return to religion-online

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 12: The Conclusion of the Journey to Jerusalem


Now Luke comes back to Mark’s order of presentation with the story of Jesus’ blessing children (Mk 10:13-16; Mt 19:13-15; Lk 18:15-17). This incident recalls the earlier one of the child "in the midst of them" (Mk 9:36: Mt 18:2-4; Lk 9:47); in fact, the saying about receiving the kingdom of God like a child, which Matthew has in that place, appears here in Mark and Luke. This time, however, the children are brought to Jesus that he may touch them, and the disciples rebuke the parents for doing this.

Jesus, says Mark, was indignant at the attempt to keep the children from him. "Let the children come to me," he said; "do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God," that is, to children and to those who are like them (Mk 10:14, cf. Mt 5:3, 10; Lk 6:20). No doubt the reference is to the trusting dependence of children, their susceptibility to influence, readiness to imitate, and ability to learn.

All three Gospels relate now the story of the "rich young ruler," commonly so called because Matthew says he was young, Luke calls him a ruler, and all say that he was rich (Mk 10: 17-27; Mt 19:16-26; Lk 18:18-27). This encounter is important for Jesus’ attitude toward material wealth; yet it is generally accepted and passed over with surprising complacency.

In Mark and Luke the man asks, "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus says "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone." In Matthew the man asks, "What good deed must I do to have eternal life?" and Jesus answers, "Why do you ask me about what is good? One there is who is good." The question and answer fit each other so much better in Mark and Luke than in Matthew that we can be sure it was Matthew who made the change, perhaps to avoid implying that Jesus was not good. The statement that only God is good need not imply that Jesus considers himself a sinner. He does distinguish between God and himself, but that should not be disturbing. Even in the Gospel of John, with its notably "high" Christology, Jesus constantly makes this distinction (e.g., in 5:19; 14:20; 16:28; cf. 10:30; 17:21).

In both forms of the rich man’s question it is assumed that salvation is to be gained by doing something. For Judaism the law is the revelation of God’s will, by obedience to which eternal life is attained. This is presupposed by Jesus’ reply, "You know the commandments," or as Matthew explicitly puts it, "If you would enter life, keep the commandments."

The rich man’s purpose is "to inherit eternal life." The rendering "inherit" it not really appropriate. That is not the Greek verb’s only meaning. It corresponds to a Hebrew and Aramic verb commonly used in the general sense of getting possession. Some such word as "obtain" or "gain" would be a better translation here.

The expression "eternal life" also requires explanation. It means much more than endless existence. The same expression appears again in this chapter (Lk 8:29-30; Mk 10:30; Mt 19:29) where Jesus assures Peter that those who have left everything to follow him will "receive . . . in the age to come eternal life." Once in the Old Testament (Dan 12:2) the two words are combined as in the Gospels: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt." (The use of "everlasting" instead of "eternal" here merely retains the rendering of the KJV.)

The Jewish literature of the centuries after the completion of the Old Testament often contrasts "this age" and "the coming age." Being saved is called having a share in the coming age. The word for "age," however, came to mean also something like "world," and the idea of a new age shaded into the idea of a heavenly world already existing and "coming" only for those still alive on earth. (Hence KJV’s "world to come" where the RSV has "age to come. ) The word we translate "eternal" is derived from the word for "age" or "world." It refers not to the duration of the future life but to its quality: eternal life is the life of the coming age, the life of the kingdom of God.

Jesus’ answer to the rich man’s question mentioned some of the commandments. All three Gospels cite the prohibition of killing, adultery, stealing, and false witness, and the command to honor parents. Mark adds another, "Do not defraud." This is not one of the ten commandments, but at the beginning of Deuteronomy 24:14 one major manuscript of the Septuagint reads, "Do not defraud" instead of "Do not wrong." Matthew adds another commandment not in the Decalogue (Lev 19:18), "You shall love your neighbor as yourself," given later by Jesus as the second greatest commandment in the law (Mk 12:31 and parallels).

The rich man protested that he had kept the commandments from his youth. "And Jesus looking upon him loved him," says Mark. Once more the appealing human note is passed over by Matthew and Luke. But had the man really kept the commandments? The third-century theologian Origen quotes an expanded version of this incident from the lost "Gospel According to the Hebrews," in which Jesus says to the rich man, "How can you say, ‘I have fulfilled the law and the prophets,’ when it is written in the law ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’; and lo, many of your brothers, sons of Abraham, are clothed in filth, dying of hunger, and your house is full of many good things, none of which goes out to them?"

Jesus may have intended something like this when he went on to say, "You lack one thing." Perhaps he did not mean "Something more than keeping the commandments is needed," but rather "No, you have not fully kept the commandments." In Matthew the man asks what he still lacks, and Jesus’ reply begins, "If you would be perfect," using the word found once before in Matthew, where, however, perfection is not optional: "You, therefore, must be perfect," Jesus says (Mt 5:48). Matthew’s "if" here suggests that obeying the commandments will gain eternal life, but there is a higher stage attainable only by a few. Probably this reflects a time when the sharing of goods, as practiced at first in the church at Jerusalem, was coming to be regarded as requisite only for a limited inner circle of disciples.

What Jesus said the rich man still needed — "sell what you have, and give to the poor" — was too hard for him to accept, and he went away sorrowful. He wanted to win eternal life, but not at the price of giving up what this age offered. "for he had great possessions." The sacrifice was harder for him than tor one who had nothing to lose. Jesus recognized this and said "How hard it will be for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God!"

Again Jesus’ effective use of hyperbole is manifest. "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." The fact that there is a word for "rope" which is almost the same as the word for "camel" has tempted interpreters to suppose that Jesus spoke here of a rope, but to thread a needle with a rope is still impossible.

The astonishment of the disciples is amusing. If the recognized pillars of society cannot enter the kingdom, they thought, what hope can there be for poor people like us? Even now wealth is not commonly considered a barrier to influence or position in the church. Jesus said that anything is possible with God. It is worth noting that the rich man asks what to do to inherit eternal life, Jesus speaks of entering the kingdom of God, and the disciples ask who can be saved.

Impetuous Peter hastens to say, "Lo, we have left everything and followed you." Jesus assures him that the twelve and all who do as they have done will have ample recompense, both now and in the coming age (Mk 10:28-31; Mt 19:27-30; Lk 18:28-30). Mark specifies what the blessings of the present age are: "houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions." Certainly this does not mean that Jesus’ followers will have new and larger families and new and richer estates, as Job did (Job 42:12-13). The new fellowship, new friendships, and mutual sharing of what little material goods any of them may have will more than make up for what they have lost. All this will come "with persecutions." Possibly this phrase was added later, when persecution had become a major factor in Christian experience (cf. Mt 10:17-25). Jesus himself, however, had enough experience of persecution to be aware of what his followers would have to expect.

Matthew reports here a promise (Mt. 19:28 cf Lk 18:28-30) that when the Son of man sits on his glorious throne the disciples will "sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel." In Luke this is spoken at the last supper. The thrones correspond to the twelve tribes and to the twelve disciples, but what twelve? Was Judas included? The twelve tribes of Israel are surely not to be taken in a literal, exclusive, or preferential sense, any more than the thrones are to be taken literally. It must mean the whole people of God, first Jews but also Gentiles.

The story of the rich man and what follows it raise searching questions for Christian life in our world today. Did Jesus issue a challenge that we do not and cannot meet? Did Jesus mean that any person who would enter the kingdom of God must divest himself of possessions and sever all family ties? His call for repentance and faith was directed at least to the whole house of Israel. The promises were unmistakably intended for all who were humble and merciful and pure in heart, all who accepted the kingdom like little children. Jesus condemned rich men who were indifferent to the plight of those less fortunate (e.g., Lk 16:19-31), but he accepted the hospitality of others. Martha and Mary (Lk 10:38-42) had not left all to follow him, and the women who ministered to him out of their own means (Lk 8:2-3; cf. Mk 15:40-41 and parallels) had not given all they had to the poor. Later Zacchaeus is declared saved after giving half of his goods to the poor and restoring fourfold what he had gained by fraud (Lk 19:8-9). Joseph of Arimathea is called both a rich man and a disciple by Matthew (27:57; cf. Mk 15:43; Lk 23:51).

Jesus asked of the rich man not only "sell and give" but also "come, follow." Disposing of his property was required not so much to help the poor as to enable the man to follow Jesus. The verb "follow" does not necessarily involve becoming a disciple, but it often implies going about with Jesus and eventually going with him to Jerusalem. Nowhere is "follow" used in a figurative sense of accepting Jesus and his gospel and being guided by his teaching.

Did Jesus then limit the hope of eternal life to the group of those who so followed him? Not unless there was a change in his thinking during his ministry. To suppose so is precarious; it is also precarious to assume that there was no change. There was a change in the situation he faced, from the enthusiasm in Galilee, through the growing opposition of the authorities, and the falling off of his following as it became clear that he was not what many expected. Possibly therefore his own hope of general acceptance was chilled, and his estimate of the number that would prove ready for the kingdom of God reduced. The poor and humble, to whom the kingdom belonged, might then have been almost identified with his immediate followers. Yet Mary and Martha probably. Zacchaeus and Joseph certainly, come near the end of the story.

The evangelists distinguished between the many who heard gladly and believed and the relatively few who accompanied Jesus. This is shown not only by Matthew’s use of the word "perfect" (Mt 5:48; 19:21). Mark has the idea of the secret of the kingdom of God, which is hidden from "those outside" (Mk 4:11 and parallels). This appears in connection with a mistaken conception of Jesus’ reason for using parables but to assume that the whole idea of an inner circle reflects later developments is unjustified.

Were there then different conditions of entrance to the kingdom for those inside and those outside? Jesus made extra demands of those who literally followed him. The historical situation and the circumstances of his ministry made this inevitable, but those who sincerely endeavored to do God’s will within their normal social relations were the people to whom he said the kingdom belonged. It is quite incredible that he would have changed his mind about that.

Sayings demanding radical renunciation exist along with others that resemble the directions for everyday life in the wisdom literature. There are also sayings that make no reference to a change in the existing order of the world and others that indicate that the end of the present age is near. The sayings that presuppose that things will continue unchanged are, on the whole, those which give instructions appropriate to such a situation. The sayings that demand radical renunciation, however, are not those which stress the imminent end of the age. In what Jesus says to the disciples after the rich man departs, for instance, the distinction between the two ages is clear, but there is no suggestion that the change is coming soon. The sayings that do stress the nearness of the change say nothing about leaving home and possessions, but emphasize the same everyday virtues exalted by the beatitudes and similar sayings (Mt 24:45-51: 25:31-46; Lk 12:42-48; 21:34).

What does loom on the horizon in the "leave all and follow" sayings is the crisis of rejection, suffering, and death at Jerusalem. If Jesus hoped that the kingdom of God would come then, there is nothing to suggest this in the sayings themselves. It is because of this impending crisis, at least after Caesarea Philippi (Mk 8:3 1, 34 and parallels), that the call to follow Jesus involves renunciation of possessions and human ties. Before that, the exigencies of constant travel entailed more or less similar sacrifices, but after Jesus "set his face to go to Jerusalem" (Lk 9:51) it became clear that to follow him one must repudiate all other involvements. What Jesus said about the inevitability of such sacrifice was not so much a demand as a warning of what they must expect.

This means that the two sets of requirements — those which apply to life in this world and those which amount to a denial of the world — were prescribed for different people. For much the larger group, being a disciple of Jesus meant adopting his faith and the way of life he taught. For the small group, it meant giving up all ambition or hope in this age and relying on the blessings of the age to come. Both groups would inherit the kingdom.

Jesus’ response to Peter’s reminder of what the disciples have sacrificed ends with the warning, "But many that are first will be last, and the last first" (Mk 10:31; Mt 19:30). Luke has used this earlier (13:30), referring to those who hear the word but do not practice it. Here it suggests that the first disciples cannot expect precedence or superiority in the kingdom of God. Matthew evidently understands it so, for he gives here (20:1-16) the parable about the laborers who were hired at different hours of the day to work in a vineyard, but were all paid the same wages for their day’s work; and at the end of the parable he says, "So the last will be first, and the first last."

As in other parables, the conduct of the owner of the vineyard in this story is not only peculiar but questionable, both economically and morally. The men who worked all day seem justified in feeling that they should be paid more than those who have worked only an hour. The owner, however, dismisses their complaint, saying that they have received what they bargained for, and he has a right to be generous to the others with his own money. The parable has been cited in support of minimum wage laws and unemployment compensation. The fallacy of using it in this way lies in attaching significance to details that were intended only to make an interesting story. Such items, however, show at least that Jesus observed with sympathy the plight of hired labor in the economic and political situation of Palestine. He was talking, however, about the kingdom of God, which is not governed by the economics of secular society.

As a rebuke to any who might expect a superior place in the kingdom because they had been the first to follow Jesus (cf. Mk 10:35-41 and parallels), the parable makes the assurances in the preceding paragraph appear to be only preliminary. "You may be sure," Jesus says in effect, "that you and all who have given up so much to follow me will have abundant compensations, but don’t suppose that because you were the first to do so you are better than others. The blessings of the kingdom of God are not measured by length of service. They are not earned but granted by God’s grace."

With Mark and Luke, Matthew now records Jesus’ third prediction of his death (Mk 10:32-34; Mt 20:17-19; Lk 18:31-34). "And they were on the road, going up to Jerusalem," says Mark, "and Jesus was walking ahead of them; and they were amazed, and those who followed were afraid." When he took the twelve aside, what he said showed that there was reason for their fear. It was the same as the first two predictions (Mk 8:31; 9:31 and parallels) but even more specific. Luke adds two items; "everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished" (18:31); and, "But they understood none of these things; this saying was hid from them, and they did not grasp what was said" (v 34).

The Old Testament nowhere says that the Son of man will be rejected, betrayed, and killed. There must have been some prophecy to which these reiterated statements refer, but it would have to be one in which the term Son of man was not used. In Luke’s account of the appearance at Emmaus (Lk 24:25-27, 44-47) similar expressions are applied to the Messiah, but there are no such prophecies about the Messiah either. In another place (Lk 22:37) Jesus says, "This scripture must be fulfilled in me," and "what is written about me has its fulfillment." That is obviously the meaning in all these passages.

If we ask what prophecy or prophecies may be referred to regardless of particular designations, the only chapter in the Old Testament that tells of one who innocently suffered and "bore the sin of many" is the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah (53:12). It is often denied that Jesus himself understood his suffering and death in terms of Isaiah 53. That interpretation, it is maintained, arose among his followers after the crucifixion and resurrection. The evangelists believed that Jesus found in this prophecy the meaning of his own rejection and suffering. The reasons given for considering this erroneous do not seem to me conclusive. Whatever the prophet meant by his description of the suffering servant of the Lord, what seemed obvious to Jesus’ disciples may very well have been equally so for him.

The caution against expecting special privilege in the kingdom of God seems not to have been taken to heart by all the disciples. Next in Mark and Matthew but omitted by Luke is the request of James and John (or their mother, as Matthew has it) that they might sit at Jesus’ right and left in his glory (Mk 10:35-40; Mt 20:20-23). "You do not know what you are asking," Jesus replied, and asked whether they could drink his cup and be baptized with his baptism. Whether two different trials are symbolized is not clear. Matthew mentions only the cup.

Evidently the sons of Zebedee still had very little understanding of Jesus’ mission. They expected him to set up an earthly kingdom and distribute high offices in it among his followers. The other ten expressed self-righteous indignation, but perhaps it was the effort to get ahead of them that aroused their ire.

The disciples’ inability to comprehend what Jesus tried to tell them is a recurrent theme in all the Gospels (Mk 6:52; 7:18; 8:17-18, 21; Mt 15:16; 16:9, 11; Lk 9:45). A critical reader may suspect that this idea grew out of later reflection and served an apologetic interest; yet it is true to human nature and experience. On this occasion Jesus called them to him and told them, as he had before (cf. Mk 9:35; Lk 9:48), that the greatest among them would he the slave of the rest: they were not to lord it over men, as the rulers of the nations did (cf Lk 22:24-26). To this is added (Mk 10:45; Mt 20:28), "For the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." The word "many" in this connection recalls Isaiah 53:11-12: "By his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous; and he shall bear their iniquities," and "he bore the sin of many." Here, as in Daniel (12:2,4, 10), "many" is meant to suggest a contrast not between many and all but between few or none and many.

In this saying the Son of man is unmistakably Jesus, but the statement may not be a part of what Jesus said. It may be a comment by the evangelist or some teacher or preacher before him (cf. Mk 2:28). If so, this use of "Son of man" may have to be ascribed to a predilection for this title in some part of the early church, which gave these sayings their present form. In that case the conception of Jesus’ death as a ransom may also have originated in the church. That would not make this interpretation of the cross less true, but it would substantially reduce our evidence for what Jesus taught about himself and his work.

There is a saying in Luke that is similar to this one but lacks the term "Son of man," the reference to Jesus’ death, and the allusion to Isaiah 53. Luke reports it after the last supper (22:27). In the Gospel of John, Jesus acts out this idea, rising from the table, girding himself with a towel, and washing the disciples’ feet (13:3-17). One wonders whether the story grew out of Luke’s saying.

After the rebuke of the sons of Zebedee, the Synoptic Gospels all report a miracle of healing at or near Jericho (Mk l0’46-5’; Mt 20:29-34; Lk 18:35-43). Mark and Matthew say it occurred as Jesus was leaving Jericho; Luke says it was "as he drew near to Jericho." Presumably they had just crossed the Jordan. if they had been moving southward through Perea. Mark calls the man who was healed "Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus." Since Bartimaeus means "son of Timaeus," this is an instance of Mark’s practice of quoting Aramaic expressions with their meaning in Greek (cf. Mk 3:17; 7:11, 34; 14:36; 15:34). Luke does not mention the name; Matthew again has two blind men. Both here and in Matthew’s earlier account (9:27-31) the blind men address Jesus as Son of David, and Jesus touches their eyes. Why Matthew has both stories and has two blind men in each of them is a mystery. It must be more than a coincidence that he also has two demoniacs in his account of the Gadarene swine (Mt 8:28; cf. Mk 5:2; Lk 8:27).

According to Mark, Bartimaeus was told that his faith had cured him; and "immediately he received his sight and followed him on the way." Luke adds, "glorifying God," and concludes characteristically, "and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God."

The accounts of this miracle agree that Jesus was addressed as "Son of David." This term appears only here in Mark and Luke in addressing Jesus. Matthew has it in several other places.

Luke alone recounts another incident (19:1-10) as Jesus "entered Jericho and was passing through." the conversion of Zacchaeus. The amusing picture of the rich tax collector who climbed a tree to see Jesus is familiar. It is easy to imagine his surprise when Jesus looked up and said, "I must stay at your house today." as well as the murmuring of the crowd because Jesus had chosen to visit a "sinner." Even more astonishing must have been Zacchaeus’ announcement that he would give half of his goods to the poor and restore fourfold any amount by which he had defrauded anyone.

Jesus welcomed the declaration, saying, "Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham." The last clause apparently means that Zacchaeus had shown himself to be a true Jew after all. It seems strange that Luke, of all the evangelists, most often uses such expressions as "son of Abraham" (1:73; 13:16; 16:24-30). Perhaps the idea, reinterpreted as a matter of faith and life rather than ancestry (cf. Rom 4:13, 16; Gal 3:7, 29), was already popular in the circle from which Luke’s unique material was derived.

The account of this incident closes with the statement (Lk 19:10; cf. Mt 18:11), "for the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost" (the Greek word is a neuter singular). Some manuscripts and versions have an almost exact parallel to this in Matthew after the saying about the angels of the little ones. Probably the sentence had circulated separately and was not originally a part of the story of Zacchaeus. More important than the origin of the saying is the conception of Jesus’ mission expressed here and elsewhere. That it represents his own conviction is confirmed by his conduct. His attention and concern were not devoted to the respectable, self-satisfied, and no doubt usually sincere "righteous people," but to those whom they despised as outside the pale.

Luke continues (19:11-27), "As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately." From Jericho to Jerusalem there was still a long, steep climb, but the disciples may have felt that they were nearing the consummation of their hopes. Thus the parable of the pounds, which now follows, is given a definite setting and purpose. At the time when Luke’s Gospel was written the delay of the kingdom, thought of in terms of Jesus’ coming again, had become an urgent problem. It is quite possible, however, that as Jesus drew near to Jerusalem there were many who expected him to manifest himself as Messiah there and set up again the kingdom of David. Not a few scholars have believed that this was his intention. If, however, he expected rejection and suffering, he might well try to allay such a misapprehension.

Whether that was the original purpose of this parable is another question. Its bearing, if any, on an expected coming of the kingdom could only be that Jesus was about to leave his disciples but would return and require an accounting of what they had done during his absence. For the early church, fervently expecting his coming at any moment, this understanding of the parable would be natural. In either context it implied that there was still time for a diligent use of God’s gifts. This applies also to Matthew’s parable of the talents (Mt 25:14-30), undoubtedly a variant form of the same story.

The basic meaning of the parable of the pounds or talents as a whole is that God’s servants are required to make the best use they can of what he gives them. To this Matthew’s story adds the idea that the responsibility of individuals varies in proportion to their gifts. The word "talent," through its use in this parable, has come to mean any special ability or aptitude. The responsibility that such gifts or deposits carry with them is not always remembered by those who speak of talent or of being talented.

One servant merely hid his master’s money and returned the exact amount he had received. His share was taken from him and given to the one who had made the largest profit. That seems unfair. It is quite in keeping, however, with the unequal distribution of abilities and advantages in real life. At the end of the parable both Matthew and Luke have the statement that he who has will receive more, and he who has not will lose even what he has. This too is often the case in life. Whether it is in accord with the will of God is another question. Is God hard, like the master in this parable? Jesus probably intended it only to enforce each person’s responsibility for his use of what God gave him. This general statement, then, merely notes a common fact, though Matthew and Luke treat it as part of the master’s words and add another sentence. The original point of the parable was like that of the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servants (Lk 12:48); "Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required; and of him to whom men commit much they will demand the more."

After the parable Luke says (19:28), "And when he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem," Here Luke’s account of the journey from Galilee ends. Mark and Matthew have already finished this part of their narratives with the healing of Bartimaeus or the two blind men.

Viewed 194295 times.