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Repent or perish
Luke chapter 13, verses 1-9
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’
“‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’”
Jesus had been critical of the crowd following him for their inability to interpret “this present time” (chapter 12, verse 56). One senses that some in the crowd respond to this criticism by telling Jesus of the Galileans murdered by Pilate to suggest that they were aware of how God does indeed punish sinners. They are not as dense as Jesus makes them out to be.
Jesus is compelled to correctly interpret this event for the crowd. Very likely there was a group of pilgrims from Galilee making sacrifices at the temple in Jerusalem when the soldiers of Pilate struck. But only a few of the worshipers were killed. Jesus questions the crowd as to whether those individuals who suffered death were worse sinners than the others who were not killed. Jesus rejects this conclusion.
He goes on to cite another example of tragic death. Eighteen people were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them. This tower was located near the pool of Siloam in the southeast corner of Jerusalem. Jesus asks if these 18 were more guilty than others living in Jerusalem at the time. Once again he rejects this conclusion. Jesus breaks the connection between these tragic deaths and punishment for sin. We must not interpret unusual earthly suffering and death as a specific punishment for some sin that an individual has committed, unless there is proof.
Jesus provides the proper interpretation of these two events: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.” Brutal murders, shocking accidents, death in whatever form—all are sermons of God’s law: the soul that sins will die. Death is one way God calls people to repentance, lest they perish eternally. Some falsely conclude that if nothing really bad happens to them in life, it is a sign that they have been living good lives. Jesus is teaching that not only certain very wicked people need to repent but repentance is necessary for everyone.
The murders by Pilate are a foreshadowing of the death of Jesus Christ. There were many in his generation who falsely interpreted his death on the cross as a sign of his own guilt. We know that such was not the case at all. Jesus was altogether innocent of any sin. His death was for the sins of the world, which were laid on him.
The parable told by Jesus about the fig tree brings out the truth that God gives people time to repent. God is very patient, not willing that any should perish but that all would come to repentance (2nd Peter chapter 3, verse 9). However, the delay in judgment should not cause people to put off repentance. The time will finally come when the unfruitful tree is cut down. The opportunity for repentance does finally come to an end.
A crippled woman healed on the Sabbath
Luke chapter 13, verses 10-17
On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, you are set free from your infirmity.” Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
Jesus used his journey to Jerusalem as a time for teaching. That will be brought out clearly in chapter 13, verse 22: “Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.” Most of this teaching took place out in the open. But on occasion, Jesus did go into the Jewish synagogues for this purpose. The present mention of Jesus teaching in the synagogue is the last that we have in Luke’s gospel.
Jesus taught not only by word of mouth; he taught by his actions. That is particularly true in the present instance. In the synagogue there was a woman who had been crippled for 18 years. Her body was stiffly bent, and she enjoyed little freedom of movement. Jesus observed her pitiful condition and set her free from her infirmity with a touch of his hands. What a joy it was for this woman to be able to stand tall and straight after 18 years!
The ruler of the synagogue, however, was indignant because the healing was accomplished on the Sabbath. We are reminded of similar criticism that came from the Pharisees when Jesus had healed a man with a shriveled hand on the Sabbath (chapter 6, verses 6-11). The ruler of the synagogue does not address Jesus directly but rather makes his comments to the people, instructing them about what he considers an unlawful action on the Sabbath.
Jesus responds by calling his critics “hypocrites.” He had used that word back in chapter 12, verse 56 to characterize the crowd’s unwillingness to interpret the signs of the times. It is appropriate here to describe people who will loose an animal on the Sabbath and lead it to water but who find fault with loosing a fellow Israelite from bondage imposed by Satan. Jesus sees people here whose priorities are terribly out of order.
The ruler of the synagogue would not have agreed, but he himself is one who needs to repent. Repentance is not only for wrong deeds; repentance is necessary for false attitudes. The ruler demonstrates a wrong understanding of the purpose of the Old Testament Sabbath. Rather than binding people with intolerable restrictions, the Sabbath was to be a day of freedom, freedom from toil to celebrate God’s goodness. For this woman whom Jesus healed, it had become exactly that, a day of freedom and salvation. The perfect Sabbath will be the rest we enjoy in heaven, free from all sin and sickness.
The parables of the mustard seed and yeast
Luke chapter 13, verses 18-21
Then Jesus asked, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air perched in its branches.”
Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”
The parables of the mustard seed and the yeast conclude this first portion of the journey of Jesus to Jerusalem. Luke does not give us a literal travelogue of this journey; rather, he describes a spiritual journey. It is a learning experience for the disciples who follow Jesus on the way to the cross.
This first portion of the journey to Jerusalem has been titled “Jesus urges people to get ready for the coming kingdom.” Though that kingdom is far from obvious to those walking with Jesus, they are given the assurance that the kingdom will most certainly come. The growth of the small mustard seed and the hidden power of the yeast to work in flour both demonstrate this ultimate truth. The journey of Jesus and the disciples will end in triumph. These two parables sound that note of triumph.
The mustard plant was a garden herb with a minute seed (see chapter 17, verse 6, where the seed is used again as an example of something small). Jewish literature describes such a small seed growing to the height of a fig tree. Such will be the spectacular fulfillment of God’s kingdom. In the other parable, the yeast works in a large amount of flour (one-half bushel?). A small amount of yeast is powerful enough to cause that large mass of dough to rise. So powerful is God’s kingdom at work in the world.
The crowds in Jesus’ day were delighted with the wonderful things he was doing. And well they might be, since where Jesus is, there is the kingdom of God. That kingdom comes to us in God’s Word and sacrament. It will have its glorious fulfillment when Jesus comes again at the end of time.
Jesus reveals some surprises as to who will inherit the kingdom
The narrow door
Luke chapter 13, verses 22-30
Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”
He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’
“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’
“Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’
“But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’
“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”
Luke tells us in chapter 9, verse 51 that “Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” In the present section the fact is noted that Jesus is making his way to Jerusalem. In chapter 17, verse 11 we will read that “on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee.” The border between those two provinces is a long way from Jerusalem. This journey to Jerusalem is hardly in a straight line; it is rather a spiritual pilgrimage interrupted by much teaching and several miracles. But there can be no doubt as to the ultimate goal. Jerusalem will finally be reached. This is the city where the salvation of the world will be accomplished.
A question about salvation often discussed by Jewish teachers is now put to Jesus: “Are only a few people going to be saved?” Some of the rabbis taught that all Israelites would have a share in the world to come. Jesus answers the question in quite a different way.
Several of the parables of Jesus compare salvation to a great feast, or banquet, given by a king. That is also the picture he uses here. Entrance into the banquet hall is by a door. The first thing Jesus says about that door is that it is narrow. A narrow door prevents great crowds of people from entering all at once. Entrance into the banquet is gained by going through the door one at a time. That narrow door is a symbol for Jesus himself. One enters the banquet hall by way of Jesus. Jesus urges his hearers to “make every effort to enter.” A Greek word is used in the original text which suggests a contest or struggle to enter. The struggle is not against other people but rather against our own sinful flesh and the temptations of the devil.
Jesus has something else to say about that door. The time will come when the owner of the house is going to close that door. There will be some who come knocking on the locked door demanding entry. But just knowing the owner of the house will not cause him to open. Jesus is obviously picturing himself as the owner since the people speak of his teaching in their streets. Just as the time will come when the unfruitful tree will be cut down (chapter 13, verse 9), so also the time will come in each individual’s life and in the history of the world when the entrance to salvation will be closed. The message is plain: don’t delay but strive to enter now.
Finally, we have a description of the people sitting at the banquet tables. As is to be expected, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophets are there. But then comes a surprise: many of Jesus’ contemporaries will find themselves on the outside looking in. Weeping and grinding of teeth will express their disappointment and shock. They will see that other people from all over the world will be sitting in their places at the banquet of salvation. Those who first had the opportunity to respond to Christ’s preaching will find themselves left out; those at the very ends of the earth who heard the gospel message last will find themselves honored with choice seating at the heavenly banquet.
Jesus does not really answer the question that he was asked. Rather, he is saying to all who will listen, “Just be sure that you are going to be saved.”
Jesus’ sorrow for Jerusalem
Luke chapter 13, verses 31-35
At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “Leave this place and go somewhere else. Herod wants to kill you.”
He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will drive out demons and heal people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’ In any case, I must keep going today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Herod Antipas was the ruler over the provinces of Galilee and Perea (an area east of the Jordan River). The advice of the Pharisees that Jesus “leave this place” would indicate that Jesus was still traveling through one of these two provinces. Why some of the Pharisees would come to Jesus with this warning has been interpreted various ways. Perhaps the advice was with the evil intent of speeding Jesus on to Jerusalem, where he would meet with death. Or perhaps some of the Pharisees were sympathetic with Jesus and wanted to spare him from meeting the fate of John the Baptist, whom Herod had beheaded.
In any case, Jesus does not heed the warning. Rather, he sends the Pharisees back to Herod with the message that he will continue his work as Servant of the Lord till he reaches his goal. Jesus calls Herod a “fox.” This term was used by Jewish rabbis as an epithet for a crafty or sly person. Perhaps Herod had sent the Pharisees to Jesus with this warning to get Jesus out of his territory, even though earlier we are told that Herod tried to see Jesus (chapter 9, verse 9).
But Herod will not determine the outcome of Jesus’ life. Jesus knows that he will die where true prophets have died before: in Jerusalem (chapter 11, verses 47-51). Jesus is speaking figuratively when he refers to his goal as being reached on the third day. Christian readers of this gospel cannot see this as anything but a reference to his resurrection on the third day.
How sad that Jesus should die in Jerusalem! He dearly wanted to gather the inhabitants of that sacred city under his protecting care. But speaking directly to the city, Jesus utters those sad words: “You were not willing.” The “house” that Jesus says “is left . . . desolate” may refer to the spiritual bankruptcy of the temple and its worship. Or perhaps it is a veiled hint of the coming destruction of the city by the Romans.
Jesus closes his message to Jerusalem with words quoted from Psalm 118, verse 26, words used by the Jews as part of their liturgy on great festival days. The disciples would shout these very words when Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem as the humble King on Palm Sunday (chapter 19, verse 38). In a more far reaching sense, they refer to the final advent when all the world will recognize Jesus as the one who comes in the name of the Lord not as Savior but as judge.
Matthew records nearly identical words spoken by Jesus to Jerusalem when he had already entered that city (chapter 23, verses 37-39). Luke perhaps has recorded these words of Jesus at this point in his gospel because they are so fitting. Jesus does not literally stand before the city, but Jerusalem is his goal, and he speaks as one who sees that city standing clearly before him.
Jesus at a Pharisee’s house
Luke chapter 14, verses 1-14
One Sabbath, when Jesus went to eat in the house of a prominent Pharisee, he was being carefully watched. There in front of him was a man suffering from dropsy. Jesus asked the Pharisees and experts in the law, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” But they remained silent. So taking hold of the man, he healed him and sent him away.
Then he asked them, “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?” And they had nothing to say.
When he noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: 8“When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all your fellow guests. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
Then Jesus said to his host, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
In chapter 13, verse 22-30 Jesus compared salvation to eating a feast in a banquet hall that one enters through a narrow door. After the door was locked by the owner, some came knocking, seeking to gain entrance. They said, “We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” The present story is an example of people who might talk like that. Jesus is again invited to the home of a Pharisee for a festive Sabbath meal (see chapter 7, verses 36-50 and chapter 11, verses 37-54 for previous meals with Pharisees).
As Jesus is reclining at the table, he finds himself face-to-face with a man suffering from dropsy. This is an affliction that causes an abnormal accumulation of fluids in connective tissues and cavities of the body, with symptoms of swelling and defective circulation. It is usually a sign of more serious medical problems.
Before helping this diseased man, Jesus asks a question of the Pharisees and experts in the law who were present at the meal: “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” In the case of the crippled woman healed in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus did not ask before he acted (chapter 13, verses 10-17). But in chapter 6, verses 6-11 we have a story in which Jesus asks a similar question about what is lawful on the Sabbath.
The query of Jesus elicits an uneasy silence. A study of Jewish religious teaching reveals that there was disagreement as to the proper answer. In one law book it is written, “Let no one assist a beast in giving birth on the Sabbath day.
Even if it drops [its newborn] into a cistern or into a pit, one is not to raise it up on the Sabbath.” But other teachers said that needed assistance should be given even on the Sabbath to animals who required it.
When the religious authorities present at the meal refused to answer Jesus’ question, he went ahead and healed the man with dropsy. The follow-up question asked by Jesus implies that actions speak louder than words. No matter what the law experts might teach in theory, in actual practice they would help a child or an animal that falls into a well on the Sabbath Day. This proves that healing on the Sabbath is lawful even if that healing could have been put off to another day. Again, there is only silence from Jesus’ critics. Their very silence speaks volumes.
While sitting at the meal, Jesus tells three parables. The first is prompted by the practice of the invited guests to pick the places of honor at the table. Jesus tells a story about a person invited to a wedding banquet who chooses a place of honor. The host is forced to ask this person to move to a place away from the head table to make room for a more distinguished guest. Just as some of Jesus’ contemporaries are replaced at the feast of salvation by people from faraway lands (chapter 13, verses 28-30), so here humiliation comes to a proud person who is demoted. Jesus suggests the proper course of action: start out sitting in the lowest place. All the guests will take note when the host asks such a person to take a better place. The general rule stated by Jesus in verse 11 will be repeated at the conclusion of the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (chapter 18. verse 14). Jesus is hoping that even if the Pharisees won’t heed his admonition, at least his disciples will learn to practice humility.
The second parable is directed to Jesus’ host. It concerns the guest list for such festive banquets as the one to which Jesus had been invited. Four categories of people who should not be included on the guest list are balanced by four categories of guests who should be invited. What Jesus suggests is the very opposite of common practice. The people in the first four categories are likely to return the favor to the host; those in the second category could not. But what a host does not enjoy on earth as repayment for generosity will be enjoyed at the banquet of salvation. God himself is the model of one who invites all classes of people to his great supper of salvation (chapter 14, verse 21).