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

December 27, 2010

V. LUKE 13:10-17

Up to this point, I have mainly argued that we see that Lk. 12:54-13:9 be read as directed toward the nation of Israel.  Much of the work done so far has led us to what appears to be a new section in Luke’s narrative (Lk. 13:10-17).  If we were to look at this narrative in terms of modern narratives, we must make a decision as to whether Luke 13:10-17 should be a new “chapter” or if it is a continuation of the previous “chapter” (Luke 12:54-13:9).[1] At first glance, v. 10 seems to indicate a transition:  “And He was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath.”  This might, in effect mark a new chapter.    However, such an abrupt transition sits rather awkwardly coming, as it does, directly after the dramatic parable of the future of this fig tree that as of yet, contains no ending.  The narrative screams:  What is to become of the fig-tree?  Will it bear fruit?  Shirock captures the uncertainty perfectly:

The opening pericope (13:1-9) focuses on the urgency of repentance for the nation of Israel.  Unless swift repentance occurs, disaster will overtake the nation.  She will be judged by God, cut down from her privileged position with His developing kingdom program.  But the question lingers in the opening scene:  Will Israel repent? [emphasis mine]”[2]

With this in mind, “And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath” transports the reader instantaneously to an episode that may, in fact, provide such an ending.  Rather than a new “chapter,” Luke 13:10-17 becomes a historically situated answer to the implied question of the parable.  With Jesus’ prior experience in the synagogues (see Lk. 4:16-30), v. 10 functions as a foreboding transition as to how Israel will respond.

If we read v.10 in this way, then we see that the account of the following verses is not primarily about the healing of the bent woman, but rather it is an account that pits Jesus and Israel against each other yet again.[3] Though it echoes Lk. 4:16-30, and thus readers do not have much hope for repentance, the parable of the fig tree leaves open the slight possibility for it anyway.  A woman comes onto the scene who has been “bent over” for eighteen years.  Interestingly enough, she apparently has not come to be healed for she “does not approach Jesus, makes no request of him, and nothing is said about her faith.”[4] Instead, Jesus calls her to himself, and heals her by laying hands on her.  In terms of healing, that is as far as the episode goes.

Of course, as in other accounts of healing, this healing on the Sabbath provokes indignation from the synagogue leader.  He responds to “the crowds” (not Jesus) that they should come for healing on the other six days of the week.  There are a few things of interest here:  first, the woman did not come for healing (see above) but was sought by Jesus; second, in speaking to the crowds, he may be trying to persuade them in how they should respond to the ministry of Jesus—that is they should reject it; and thirdly, the synagogue leader claims interpretive authority for what “should” be done.  As Green notes, “He does not even cite the relevant texts, but ground his view in that ‘ought to be done’—that is, in the divine will.[5] As we have just departed from the open-ended parable of the fig tree, this response is tragic—if not expected.

Sensing the tragedy of this response, Jesus takes opportunity to counter the synagogue leader’s objection.  Again, read after the parable of the fig tree, we may be reminded of the forbearance of the vineyard owner and the care of the vineyard keeper—Jesus is still striving with the religious leaders (and Israel) to bring them to repentance.  He counters the leader’s objection by referring to the common care even they would give to their animals on the Sabbath (v.15).  Fascinating is the word play on “binding” and “loosing”:  “Jesus loosed the woman from the infirmity in which Satan had bound here.  If their law permitted the loosing of a bound animal for watering on the Sabbath, should it not be permitted that this woman…bound for eighteen years, be loosed from Satan’s bond on the Sabbath?”[6] Also of interest in light of the preceding parable is the response from the “entire crowd”:  “[it] was rejoicing over all the glorious things being done by Him” (v. 17).  While the religious leadership has once again proven their unwillingness to orient their ways to the ministry of Jesus, here at least, we have the hope that Israel may respond positively.  Unfortunately, this hope will quickly unravel as Jesus continues toward Jerusalem.  Furthermore, even with this response from the crowds, this episode as an ending to the story of the fig tree (and thus Israel) is far from encouraging.

VI. LUKE 13:18-21

Concerning vv.18-21, Green writes, “Verse 17 is more than serviceable as an ending to the scene in the synagogue, but the ‘therefore’ at the beginning of v 18 demands that we read vv 18-21 in relation to the healing account.”[7] Following our original thesis, then, these kingdom parables should be interpreted in light of Israel’s continued rejection of Jesus’ ministry.  This interpretive grid will be very important based on the difficulty of locating an established symbolism for either the mustard seed or leaven in the early first century.[8] Ryan Schellenberg demonstrates in his survey of first-century literature, that though there were certainly symbolic valances of both the mustard seed and the leaven, no symbolic representation was so entrenched as to dictate a certain reading of these parables apart from context.[9] We certainly see both, at times, representing a morally corrupting influence (mustard seed far less often than leaven) and both are also known for their smallness, but enough variation in their symbolism exists to warrant caution in choosing a standard symbol without regard to the context of the narrative.  Therefore, Schellengberg suggests that we not see the parables comparing the kingdom of God to the leaven or mustard seed themselves (appealing to some symbolic valance) but “rather the function that leaven and mustard seed have in their specific parabolic narratives.[10]

If we agree with Schellengberg’s analysis, we should rather focus on the various functions of mustard seed and leaven (which may in fact be the same as the symbolic valances) and use the context to interpret the usage rather than with metaphorical starting points.  We do know that both mustard seed and leaven were pervasive in their growth, and as such could be quite pesky if unwanted.  In light of this, and with our understanding of the conflict between Jesus and Israel, we may interpret the parables in the following way.

Though Israel has refused—again and again—to recognize the present time and the kingdom of God as expressed in the ministry of Jesus, it is quite clear, base on the healing of the woman that the ministry of Christ is the legitimate expression of God’s redemptive aim.  Regardless of how much Israel resists, the execution of the kingdom is inevitable.  As Craddock notes, “Both [mustard seed and leaven] have expansive consequences.”[11] Concerning the leaven specifically, Tinsley encapsulates the interpretation of the parable based on Israel’s rejection and connecting it to the use of leaven to describe the Pharisees’ hypocrisy:

The parable of the leaven says the same thing [that God’s will continue to grow despite rejection and resistance], but it does have an irony in this context in Luke since ‘the leaven of the Pharisees’…has so recently been mentioned (see 12:1, 56; 13;15).  While that ‘leaven’ was uncleanness, just as the Pharisees understood it to be, the ‘leaven of the kingdom, is it fecundity, its power and strength.  Jesus’ image is provocative and probably shocking, but it is also confident that the whole lump will be transformed, even if not much but opposition seems to be happening at the moment.[12]

The point is this:  though opposed, the kingdom of God is as pesky and pervasive as a mustard seed in a garden, or leaven in a batch of yeast.  Spoken in the presence of the crowds who have just rejoiced at the healing of the woman (v.17) and synagogue leader, this may even be a warning and a celebratory declaration.  In effect, Jesus could be saying, “To you who continue to oppose the kingdom, be warned that its growth is unstoppable, and to those of you who are orienting your lives toward the kingdom, rejoice, because its growth is unstoppable.”  In the end, the pervasive growth of the kingdom is inextricably connected to the rejection of Christ’s ministry by Israel.

VII.  CONCLUSION

Read apart from the growing rejection of Jesus by Israel as reflected by the strong chastisements against “the crowds” (Lk. 12:54-13:9) and again by the synagogue leader on the Sabbath (Lk. 13:10-17), these two sections become separate portions of a somewhat disjointed narrative.  However, when read in the light of Israel’s growing rejection, we may see these two sections as joined together as part of an ongoing narrative where the synagogue “scene” becomes the conclusion to the open-ended parable of the fig tree.  Though Jesus continues to wrestle with Israel in the hopes that they will repent—expressed by the leniency found in the parable—the final synagogue scene before Jesus arrives in Jerusalem epitomizes the opposition of Israel (and its religious system) to the purposes of God.  By the time we reach the end of the thirteenth chapter, Jesus will climatically summarize such wrestling as he weeps over Jerusalem’s obstinacy.  Yet, hope remains, even amidst tragedy as a woman experiences healing and liberation proving the unstoppable force of God’s growing kingdom.  By giving such a reading, we remain faithful to Luke’s historical and narrative aims and express the continuity of his dramatic narrative that expresses God’s heart for his people who have rejected his Messiah and Him.


[1] Shirock argues for Luke 13:1-35 being a unit based on the theme of the “deteriorating” relationship between Israel and Christ and a chiastic structure of this unit.  Though I choose to included 12:54-59 to this narrative unit (which may hurt the structure), my basic thesis is the same.  See “The Growth of the Kingdom,” 16.
[2]
Ibid., 25.
[3]
Here it is the synagogue leader that is reprehensive of Israel.  I have already discussed how both the “crowds” and the religious leaders represent Israel, albeit the religious leaders are further along in their rejection.
[4]
Craddock, Luke, 170.
[5]
Green, The Gospel of Luke, 523.  He goes on to write, “In the present case, although perhaps no one will deny the tragedy of this woman’s disorder, hers is hardly a life-threatening condition; after all, she has been  thus crippled for eighteen years.  Here treatment could thus wait until tomorrow, so, according to scribal reckoning, her need did not supersede Sabbath law.”  I think clearly shows how far the religious leadership of Israel has gotten from the purposes of God.
[6]
Craddock, Luke, 170.
[7]
Green, The Gospel of Luke, 526.  Again, I would argue that the kingdom parables should be read in light of Israel’s continued rejection of Jesus’ ministry.  Fred Craddock also notes that Matthew and Mark both place these parables in a collection of parables, and thus Luke uniquely places them after the synagogues scene.  This distinction is noteworthy.  See Luke, 171.
[8]
Ryan Schellenberg, “Kingdom as Contaminant?  The Role of Repertoire in the Parables of the Mustard Seed and the Leaven,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 71.3 (July 2009): 527.  Schellenberg’s article survey’s first century writings for a basic (“established”) symbolism for these two images, but finds that the evidence is “surprisingly sparse” (527).  Therefore, in the absence of any established symbolism, “interpretation of the parables of the mustard seed and the leaven must instead be derived from the internal logic of the parables themselves and from the narrative contexts in which the are embedded” (528).  I find his argument convincing.
[9]
Ibid., 531.
[10]
Ibid., 541.
[11]
Craddock, Luke, 171.
[12]
Tinsley, The Gospel According to Luke, 252.

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