[August 30, 2009] I always try to imagine how the first Christians heard the words of the evangelists and the apostles. (The word Gospel in Greek is euangelion, or, anglicized, “evangel”; to proclaim the Gospel is to “evangelize”; the one who proclaims the Gospel is an “evangelist.” The church also calls the writers of the four accounts of the Gospel evangelists—“the Evangelists.”) We need to put ourselves in the place of the evangelist and what he was trying to say, and we also need to put ourselves in the place of the intended audience, those whom the evangelist visualized when he wrote what he did. Because these are spiritual writings, we also then need to see beyond that. What is the truth that the evangelist is saying that is true for us here and now? This truth is spiritual; we can only perceive it with our spirit, and we can only do this through the enlightening of the Holy Spirit, and for this we need to pray, and to read prayerfully.
Jesus left Galilee after He was manifested on the Mount of Transfiguration. That took place in Luke 9. He left, knowing He was going to Jerusalem for the last time and that there He was going to die and rise again. So what follows in chapters 10-19 all takes place on the way to the cross. It is basically a long teaching section in which Luke mixes the five teaching sections of Matthew with a lot of new material that he gathered from his own interviews with eyewitnesses. There is no clear cut outline for this section, but we are showing the general outline by paying attention to how the themes melt into one another and who the audience is in the story when Jesus is teaching. We also need to keep in mind the constant audience, namely those people who are listening to Luke tell the story (the intended auditor or reader).
On the way to the cross as Jesus made His last journey to Jerusalem, He sends out seventy disciples, Luke gives us thereby a foreshadowing of the apostolate in the Acts of the Apostles and for today (10:1-24). Jesus then tells the parable of the Good Samaritan about Himself as the Savior (10:25-37), and gives lessons on humbly listening to His word (10:38-42) and on prayer (11:1-13). This is the foundation of the Christian life. After that (11:14-32), Luke gives us Jesus’ teaching in view of opposition, foreshadowing the opposition of some Jews to the church’s mission to the Gentiles. With this opposition to Jesus’ mission in the background, Luke then shows (in 11:33-52) Jesus opposing their hypocrisy. The lesson here is that we should not live in order to gain the approval of others but instead be only concerned with God’s approval. Nor should we live in fear of man (11:53—12:12) or even in fear of not having our material needs met (12:13-34). Instead we should fear only God, which is not a servile fear but the reverential concern to please Him, because God is our Father who cares for us.
Nevertheless, our Father—who regards us as His own children—will hold us accountable, and therefore will judge us in order to reward us or give us the remedial attention we need; thus Luke 12:35-53. (In Matthew we saw that when we believe in Jesus we enter a sphere of unconditional grace—but when we enter this place, we also come under the discipline of God—that realm where God is overcoming all opposition to His grace. The first place that God seeks to overcome opposition is in us. So, becoming a Christian is like a two-edged sword. On the one hand all is grace. On the other hand it is all about work—the work of overcoming our own opposition to grace and the work of growing in grace. It is not first one and then the other, but always both, with work being bracketed inside grace.) What defines discipleship is the way of the cross.
Then Jesus turns to the crowds (12:54—13:21). The Palestinian Jews as a nation were heading for disaster because of certain attitudes that some among them were stirring up. If they did not turn around (repent), disaster would befall them, which it did historically in 70 AD and again in 135. The same can be said today of the modern state of Israel—that they need to repent of certain attitudes or disaster will fall. This is not new—this is like reading the writings of the prophets in the Old Testament. The prophets basically said that you must stop thinking of yourselves as historically privileged: you are under God’s judgment—all of you. This is the same point the apostle Paul makes in Romans 1:18—3:20. What might be new to the thinking of some Jews is that the judgment that they became aware of historically at the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires did not stop when the political situation became favorable to them. The judgment is permanent. It is, in fact, the human condition. Paul universalizes this and says that if the Jews are under God’s judgment—and they are God’s elect!—then certainly the Gentiles (all the non-Jews) are too (Romans 3:19). We ALL are living under God’s judgment. Religious pretention attempts to turn God’s little flock into an earthly kingdom; what was meant to be a little bush becomes a great tree with birds of prey roosting in its branches; and the three measures of meal become inflated by the corrupting influence of leaven. The proper attitude is one of humility and generosity lived in the light of God’s judgment and grace.
Will Only a Few Be Saved? (Luke 13:22-30)
In today’s reading, Jesus continues to address the multitude about the judgment of God. They assume that because they flock to Jesus like a celebrity, this will save them. He is the superstar who will usher in the kingdom of national Israel. According to the prophets, when the Messiah comes, He would save Israel and usher in a new age. They are visualizing what we call the Second Coming. But as they listen to Him, some of them start to get uncomfortable. “Are you saying, Jesus, that only a few of us Jews are going to be saved?”
Jesus does not answer the question. He knows that if He simply says yes or no, they would immediately start thinking in terms of “us” and “them,” and the self-righteous attitude would perpetuate. It is not about having the right membership as some sort of privilege. It is about struggling to enter the narrow door.
In other words, they need to become disciples, to commit themselves to Himself in such a way that they actually take on the yoke of discipleship. If there is no change in their lives, their faith in Him is superficial. They are still “workers of unrighteousness” and He does not know them. They should not assume that because they are privileged as Jews or even because they flock to Jesus, that this somehow gives them a pass to get into the kingdom of God. Indeed, even Gentiles (non-Jews who “come from the east and the west and from the north and the south”), those whom they expect can never get in, or to get in last, will get in before them.
We should not assume that because we call ourselves Christians that it is any different for us than for these first century Jews. Being a Christian is not about holding certain “beliefs”—as though your agreement on certain religious issues—or your membership in a church or a movement, or your preference for contemporary Christian music and Christian paraphernalia will save you. Nor will your political opinions and commitments (because they are supposedly more Christian) can save you.
True faith will save you, but that faith is not a product of your own free will—a “decision” you made. It is the product of God’s grace changing your desires which then affects your will. God changes us first by imparting light to our spirit. This breaks through the crust of our delusions and begins to transform the desires of our heart. True faith issues in faithfulness, the correspondence in our heart to God’s grace. Without this interior transformation, we are fooling ourselves. To believe is for the love-object of our heart to change. This is what moves our will and changes our behavior. (Augustine rightly identified our obsession with free-will as a heresy.)
The Way of the Cross (13:31-35)
Contrary to the glamour that the multitude sees and expects in Jesus, He is heading deliberately and intentionally to the cross, which will scandalize them. A warning of the danger He faces—coming from some well-meaning friends—does not deter Him. He knows He will be killed in Jerusalem.
The crowd is, in effect, expecting His Second Coming according to a literal interpretation of the prophets. But that is to read them superficially. They want to have their Messiah without national repentance, and without the cross. In fact, they misunderstand the meaning of repentance, interpreting it as ethnic or religious or legalistic purity. Repentance has to do with the heart in relation to God. The heart has to turn. As their King, Jesus wanted to gather the people of Jerusalem under His wing and enable them to repent, but they would not and will not allow it. As a result, they will inevitably meet with disaster because of their refusal to repent. They will have thrown away their opportunity (remember 19:41-44). He, as their Messiah, will no longer be available to them until the time comes when He is ready to return and they are ready to welcome Him.
The “door” is Jesus Himself, but not Jesus as a religious icon or symbol, but the Jesus of the cross. When people make “accepting Jesus as your personal Savior” to mean that you simply give mental assent to a theory about the atonement, they are fooling themselves. We believe that when Jesus died on the cross, He bore the judgment of God that rightfully falls on us. When we believe into Jesus, God’s wrath on our sins is exhausted by the wrath that He bore. This is what we mean by the “blood of Jesus.” This is God’s unconditional grace. But this “believing into” is more than mental assent. The “blood” redeems us, that is, it liberates us from slavery.
Let us not be scandalized by the rest. When we identify with Jesus by believing into Him, His death needs to apply to our souls. We need to die to our selves—the selves that we have constructed in our alienation and isolation from God. For this self exists in rebellion against God, since the alienation and isolation is self-chosen and not imposed. We need to die daily to our self-identity so that we can know the transforming power of the resurrection.
We want to use Jesus to get ourselves back on our feet—yeah! we’re forgiven!—so we can continue to live out our rebellion against God. But God wants to liberate us so that we give up our agendas and stop living as cogs of the world system and start to live afresh, in the present moment, directly in His presence, as creatures already tasting the age to come, who are the first-fruits of His resurrection, living in communion with one another. This is what happens when our faith is real. Let us not kid ourselves with something fake.