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Jesus in the First Three Gospels by Millar Burrows


Millar Burrows was for many years Professor of Biblical Theology at Yale University Divinity School. He received his M.Div. from Union Theological Seminary, New York, and a PhD. in biblical languages, literature and history from Yale University. He is widely known as the author of The Dead Sea Scrolls and More Light on the Dead Sea Scrolls, and is a contributor to The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, published by Abingdon.

Jesus in the First Three Gospels was published in 1977 by Abingdon. This book was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.


Chapter 11: Luke’s Special Section Continued


Next we come to an incident related only by Luke (13:31-33). Some Pharisees said to Jesus, "Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you." He replied, "Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’"

When this was spoken, Jesus must have been in the territory of Herod Antipas, which included Galilee and Perea, but not Samaria. We have nowhere been told that he left Samaria, if he was ever there (cf. 9:51-52); but unless he was still in Galilee he must have crossed the Jordan somewhere. Most of the material in Luke’s special section thus far appears in Mark and Matthew, if at all, in the Galilean portion of their narratives. This puzzle will require further attention presently.

The designation of Herod as "that fox" shows that Jesus neither admired nor feared him. The words "today, tomorrow, and the third day" are idiomatic (cf. Hos 6:2). Jesus’ declaration means simply, "I have not finished my work yet; and until I do, Herod cannot hurt me." In the last clause Jesus indirectly refers to himself as a prophet (v 33). He also clearly implies that he expects to meet his death in Jerusalem (cf. Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:33-34 and parallels).

Very appropriately Luke (13:34-35) connects this with Jesus lament over Jerusalem, which Matthew (23:37-39), also appropriately, reports as spoken in the temple after the saying about "all the righteous blood shed on earth." Jesus condemns Jerusalem for killing the prophets and stoning those sent to her, but cries. "How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!"

When had Jesus tried to gather the people of Jerusalem? So far as anything in Luke’s Gospel indicates, he had not been in Jerusalem since he was twelve years old. According to Matthew, when he uttered this lament he had been in Jerusalem about two days, and had not been there before that since he was a child. Yet the lament implies repeated efforts to appeal to the wayward city.

The saying about the righteous blood shed on earth is quoted by Luke (11:49) as spoken by "the Wisdom of God." Perhaps the reference here to having tried often to gather Jerusalem’s children was originally conceived as spoken by the Wisdom of God or by God himself. That Jesus felt such a tender yearning and grief for Jerusalem is entirely probable, whether or not he spoke these particular words.

Now we have another dinner at the house of a Pharisee, this time on the Sabbath (Lk 14:1-6, cf. 11:37). Again only Luke reports the incident. The host was "a ruler who belonged to the Pharisees" (RSV), or more literally, "one of the rulers of the Pharisees." As often, Jesus was in hostile company. The other guests, Luke says, "were watching him." An occasion for controversy was afforded by the presence of a man afflicted with dropsy. This time Jesus himself raised the question. "Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?" He then proceeded to heal the man, referring again to merciful treatment of an ass or an ox on the Sabbath (Lk 14:5; cf. 13:15). To this, Luke says, "they could not reply."

Jesus went on to tell his fellow guests how to behave (Lk 14:7-1 1). Seeing them pick places of honor for themselves at the table, he said that one who took the highest place at a marriage feast risked being asked to move down to make room for a more eminent guest, whereas one who took the lowest place would be conspicuously honored by being told to come higher. Luke calls this a parable, meaning an example for comparison. The point is stated as a general principle: "For every one who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted." (v 11; cf. 18:14; Mt 23:12). We shall find this repeated later.

Jesus then gave the host also some good advice (Lk 14:12-14). When you have a dinner, he said, you should invite not those who will return the favor but those who cannot do so, the poor and afflicted. Thus you will be truly blessed, and you will be rewarded at the resurrection of the righteous. One suspects that Luke is using the dinner as a suitable setting for various sayings about such occasions.

What follows confirms this suspicion (Lk 14:15-24; cf. Mt 22:1-10). The mention of the resurrection evokes from one of the guests a devout ejaculation, "Blessed is he who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!" The allusion to the Messianic banquet introduces a parable reported by Matthew as a part of Jesus’ teaching in the temple.

A comparison of the two forms of this story provides an instructive example of the way Jesus’ teaching was sometimes expanded and given new applications to meet the needs of the growing church and the interests of the evangelists. With some variations we have first a story that fits the situation confronted by Jesus in his ministry, reflects the social customs of Palestine in his day, and illustrates a point characteristic of his teaching. The invited guests represent the respectable portion of the Jewish nation who did not accept the invitation of the gospel. The outcasts brought in from the streets are the "sinners" who joyfully received the good news and entered the kingdom.

This much the two forms of the story have in common, but each Gospel has an addition of its own. In Matthew (22:10-14) the servants filled the wedding hall with "all whom they found, both bad and good." As a result, the king perceived in the throng a man without a wedding garment. Unable to explain his presence so improperly attired, the scoundrel was bound and thrown out. Here the point of the original parable is lost. What is stressed is Matthew’s characteristic concern for the purity of the church.

For Luke it is not enough that the places of those who declined the invitation were filled by the poor and afflicted of the city. Having brought these in, the servant reported that there was still room, and he was sent out into the country to bring in others from the highways and hedges (Lk 14:22-23). This implies that not only the most despised members of the Jewish people may be admitted to the kingdom of God, there is room also for many from the east and the west (cf. Lk 13:29-30; Mt 8:11-12).

From here on Luke tacitly abandons the setting of the dinner at the Pharisee’s house. Apparently assuming that Jesus was walking from one place to another, he says, "Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them" (14:25); then follows the saying about hating father and mother, which we have discussed with its parallel in Matthew (vv 26-27; Mt 10:37-38).

After this Luke has a twofold parable (14:28-33; cf. 11:5-8), in the form of two questions and the answers to them. A man wanting to build a tower, Jesus says, will "first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it." Likewise a king thinking of going out to oppose an invasion will first consider whether his army can successfully resist the enemy. "So therefore," the parable ends, "whoever of you does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple." Jesus demands a complete sacrifice of personal possessions and attachments. We have encountered this theme and shall come back to it later.

Here Luke quotes the saying about salt that Matthew has in the Sermon on the Mount, and concludes with the familiar formula, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Lk 14:34-35; Mt 5:13; Mk 9:50).

A notable trilogy of parables is next introduced by the statement. "Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying. ‘This man receives sinners and eats with them’" (Lk 15:12; cf. Mk 2:15-16 and parallels). The complaint is answered first by the parable of the lost sheep, which has appeared earlier in Matthew (Lk 15:3-7; cf. Mt 18:12-14). Luke adds some details and states the meaning of the story: "There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance."

Luke alone reports the next parable (15:8-10). A woman who has a meager hoard of ten small silver coins, and loses one of them, Jesus says, will call her friends and neighbors together to share her joy when she finds it and the conclusion follows: "Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

These two parables are not stories but generalizations in the form of questions, like the parable of the friend at midnight (cf. 11:5-8). The climax of the series, however, is a story (15:11-32). This time no moral is attached at the end; it is not needed, though the full impact of the parable is often missed through failure to read it against the background of the situation described at the beginning of the chapter.

Commonly called the parable of the prodigal son, the story has three equally important characters. They are all very real. We know people like them: the self-indulgent, confused younger son, who almost too late comes to himself; the father, who lets the boy make his own decisions but never stops loving him; the virtuous but hardhearted older son, reluctant to share the reward of his fidelity with a spendthrift brother. (One wonders whether the Pharisees and scribes recognized themselves in that picture.) The first two parables say, "Your Father loves his wandering children and welcomes them when they come home." The third says, "And so should you."

Next comes a parable (16:1-9), also reported only by Luke, which has probably caused more confusion than anything else in Jesus’ teaching. This is the parable of the dishonest steward. An inefficient and corrupt estate manager, about to be thrown out of his job, arranges a soft landing place for himself by inducing his employer’s debtors to falsify the amounts of their debts; and Jesus says, "The master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness." All kinds of rationalizations have been dreamed up to clear Jesus of any suspicion of praising such a scoundrel.

This is another "how much more" parable. In the statement that the master commended the dishonest steward, readers sometimes take the word "master" or "lord" to mean Jesus. The sentence is a part of the parable; it means that the employer said something like this: "You rascal, I must admit that you are clever, and I admire your resourcefulness." The Greek says literally, "because he acted shrewdly"; that is, he used his wits in the emergency.

Any interpretation that tries to make the steward anything other than a clever scoundrel misses the point. The significance of the master’s commendation is expressed by the clause, "for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light." The contrast of the sons of light and the sons of darkness marks the distinction between the worldly and those who seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness. To paraphrase Jesus’ comment, people who are concerned only with the affairs of this world often show more ingenuity in seeking their ends than religious people do in trying to accomplish God’s will. In short, being good does not require being stupid.

The next sentence (16:9) reads. "And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations." The word "mammon" means wealth, and should be translated instead of being merely carried over into English. The clause, "when it fails," and the contrasting "eternal habitations," imply that you cannot take money with you. but you can use it to make friends, and friendship is eternal.

Providing for his own security by making friends is precisely what the steward did. Whether this verse was a part of the original parable, however, is another question. It is hard to reconcile with what Jesus says elsewhere about wealth. Perhaps it represents a generation that had relaxed the radical renunciation of wealth he demanded, and felt that after all you must be realistic and practical; wealth is all right if you make the right use of it. This gives the parable a meaning different from the quite adequate one stated in the previous verse, the need of intelligence in spiritual matters. For that reason verse 9 is probably a later addition to the parable. If it was spoken by Jesus at all, it was surely in some other connection.

If this parable has received a disproportionate amount of attention here, it is because it is so widely misunderstood. Our difficulties in interpreting the parables did not exist for those who heard Jesus tell them.

The sayings that now follow in Luke (16:10-13) were apparently placed here because they contain the word "mammon." which thus serves as a catchword to bind them together. The first one even repeats the expression, "unrighteous mammon." There is no good reason to doubt that they were spoken by Jesus, though not necessarily at the same time.

The statement. "He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much," is made more specific by the question. "If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches?" What is meant by the true riches is not indicated. It might be the knowledge of spiritual truth called in Mark "the secret of the kingdom of God" (Mk 4:11), but this is only one guess among many.

The next verse (Lk 16:12) is even more obscure: "And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own?" The steward in the parable had been unfaithful in what belonged to another, but what the application intended here may have been is not apparent. Perhaps the original context or circumstances made the reference clearer than it is now.

To these sayings Luke appends the one about serving God and mammon found also in the Sermon on the Mount (v 13; cf. Mt 6:24). Luke continues (16:14), "The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they scoffed at him." Like the charge of hypocrisy, the description of the Pharisees as money lovers was not true of them as a group. Why they are singled out here is a mystery. Luke’s remark seems to betray a personal animosity toward them.

To the scoffing of the Pharisees, Luke reports, Jesus replied (v 15), "You are those who justify yourselves before men, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God." Justifying themselves before men seems to mean expressing popular views and living the kind of life men admire. God knows the heart, and what wins the admiration of men has no value for him.

Now Luke records three sayings (16:16-18) given by Matthew in different places. First is the saying about the work of the prophets until John the Baptist and the proclamation of the kingdom of God since then, which we have already discussed (v 16; cf. Mt 11:12-13). Next is Jesus’ statement that not a dot of the law will become void, reported by Matthew in the Sermon on the Mount (v 17; cf. Mt 5:18). Then comes the saying equating divorce and remarriage with adultery, also used in the Sermon on the Mount and repeated later by Matthew where Mark has it (V 18; cf. Mt 5:32; Mk 10:11-12; Mt 19:9).

The parable of the rich man and the beggar now follows (Lk 16:19-31). The beggar, named Lazarus, who received only "evil things" during his life, is taken at his death to Abraham’s bosom and comforted. The rich man, who received his "good things" on earth, goes to Hades, where he suffers torment and anguish in the flame, and begs Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers, so that they may not "come into this place of torment." Abraham replies, "They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them." It is evidently assumed that the rich man’s life of ease and sumptuous feastings was evil, presumably because he was indifferent to the suffering of the beggar at his gate.

The picture of life after death in this parable is more detailed than any other in the Gospels. It is significant also because it deals with the intermediate state before the resurrection of the dead. Jesus was not imparting new information about the future life; his hearers understood the expressions used and accepted their presuppositions. The Gospels nowhere suggest that Jesus rejected or criticized the current beliefs. How literally the language and imagery were understood is of course another matter. It is interesting that the righteous and the wicked are separated at death (cf. 23:43). The dead are not simply asleep until the resurrection, or in a place of waiting or probation.

When Abraham said that the living had Moses and the prophets, the tormented man persisted: "No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent." Abraham denied that they would be convinced even "if some one should rise from the dead." Inevitably this strikes Christian readers as an allusion to the resurrection of Jesus. No doubt it was so intended; indeed the man’s second plea and Abraham’s reply were probably added later to the parable to make it a prophecy of the resurrection.

Luke introduces here the saying about one who caused a little one to sin, previously reported by both Mark and Matthew (Lk 17:1-2; cf. Mk 9:42; Mt 18:6-7). As in Matthew, this is coupled with the saying about a person through whom temptations come. Then comes the passage concerning a brother who sins and repents, followed by the saying about forgiving an offender seven times or more (Lk 17:3-4; cf. Mt 18:15, 2 1-22).

For the next saying, concerning faith like a grain of mustard seed (Lk 17:5-6; Mt 17:20), Luke provides an occasion: "The apostles said to the Lord. ‘Increase our faith!’" The reference to the twelve as "the apostles" and the designation of Jesus as "the Lord" are both characteristic of Luke.

Then follows a saying, found only in Luke, which is clear in its religious meaning but somewhat disturbing in its apparent social implications (17:7-10). It is another "which of you?" parable; that is, not a story but a hypothetical ease involving the hearers (cf. 11:5-8). To paraphrase, Jesus says: "When your servant comes in from a day’s work in the field, you expect him to prepare and serve your supper before he eats or drinks anything himself. You don’t thank him for doing what he was told, do you?" What a far cry from Jesus’ characteristic compassion for those who labored! Essentially, though not formally, we may consider this a "how much more" parable. Jesus takes the farmers before him for what they are, and tells them not to expect God to give them any more credit for doing their duty than they give their servants. Man has no claim upon God. Having done his best, he is still an unprofitable servant. No room is left here for any doctrine of merit.

Next comes a healing miracle (Lk 17:11-19). Ten lepers, meeting Jesus as he was entering a village, stood at a distance and cried. "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us." Jesus told them to go and show themselves to the priests, and "as they went they were cleansed." One of them, a Samaritan, turned back to thank Jesus, who again, as in the case of the centurion’s servant, expressed his wonder that only a foreigner praised God. "Rise and go your way," he said; "your faith has made you well."

The story is introduced with a very perplexing statement; "On the way to Jerusalem he was passing along between Samaria and Galilee." (KJV’s "through the midst of Samaria and Galilee" appears at first sight to be a literal translation, but it is not what the Greek means, and creates an even greater geographical difficulty.) The last previous indication of the place Jesus had reached was the warning by the Pharisees that Herod wanted to kill him (13:31), implying that he was then either in Galilee or in Perea.

The only meaning that "passing along between Samaria and Galilee" can have is proceeding along their common boundary, which ran for about twenty miles in a generally southeast direction, along the edge of the plain of Esdraelon until it reached the head of the valley of Jezreel. There it turned south, dividing Samaria from the Decapolis instead of Galilee. If Jesus first crossed from Galilee to a Samaritan village somewhere along this border, and then proceeded southeast, possibly crossing back and forth once or twice along the way, that might explain Luke’s cryptic expression. In that ease Jesus had not yet crossed into Perea when he healed the ten lepers. The fact that Jesus called the Samaritan "this foreigner" suggests that they were on Jewish soil. The frequent mention of Pharisees in this part of the narrative also points to that conclusion.

No doubt Luke had little interest in geographical details, but it does not follow that he was utterly ignorant of the geography of Palestine. The general framework of his narrative must have had at least some basis in tradition, though Luke exercised complete freedom in fitting the units of the tradition into that framework. Possibly, therefore, he moved the story of the lepers, including the geographical note, to a later place than it had occupied in his source, though why he should do this is not apparent.

For Luke the incident affords one more demonstration that the Jews had no monopoly on the grace of God or on the qualities that God approved. Again a member of the community with which they had no dealings had shown himself better than representatives of the chosen people. "Where are the nine?" Jesus asked sadly.

Now the Pharisees come into the picture again, asking when the kingdom of God would come, and so evoking what must be the most debated of all Jesus’ sayings about the kingdom (Lk 17:21). Even the correct translation of the Greek is a matter of disagreement among scholars. The rendering of the KJV, "within you," is literal and may be correct. Why then do so many modern versions change it to "among you or "in your midst"? Not because the translators themselves do not believe in the presence of God’s kingdom in the soul. The question is not whether what the KJV says is true, but whether it is what Jesus meant by this particular saying. A footnote on "among you" in the NEB shows how uncertain this is. It reads, "Or for in fact the kingdom of God is within you, or for in fact the kingdom of God is within your grasp, or for suddenly the kingdom of God will be among you."

The Greek preposition is ambiguous, and the two or three Aramaic prepositions that it might represent are equally so.

When God’s kingship is accepted by an individual, it has in a sense come for him. In the context of the saying in Luke this interpretation seems unlikely, but that context may not be historical. Jesus might have said "among you" in the sense that he said "has come upon you" (cf. Mt 12:28; Lk 11:20). Or the saying may refer to the future. Jesus may have meant, "While you are wondering when the kingdom will come, suddenly there it is in your midst." Such a prophetic use of the present tense for the future is not unusual. The conclusion of many, which I accept, that this is probably what Jesus meant, is based not on this verse by itself but on the combined evidence of all that he said about the kingdom of God.

Turning from the Pharisees to the disciples, Jesus continues (Lk 17:22-37; cf. Mt 24:26-27): "The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Lo, there!’ or ‘Lo, here!’ Do not go, do not follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of man be in his day."

Matthew’s version of this saying occurs in the apocalyptic discourse (Mt 24:23-25; Mk 13:21-23), combined with a warning against false Messiahs and false prophets. Instead of "the days of the Son of man," Matthew says, "the coming of the Son of man." Other differences between Matthew and Luke here do not affect the essential meaning of the passage. When the Son of man comes there will be no uncertainty about the fact; it will be unmistakably manifest everywhere.

The collocation of ideas in these sayings raises two questions: what is the relation between the coming of the Son of man and the coming of the kingdom of God, and what is the relation of the Son of man to the Messiah? For the evangelists, and probably for Jesus, the Son of man was the Messiah, both terms referring to Jesus himself, and the coming of the Son of man was a phase or aspect of the coming of the kingdom of God.

Luke explicitly identifies the Son of man with Jesus by adding here (v 25), "But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation." Thus to the three predictions of the cross found in all three Synoptic Gospels (Mk 8:3 I; 9:31; 10:33-34 and parallels), and one explicit in Matthew but not in Mark (Mk 9:12; Mt 17:22), Luke gives here another mentioning only suffering and rejection. The expression "suffer many things" occurs also in two of Mark’s predictions (Mk 8:31; 9:12).

Next Luke picks up another passage used by Matthew in the apocalyptic discourse (Lk 17:26-27; Mt 24:37-39). comparing the days of the Son of man with the days of Noah (cf. 2 Pet 3:1-9). (Again where Luke has "days" Matthew has "coming.") Luke adds a similar reference to the time of Lot, when Sodom was destroyed by fire and sulfur from heaven (Lk 17:28-30).

A saying included by both Mark and Matthew in the apocalyptic discourse follows, urging anyone who is on the housetop at that time not to come down into the house for his goods, and anyone who is in the field not to turn back (Lk 17:31; Mk 13:15-16; Mt 24:17-18; cf. Lk 21:21). Luke has the passage in that context also with some alteration. Here he omits fleeing to the mountains but adds (17:32) "Remember Lot’s wife."

Then a saying reported earlier in all the Synoptic Gospels, and also included by Matthew in the instructions to the twelve, is repeated by Luke: "Whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it" (Lk 17:33; cf. Mk 8:35; Mt 16:25; Lk 9:24; Mt 10:39).

Now comes a series of three sayings corresponding to three given by Matthew in the apocalyptic discourse (Lk 17:34-37; Mt 24:40-4 1). Two deal with the sudden separation of the saved from the lost. The time is indicated as "that night." In Luke’s form of the first saying, one of two men in the same bed will be "taken and the other left." Matthew speaks of two men in the field. The second saying declares that one of two women grinding grain together will be taken. Whatever is meant here by being taken or left, these sayings do not justify the lurid ideas of the "rapture" sometimes inferred from them and from what Paul says in I Thessalonians 4:17.

In Luke the passage ends with still another saying used by Matthew in the apocalyptic discourse (Lk 17:37; Mt 24:28). Characteristically Luke introduces it with a question by the disciples, "Where, Lord?" This can only mean "Where will one be taken and the other left?" Jesus replies, "Where the body is, there the eagles will be gathered together." In Matthew this saying follows the one about a flash of lightning, so that it plainly refers to the coming of the Son of man, which will not have to be sought here or there but will be clearly manifest.

Two more of Luke’s unique parables follow. The first is another "how much more" parable (18:1-8). If a corrupt magistrate, indifferent alike to human need and divine law, would grant an importunate widow her rights merely to get rid of her, surely God, the altogether righteous judge, will speedily vindicate his elect when they cry to him. At the end of the parable there is a question: "Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?" This may have been a sad reflection by Jesus on the general lack of faith when he spoke. It reads, however, very much like a comment of the evangelist, or even of some reader or scribe.

"He also," Luke continues, "told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others." Who they were is made plain by the parable, the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector who went to the temple to pray (18:9-14). The former thanked God that he was better than other men; the latter acknowledged that he was a sinner and begged God to forgive him. It was the tax collector, Jesus said, who went home "justified." Of course Jesus did not mean that the Pharisees were alone in being self-righteous, or that all tax collectors were humbly repentant. The point was that any person, regardless of appearances or status, who acknowledged his unworthiness was more acceptable to God than one who was proud of his righteousness. This was not only a general principle but an observed fact, as when he said to the chief priests and the scribes and elders, "The tax collectors and the harlots go into the kingdom of God before you" (Mt 21:31). Luke appends a maxim he has quoted before (v 14; cf. 14:11; Mt 23:12): "for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

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