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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Luke 7



Verses 1-50

Chapter 7

A SOLDIER'S FAITH (Luke 7:1-10)

7:1-10 When Jesus had completed all his words in the hearing of the people, he went into Capernaum. The servant of a certain centurion was so ill that he was going to die, and he was very dear to him. When he heard about Jesus he sent some Jewish elders to him and asked him to come and save his servant's life. They came to Jesus and strenuously urged him to come. "He is," they said, "a man who deserves that you should do this for him, for he loves our nation and has himself built us our synagogue." So Jesus went with them. When he was now quite near the house the centurion sent friends to him. "Sir," he said, "do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy that you should come under my roof; nor do I count myself fit to come to you; but just speak a word and my servant will be cured. For I myself am a man under orders, and I have soldiers under me, and I say to one, 'Go,' and he goes; and to another, 'Come,' and he comes; and I say to my servant, 'Do this,' and he does it." When Jesus heard this he was amazed at him. He turned to the crowd who were following him and said, "I tell you I have not found such great faith not even in Israel." And those who had been sent returned to the house and found the servant completely cured.

The central character is a Roman centurion; and he was no ordinary man.

(i) The mere fact that he was a centurion meant he was no ordinary man. A centurion was the equivalent of a regimental sergeant-major; and the centurions were the backbone of the Roman army. Wherever they are spoken of in the New Testament they are spoken of well (compare Luke 23:1-56 ; Lk 47 ; Acts 10:22; Acts 22:26; Acts 23:17; Acts 23:23-24; Acts 24:23; Acts 27:43). Polybius, the historian, describes their qualifications. They must be not so much "seekers after danger as men who can command, steady in action, and reliable; they ought not to be over anxious to rush into the fight; but when hard pressed they must be ready to hold their ground and die at their posts." The centurion must have been a man amongst men or he would never have held the post which was his.

(ii) He had a completely unusual attitude to his slave. He loved this slave and would go to any trouble to save him. In Roman law a slave was defined as a living tool; he had no rights; a master could ill-treat him and even kill him if he chose. A Roman writer on estate management recommends the farmer to examine his implements every year and to throw out those which are old and broken, and to do the same with his slaves. Normally when a slave was past his work he was thrown out to die. The attitude of this centurion to his slave was quite unusual.

(iii) He was clearly a deeply religious man. A man needs to be more than superficially interested before he will go the length of building a synagogue. It is true that the Romans encouraged religion from the cynical motive that it kept people in order. They regarded it as the opiate of the people. Augustus recommended the building of synagogues for that very reason. As Gibbon said in a famous sentence, "The various modes of religion which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful." But this centurion was no administrative cynic; he was a sincerely religious man.

(iv) He had an extremely unusual attitude to the Jews. If the Jews despised the gentiles, the gentiles hated the Jews. Anti-semitism is not a new thing. The Romans called the Jews a filthy race; they spoke of Judaism as a barbarous superstition; they spoke of the Jewish hatred of mankind; they accused the Jews of worshipping an ass's head and annually sacrificing a gentile stranger to their God. True, many of the gentiles, weary of the many gods and loose morals of paganism, had accepted the Jewish doctrine of the one God and the austere Jewish ethic. But the whole atmosphere of this story implies a close bond of friendship between this centurion and the Jews.

(v) He was a humble man. He knew quite well that a strict Jew was forbidden by the law to enter the house of a gentile (Acts 10:28); just as he was forbidden to allow a gentile into his house or have any communication with him. He would not even come to Jesus himself. He persuaded his Jewish friends to approach him. This man who was accustomed to command had an amazing humility in the presence of true greatness.

(vi) He was a man of faith. His faith is based on the soundest argument. He argued from the here and now to the there and then. He argued from his own experience to God. If his authority produced the results it did, how much more must that of Jesus? He came with that perfect confidence which looks up and says, "Lord, I know you can do this." If only we had a faith like that, for us too the miracle would happen and life become new.


7:11-17 Next, after that, Jesus was on his way to a town called Nain; and his disciples and a great crowd accompanied him on the journey. When he came near the gate of the town--look you--a man who had died was being carried out to burial. He was his mother's only son, and she was a widow. There was a great crowd of towns-people with her. When the Lord saw her he was moved to the depths of his heart for her and said to her, "Don't go on weeping!" He went up and touched the bier. Those who were carrying it stood still. "Young man," he said, "I tell you, rise!" And the dead man sat up and began to speak. And he gave him back to his mother. And awe gripped them all. They glorified God saying, "A great prophet has been raised up amongst us," and, "God has graciously visited his people." This story about him went out in all Judaea and all the surrounding countryside.

In this passage, as in the one immediately preceding, once again Luke the doctor speaks. In Luke 7:10 the word we translated completely cured is the technical medical term for sound in wind and limb. In Luke 7:15 the word used for sitting up is the technical term for a patient sitting up in bed.

Nain was a day's journey from Capernaum and lay between Endor and Shunem, where Elisha, as the old story runs, raised another mother's son (2 Kings 4:18-37). To this day, ten minutes' walk from Nain on the road to Endor there is a cemetery of rock tombs in which the dead are laid.

In many ways this is the loveliest story in all the gospels.

(i) It tells of the pathos and the poignancy of human life. The funeral procession would be headed by the band of professional mourners with their flutes and their cymbals, uttering in a kind of frenzy their shrill cries of grief. There is all the ageless sorrow of the world in the austere and simple sentence, "He was his mother's only son and she was a widow."

"Never morning wore to evening

But some heart did break."

In Shelley's Adonais, his lament for Keats, he writes,

"As long as skies are blue, and fields are green,

Evening must usher night, night urge the morrow,

Month follow month with woe, and year wake year to sorrow."

Virgil, the Roman poet, in an immortal phrase spoke about "The tears of things"--sunt lacrimae rerum. In the nature of things we live in a world of broken hearts.

(ii) To the pathos of human life, Luke adds the compassion of Christ. Jesus was moved to the depths of his heart. There is no stronger word in the Greek language for sympathy and again and again in the gospel story it is used of Jesus (Matthew 14:14; Matthew 15:32; Matthew 20:34; Mark 1:41; Mark 8:2).

To the ancient world this must have been a staggering thing. The noblest faith in antiquity was Stoicism. The Stoics believed that the primary characteristic of God was apathy, incapability of feeling. This was their argument. If someone can make another sad or sorry, glad or joyful, it means that, at least for the moment, he can influence that other person. If he can influence him that means that, at least for the moment, he is greater than he. Now, no one can be greater than God; therefore, no one can influence God; therefore, in the nature of things, God must be incapable of feeling.

Here men were presented with the amazing conception of one who was the Son of God being moved to the depths of his being.

"In ev'ry pang that rends the heart.

The Man of sorrows has a part."

For many that is the most precious thing about the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

(iii) To the compassion of Jesus, Luke adds the power of Jesus. He went up and touched the bier. It was not a coffin, for coffins were not used in the east. Very often long wicker-work baskets were used for carrying the body to the grave. It was a dramatic moment. As one great commentator says, "Jesus claimed as his own what death had seized as his prey."

It may well be that here we have a miracle of diagnosis; that Jesus with those keen eyes of his saw that the lad was in a cataleptic trance and saved him from being buried alive, as so many were in Palestine. It does not matter; the fact remains that Jesus claimed for life a lad who had been marked for death. Jesus is not only the Lord of life; he is the Lord of death who himself triumphed over the grave and who has promised that, because he lives, we shall live also (John 14:19).

THE FINAL PROOF (Luke 7:18-29)

7:18-29 John's disciples told him about all these things; so John called two of his disciples and sent them to the Lord saying, "Are you he who is to come, or, are we to look for another?" When they arrived, the men said to him, "John, the Baptizer, has sent us to you. Are you the One who is to come," he asks, "or are we to look for another?" At that time he cured many of their diseases and afflictions and of evil spirits, and to many blind people he gave the gift of sight. "Go," he answered them, "and tell John what you have seen and heard. The blind recover their sight; the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed; the deaf hear; the dead are raised up; the poor have the Good News told to them; and blessed is he who does not find a stumbling-block in me."

When John's messengers had gone away, Jesus began to say to the crowds concerning John, "What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothes? Look you--those who wear expensive clothes and live in luxury are in royal palaces. But what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I say to you, and something more than a prophet. This is he of whom it stands written--'Look you, I send my messenger before you to prepare your way before you.' I tell you there is no one greater amongst those born of women than John. But he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he." When the people and the tax-collectors heard this they called God righteous for they had been baptized with John's baptism.

John sent emissaries to Jesus to ask if he really was the Messiah or if they must look for someone else.

(i) This incident has worried many because they have been surprised at the apparent doubt in the mind of John. Various explanations have been advanced.

(a) It is suggested that John took this step, not for his own sake, but for the sake of his disciples. He was sure enough; but they had their qualms and he desired that they should be confronted with proof unanswerable.

(b) It is suggested that John wished to hurry Jesus on because he thought it was time Jesus moved towards decisive action.

(c) The simplest explanation is the best. Think what was happening to John. John, the child of the desert and of the wide-open spaces, was confined in a dungeon cell in the castle of Machaerus. Once, one of the Macdonalds, a highland chieftain, was confined in a little cell in Carlisle Castle. In his cell was one little window. To this day you may see in the sandstone the marks of the feet and hands of the highlander as he lifted himself up and clung to the window ledge day by day to gaze with infinite longing upon the border hills and valleys he would never walk again. Shut in his cell, choked by the narrow walls, John asked his question because his cruel captivity had put tremors in his heart.

(ii) Note the proof that Jesus offered. He pointed at the facts. The sick and the suffering and the humble poor were experiencing the power and hearing the word of the Good News. Here is a point which is seldom realized--this is not the answer John expected. If Jesus was God's anointed one, John would have expected him to say, "My armies are massing. Caesarea, the headquarters of the Roman government, is about to fall. The sinners are being obliterated. And judgment has begun." He would have expected Jesus to say, "The wrath of God is on the march." but Jesus said, "The mercy of God is here." Let us remember that where pain is soothed and sorrow turned to joy, where suffering and death are vanquished, there is the kingdom of God. Jesus' answer was, "Go back and tell John that the love of God is here."

(iii) After John's emissaries had gone, Jesus paid his own tribute to him. People had crowded out into the desert to see and hear John and they had not gone to see a reed shaken by the wind. That may mean one of two things.

(a) Nothing was commoner by Jordan's banks than a reed shaken by the wind. It was in fact a proverbial phrase for the commonest of sights. It may then mean that the crowds went out to see no ordinary sight.

(b) It may stand for fickleness. It was no vacillating, swaying character men went out to see like a swaying reed, but a man immovable as a mighty tree.

They had not gone out to see some soft effeminate soul, like the silk-clad courtiers of the royal palace.

What then had they gone to see?

(a) First, Jesus pays John a great tribute. All men expected that before God's anointed king arrived upon the earth, Elijah would return to prepare the way and act as his herald (Malachi 4:5). John was the herald of the Highest.

(b) Second, Jesus states quite clearly the limitations of John. The least in the kingdom of heaven was greater than he. Why? Some have said that it was because John had wavered, if but for a moment, in his faith. It was not that. It was because John marked a dividing line in history. Since John's proclamation had been made, Jesus had come; eternity had invaded time; heaven had invaded earth; God had arrived in Jesus; life could never be the same again. We date all time as before Christ and after Christ--B.C. and A.D. Jesus is the dividing line. Therefore, all who come after him and who receive him are of necessity granted a greater blessing than all who went before. The entry of Jesus into the world divided all time into two; and it divided all life in two. If any man be in Christ he is a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

As Bilney, the martyr said, "When I read that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, it was as if day suddenly broke on a dark night."


7:30-35 But the Pharisees and the scribes frustrated God's purpose for themselves because they were not baptized by him. "To whom," asked Jesus, "will I compare the men of this generation? And to whom are they like? They are like children seated in the market place who call to one another, 'We have piped to you, and you did not dance. We have sung you a dirge and you did not weep.' John the Baptizer came neither eating bread nor drinking wine, and you say,' He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you say, 'Look! a gluttonous man and a wine-drinker, the friend of tax-collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is justified by her children."

This passage has two great warnings in it.

(i) It tells of the perils of free-will. The scribes and the Pharisees had succeeded in frustrating God's purpose for themselves. The tremendous truth of Christianity is that the coercion of God is not of force but of love. It is precisely there that we can glimpse the sorrow of God. It is always love's greatest tragedy to look upon some loved one who has taken the wrong way and to see what might have been, what could have been and what was meant to have been. That is life's greatest heartbreak.

Sir William Watson has a poem called Lux Perdita, the "Lost Light."

"These were the weak, slight hands

That might have taken this strong soul, and bent

Its stubborn substance to thy soft intent,

And bound it unresisting with such bands

As not the arm of envious heaven had rent.

These were the calming eyes

That round my pinnace could have stilled the sea,

And drawn thy voyager home, and bid him be

Pure with their pureness, with their wisdom wise,

Merged in their light, and greatly lost in thee.

But thou--thou passedst on,

With whiteness clothed of dedicated days,

Cold, like a star; and me in alien ways

Thou leftest, following life's chance lure, where shone

The wandering gleam that beckons and betrays."

It is true that,

"Of all sad words of tongue and pen

The saddest are those, 'It might have been.'"

God's tragedy, too, is the might have been of life. As G. K. Chesterton said, "God had written not so much a poem, but rather a play; a play he had planned as perfect, but which had necessarily been left to human actors and stage managers, who had since made a great mess of it." God save us from making shipwreck of life and bringing heartbreak to himself by using our freewill to frustrate his purposes.

(ii) It tells of the perversity of men. John had come, living with a hermit's austerity, and the scribes and Pharisees had said that he was a mad eccentric and that some demon had taken his wits away. Jesus had come, living the life of men and entering into all their activities, and they had taunted him with loving earth's pleasures far too much. We all know the days when a child will grin at anything and the moods when nothing will please us. The human heart can be lost in a perversity in which any appeal God may make will be met with wilful and childish discontent.

(iii) But there are the few who answer; and God's wisdom is in the end justified by those who are his children. Men may misuse their freewill to frustrate God's purposes; men in their perversity may be blind and deaf to all his appeal. Had God used the force of coercion and laid on man the iron bonds of a will that could not be denied, there would have been a world of automata and a world without trouble. But God chose the dangerous way of love, and love in the end will triumph.

A SINNER'S LOVE (Luke 7:36-50)

7:36-50 One of the Pharisees invited Jesus to eat with him. He went into the Pharisee's house and reclined at table; and--look you--there was a woman in the town, a bad woman. She knew that he was at table in the Pharisee's house, so she took an alabaster phial of perfume and stood behind him, beside his feet, weeping. She began to wash his feet with tears, and she wiped them with the hairs of her head; and she kept kissing his feet and anointing them with the perfume. When the Pharisee, who had invited him, saw this, he said to himself, "If this fellow was a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of a person this woman is who keeps touching him, for she is a bad woman." Jesus answered him, "Simon, I have something to say to you." He said, "Master, say it." Jesus said, "There were two men who were in debt to a certain lender. The one owed him 20 pounds, the other 2 pounds. Since they were unable to pay he cancelled the debt to both. Who then will love him the more?" Simon answered, "I presume, he to whom the greater favour was shown." He said to him, "Your judgment is correct." He turned to the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house--you gave me no water for my feet. She has washed my feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hairs of her head. You did not give me any kiss. But she, from the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil. She has anointed my feet with perfume. Wherefore, I tell you, her sins--her many sins--are forgiven for she loved much. He to whom little is forgiven loves little." He said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." Those who were at table with him began to say to themselves, "Who is this who forgives even sins?" He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you. Go in peace."

This story is so vivid that it makes one believe that Luke may well have been an artist.

(i) The scene is the courtyard of the house of Simon the Pharisee. The houses of well-to-do people were built round an open courtyard in the form of a hollow square. Often in the courtyard there would be a garden and a fountain; and there in the warm weather meals were eaten. It was the custom that when a Rabbi was at a meal in such a house, all kinds of people came in--they were quite free to do so--to listen to the pearls of wisdom which fell from his lips. That explains the presence of the woman.

When a guest entered such a house three things were always done. The host placed his hand on the guest's shoulder and gave him the kiss of peace. That was a mark of respect which was never omitted in the case of a distinguished Rabbi. The roads were only dust tracks, and shoes were merely soles held in place by straps across the foot. So always cool water was poured over the guest's feet to cleanse and comfort them. Either a pinch of sweet-smelling incense was burned or a drop of attar of roses was placed on the guest's head. These things good manners demanded, and in this case not one of them was done.

In the east the guests did not sit, but reclined, at table. They lay on low couches, resting on the left elbow, leaving the right arm free, with the feet stretched out behind; and during the meal the sandals were taken off. That explains how the woman was standing beside Jesus' feet.

(ii) Simon was a Pharisee, one of the separated ones. Why should such a man invite Jesus to his house at all? There are three possible reasons.

(a) It is just possible that he was an admirer and a sympathizer, for not all the Pharisees were Jesus' enemies (compare Luke 13:31). But the whole atmosphere of discourtesy makes that unlikely.

(b) It could be that Simon had invited Jesus with the deliberate intention of enticing him into some word or action which might have been made the basis of a charge against him. Simon may have been an agent provocateur. Again it is not likely, because in Luke 7:40 Simon gives Jesus the title, Rabbi.

(c) Most likely, Simon was a collector of celebrities; and with a half-patronising contempt he had invited this startling young Galilaean to have a meal with him. That would best explain the strange combination of a certain respect with the omission of the usual courtesies. Simon was a man who tried to patronize Jesus.

(iii) The woman was a bad woman, and a notoriously bad woman, a prostitute. No doubt she had listened to Jesus speak from the edge of the crowd and had glimpsed in him the hand which could lift her from the mire of her ways. Round her neck she wore, like all Jewish women, a little phial of concentrated perfume; they were called alabasters; and they were very costly. She wished to pour it on his feet, for it was all she had to offer. But as she saw him the tears came and fell upon his feet. For a Jewish woman to appear with hair unbound was an act of the gravest immodesty. On her wedding day a girl bound up her hair and never would she appear with it unbound again. The fact that this woman loosed her long hair in public showed how she had forgotten everyone except Jesus.

The story demonstrates a contrast between two attitudes of mind and heart.

(i) Simon was conscious of no need and therefore felt no love, and so received no forgiveness. Simon's impression of himself was that he was a good man in the sight of men and of God.

(ii) The woman was conscious of nothing else than a clamant need, and therefore was overwhelmed with love for him who could supply it, and so received forgiveness.

The one thing which shuts a man off from God is self-sufficiency. And the strange thing is that the better a man is the more he feels his sin. Paul could speak of sinners "of whom I am foremost" (1 Timothy 1:15). Francis of Assisi could say, "There is nowhere a more wretched and a more miserable sinner than I." It is true to say that the greatest of sins is to be conscious of no sin; but a sense of need will open the door to the forgiveness of God, because God is love, and love's greatest glory is to be needed.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Luke 7:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.

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Saturday, November 28th, 2020
the Week of Christ the King / Proper 29 / Ordinary 34
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