[November 1, 2009] In the verses preceding the ones we will consider today (19:45—20:19), Jesus finally arrives in Jerusalem having left Galilee in chapter 9:51. These verses (19:29-44) tell the story of Palm Sunday: As He travelled the road from the Mount of Olives to the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, the multitude of His disciples paraded Him, hailing Him as “the King who comes in the name of the Lord” (19:37-38). For them it was a joyous occasion, for the King was coming to claim His city, the Son of David was coming to Zion where the throne of King David once was. Jesus, however, did not rejoice, but as the road led around Olivet and the city came into view, He wept over it, saying, “If you knew in this day, even you, the things that are for your peace! But now they have been hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a rampart before you, and will encircle you, and press you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave a stone upon a stone in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation” (19:41-44). Jesus knew that the City would reject Him as its King. He knew, in fact, that He would suffer death at the hands of the Gentiles for claiming to be “the King the Jews.” But worse, He knew that the Jewish leaders, the stewards of the Temple and City, would collaborate with the Gentiles and hand Him over to them to be put to death.
Jesus Symbolically Enacts God’s Judgment (Luke 19:45-48)
This is why, as soon as Jesus entered the Golden Gate which led directly into the precincts of the Temple, He began to cast out the money-changers and those who sold the sacrificial animals. As He does this, He alludes to what Jeremiah said with reference to the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians: “Do you take this Temple that bears My name for a robbers’ den? I, at any rate, am not blind … Since you have committed all these sins … and have refused to listen when I spoke so urgently, so persistently, or to answer when I called you … I will drive you out of My sight, as I drove all your kinsmen, the entire race of Ephraim” (Jeremiah 7:11-15).
(In order for the people to worship, the money-changers and those who sold the sacrificial animals were necessary. The pilgrims traveling from distant lands could not bring their pagan coins with their idolatrous inscriptions into the Temple; they needed to exchange them for Jewish coins; and since they could not bring their own sacrificial animals from afar, they needed to purchase them.)
In other words, Jesus did not “cleanse” the Temple as if He came as a Reformer. He came to pronounce its doom, a sentence that would not be carried out for forty years (it was 30 AD; His words were fulfilled in 70 AD).
This is devastating, for every religious Jew in the entire world looked to the Temple in Jerusalem with love, affection and awe. We recall how in the beginning of Luke’s gospel the angel Gabriel appeared to Zachariah in the Temple, and when the infant Jesus was presented to the Lord both Simeon and Anna (Hannah) spoke prophetic words concerning Him there, and when Jesus was twelve and His parents brought Him to the Temple, He came to a new sense of self-awareness and spoke of God as “My Father.” Yet here Jesus pronounces the end of the Temple as the center of worship. From that day on, the Jewish religion would come to be centered on the Scriptures alone, embodied in the institution of the synagogue. Judaism was to be become what it was essentially since the prophets, a spiritual religion.
Jesus was repeating the doom that the prophets had already pronounced, though they had spoken of an event that took place in 586 BC. It was the prophetic word all over again. But the situation seemed to be entirely different. Then Jerusalem was full of idolatry but now the city prided itself in its practice of the Torah. Such a thing as what Jesus predicted was not possible.
The “chief priests and the scribes and the leaders of the people” took offence at what Jesus said. These were the people primarily responsible for the Temple and the festivals and the scriptoria of the city. They were the shepherds of the Jewish people, those with oversight over their religious practices. Granted, it was not uncontested. Many people in the desert and in Galilee hated the Sadducean leaders, but they did so while honoring the institutions of Temple and festival observance of which these people were the guardians. These “shepherds” were the stewards of the Temple and the City of David and should have been the ones to welcome the Son of David when He came to claim His throne, but instead they were offended by Him and wanted to destroy Him. The reason they could not do so was because of the popularity Jesus had with the people.
First Confrontation with the Stewards (20:1-8)
The next day these leaders, “the chief priests and the scribes with the elders” (the council members) came up to Jesus and demanded to know who gave Him the authority to come into the City and Temple and act this way: being paraded as the “King” and casting out those who were selling.
Jesus’ response was to expose their incompetency and to refuse to answer them because they were incompetent. They were responsible for the spiritual wellbeing of the people. But instead of being able to answer directly about the prophet John the Baptist, they equivocated because they were afraid of the people. In other words, instead of caring for the people, they cared only about themselves. They were like politicians who use their position for their own gain. So Jesus treated them as if they had made themselves irrelevant. He did not recognize their authority to question Him. This was the same as saying that He already had passed sentence on them. This is why He refused to answer them.
Jesus did not go on the defensive but acted as the rightful King. Rather than allowing these incompetents to question Him He acted as their Judge. His authority as King did not depend on their recognition.
In the world of “realpolitik” what Jesus did was outrageous. On a practical level, the Jerusalem elite had every reason to be concerned with Jesus’ behavior since the Romans occupiers were breathing down their necks. They needed to keep order in the city not primarily with an eye to theological considerations but to keep the Romans pacified so that they could retain whatever freedoms the Romans granted them. Without that freedom, theological considerations were moot. Jesus, however, acted as though these practical considerations were irrelevant. The revelation of God was the primary and only reality He took into consideration. His opponents naturally felt justified when Jesus’ “program” ended in His execution by the Romans. However, after the resurrection, the believers in Jesus felt that God had justified their faith in Him. In Luke’s gospel Jesus had emphasized the importance of living in the sight of God, for God’s pleasure—not in the sight of people with a view to managing their approval and regard—even if it means that we have to lay down our lives for Christ’s sake.
The Parable about the Tenant Farmers (20:9-19)
Jesus then told a parable that described the situation as He saw it. The vineyard owner is God and the vineyard is the people of Israel. This was a familiar metaphor from the Old Testament. The vinedressers, who are the tenant farmers responsible for the vineyard in the owner’s absence, are “the chief priests and the scribes and the elders,” “the leaders of the people.” The slaves who came to collect the fruit of the vineyard are the early and later prophets and John the Baptist. The prophets also predicted the “Day of the Lord” when God Himself would come to His people and judge the shepherds who abused His flock. Jesus is saying that that day had come. He was the Son. In the parable He is the Son of God, but He also comes as the Son of Man to establish God’s kingdom and as the Son of David to sit on His father’s throne. The Jews understood the Scripture about the stone (20:17, see Psalm 118:22) to refer to David when He was a youth. They would have understood Jesus’ meaning since the people put their hopes in Him as the Son of David. The son of David was also called “the son of God” in 2 Samuel 7:14. The vinedressers kill Him.
What will happen? God, the owner of the vineyard, will destroy them and give the vineyard (the people of God) to others. In the days to come, the Temple would in fact be destroyed, the priesthood become nonfunctional, and the Sadducees pass from history. Those who fall on the “stone” are these people who opposed Jesus. They are like an earthen pot that is shattered when it hits the stone. But when God’s judgment falls, they will be like an earthen pot that is ground to powder when the stone falls on it. On that day the Romans, who represent God’s hand, will scatter them with their winnowing fan.
The stewardship of the people of God would then pass into new hands. In the early days many Jews passed into the church and came under its care. Those who did not, passed into the care of the rabbis, who to this day continue to be the shepherds of Israel. On the other hand, in the church God called many Gentiles to be grafted onto the tree of Abraham through faith in the Messiah (Romans 11:17). They too are the people of God.
The Prophetic Word Brought Back to Life
Christians usually think of this as a passing from the Old Testament covenant to the New Testament, as the end of Judaism and the beginning of Christianity. I would suggest that we not look at it that way. Of course, it is the beginning of Christianity and the New Testament. But it is entirely in continuity with the Old Testament and Judaism (though of course the mutual rejection of Judaism and Christianity is a scandal).
Instead, when Jesus acts and speaks as He does, pronouncing the destruction of the Temple and the judgment of Jerusalem, He is acting in perfect harmony with the entire prophetic tradition of the Old Testament from Isaiah to Malachi. Just as they spoke of God’s judgment at the time of the Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom (Ephraim/Israel) and the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom (Judah), Jesus speaks in practically the same words. The destruction of the Temple and the devastation of Jerusalem happened then too, just as the prophets predicted. It did not mean the end of the Old Testament and of Judaism then nor does it not mean that when Jesus speaks in the same way.
What is surprising is that in the days of the prophets, Israel was lured by idolatry. That is decidedly not the case in Jesus’ day. What Paul explains however, is that the new idolatry of Israel is self-righteousness. It was just as bad as idolatry but more subtle, more invisible, because outwardly it seemed the opposite. It was in this way deceiving and delusive.
Self-righteousness was doubly delusive for another reason. The point of the prophets’ declarations is that the old days of God’s favor were merely “typological,” symbolic of spiritual realities. Israel, because of its sin, had come under the heavy hand of God’s judgment. The prophets tell us, they had always been sinful but God outwardly withheld His hand. Now they were to know that they were under God’s judgment. Not only Israel, but the nations too were under this ban. The whole world was under the ban of God’s judgment until the coming of the Messiah, which would also be the coming of God to judge the earth and establish His kingdom.
The fact that a remnant returned from captivity in 538 did not mean that the ban was lifted. It was the “day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10). The rebuilding of the Temple that began in 536 did not mark the fulfillment of God’s promise. The return of the remnant and the rebuilding of the Temple and City were only a sign, not the fulfillment. As days when on, however, especially after the days of the Maccabees in the second century BC, the declaration of the prophets was forgotten and the people began to forget the ban and imagine that they were righteous in God’s sight, and some even identified their national independence with the kingdom of God.
The meaning of these events in the New Testament, and Jesus’ declaration to Israel concerning God’s judgment, is that the words of the prophets still stand and that all humanity is under God’s judgment. Only now, the death of the Messiah becomes the final verdict. Paul says in Romans 3:19-20, “We know that whatever things the Torah says, it speaks to those who are under the Torah, that every mouth may be stopped and all the world may fall under the judgment of God; because out of the works of the Torah no flesh shall be justified before Him.” The cross seals humanity’s fate.
The Word of Grace
This verdict does not mean that the ban is lifted. Rather it proves that the ban still stands. The world we live in today is still under God’s judgment, and we live our lives under this judgment. Outwardly we suffer it every day.
What the Gospel tells us is that in spite of that we can still know God’s grace. We can still experience the forgiveness of sins and a relationship with God as our Father, in which, “having been justified by faith, we have peace towards God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand” (Romans 5:1-2). In spite of being outwardly under God’s judgment, because we live in the world that is under the ban, inwardly we may experience God’s grace and favor and enjoy what it means for Christ to be our life. This is because the very same death that was the final verdict on the human race is also the means of our salvation. For by that death, Christ bore our judgment. In Him our judgment has been resolved and we can come before God bearing the righteousness of Christ. That changes everything in our inner relationship to God and begins to transform us in preparation for the coming day, when Christ will be manifested in the Day of God.
In this place where we are in Christ and Christ is in us, “we boast because of the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). That is, we look forward to the resurrection when we will finally be released from the judgment of God outwardly as well as inwardly. Of course this is inconceivable. The “proof” of our resurrection is the resurrection of Christ (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). We shall be like He is. What can it possibly mean? We will be bodily resurrected, our bodies will partake of the divine nature just like Christ’s resurrection body, and we will be with one another (2 Corinthians 4:14). This is the Christian hope. In view of this, even the dead are with Christ now (1 Thessalonians 4:14; Philippians 1:23; 2 Corinthians 5:8) awaiting that day.
So even these stern declarations of God’s judgment prepare us to embrace the Gospel (good news) of our salvation.