During Lent there are some significant jumps in the Gospel text. Last Sunday the text was from Luke 13. This Sunday the text is from Luke 15:1-3, 11-32. This week I thought it might be appropriate to look at the much bigger picture (rather than a look at the word ‘prodigal’, for example).
These jumps happen during Lent because, on the first Sunday, the Gospel text is from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, his temptation in the wilderness. And by the fifth Sunday in Lent, Jesus is very close to getting crucified. There have to be some significant jumps in the text for this to happen.
Last week I briefly mentioned that the ‘orderliness’ of the Gospel according to Luke [see 1:3] is, I believe, based not on history, but theology. I would like to show how that might look within a portion of the text.
I would like to look at the text between two times that Jesus is mentioned as heading toward Jerusalem. This is a critical event in the life of Christ. It happens to be mentioned at Luke 13:22 and again at Luke 17:11. Between those two verses is obviously a lot of text. But if you do not mind a somewhat long summary of that text (without a huge number of exact references), you may choose to read on. The main themes seem to be repentance and forgiveness within the context of salvation. Hopefully these topics will be helpful in your own journey.
At Luke 13:22, the question Jesus is asked is regarding the number of the saved. Jesus, as usual, gets to the heart of the issue and speaks to those who are saved and/or to those who are not. Jesus says that things will turn out NOT as expected. This theme continues to the end of chapter 13 with Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem, that those people in Jerusalem are not doing too well when it comes to listening to their Lord.
In chapter 14, Jesus puts himself forward as very caring with the healing of a man on the Sabbath. Immediately after, with the parable of the wedding feast, is the exhortation toward humility and, therefore, repentance. The implication is that, instead of a focus on self, a better focal point would be Jesus. Later in the chapter, with the parable of the great banquet, the man in charge shows himself to be very caring, inviting those who have been overlooked by others. As above, some people are not doing too good a job of listening.
At Luke 14:25, a statement is made that ‘great crowds accompanied’ Jesus. Jesus takes what was previously said a step farther, that a person should hate other things—and even his own life. He follows that up by saying one should ‘count the cost’, again showing the seriousness of the situation. This is again reflected when Jesus talks about throwing away salt that is not doing its job.
In chapter 15, Jesus takes the topic of his caring another step even farther, and he shows his true love for ‘sinners’ by eating with them. He clarifies what he is doing by emphasizing the importance of repentance (see verses 7 and 10).
In chapter 16, Jesus starts by talking to his disciples and emphasizes being shrewd (like the ‘dishonest’ manager). In contrast to this, the Pharisees love money (and are, therefore, shrewd in a different way and serve money instead of God), and Jesus gives them some words of Law. He ends by contrasting a rich man with Lazarus.
In chapter 17, Jesus again starts talking to his disciples, and he gives them a few words of advice in dealing with temptations to sin (this is in contrast to the Pharisees’ love of money). The point should be made that he emphasizes forgiving those who repent. And what follows, I think, is a clue that we are getting to the end of the section. Instead of the text saying that ‘The disciples said to Jesus’, the text says that ‘The apostles said to the Lord….’ They are asking for an increase of faith, and that is certainly needed at that time, in the Book of Acts, and also today. With the story of the mustard seed and the unworthy servants, Jesus helps the disciples (and us today) to focus on the Lord’s actions, through seemingly insignificant things. This is meant to change our perspective regarding the things that we do. In the end, we are not to focus on ourselves. And, in the end, may we also say this: ‘…[W]e have only done what was our duty (verse 10).’
The first thing that someone might note from the Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 13:1-9] is that it is earlier in the account than the text from the previous Sunday [Luke 13:31-35]. Someone might think that this is a mistake. The overwhelming consensus is that we are headed toward the END of the gospel account and should not go backward.
In response to that, I would like to remind the reader than the events in the gospel accounts are not necessarily in chronological order. The Gospel according to Luke is ‘orderly’ (see Luke 1:3), but this word could (and, in my opinion, should) be taken in a predominantly theological way and not chronological.
It would also be good to note that, when comparing the texts, there is a heightening in the text for this Sunday in at least two ways. First, whereas the first text talked of a possible death, the second text speaks of multiple people who died, whose blood was ‘mingled with their sacrifices’ (verse 1). Second, while the first text talked about Herod, the person with the real power in that area and at that time was Pontius Pilate, and he is identified as the clear culprit in the second text.
It is interesting that both these persons are described as seeing Jesus after he was arrested, and only in the Gospel according to Luke is the point made that these two enemies became friends (see Luke 23:1-12). I personally think that ‘miracle’ should be attributed to Jesus and his working like an ox—a worker who does not shy away from extremely difficult work but is willing to get it done. And it is certainly amazing what he can—and still does—get done.
If you are familiar with the text for this Sunday, it ultimately deals with the issue of why bad things happen to good people (although a good point may be brought up that those supposedly good people in the text were from Galilee—that was not something you would put on a resume). This issue that has come up since the time of the biblical Job (and perhaps even before him) has a name: theodicy.
I hope you will not mind looking behind the history of that word—and, strangely enough, the closely related word of ‘optimism’.
The word ‘theodicy’ is made up of two Latin words meaning ‘God’ and ‘justice’, and it finds its roots in Leibniz, who was considered one of the greatest thinkers of the 16 and 1700’s, and perhaps of all time. He has been called a universal genius. He wrote a book entitled Theodicy in 1710.
A dictionary with some authority (the OED) defines the word ‘theodicy’ in this way: “The, or a, vindication of the divine attributes, especially justice and holiness, in respect to the existence of evil; a writing, doctrine, or theory intended to ‘justify the ways of God to men’.”
The above entry also connects the reader to the word ‘optimism’. I was not aware of Leibniz’s responsibility for this word as well. (It also comes from a Latin word—'best’.)
Here is the first part of that entry: ‘A name given to the doctrine propounded by Leibnitz, in his Theodicte (1710), that the actual world is the ‘best of all possible worlds’, being chosen by the Creator out of all the possible worlds which were present in his thoughts as that in which the most good could be obtained at the cost of the least evil. Also applied to doctrines of earlier or later thinkers to a like effect (page 164).’
There is a certain danger when the source for your definitions and your amounts of good and evil are based in creation rather than redemption. It is not surprising that Leibniz was in the middle of the Enlightenment, a period of time which emphasized reason and individualism instead of tradition. The bible was being pushed aside, and what was seen was considered important. But what you see can change significantly.
The Lenten journey, on the other hand, does not change. After the forty days are over, we know where we will be ending up. I would encourage you to let what you see at THAT location sink in.
It is interesting that, in the Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 13:31-35], Jesus resorts to a little ‘name calling’. That seems to be a more common occurrence these days. People are used to getting their way electronically, with all the ‘likes’ on their posts, and when things do not go their way, there can easily be a meltdown … along with a little name-calling to make the person feel a little better.
In the text and in other places in scripture, name-calling does not seem to happen at the end of an encounter. It is something that happens at the very beginning. God created things, and then he named them. As a side note, it is also interesting to compare the names of some things in the language of the Old Testament. The word for God (Elohim), for example, has a similar ending to the word for ‘complete’ or ‘whole’ (ta-mim’). In the text for this Sunday, Jesus first names King Herod a fox, but then then he calls himself a hen.
Here is what The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (Volume 2, Page 358) says of foxes:
If they do not actually excavate these [burrows] themselves, they will often take over the burrow of another animal such as the badger. The use of ‘fox’ in reference to Herod (Lk. 13:32) indicated his low cunning and comparative worthlessness (cf. Neh. 4:3 for the insignificance of this animal). Ezekiel compared Israel’s prophets to foxes; they care for themselves but show little concern for Israel’s relation to God (13:4f).
Here is what is said of the hen—more specifically, of the chicken—after the encyclopedia says that they probably were not around during the time of Solomon, since they would have been mentioned in the text—they are described as ‘a marvel worth recording’ (Volume 1, Page 644):
From the history of the bird in other countries it is safe to estimate that they [the chickens] entered Palestine at about the 6th century B.C. That would allow sufficient time for them to increase and become common enough to be used as illustrations by Jesus. He mentions the hen … and her brood … in a moving image of divine concern for the Jews who rejected him (Mt. 23:37; Lk 13:34).
It seems easy to imagine how a battle would go between a fox and a hen. It would be quite a different ending to say that the Son of God is battling a son of man. Between the fox and the hen, I think the fox would be the easy winner. The action of the hen, covering her chicks with her wings, is, I would agree, a moving image of divine concern.
This is a case where a little name-calling becomes a wonderful thing.
This Sunday, the First Sunday in Lent, obviously starts us in a new direction. In the Gospel text for this Sunday [Luke 4:1-13], Jesus is definitely headed toward the cross. And that difficult direction is already seen at the beginning of his ministry, during his time of temptation in the wilderness.
From our perspective, it is difficult for us to relate to this time of temptation. If we ourselves had to go through the trial and trouble of not eating for forty days, I think we would care deeply. In short, it would be impossible for the vast majority of us.
The lack of sympathy for such a situation puts us in an opposite perspective, one of caring for what EXACTLY happened. And I would not be the first person to point out that, when comparing the temptations in the Gospel according to Matthew and Luke, the order is different. And asking what order the temptations actually occurred is somewhat like asking the lifeguard to give you his qualifications while you are drowning and going down for the last time.
Using the typical Hebrew literary structure of the important thing in the middle, the middle temptation in the Gospel according to Matthew is that of Jesus on the pinnacle of the temple. And with the living creature of the Gospel according to Luke being the ox, the temptation at the end, after the ox has done all the hard work, is the Jerusalem temple temptation. Both places are important.
The most helpful context to remember for the New Testament is the Old one. Jerusalem is a significant city because the temple was a significant place. And the temptation is very real.
The devil had a great plan for a wonderful start to Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus would jump down from the top of the temple, he would float down and would end up getting a significant number of loyal followers.
That was certainly not the plan in mind. You can see this through the various chapters of this account: Jesus does some wonderful things, but then he goes off by himself. Jesus says some difficult things, but then he does some wonderful things—but then he tells the people not to tell anyone. Some people are seriously upset by what he does; others are seriously confused. Some people want him to leave; others want to follow him; and Jesus tells them both that things are going to be difficult.
In the last verse of the text, the devil goes away from Jesus until ‘an opportune time’. At the beginning of chapter 22, the text says that Satan entered into Judas. He goes to Jesus’ enemies and works out a deal to betray him. And the text says that they rejoiced. Herod also rejoiced when he got to see Jesus (23:8). In sharp contrast, the first two mentions of rejoicing in this gospel account were in the angel’s announcements to both Zechariah and Mary (1:14, 28). The variety shows itself in different ways.
When Jesus goes from big crowds to being off by himself, I can imagine that there would be an opportune time at some point. Jesus makes sure that the devil gets his work done so that the Father can do his. And, because of this, we rejoice.
This Sunday is the last Sunday in the season of Epiphany, and in the year when we are within the Gospel according to Luke, there is an interesting connection between the first Sunday in Epiphany and the Last Sunday.
In Luke 3:21, the text describes that Jesus had been baptized and was praying. In Luke 9:29, the text describes that Jesus was transfigured while he was praying. Jesus is praying at the beginning and middle of his ministry. Why make this connection to prayer?
The first way to answer that question is to say THAT is what happened—Jesus WAS praying at these two important times! That the other writers did not include this detail does NOT mean that it did NOT happen.
The second way to answer that question is to add that Jesus prayed at the beginning, middle, AND end of his ministry. Also unique to this gospel account is that, in Luke 22:44, Jesus was in an agony and ‘he prayed more earnestly; and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground.’ Of course, this also happened.
The writer of the Gospel according to Luke did his homework (see Luke 1:1-4). And his emphasis, all through the account, is Jesus as the obedient worker, the workhorse, the ox.
Without that connection to prayer at the end of Jesus’ ministry, one might get the idea that the prayer was added as an example for us to follow. ‘If you want to be baptized and have it make a difference, then you should pray!’ ‘If you want God to change you, then you should pray!’ It seems almost ridiculous to say that, ‘If you are serious about prayer, you should pray until your sweat becomes like great drops of blood falling to the ground.’ We might as well give up now.
I think Martin Luther gives a much better perspective of prayer within his Large Catechism. In the section which introduces ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, he talks about the command to pray and the promise of God to respond to prayer. But in paragraph 22 he goes even further and talks about the extent of God’s care and concern. God gives us the words and the ways in which those words should be used. He lays in our mouths how and what we should pray. This, Luther says, shows God’s love and mercy for our situation. I will let Luther do the talking:
This [the Lord’s Prayer] is a great advantage indeed over all other prayers that we might compose ourselves. For in our own prayers the conscience would ever be in doubt and say, ‘I have prayed, but who knows if it pleases Him or whether I have hit upon the right proportions and form?’ Therefore, there is no nobler prayer to be found upon earth than the Lord’s Prayer. We pray it daily [Matthew 6:11], because it has this excellent testimony, that God loves to hear it. We ought not to surrender this for all the riches of the world (Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, Second Edition, page 411).
A prayer that starts within us easily comes to nothing. The command to pray is often fulfilled, and then it can easily come to nothing. The promise of an answer to prayer is often a wonderful motivator, but then it can easily come to nothing.
God laid on Jesus our sin. God lays upon us his compassion. God lays in our mouths what to say to him.