[November 8, 2009] In today’s passage (20:20—21:4) we are in the course of Holy Week, near the end of Jesus’ ministry. In other words, the events narrated here take place on the eve of our Passover, when Christ ascends the cross for our salvation. Luke does not narrate these events as if he were a journalist. He is an interpreter, putting events together in a way that highlights their meaning for his readers, who are those in the churches of Jews and Gentiles spread throughout the world.
Jesus’ death on the cross reconciles us to God. Through the cross we have peace with God and can now know, enjoy and celebrate the fiery love of God. Because of that death of deaths, we not only have no fear of condemnation but we are so clear and innocent in God’s eyes that God can pour His Holy Spirit upon us. By His grace and power, God equips and uses us to build His dwelling place on earth and to do His work in the world.
Why the cross? Why did Jesus’ work lead Him to the cross? On the cross Jesus bore our sin and our judgment. He not only represented them; He not only carried them; He bore them—their whole weight—in His own heart, in His whole being, in His body. He did this because He bore us upon His heart. In dying He laid down His life, His soul, as a prayer to the Father, that the Father might accept the weight of the judgment that He bore for us. His death then was not something that passively happened to Him, but something He actively offered to the Father, in loving obedience and for love of us, because He shared with His whole heart the Father’s own love for us.
This is why, when Jesus came to Jerusalem (Jeru-shalom, the City of Peace), He put aside His teaching ministry in which He was preparing His disciples for the work of the church (the church that we see in the Acts of the Apostles), and pronounce judgment on the city. We saw that while the disciples welcomed Him to the city for the Passover—and well they might for He came to present Himself as the Passover Lamb—He wept over the city because they would not receive Him. He came as the Son of David, the Messianic King, to claim His throne. He came as the son of the master of the vineyard to demand the fruit that was owed to him. God is the master of the vineyard. He sent the prophets and John the Baptist to demand the fruit of repentance, but the tenants of the vineyard—the chief priests and scribes and elders of the people—they want the vineyard for themselves. They not only refused to give God the fruit, they now kill the Son.
Jesus is killed not by the disciples, of course, and not by the Galileans, and not even by the people of Jerusalem. They all had a hand in it, true (even Judas was a disciple), but the ones directly responsible—besides the Gentile governor—were the “vinedressers,” the tenant farmers: the chief priests, the scribes and the elders of the people, the leading men of the city. But if we put this in the perspective of the cross, we would understand that these men represent all of humanity. Just as Mary the mother of Jesus represented the work of God’s grace in humanity and gave answer to God for the creation when she said to Gabriel, “Behold, the slave of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your word,” so these men who put Jesus to death represent humanity in its condition of hostility towards God.
This is the point that Paul addresses in Romans 1:18—3:20. He says that on the cross “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (1:18). We know God’s wrath because it was revealed on the cross by what happened to Jesus. Those who are “entrusted with the oracles of God,” the Jews, prove to be no different than the Gentiles. But this was revealed to them—that they too are under the dominion of sin—“that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may fall under the judgment of God” (3:1-20).
Paul learned this from the prophets. For the prophets declared God’s judgment on Israel at the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles in the eighth to the sixth century before Christ. The prophets declared that Ephraim (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom) and all the nations were under the ban of God’s judgment until the coming of the Messiah who would, at last, bring God’s Jubilee and release them from their debt. Jesus’ first coming was to make atonement, but the new age spoken of by the prophets would not be manifest until His coming in glory.
Render to God the Things that Belong to God (Luke 20:20-26)
Israel had forgotten this lesson, or so it would seem. Some of them, like the Zealots, thought that their zeal for the Torah justified them and that they were entitled to establish God’s kingdom on earth by their own efforts, namely by purifying Israel of offenders (those who mixed with sinners and Gentiles) and by overthrowing the Romans. They did not realize that the Romans were just like the Babylonians. Just as God used the Babylonians to demonstrate His judgment, so now He used the Romans. Just as the prophets told them to submit to the Babylonians because they were the hand of God, so now the Jews were to submit to the Romans.
John the Baptist asked the people, “Who prompted you to flee from the coming wrath?” We are not to flee from God’s judgment but to submit to it, not rebel against it but to humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God (1 Peter 5:6). What does this means? Like Jeremiah said (29:7): “Work for the good of the country to which I have exiled you; pray to the Lord on its behalf, since on its welfare yours depend.” Daniel the prophet did this.
They asked Jesus to trap Him, “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Jesus asks them to show Him a coin. On the coin is a graven image of the Roman emperor. They possess this coin. Their economy depends on Rome and they personally benefit from it. Did this not oblige them to Rome? Then it was only right that they give Rome its due. “Render the things that are Caesar’s to Caesar.” This is submitting to God’s judgment. We live in the world the way it is. We benefit from it. Therefore we have an obligation to “work for the good of the country” to which God has exiled us.
This does not mean that we accept the idolatry of the state or endorse any of its ideologies. When we submit to the state, we submit not to the state, really, but to the hand of God’s judgment. Therefore we cannot use this idea to promote nationalism or any other ideology. As believers we must still remain separated and free from idolatry. Again, Daniel is an example.
Jesus also said, “Render the things that are God’s to God.” He is still the son of the vineyard owner seeking the fruit of the vineyard. We owe God our repentance and obedience, our allegiance and fidelity. We owe faithfulness to God, the kind of faithfulness that Jesus rendered to the Father. Through the gift of the indwelling Spirit, we offer to God the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). This comes before any other obligation.
This is what those hypocrites who asked the question and those who sent them were not rendering. They were keeping the fruit of the people for themselves. They were not living as if God mattered. All along Jesus spoke about the importance of living in the sight of God, but these people seemed to only be aware of the others around them. We are to live in view of God’s judgment, not the appraisal of other people. This is the point.
Living in View of the Resurrection (20:27-38)
The Sadducees (very different from the Pharisees) is the sect to which most of the chief priests belonged. They did not believe in the resurrection so they asked this silly question to mock the belief. You see, if there is no resurrection, then we can live for this life only. The only “judgment” is the vicissitudes of this life. If you are cunning, you make things work for yourself. If you can gain influence, make money, become comfortable, then that is the “judgment of God.” You are practical. You live for this life only.
But again, Jesus says that what we do, what we become in this life, continues to stand before God after we die. To God, who is eternal and not bound by linear time, all human beings continue to live. When we die we will stand before God and be exposed. We will be accountable for how we have lived. So Jesus said of those who seek their reward in this life—from each other and not from the Father—that “they have their reward in full.”
Jesus insists on the reality of the resurrection, though He only speaks of the resurrection of the righteous which will precede the resurrection of the wicked. The righteous are counted worthy to obtain that age (the age of the kingdom which precedes eternity). In that day they will be equal to the angels who currently govern and do God’s will in the heavens. Those who are worthy of the intervening age-to-come, live now with that in view.
Live in the presence of God with a view to the Father’s reward. Do not live as if this life—our worldly welfare—and the favor of other people is all that matters. Even marriage is relative. The only reality that matters is God’s.
The Son of David (20:39-44)
Jesus came into Jerusalem as the Son of David. The blind man in chapter 18 called Him that, and He was cheered by the disciples as the King who comes in the name of the Lord. But He did not come as a king comparable to kings such as David and Solomon or Hezekiah and Josiah. He did not come to establish a worldly kingdom such as theirs. No, David was only a “type,” a picture of something much bigger. Psalm 110 says, “The Lord says to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool.” We spoke of Jesus claiming the throne of His father David as Gabriel promised to Mary (see Luke 1:32). But the worldly throne is only the type. The real throne is the right (executive) hand of God. Those who opposed Jesus mocked His claim to David’s throne. By killing Him they thought they could take the vineyard away from Him. But through His death He has ascended to the highest height and has sat down on the throne of Godhead, far above all rule and authority. This is the throne that matters, not a throne won by political machinations. The reality of the situation before them was not what it seemed to their “practical” worldly eyes.
Those Who Ignore the Resurrection (20:45-46)
These verses correspond to the answer Jesus gave to the Sadducees. If we live only with a view to what we can gain from other people, as if we are not ultimately accountable to an eternal God, as if this world alone mattered and not reality itself, then we might become like the scribes that Jesus describes. But those who live that way, “these shall receive greater judgment” than that rendered by their fellows. Their lives ultimately are false, exterior, and without real substance. The approval or disapproval of other people is not reality. The approval or disapproval of God is reality.
To Render to God All Our Living (21:1-4)
In contrast to that, Jesus points out the widow who “out of her lack has cast in all the living that she had.” Others gave God what they could spare. She, who had no husband to take care of her, gave to God what she had to live on. It was out of devotion to God. She recognized that we owe everything to God and not merely our surplus. But she also had the expectation that God would take care of her. In other words, she acted as if God were real. To give God only your surplus is to give only what is “safe.” In other words, you keep enough for yourself in case God proves unreliable, a little insurance against God. We live this way because we have so little faith. But when Jesus says, “render to God the things that are God’s,” He meant that we owe God everything. Jesus approved of this widow’s mite.
The Judgment of God Because We Live As If God Is Not
Even though Jerusalem and the chief priests and rulers of the people were intensely religious, they were not pleasing to God. On the one hand, they lived a practical life—currying favor with the Romans to gain power or else preparing to overthrow them—as if God did not matter and the hand of God’s judgment was not in everything. We need to see not just the “hand,” but whose hand it is (God’s) and what it is (God’s judgment). We too need to live in this world with this consciousness and resist the lure of any ideologies or the temptation to manipulate others for our own gain. We need to care not only about our own concerns but about others and their wellbeing as we live our lives in this world.
They also lived out their religion as if it were all about this world. It was about avoiding shame, about impressing others and winning their favor. Religion must be spiritual, lived inwardly in the sight of God. Spirituality must also be personal, not individual. That is, it must be lived in relationship with others in the sight of God—this is why the church is so important. If we privatize spirituality, we delude ourselves. It becomes a mental game in which we convince ourselves of something instead of being in communion with the Three-Personed God whose essence is coinherent “face-to-face”-ness. As the church we live face-to-face in this communion. This is salvation.