at the hands of Rome (Lk 19:41-44). Rather than being under God's shadow and protective wing, they are exposed, empty and at risk. That is what sin and rejection of God's way often bring.
The suffering has a duration. The desolation will last until they say, "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord." When they recognize that Jesus has been sent from God, blessing will return. The language of this statement is from Psalm 118:26. The original psalm described the priests' blessing of the worshiping entourage as it approached the temple, probably led by the king. The Jewish people must acknowledge "the one who comes" (Lk 3:15-16; 7:18-19, 22).
Jesus' words appear to hold out hope for the nation's future. In fact, Luke 21:24 and Acts 3:12-26 suggest that the Old Testament hope for Israel has not died. The "time of the Gentiles" does not permanently shut out Israel. As Paul says in Romans 11, branches that were broken off can be grafted back in. But for now Israel is in an exposed condition. And though the warning here is national in scope and points to Israel, the implied application is clear enough: for any of us to live outside of relationship with Christ is to live exposed, desolate in a world of spiritual promise.
In another sabbath setting, Jesus continues to evidence God's presence yet faces the leadership's rejection. Even after all the warnings, Jesus' healings fail to bring a change of heart. Eyes controlled by sin are stubborn in refusing to see and respond to God's hand. The meal setting of this text extends through 14:24. But this is not an ordinary dinner party, nor is the conversation normal table talk. On the menu is theological and ideological reflection about what God is doing.
As Jesus dines with the Pharisees, the religious leaders are watching him. Luke's noting of this is no idle remark. The phrase used for carefully watched means to watch surreptitiously and ominously (esan parateroumenoi; Riesenfeld 1972:147), rather as an undercover agent would today. The suspicion is deep, the mood somber. At the meal is a man with dropsy, which means his limbs are swollen with excess body fluids--a condition much discussed in later Judaism and associated with uncleanness and immorality (Midras Rabbah Leviticus 15:2; Strack and Billerbeck 1926:2:203; van der Loos 1965:504-6). Jesus does not shy away from the situation. He asks whether it is lawful to heal on the Sabbath.
Having had experience with this predicament, the leaders remain silent. And Jesus heals the man. After sending the man away, Jesus notes, as he did in the healing in 13:10-17, that they would quickly offer aid to a son or even an ox that had fallen in the ditch on the sabbath.
A softer, more lenient version of the sabbath law appears much later in the Talmud (c. A.D. 500), alongside a contrary, harsher opinion (t. Sabbat 128b). That source allows exceptions for pulling an animal out of a pit, while the harsh ruling argues that all one can do is place food in the pit for the animal until the sabbath has passed.
The leaders' silence continues. Nothing has been learned; nothing has been confessed. Despite a constant barrage of divine activity, their position has not changed. The passage confirms how strong sin's stubbornness can be. It also shows how even after warnings about judgment and its consequences, God graciously still gives evidence of his presence. His grace still reveals itself, but closed eyes can never see the evidence of God's power. The division between Jesus and religiosity remains, and so does the question of which way we will choose if we want to know God.
The rising note of opposition does not prevent Jesus from instructing regarding discipleship. Yet here too the Pharisees provide a negative, contrasting example. Pride and status are social issues in any culture, and the ancient Jewish culture was no exception. Status brings power, and power often begets pride. Jesus regards this equation as destructive to spiritual health. Jesus' disciples are marked by humility. Both how we operate socially and whom we invite to dinner indicate the type of person we are. Humility means ignoring rank or class. Friends can be made anywhere. The lesson is a hard one, as some of the New Testament epistles show (1 Cor 11:17-22; Phil 2:1-11; Jas 2:1-5; 4:6; 5:1-6). But Jesus' picture parable (v. 7) shows that he regards this attitude as fundamental to discipleship.
Jesus' teaching, though it addresses a discipleship issue, is really a rebuke to many at the dinner table. Luke notes that Jesus speaks because he has noted how the guests picked the places of honor. At a big ancient meal, these seats would probably have been those closest to the host. Couches for a meal were usually set in a U, with two to four guests reclining on each couch. The host would sit at the base of the U, with the most honored guests on his left and right. Power and prestige resided closest to "the chair." Seating would have followed the washing of hands for cleansing (Mk 7:3; m. Berakot 6--8, especially 8:2).
Jesus notes that there is danger in pursuing seats of honor. He tells the story of a wedding where someone quickly grabs the high seat of honor. But then a person more distinguished walks in, and the host asks the one holding the seat of honor to move. So humiliated, the presumptuous one must head to the last seat. The description of the move down the social ladder is drawn out in Greek to underline the person's shame (you begin . . . to head for the last seat; NIV you will have to take the least important place). It is as if every step hurts.
How much different it is if the guest takes the last seat at the beginning. Then the host will tell that humble one to move up to a higher seat, honoring him before everyone. Jesus uses the term "glory" (doxa) to characterize the honor that results. In fact, a principle is in view here: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted. This theme of eschatological reversal has Old Testament and Jewish roots (Ezek 17:24; Sirach 3:19-23). It is also a significant Lukan theme (1:52-53; 6:21, 25; 10:15; 18:14).
Jesus' point is not that we should connive to receive greater honor. Rather, he is saying that honor is not to be seized; it is awarded. Jesus is not against giving honor to one who deserves it, but he is against the use of power and prestige for self-aggrandizement. God honors the humble, and the highway of humility leads to the gate of heaven. Those who are truly humble persons recognize their desperate need for God, not any right to blessing.
Jesus expands the picture of humility by exhorting his audience to invite to their dinner table the needy and those who cannot repay such kindness. Hospitality should be open to all. So whether at the early meal (ariston) or the main evening meal (deipnon), hospitality should be shown not to the rich and famous nor to family members, but to those who cannot repay the favor. In ancient culture, the one who hosted a festive meal would be placed on the invitation list for future meals at the guests' homes. Jesus argues that such "payback" hospitality has no merit. The best hospitality is given, not merely exchanged in a kind of unspoken social contract. If God reaches out to all, then those who seek to honor him should reach out also. So the poor, crippled, the lame, the blind should be invited. (This list looks much like the list of Luke 7:22, with a few differences; it is repeated in Luke 14:21.) The poor and the powerless should be welcome. For such hospitality and humility, God promises blessing at the resurrection of the dead. Jesus allows no class mentality.
The third part of the discussion around this very eventful meal involved the telling of a parable. Jesus' rebuking was making some of the guests nervous, so someone at the table pronounced a blessing on those who will eat at the feast in the kingdom of God. Surely it will be a great day when eternal fellowship with God comes. No doubt the person who speaks up thinks that all at the table will agree with this blessing. But Jesus takes even this occasion to issue yet another warning through a parable. In effect, he says, "Do not count your chickens before they hatch. And do not count your blessings too early. There will be surprises at God's banquet table."
The parable revolves around a man's invitations to a grand occasion, a great banquet. In the ancient world such a meal would have been preceded by invitations, which would have been accepted by those planning to attend, much like our RSVP. The next step was to hear from the host's servant that the meal was ready, which is exactly what happens in verse 17.
But a surprising thing happens on the way to the dinner. Last-second refusals pour in, despite the RSVPs. As the text says, they all alike began to make excuses. Jesus notes three in particular.
The first excuse involves the need to check out a recently bought field. Some ancient purchases did require a postpurchase inspection. So the excuse is a culturally natural one, but it also reveals priorities: something else is more important than this celebration.
The second excuse involves the purchase of five oxen. Since most ancient landowners had only one or two oxen, this man is clearly wealthy by ancient standards (Jeremias 1972:176-77). Of course the reaction again reflects priorities.
The third excuse involves a recent marriage and the desire to spend time with the new bride. The Old Testament allowed one to be freed from certain obligations in case of marriage (Deut 20:7; 24:5). But it is hard to see why this would be sufficient reason to keep the man from attending this party, especially since he had already accepted the invitation. Again, he is choosing other priorities.
The servant tells the master of the refusals. The master decides, however, that his party will go on anyway. Nothing is to be delayed. The promised celebration will be held as announced.
The celebration pictures the arrival of salvation in the kingdom's initial phase. There is no delay to the kingdom's arrival associated with Jesus. There are only others who will be invited to come. The cultural imagery and timing control the meaning of the imagery in this text.
So the host, angered but not defeated, sends the servant out into the streets and lanes so the poor, maimed, blind and lame may come. This list recalls Jesus' earlier remarks about who is receptive to his message and shows the spiritual connection in the story. God now will invite all kinds of people to the table, and some who had appeared to be in line for an invitation will miss the meal, by choice: when the time to celebrate arrives, they refuse what is on offer.
The servant reports back, noting that many have come but the room is not yet full. So a second invitation goes out to those on the highways and in the hedges (on "hedges" see Michaelis 1967c:68); thus the invitation is now extended to travelers from outside the city who may not know the host.
It seems that the allusion here is to Gentiles. There is no great temporal break between the invitations, so Jesus is likely foretelling the apostolic mission beginning in Acts 10. Jesus views the current time of his ministry as a celebration, a time when the groom is present (Lk 5:33-39).
He concludes the parable by noting that those who were originally invited will not share in the banquet. At this point the parable becomes a rebuke. The warning is that many in the nation of Israel who were in line for divine blessing and who had responded to an initial invitation to be engaged with God's promise have failed to step forward now that the wedding day has come. The parable obviously pictures Jesus' invitation to experience the blessing of God's kingdom by responding to him.
It is crucial to understand here is that the party goes on despite the reneging of the original invitees. The party is not postponed; others are invited to take their place. Opportunity has been lost by some, grace has been extended to others, but the meal is still served. The question is on which side of the divide Jesus' listeners and Luke's readers fall. God's grace continues, but we can miss blessing if we do not respond to Jesus. Even those who seem to be first in line will miss the party if they refuse to come to the celebration. To use Jesus' words elsewhere, "the first have become last, and the last have become first."