Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible

Luke 20

Verses 1-47

Chapter 20

BY WHAT AUTHORITY? (Luke 20:1-8)

20:1-8 One day, while Jesus was teaching the people in the Temple and telling them the good news, the chief priests and scribes with the elders came up and said to him, "Tell us, by what authority do you do these things? Or, who is it who gives you this authority?" He said to them, "I, too, will ask you for a statement. Tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from men?" They discussed it with each other. "If," they said to each other, "we say, 'From heaven,' he will say, 'Why did you not believe in him?' But, if we say, 'From men,' all the people will stone us, for they are convinced that John was a prophet." So they answered that they did not know where it was from. Jesus said to them, "Neither do I tell you by what authority I do these things."

This chapter describes what is usually called the Day of Questions. It was a day when the Jewish authorities, in all their different sections, came to Jesus with question after question designed to trap him, and when, in his wisdom, he answered them in such a way as routed them and left them speechless.

The first question was put by the chief priests, the scribes and the elders. The chief priests were a body of men composed of ex-High Priests and of members of the families from which the High Priests were drawn. The phrase describes the religious aristocracy of the Temple. The three sets of men--chief priests, scribes and elders--were the component parts of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council and governing body of the Jews; and we may well take it that this was a question concocted by the Sanhedrin with a view to formulating a charge against Jesus.

No wonder they asked him by what authority he did these things! To ride into Jerusalem as he did and then to take the law into his own hands and cleanse the Temple, required some explanation. To the orthodox Jews of the day, Jesus' calm assumption of authority was an amazing thing. No Rabbi ever delivered a judgment or made a statement without giving his authorities. He would say, "There is a teaching that . . ." Or he would say, "This was confirmed by Rabbi So and So when he said . . ." But none would have claimed the utterly independent authority with which Jesus moved among men. What they wanted was that Jesus should say bluntly and directly that he was the Messiah and the Son of God. Then they would have a ready-made charge of blasphemy and could arrest him on the spot. But he would not give that answer, for his hour was not yet come.

The reply of Jesus is sometimes described as a clever debating answer, used simply to score a point. But it is far more than that. He asked them to answer the question, "Was the authority of John the Baptist human or divine?" The point is that their answer to Jesus' question would answer their own question. Every one knew how John had regarded Jesus and how he had considered himself only the fore-runner of the one who was the Messiah. If they agreed that John's authority was divine then they had also to agree that Jesus was the Messiah, because John had said so. If they denied it, the people would rise,, against them. Jesus' answer in fact asks the question, "Tell me--where do you yourself think I got my authority?" He did not need to answer their question if they answered his.

To face the truth may confront a man with a sore and difficult situation; but to refuse to face it confronts him with a tangle out of which there is no escape. The emissaries of the Pharisees refused to face the truth, and they had to withdraw frustrated and discredited with the crowd.


20:9-18 Jesus began to speak this parable to the people. "A man planted a vineyard and let it out to tenants, and went away for a long time. At the proper time he despatched a servant to the tenants so that they might give him his share of the fruit of the vineyard. The tenants beat him and sent him away empty-handed. He went on to send another servant. They beat him, too, and maltreated him, and sent him away empty-handed. He went on to send a third. This one they wounded and threw out. The owner of the vineyard said, 'What am I to do? I will send my beloved son. It may be they will respect him.' When the tenants saw him they said to each other, 'This is the heir. Let us kill him so that the inheritance will be ours.' And they flung him out of the vineyard and killed him. What, then, will the owner of the vineyard do to them? He will come and he will destroy these tenants, and will give the vineyard to others." When they heard this, they said, "God forbid!" He looked at them and said, "What, then, is this which stands written--'The stone which the builders rejected, this has become the head of the corner? Everyone who falls against that stone will be shattered; but if it falls on anyone it will wipe him out as the wind blows the chaff away.'"

This is a parable whose meaning is crystal clear. The vineyard stands for the nation of Israel (compare Isaiah 5:1-7). The tenants are the rulers of Israel into whose hands the nation was entrusted. The messengers are the prophets who were disregarded, persecuted and killed. The son is Jesus himself. And the doom is that the place which Israel should have occupied is to be given to others.

The story itself is the kind of thing which could and did happen. Judaea in the time of Jesus was in the throes of economic trouble and labour unrest. There was many an absentee landlord who let out his lands in just such a way. The rent was seldom paid in money. It was either a fixed amount of produce, irrespective of the success or failure of the harvest, or it was a percentage of the crop, whatever it might be.

In its teaching this is one of the richest of the parables. It tells us certain things about man.

(i) It tells us of human privilege. The tenants did not make the vineyard. They entered into possession of it. The owner did not stand over them with a whip. He went away and left them to work in their own way.

(ii) It tells us of human sin. The sin of the tenants was that they refused to give the owner his due and wished to control what it was his sole right to control. Sin consists in the failure to give God his proper place and in usurping the power which should be his.

(iii) It tells of human responsibility. For long enough the tenants were left to their own devices; but the day of reckoning came. Soon or late a man is called upon to give account for that which was committed to his charge.

The parable tells us certain things about God.

(i) It tells us of the patience of God. The owner did not strike at the first sign of rebellion on the part of the tenants. He gave them chance after chance to do the right thing. There is nothing so wonderful as the patience of God. If any man had created the world he would have taken his hand, and, in exasperated despair, he would have wiped it out long ago.

(ii) It tells us of the judgment of God. The tenants thought they could presume on the patience of the master and get away with it. But God has not abdicated. However much a man may seem to get away with it, the day of reckoning comes. As the Romans put it, "Justice holds the scales with an even and a scrupulous balance and in the end she will prevail."

The parable tells us something about Jesus.

(i) It tells us that he knew what was coming. He did not come to Jerusalem hugging a dream that even yet he might escape the cross. Open eyed and unafraid, he went on. When Achilles, the great Greek hero, was warned by the prophetess Cassandra that, if he went out to battle, he would surely die, he answered, "Nevertheless I am for going on." For Jesus there was to be no turning back.

(ii) It tells us that he never doubted Gods ultimate triumph. Beyond the power of wicked men stood the undefeatable majesty of God. Wickedness may seem for a time to prevail, but it cannot in the end escape its punishment.

Careless seems the great Avenger, history's pages but record

One death grapple in the darkness, 'twixt old systems and

the Word;

Truth for ever on the scaffold, Wrong for ever on the throne,

Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,

Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.

(iii) It lays down most unmistakably his claim to be the Son of God. Deliberately he removes himself from the succession of the prophets. They were servants; he is the Son. In this parable he made a claim that none could fail to see to be God's Chosen King.

The quotation about the stone which the builders rejected comes from Psalms 118:22-23. It was a favourite quotation in the early church as a description of the death and resurrection of Jesus. (compare Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7.)

CAESAR AND GOD (Luke 20:19-26)

20:19-26 The scribes and chief priests tried to lay hands on Jesus at that very hour; and they feared the people, for they realized that he spoke this parable to them. They watched for an opportunity, and they despatched spies, who pretended that they were genuinely concerned about the right thing to do, so that they might fasten on what he said and be able to hand him over to the power and the authority of the governor. They asked him, "Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and you are no respecter of persons. Is it lawful for us to pay tribute to Caesar? Or not?" He saw their subtle deception and said to them, "Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription is on it?" They said, "Caesar's." "Well then," he said to them, "give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God." There was nothing in this statement that they could fasten on to in the presence of the people. They were amazed at his answer, and had nothing to say.

Here the emissaries of the Sanhedrin returned to the attack. They suborned men to go to Jesus and ask a question as if it was really troubling their consciences. The tribute to be paid to Caesar was a poll-tax of one denarius, about 4 pence, per year. Every man from 14 to 65 and every women from 12 to 65 had to pay that simply for the privilege of existing. This tribute was a burning question in Palestine and had been the cause of more than one rebellion. It was not the merely financial question which was at stake. The tribute was not regarded as a heavy imposition and was in fact no real burden at all. The issue at stake was this--the fanatical Jews claimed that they had no king but God and held that it was wrong to pay tribute to anyone other than him. The question was a religious question, for which many were willing to die.

So, then, these emissaries of the Sanhedrin attempted to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If he said that the tribute should not be paid, they would at once report him to Pilate and arrest would follow as surely as the night the day. If he said that it should be paid, he would alienate many of his supporters, especially the Galilaeans, whose support was so strong.

Jesus answered them on their own grounds. He asked to be shown a denarius. Now, in the ancient world the sign of kingship was the issue of currency. For instance, the Maccabees had immediately issued their own currency whenever Jerusalem was freed from the Syrians. Further, it was universally admitted that to have the right to issue currency carried with it the right to impose taxation. If a man had the right to put his image and superscription on a coin, ipso facto he had acquired the right to impose taxation. So Jesus said, "If you accept Caesar's currency and use it, you are bound to accept Caesar's right to impose taxes"; "but," he went on, "there is a domain in which Caesar's writ does not run and which belongs wholly to God."

(i) If a man lives in a state and enjoys all its privileges, he cannot divorce himself from it. The more honest a man is, the better citizen he will be. There should be no better and no more conscientious citizens of any state than its Christians; and one of the tragedies of modern life is that Christians do not sufficiently take their part in the government of the state. If they abandon their responsibilities and leave materialistic politicians to govern, Christians cannot justifiably complain about what is done or not done.

(ii) Nonetheless, it remains true that in the life of the Christian God has the last word and not the state. The voice of conscience is louder than the voice of any man-made laws. The Christian is at once the servant and the conscience of the state. Just because he is the best of citizens, he will refuse to do what a Christian citizen cannot do. He will at one and the same time fear God and honour the king.


20:27-40 Some of the Sadducees, who say that there is no resurrection, came to Jesus and asked him, "Teacher, Moses wrote to us that, if a man's married brother dies without leaving any children, his brother must take his wife and raise up descendants for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife and died childless. The second and the third also took her; and in the same way the whole seven left no children and died. Later the wife died, too. Whose wife will she be at the resurrection, for the seven had her to wife?" Jesus said to them, "The sons of this age marry and are married. But those who are deemed worthy to obtain that age and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are married, for they cannot die any more, for they are like angels and they are sons of God, for they are the sons of the resurrection. That the dead are raised even Moses indicated in the passage about the bush, when he called the Lord, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob. God is not the God of the dead but of the living, for all live to him." Some of the scribes said, "Teacher, you have spoken well"; and they no longer dared to ask him any question.

When the emissaries of the Sanhedrin had been finally silenced, the Sadducees appeared on the scene. The whole point of their question depends on two things.

(i) It depends upon the levirate law of marriage (Deuteronomy 25:5). According to that law if a man died childless, his brother must marry the widow and beget children to carry on the line. It is far from likely that it was operative in the time of Jesus, but it was included in the Mosaic regulations and therefore the Sadducees regarded it as binding.

(ii) It depends upon the beliefs of the Sadducees. Sadducees and Pharisees are often mentioned together but in beliefs they were poles apart.

(a) The Pharisees were entirely a religious body. They had no political ambitions and were content with any government which allowed them to carry out the ceremonial law. The Sadducees were few but very wealthy. The priests and the aristocrats were nearly all Sadducees. They were the governing class; and they were largely collaborationist with Rome, being unwilling to risk losing their wealth, their comfort and their place.

(b) The Pharisees accepted the scriptures plus all the thousand detailed regulations and rules of the oral and ceremonial law, such as the Sabbath law and the laws about hand washing. The Sadducees accepted only the written law of the Old Testament; and in the Old Testament they stressed only the law of Moses and set no store on the prophetic books.

(c) The Pharisees believed in the resurrection from the dead and in angels and spirits. The Sadducees held that there was no resurrection from the dead and that there were no angels or spirits.

(d) The Pharisees believed in fate; and that a man's life was planned and ordered by God. The Sadducees believed in unrestricted free-will.

(e) The Pharisees believed in and hoped for the coming of the Messiah; the Sadducees did not. For them the coming of the Messiah would have been a disturbance of their carefully ordered lives.

The Sadducees, then, came with this question about who would be the husband in heaven of the woman who was married to seven different men. They regarded such a question as the kind of thing that made belief in the resurrection of the body ridiculous. Jesus gave them an answer which has a permanently valid truth in it. He said that we must not think of heaven in terms of this earth. Life there will be quite different, because we will be quite different. It would save a mass of misdirected ingenuity, and not a little heartbreak, if we ceased to speculate on what heaven is like and left things to the love of God.

Jesus went further. As we have said, the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body. They declared they could not believe in it because there was no information about it, still less any proof of it, in the books of the law which Moses was held to have written. So far no Rabbi had been able to meet them on that ground; but Jesus did. He pointed out that Moses himself had heard God say, "I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob" (Exodus 3:1-6), and that it was impossible that God should be the God of the dead. Therefore Abraham and Isaac and Jacob must be still alive. Therefore there was such a thing as the resurrection of the body. No wonder the scribes declared it to be a good answer, for Jesus had met the Sadducees on their own ground and defeated them.

It may well be that we find this an arid passage. It deals with burning questions of the time by means of arguments which a Rabbi would find completely convincing but which are not convincing to the modern mind. But out of this very aridity there emerges a great truth for anyone who teaches or who wishes to commend Christianity to his fellows. Jesus used arguments that the people he was arguing with could understand. He talked to them in their own language; he met them on their own ground; and that is precisely why the common people heard him gladly.

Sometimes, when one reads religious and theological books, one feels that all this may be true but it would be quite impossible to present it to the non-theologically minded man who, after all, is in an overwhelming majority. Jesus used language and arguments which people could and did understand; he met people with their own vocabulary, on their own ground, and with their own ideas. We will be far better teachers of Christianity and far better witnesses for Christ when we learn to do the same.


20:41-44 Jesus said to them, "How does David say that the Christ is his son? For David himself says in the Book of Psalms, 'The Lord says to my Lord, Sit at my right hand till I make your enemies your footstool.' So David calls him Lord, and how can he be his son?"

It is worth while taking this little passage by itself for it is very difficult to understand. The most popular title of the Messiah was Son of David. That is what the blind man at Jericho called Jesus (Luke 18:38-39), and that is how the crowds addressed him at his entry into Jerusalem (Matthew 21:9). Here Jesus seems to cast doubts on the validity of that title. The quotation is from Psalms 110:1. In Jesus' time all the Psalms were attributed to David and this one was taken to refer to the Messiah. In it David says that he heard God speak to his Anointed One and tell him to sit at his right hand until his enemies became his footstool; and in it David calls the Messiah My Lord. How can the Messiah be at once David's son and David's Lord?

Jesus was doing here what he so often tried to do, trying to correct the popular idea of the Messiah which was that under him the golden age would come and Israel would become the greatest nation in the world. It was a dream of political power. How was that to happen? There were many ideas about it but the popular one was that some great descendant of David would come to be invincible captain and king. So then the title Son of David was inextricably mixed up with world dominion, with military prowess and with material conquest.

Really what Jesus was saying here was, "You think of the coming Messiah as Son of David; so he is; but he is far more. He is Lord." He was telling men that they must revise their ideas of what Son of David meant. They must abandon these fantastic dreams of world power and visualize the Messiah as Lord of the hearts and lives of men. He was implicitly blaming them for having too little an idea of God. It is always man's tendency to make God in his own image, and thereby to miss his full majesty.


20:45-47 While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, "Beware of the scribes who like to walk about in long robes, and who love greetings in the market places, and the chief seats in synagogues, and the top place at banquets. They devour widows' houses and pretend to offer long prayers. These will receive the greater condemnation."

The honours which the scribes and Rabbis expected to receive were quite extraordinary. They had rules of precedence all carefully drawn up. In the college the most learned Rabbi took precedence; at a banquet, the oldest. It is on record that two Rabbis came in, after walking on the street, grieved and bewildered because more than one person had greeted them with, "May your peace be great," without adding, "My masters!" They claimed to rank even above parents. They said, "Let your esteem for your friend border on your esteem for your teacher, and let your respect for your teacher border on your reverence for God." "Respect for a teacher should exceed respect for a father, for both father and son owe respect to a teacher." "If a man's father and teacher have lost anything, the teacher's loss has the precedence, for a man's father only brought him into this world; his teacher, who taught him wisdom, brought him into the life of the world to come.... If a man's father and teacher are carrying burdens, he must first help his teacher, and afterwards his father. If his father and teacher are in captivity, he must first ransom his teacher, and afterwards his father." Such claims are almost incredible; it was not good for a man to make them; it was still less good for him to have them conceded. But it was claims like that the scribes and Rabbis made.

Jesus also accused the scribes of devouring widows' houses. A Rabbi was legally bound to teach for nothing. All Rabbis were supposed to have trades and to support themselves by the work of their hands, while their teaching was given free. That sounds very noble but it was deliberately taught that to support a Rabbi was an act of the greatest piety. "Whoever," they said, "puts part of his income into the purse of the wise is counted worthy of a seat in the heavenly academy." "Whosoever harbours a disciple of the wise in his house is counted as if he offered a daily sacrifice." "Let thy house be a place of resort to wise men." It is by no means extraordinary that impressionable women were the legitimate prey of the less scrupulous and more comfort-loving rabbis. At their worst, they did devour widows' houses.

The whole unhealthy business shocked and revolted Jesus. It was all the worse because these men knew so much better and held so responsible a place within the life of the community. God will always condemn the man who uses a position of trust to further his own ends and to pander to his own comfort.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of Used by Permission.
Bibliographical Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Luke 20". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". 1956-1959.