SUFFERING AND SIN (Luke 13:1-5)
13:1-5 At this time some men came and told Jesus about the Galilaeans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. "Do you think," he answered, "that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans because this happened to them? I ten you, No! But unless you repent you will all perish in like manner. Or, as for the eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell--do you think they were debtors to God beyond all those who dwell in Jerusalem? I tell you, No! But unless you repent you will perish in the same way ."
We have here references to two disasters about which we have no definite information and can only speculate.
First, there is the reference to the Galilaeans whom Pilate murdered in the middle of their sacrifices. As we have seen, Galilaeans were always liable to get involved in political trouble because they were a highly inflammable people. Just about this time Pilate had been involved in serious trouble. He had decided rightly that Jerusalem needed a new and improved water supply. He proposed to build it and, to finance it with certain Temple monies. It was a laudable object and a more than justifiable expenditure. But at the very idea of spending Temple monies like that, the Jews were up in arms. When the mobs gathered, Pilate instructed his soldiers to mingle with them, wearing cloaks over their battle dress for disguise. They were instructed to carry cudgels rather than swords. At a given signal they were to fall on the mob and disperse them. This was done, but the soldiers dealt with the mob with a violence far beyond their instructions and a considerable number of people lost their lives. Almost certainly Galilaeans would be involved in that. We know that Pilate and Herod were at enmity, and only became reconciled after Pilate had sent Jesus to Herod for trial (Luke 23:6-12). It may well be that it was this very incident which provoked that enmity.
As for the eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell, they are still more obscure. The King James Version uses the word sinners of them also; but, as the margin shows, it should be not sinners but debtors. Maybe we have a clue here. It has been suggested that they had actually taken work on Pilate's hated aqueducts. If so, any money they earned was due to God and should have been voluntarily handed over, because it had already been stolen from him; and it may well be that popular talk had declared that the tower had fallen on them because of the work they had consented to do.
But there is far more than an historical problem in this passage. The Jews rigidly connected sin and suffering. Eliphaz had long ago said to Job, "Who that was innocent ever perished?" (Job 4:7). This was a cruel and a heartbreaking doctrine, as Job knew well. And Jesus utterly denied it in the case of the individual. As we all know very well, it is often the greatest saints who have to suffer most.
But Jesus went on to say that if his hearers did not repent they too would perish. What did he mean? One thing is clear--he foresaw and foretold the destruction of Jerusalem, which happened in A.D. 70 (compare Luke 21:21-24). He knew well that if the Jews went on with their intrigues, their rebellions, their plottings, their political ambitions, they were simply going to commit national suicide; he knew that in the end Rome would step in and obliterate the nation; and that is precisely what happened. So what Jesus meant was that if the Jewish nation kept on seeking an earthly kingdom and rejecting the kingdom of God they could come to only one end.
To put the matter like that leaves, at first sight, a paradoxical situation. It means that we cannot say that individual suffering and sin are inevitably connected but we can say that national sin and suffering are so connected. The nation which chooses the wrong ways will in the end suffer for it. But the individual is in very different case. He is not an isolated unit. He is bound up in the bundle of life. Often he may object, and object violently, to the course his nation is taking; but when the consequence of that course comes, he cannot escape being involved in it. The individual is often caught up in a situation which he did not make; his suffering is often not his fault; but the nation is a unit and chooses its own policy and reaps the fruit of it. It is always dangerous to attribute human suffering to human sin; but always safe to say that the nation which rebels against God is on the way to disaster.
GOSPEL OF THE OTHER CHANCE AND THREAT OF THE LAST CHANCE (Luke 13:6-9)
13:6-9 Jesus spoke this parable, "A man had a fig-tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and did not find it. He said to the keeper of the vineyard, 'Look you--for the last three years I have been coming and looking for fruit on this fig-tree, and I still am not finding any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the ground' 'Lord,' he answered him, 'let it be this year too, until I dig round about it and manure it, and if it bears fruit in the coming year, well and good; but if not, you will cut it down.'"
Here is a parable at one and the same time lit by grace and close packed with warnings.
(i) The fig-tree occupied a specially favoured position. It was not unusual to see fig-trees, thorn-trees and apple-trees in vineyards. The soil was so shallow and poor that trees were grown wherever there was soil to grow them; but the fig-tree had a more than average chance; and it had not proved worthy of it. Repeatedly, directly and by implication, Jesus reminded men that they would be judged according to the opportunities they had. C. E. M. Joad once said, "We have the powers of gods and we use them like irresponsible schoolboys." Never was a generation entrusted with so much as ours and, therefore, never was a generation so answerable to God.
(ii) The parable teaches that uselessness invites disaster. It has been claimed that the whole process of evolution in this world is to produce useful things, and that what is useful will go on from strength to strength, while what is useless will be eliminated. The most searching question we can be asked is, "Of what use were you in this world?"
(iii) Further, the parable teaches that nothing which only takes out can survive. The fig-tree was drawing strength and sustenance from the soil; and in return was producing nothing. That was precisely its sin. In the last analysis, there are two kinds of people in this world--those who take out more than they put in, and those who put in more than they take out.
In one sense we are all in debt to life. We came into it at the peril of someone else's life; and we would never have survived without the care of those who loved us. We have inherited a Christian civilization and a freedom which we did not create. There is laid on us the duty of handing things on better than we found them.
"Die when I may," said Abraham Lincoln, "I want it said of me that I plucked a weed and planted a flower wherever I thought a flower would grow." Once a student was being shown bacteria under the microscope. He could actually see one generation of these microscopic living things being born and dying and another being born to take its place. He saw, as he had never seen before, how one generation succeeds another. "After what I have seen," he said, "I pledge myself never to be a weak link."
If we take that pledge we will fulfil the obligation of putting into life at least as much as we take out.
(iv) The parable tells us of the gospel of the second chance. A fig-tree normally takes three years to reach maturity. If it is not fruiting by that time it is not likely to fruit at all. But this fig-tree was given another chance.
It is always Jesus' way to give a man chance after chance. Peter and Mark and Paul would all gladly have witnessed to that. God is infinitely kind to the man who falls and rises again.
(v) But the parable also makes it quite clear that there is a final chance. If we refuse chance after chance, if God's appeal and challenge come again and again in vain, the day finally comes, not when God has shut us out, but when we by deliberate choice have shut ourselves out. God save us from that!
MERCY MORE THAN LAW (Luke 13:10-17)
13:10-17 Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath; and--look you--there was a woman there who had a spirit of weakness for eighteen years. She was bent together and could not straighten up properly. When Jesus saw her he called her to him. "Woman," he said, "you are set free from your weakness"; and he laid his hands upon her; and immediately she was straightened. The president of the synagogue was vexed that Jesus had healed on the Sabbath. "Are there not six days," he said to the crowd, "in which work ought to be done? Come and be healed on them and not on the Sabbath day." "Hypocrites!" the Lord answered. "Does each one of you not loose his ox or his ass from the manger on the Sabbath, and lead him out and give him drink? And as for this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom--look you--Satan bound for eighteen years, should she not have been loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?" And, as he said this, his opponents were put to shame, and all the crowd rejoiced at the glorious things that were done by him.
This is the last time we ever hear of Jesus being in a synagogue. It is clear that by this time the authorities were watching his every action and waiting to pounce upon him whenever they got the chance. Jesus healed a woman who for eighteen years had not been able to straighten her bent body; and then the president of the synagogue intervened. He had not even the courage to speak directly to Jesus. He addressed his protest to the waiting people, although it was meant for Jesus. Jesus had healed on the Sabbath; technically healing was work; and, therefore he had broken the Sabbath. But he answered his opponents out of their own law. The Rabbis abhorred cruelty to dumb animals and, even on the Sabbath, it was perfectly legal to loose beasts from their stalls and water them. Jesus demanded, "If you can loose a beast from a stall and water him on the Sabbath day, surely it is right in the sight of God to loose this poor woman from her infirmity."
(i) The president of the synagogue and those like him were people who loved systems more than people. They were more concerned that their own petty little laws should be observed than that a woman should be helped.
One of the great problems of a developed civilization is the relationship of the individual to the system. In times of war the individual vanishes. A man ceases to be a person and becomes a member of such and such an age group or the like. A number of men are lumped together, not as individuals, but as living ammunition that is, in that terrible word, expendable. A man becomes no more than an item in a statistical list. Sidney and Beatrice Webb, afterwards Lord and Lady Passfield, were two great economists and statistical experts; but H. G. Wells said of Beatrice Webb that her trouble was that "she saw men as specimens walking."
In Christianity the individual comes before the system. It is true to say that without Christianity there can be no such thing as democracy, because Christianity alone guarantees and defends the value of the ordinary, individual man. If ever Christian principles are banished from political and economic life there is nothing left to keep at bay the totalitarian state where the individual is lost in the system, and exists, not for his own sake, but only for the sake of the system.
Strangely enough, this worship of systems commonly invades the Church. There are many church people--it would be a mistake to call them Christian people--who are more concerned with the method of church government than they are with the worship of God and the service of men. It is all too tragically true that more trouble and strife arise in Churches over legalistic details of procedure than over any other thing.
In the world and in the church we are constantly in peril of loving systems more than we love God and more than we love men.
(ii) Jesus' action in this matter makes it clear that it is not God's will that any human being should suffer one moment longer than is absolutely necessary. The Jewish law was that it was perfectly legal to help someone on the Sabbath who was in actual danger of his life. If Jesus had postponed the healing of this woman until the morrow no one could have criticized him; but he insisted that suffering must not be allowed to continue until tomorrow if it could be helped today. Over and over again in life some good and kindly scheme is held up until this or that regulation is satisfied, or this or that technical detail worked out. He gives twice who gives quickly, as the Latin proverb has it. No helpful deed that we can do today should be postponed until tomorrow.
THE EMPIRE OF CHRIST (Luke 13:18-19)
13:18-19 So Jesus said to them, "To what is the kingdom of God like, and to what will I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and cast into his garden; and it grew until it became a tree, and the birds of the air found a lodging in its branches."
This is an illustration which Jesus used more than once, and for different purposes. In the east mustard is not a garden herb but a field plant. It does literally grow to be a tree. A height of seven or eight feet is common, and a traveller tells how once he came across a mustard plant which was twelve feet high, and which overtopped a horse and its rider. It is common to see a cloud of birds around such trees, for they love the little black mustard seeds.
Matthew (Matthew 13:31-32) also relates this parable but with a different emphasis. His version is,
Jesus put another parable before them, saying. "The kingdom of
heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and
sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but, when it
has grown, it is the greatest of shrubs, and becomes a tree, so
that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."
The point of the parable in Matthew and in Luke is quite different. Matthew stresses the smallness of the seed which Luke never even mentions; and Matthew's point is that the greatest things can start from the smallest beginnings and so does the kingdom of heaven. Luke's version leads up to the birds making nests in the branches. In the east the regular symbol of a great empire was a mighty tree; and the subject nations who found shelter and protection within it were typified by birds in the branches (compare Ezekiel 31:6; Ezekiel 17:23). As we have seen more than once, Luke is the universalist who dreamed of a world for Christ; and his point is that the kingdom of God will grow into a vast empire in which all kinds of men and nations will come together and will find the shelter and the protection of God. There is much in Luke's conception that we would do well to learn.
(i) There is room in the kingdom for a wide variety of beliefs. No man and no church has a monopoly of all truth. To think ourselves right and everyone else wrong can lead to nothing but trouble and bitterness and strife. So long as all men's beliefs are stemmed in Christ they are all facets of God's truth.
(ii) There is room in the kingdom for a wide variety of experiences. We do infinite harm when we try to standardize Christian experience and insist that all men must come to Christ in the same way. One man may have a sudden shattering experience and be able to point to the day and the hour, even the very minute, when God invaded his life. Another man's heart may open to Christ naturally and without crisis, as the petal of the lint-bell opens to the sun. Both experiences come from God and both men belong to God.
(iii) There is room in the kingdom for a wide variety of ways of worship. One man finds touch with God in an elaborate ritual and a splendid liturgy; another finds him in the bare simplicities. There is no right or wrong here. It is the glory of the church that within its fellowship somewhere a man will find the worship that brings him to God. Let him find it, but let him not think his way the only way and criticize another's.
(iv) There is room in the kingdom for all kinds of people. The world has its labels and its distinctions and its barriers. But in the kingdom there is no distinction between rich and poor, small and great, famous and unknown. The church is the only place in the world where distinctions have no legitimate place.
(v) There is room in the kingdom for all nations. In the world today are many national barriers; but none of them has any standing with God. In Revelation 21:16 we are given the dimensions of the Holy City. It is a square each of whose sides is 12,000 furlongs. 12,000 furlongs is 1,500 miles; and the area of a square whose sides are 1,500 miles is 2,250,000 square miles! There is room in the city of God for all the world and more.
THE LEAVEN OF THE KINGDOM (Luke 13:20-21)
13:20-21 Again Jesus said, "To what will I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal, until the whole was leavened."
This is an illustration which Jesus took from his own home. In those days bread was baked at home. Leaven was a little piece of dough which had been kept over from the last baking and had fermented in the keeping. Leaven is regularly used in Jewish thought for influence, usually for bad influence, because the Jews identified fermentation with putrefaction. Jesus had seen Mary put a little bit of leaven in the dough and had seen the whole character of the dough changed because of it. "That," he said, "is how my kingdom comes."
There are two interpretations of this parable. From the first the following points emerge.
(i) The kingdom of heaven starts from the smallest beginnings. The leaven was very small but it changed the whole character of the dough. We well know how in any court, or committee, or board, one person can be a focus of trouble or a centre of peace. The kingdom of heaven starts from the dedicated lives of individual men and women. In the place where we work or live we may be the only professing Christians; if that be so, it is our task to be the leaven of the kingdom there.
(ii) The kingdom of heaven works unseen. We do not see the leaven working but all the time it is fulfilling its function. The kingdom is on the way. Anyone who knows a little history will be bound to see that. Seneca, than whom the Romans had no higher thinker, could write, "We strangle a mad dog; we slaughter a fierce ox; we plunge the knife into sickly cattle lest they taint the herd; children who are born weakly and deformed we drown." In A.D. 60 that was the normal thing. Things like that cannot happen today because slowly, but inevitably, the kingdom is on the way.
(iii) The kingdom of heaven works from inside. As long as the leaven was outside the dough it was powerless to help; it had to get right inside. We will never change men from the outside. New houses, new conditions, better material things change only the surface. It is the task of Christianity to make new men; and once the new men are created a new world will surely follow. That is why the church is the most important institution in the world; it is the factory where men are produced.
(iv) The power of the kingdom comes from outside. The dough had no power to change itself. Neither have we. We have tried and failed. To change life we need a power outside and beyond us. We need the master of life, and he is forever waiting to give us the secret of victorious living.
The second interpretation of this parable insists that so far from working unseen the work of the leaven is manifest to all because it turns the dough into a bubbling, seething mass. On this basis, the leaven stands for the disturbing power of Christianity. In Thessalonica it was said of the Christians, "These men who have turned the world upside down have come here also" (Acts 17:6). True religion is never dope; never sends people comfortably to sleep; never makes them placidly accept the evils that should be striven against. Real Christianity is the most revolutionary thing in the world; it works revolution in the individual life and in society. "May God," said Unamuno the great Spanish mystic, "deny you peace and give you glory." The kingdom of heaven is the leaven which fills a man at one and the same time with the peace of God and with the divine discontent which will not rest until the evils of earth are swept away by the changing, revolutionizing power of God.
THE RISK OF BEING SHUT OUT (Luke 13:22-30)
13:22-30 Jesus continued to go through towns and villages, teaching and making his way to Jerusalem. "Lord," someone said to him, "are those who are to be saved few in number?" He said to them, "Keep on striving to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will seek to enter in and will not be able to. Once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and when you begin to stand outside and knock, saying, 'Lord, open to us,' he will answer you, 'I do not know where you come from.' Then you will begin to say, 'We have eaten and drunk in your presence and you taught in our streets.' He will say, 'I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me all you who are workers of iniquity.' There wig be weeping and gnashing of teeth there, when you will see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of God and yourselves cast out. And they will come from the east and from the west, and from the north and from the south, and take their places at table in the kingdom of God. And--look you--there are those who are last who will be first, and there are those first who will be last."
When this questioner asked his question it would certainly be on the assumption that the kingdom of God was for the Jews and that gentiles would all be shut out. Jesus' answer must have come as a shock to him.
(i) He declared that entry to the kingdom can never be automatic but is the result and the reward of a struggle. "Keep on striving to enter," he said. The word for striving is the word from which the English word agony is derived. The struggle to enter in must be so intense that it can be described as an agony of soul and spirit.
We run a certain danger. It is easy to think that, once we have made a commitment of ourselves to Jesus Christ, we have reached the end of the road and can, as it were, sit back as if we had achieved our goal. There is no such finality in the Christian life. A man must ever be going forward or necessarily he goes backward.
The Christian way is like a climb up a mountain pathway towards a peak which will never be reached in this world. It was said of two gallant climbers who died on Mount Everest, "When last seen they were going strong for the top." It was inscribed on the grave of an Alpine guide who had died on the mountain-side, "He died climbing." For the Christian, life is ever an upward and an onward way.
(ii) The defence of these people was, "We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets." There are those who think that just because they are members of a Christian civilization all is well. They differentiate between themselves and the heathen in their ignorance and blindness. But the man who lives in a Christian civilization is not necessarily a Christian. He may be enjoying all its benefits; he certainly is living on the Christian capital which others before him have built up; but that is no reason for sitting back content that all is well. Rather it challenges us, "What did you do to initiate all this? What have you done to preserve and develop it?" We cannot live on borrowed goodness.
(iii) There will be surprises in the kingdom of God. Those who are very prominent in this world may have to be very humble in the next; those whom no one notices here may be the princes of the world to come. There is a story of a woman who had been used to every luxury and to all respect. She died, and when she arrived in heaven, an angel was sent to conduct her to her house. They passed many a lovely mansion and the woman thought that each one, as they came to it, must be the one allotted to her. When they had passed through the main streets they came to the outskirts where the houses were much smaller; and on the very fringe they came to a house which was little more than a hut. "That is your house," said the conducting angel. "What," said the woman, "that! I cannot live in that." "I am sorry," said the angel, "but that is all we could build for you with the materials you sent up."
The standards of heaven are not the standards of earth. Earth's first will often be last, and its last will often be first.
COURAGE AND TENDERNESS (Luke 13:31-35)
13:31-35 At that hour some Pharisees came to Jesus. "Depart," they said to him, "and get on your way from this place, because Herod is out to kill you." "Go," he said, "and tell that fox, look you, I cast out demons and I work cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day my work is perfected. I must be on my way today, and tomorrow and the next day, because it is not possible for a prophet to perish out of Jerusalem. Jerusalem! Jerusalem! Killer of the prophets! Stoner of those who were sent to you! How often I wanted to gather together your children as a hen gathers her brood under her wings--and you would not! Look you, your house is desolate. I tell you, you will not see me until you shall say, 'Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.'"
Because of the behind-the-scenes insight that it gives into the life of Jesus, this is one of the most interesting passages in Luke's gospel.
(i) It gives us the, at first sight, surprising information that not all the Pharisees were hostile to Jesus. Here we have some of them actually warning him that he was in danger, and advising him to seek safety. It is true that from the gospels we do get a one-sided picture of the Pharisees. The Jews themselves knew very well that there were good and bad Pharisees. They divided them into seven different classes.
(a) The Shoulder Pharisees. These wore their good deeds on their shoulder and performed them to be seen of men.
(b) The Wait-a-little Pharisees. They could always find a good excuse for putting off a good deed until tomorrow.
(c) The Bruised or Bleeding Pharisees. No Jewish Rabbi could be seen talking to any woman on the street, not even his wife or mother or sister. But certain of the Pharisees went further. They would not even look at a woman on the street; they even shut their eyes to avoid seeing a woman; they, therefore, knocked into walls and houses and bruised themselves; and then exhibited their bruises as special badges of extraordinary piety.
(d) The Pestle-and-Mortar or Hump-backed Pharisees. They walked bent double in a false and cringing humility; they were the Uriah Heeps of Jewish religion.
(e) The Ever-reckoning Pharisees. They were ever reckoning up their good deeds and, as it were, striking a balance-sheet of profit and loss with God.
(f) The Timid or Fearing Pharisees. They went ever in fear of the wrath of God. They were, as it was said of Burns, not helped but haunted by their religion.
(g) The God-loving Pharisees. They were copies of Abraham and lived in faith and charity.
There may have been six bad Pharisees for every good one; but this passage shows that even amongst the Pharisees there were those who admired and respected Jesus.
(ii) This passage shows us Jesus talking to Herod Antipas king of Galilee, who was out to stop him. To the Jew the fox was a symbol of three things. First it was regarded as the slyest of animals. Second, it was regarded as the most destructive of animals. Third, it was the symbol of a worthless and insignificant man.
It takes a brave man to call the reigning king a fox. Latimer was once preaching in Westminster Abbey when Henry the king was one of the congregation. In the pulpit he soliloquised, "Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The king of England is here!" Then he went on, "Latimer! Latimer! Latimer! Be careful what you say. The King of Kings is here."
Jesus took his orders from God, and he would not shorten his work by one day to please or to escape any earthly king.
(iii) The lament over Jerusalem is most important, because it is another of the passages which shows how little we really know of Jesus' life. It is quite clear that Jesus could never have spoken like this, unless he had more than once gone with his offer of love to Jerusalem; but in the first three gospels there is no indication of any such visits. Once again it is made plain that in the gospels we have the merest sketch of Jesus' life.
Nothing hurts so much as to go to someone and offer love and have that offer spurned. It is life's bitterest tragedy to give one's heart to someone only to have it broken. That is what happened to Jesus in Jerusalem; and still he comes to men, and still men reject him. But the fact remains that to reject God's love is in the end to be in peril of his wrath.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Luke 13". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Sunday after Epiphany