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A Narrative Reading Based on Israel’s Rejection of Christ: Luke 12:54-13:21 Part I

December 21, 2010

Now, that’s a long title! I haven’t posted in a while due to the last few weeks of a busy school semester.  But, finally, I have a month off!!  No School!  I’m not sure what to do with myself…I suppose I could read some more, but maybe I’ll jump on a video game or two.  I do need a little detoxing.  In any case, I hope to post a few non-school related posts over the next month.  In the mean time, I thought I would share one of the papers I wrote for my “Exegesis of Luke” class.  Exegesis is just a fancy word for a critical and interpretive close reading of a text.  It sounds kind of boring, but it can actually be incredibly rewarding to really explore what a biblical text is getting at.  As true of our post-modern times, I state my claims tentatively realizing I am limited in my access to pure interpretation; yet, I hope that this paper opens up the gospel of Luke in ways that are fresh and faithful to the gospel.  If you’re into biblical studies, read on.  🙂

One note, in the actual paper I use standard Greek, here I’ve used the English transliterations.



New Testament scholars have long debated the structure of what Brent Kinman has called “Luke’s imposing central section” (Lk. 9:51-19:28).[1] I do not wish to weigh in on this debate as a whole, but instead to investigate more closely a part of this section (Lk. 12:54-13:21) in the hopes of seeing it as a unit.  At first glance it would seem this section contains two distinctive parts, the first being a discussion on the immanence of judgment (Lk. 12:54-13:9), and the second being an episode of healing on the Sabbath (with its expected controversy) followed by two short parables on the kingdom.  Luke 13:10, “And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath,” could easily signify such a break offering one last synagogue episode before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem six chapters later.[2] However, it is possible—and even plausible—to read Luke 13:10-21 in relation to 12:54-13:9 when we recognize that this section (perhaps this entire “central section”?) is a “narrative excursus on the deteriorating relationship between Jesus and the Jewish nation.”[3] With this in mind, I propose that Luke 12:54-13:21 be read together as a single, unified narrative unit, where Jesus does not direct the warnings of judgment (12:54-13:9) at individuals primarily, but at the nation of Israel, which currently stands in opposition to the kingdom of God as expressed in the ministry of Christ.[4] Luke 13:10-17 then becomes a “real life” example of this continued opposition providing a negative “ending” to the parable of the fig tree (12: 6-9), concluding with a message of hope as expressed in the parables of the kingdom (13: 18-21) in spite of Israel’s continued rejection.  Through a close reading of the proposed unit, I hope to clarify my position and provide an interpretation that helps express the unity of Luke’s narrative flow.[5]

II.  LUKE 12: 54-59

After a lengthy segment of teaching aimed primarily at disciples—but obviously in the presence of “the crowds”[6] (as is the case with much of Jesus’ teaching ministry)—Jesus turns and speaks directly to the crowds in v. 54, marking a subtle transition to this new section.  The theme for much of chapter 12 has been that of judgment, and Jesus continues now by addressing those who have come to listen.  In vv. 54-56, Jesus chides the crowds for knowing how to interpret or “judge”[7] weather patterns, but they do not “judge” this “present time.”  Then, still addressing the crowds, he gives the following instruction:

For while you are going with your opponent to appear before the magistrate, on your way there make an effort to settle with him, so that he may not drag you before the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.  I say to you, you will not get out of there until you have paid the very last penny. (Lk. 12:57-59)

This section is open to a variety of interpretations, but in common among interpreters is the tendency to read the “you” in v. 58 as individuals facing judgment of some sort.  Tertullian, for example, interprets the prison as Hades, and judgment as a purging process that all people must endure.[8] Augustine taught that the “opponent” is the word of God that confronts, or “judges” people with the truth.[9] While modern interpreters avoid such overt “allegorical” interpretations, the focus remains on the individual:  “Modern scholars, with rather more consistency than their forebears, have typically held that this parable is directed toward individuals who are urged to make peace with God…before they die and face permanent judgment.”[10] While not ignoring the significance of individual repentance, it should be acknowledged that Jesus is speaking to “the crowds”—occurring frequently throughout Luke as representative of Israel—which makes greater sense of this passage in relation to Luke 13: 1-9 and should be read as a call to Israel’s repentance.[11]Even before this passage, Luke frequently highlights the conflict between Jesus and Israel.  For instance, as early as John the Baptist, Israel has been called to repentance:

So he began saying to the crowds who were going out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Therefore bear fruits in keeping with repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father,’ for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.  (Luke 3: 7-9)

This first mention of “the crowds” signifies them as those who believe they are Abraham’s children (i.e., Israel), and this will be the first of many confrontations between them and the ministry of Jesus.  Kilman also mentions Luke 10: 1-16 as “Jesus anticipates the rejection of his envoys in the cities of Israel;” Luke 11: 29-32 where Jesus describes his audience as part of a “wicked generation;” and, Luke 12 begins with Jesus denouncing the hypocrisy of the Pharisees.[12] The point is clear:  “Luke recognized that the parables of warning [Luke 12: 57-59; 13: 6-9] were concerned in the first instance with the historical crisis which the ministry of Jesus provoked in the national life of Israel [emphasis mine].”[13]

So what of the parable itself?  How are we to understand the point of Jesus’ warnings?  Historically, the situation of a debtor who was unable—or unwilling—to pay an impending debt, and consequently threatened with legal action was common in the ancient world.  This was “perhaps,” notes Kinman, “as common as looking at the skies to forecast the weather.”[14] For such a debtor, failure to pay would result in three penalties:  first, a “punitive interest” could be collected; second, the possessions of the debtor could be confiscated; and finally, if all else failed, the debtor himself could be taken before a “municipal official” and thrown into prison—a penalty of last resort.[15] It is this last penalty that Jesus envisions when he warns “the crowds” (i.e. “you”) to settle with their opponent “on the way” (Luke 12:58).  This is no insignificant situation.  Remarking on the severity of this penalty Kinman writes, “For what we know of debt in the ancient world…the very fact that the opponents in the story are on the way to court means the situation had reached a crisis-stage for the debtor.  Normally, going before the ruler occurred only after all other avenues of resolution had failed.”[16]

From the historical context, it is clear that Jesus has issued a stern warning of immanent judgment.  The language of the parable itself bears witness to its severity.  Luke uses the word “drag”[17] to indicate how the opponent will bring the debtor before the “judge,”[18] and if convicted the debtor will be thrown into prison until the “very last cent” has been paid.[19] Yet it is not clear that the situation is absolutely irreversible.[20] The grammar itself suggests that there is a possibility that once certain conditions are met (i.e. the “very last cent” paid), then the punishment will cease.[21] With these considerations in place, we are positioned to offer an interpretation that transitions seamlessly into the next section.

Israel, as represented by “the crowds” (v. 54) has been chastised for not knowing how to “judge” the “present time” (v. 56).  The present time is that in which Jesus has been and is ministering on his way to Jerusalem.  Though the crowds do not always respond negatively to Christ’s ministry, Jesus’ statements here and Luke’s portrayal as a whole has placed them as those who have not yet submitted to Christ and are thus currently in opposition to him.  This occasions the stern warning by Jesus (vv. 57-59).  There is still time to “judge” rightly this present time, but the need to settle with the opponent is fast approaching.  Perhaps Jesus issues this warning to the crowds knowing that they are still “open” to his ministry, whereas the religious leaders as a whole have responded quite negatively.  In any case, the message is the same: Israel must quickly respond to the ministry of Jesus; judgment is imminent.  To conclude with Kinman:

We should understand the parable to teach that the nation ought to take the wise course of action by repenting and giving allegiance to Jesus while the opportunity for repentance exists.  Like the debtor and his opponent on the way to the judge, the nation has a limited time to be reconciled to God via his agent Jesus.  Specifically, this opportunity lasts only so long as Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem.[22]

[1] Brent Kinman, “Debtor’s Prison and the Future of Israel (Luke 12:57-59),” JETS 42 (September 1999): 411.  See also Rober J. Shirock, “The Growth of the Kingdom in Light of Israel’s Rejection of Jesus:  Structure and Theology in Luke 13: 1-35,” Novum Testamentum 35 (January 1993):  15.
Joel Green implies such a break when he argues that Luke 13: 10-17 is programmatic for the next narrative section (13:10-17:10) just as Luke 4: 18-19 is programmatic for Jesus’ teaching ministry within the synagogue in general.  He thus argues that “the importance of this episode within its larger co-text is dependent on our recognizing in Luke’s scene a single, integrated account whose focal point is not the controversy between the ruler of the synagogue and Jesus but Jesus’ encounter with this woman” in The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, ed.  Gordon D. Fee (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdman’s Publishing Company, 1997), 519.  I will, in fact, argue that the controversy with the synagogue leader is the focus of this section in at least one very real way, and as such, this section should be read in conjunction with the previous section (Lk. 12:54-13:9).
Shirock, “The Growth of the Kingdom,” 29.  To be fair, Shirock applies this statement to Luke 13: 1-35, but my basic thesis will be the same.
Kinman remarks concerning the individual/corporate dichotomy:   “This does not relieve the need for individuals to repent; however, in context stress falls on the need for the nation to make proper response to Jesus.  If correct, this reading of the context will have significant implications for interpreting the parable” (“Debtor’s Prison”), 415.  I am in agreement with Kinman and indebted to his thesis.
Though my primary aim is interpretive, this will also be a project in exegesis where possible.  All exegetical remarks will be placed in footnotes.
Taking seriously the narrative structure of Luke, my own reading suggests four main “players” in the story:  Jesus (representing God), the disciples, the “crowds”, and the religious leaders.  The disciples, the crowds, and the religious leaders are various representations of Israel (so we could say there are only two players) and the different ways in which Israel is responding to Jesus.  The disciples are those who have said yes to the ministry and message of Christ (but are definitely still in the process of formation, and as such are fluid); the “crowds” are those who have yet to make up their minds, but as the narrative unfolds, we see them becoming increasingly opposed to Jesus; and, the religious leaders are those who, for the most part, have sided against Jesus.  It should be noted that all of these groups are not static or predetermined, for each can respond positively or negatively to Christ, but they are all various responses within the nation of Israel.  I am very much indebted to Green’s narrative analysis throughout The Gospel of Luke for this understanding.
dokimazein.  I use the word “judge” as this word means something very similar:  “To make a critical examination; to put to the test” (BDAG).  It is very similar in meaning to krinete in Lk. 12:57.
The following interpretations are surveyed in Kinman’s “Debtors Prison,” 411.
Ibid., 411-412.  See also E. J. Tinsley, The Gospel According to Luke, The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible, eds. P. R. Ackroyd, A. R. C. Leaney,  & J. W. Packer (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1965), 145, for this standard interpretation.
Fred Craddock notes that Luke has Jesus addressing “the crowds” with this section, while in Matthew, this same warning is directed toward religious leaders.  See Luke, Interpretation:  A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, ed.  James Luther Mays (Louisville, KY:  John Knox Press, 1990), 166.  Whiles this distinction is important, if we see that both “the crowds” and religious leaders are points on the spectrum of Israel’s possible responses to Jesus, then in either case, the nation of Israel is still the subject of this section.
Ibid., 413.
G. B. Caird, as quoted by Kinman, Ibid., 413.
Ibid., 416.
Ibid., 418-419.
Ibid., 416.
leptos.  This word implies the absolute smallest of coins.
Contra Robert Stein as quoted by Kinman:  “This [teaching] is a measure of the serverity of judgment and should not be interpreted as teaching that sometimes one can eventually ‘get out,’ 412.
The word eōs followed by a subjunctive mood occurs 15 times in Luke and leaves open the possibility of reversal.  See Kinman, 420.
Kinman, 416.

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