Re-reading the story: Luke 20:1-45
We began, last night, a re-reading of the Holy Week story as told by Saint Luke; a story with which we are very familiar, but from which there are possibly still things to learn, still references and allusions we haven’t previously picked up, still dimensions we had not appreciated.
Last night we left Jesus in the temple courts, teaching the people whose enthusiastic response to Jesus prevented the authorities taking action against him. This evening we pick up the story at that point, Jesus is teaching at the Temple and runs into opposition. Tonight’s verses are about debate and confrontation. Jesus directly meets his detractors and critics. We need to think of this in terms of a series of political spats; and not the sort of spats where people meet each other in the bar after a ferocious debate in the chamber.
If we think that slur campaigns and attacking the man and not the message are a phenomenon of politics in our own time, then we need to look at the chief priests and teachers of the law, they would have made shrewd election campaigners in our own age. Knowing that they have no hope of winning an argument over policy, over the message Jesus is sharing with the crowd, they instead attack the man. Tell us by what authority you are doing these things,” they said. “Who gave you this authority?”
Jesus is equally shrewd. Knowing that their ploy comes from the weakness of their arguments, he challenges them on political grounds. They are left in a cleft stick, either answer they give about John the Baptist is going to leave them in the wrong, and their failure to answer the challenge leaves the way open for Jesus to reject their initial question. The debate is unresolved. Perhaps it is worthwhile to note that even Jesus cannot win arguments with people who are unprepared to listen.
Jesus then takes on his opponents by telling the crowd the very thinly-veiled allegory of the tenants in the vineyard. There is no mistaking Jesus’ meaning, that those who have rejected everyone sent to them will even reject and conspire together and kill the son of the owner of the vineyard. It is a parable of what has taken place, but also a prophecy of what is to come. The destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersal of the Jewish people in AD 70 is presented as God’s judgment on people who are like tenants who have contempt for their landlord. The people listening have no doubt about what is being described and about what Jesus is warning and are aghast, “May this never be!”
What is astonishing when one reads these verses is the sheer bravery of Jesus. He stands alone, with no power, no protection, and he calls things as they are. The stone the builders rejected is to become the capstone; Jesus is to be rejected, but that rejection is to have catastrophic consequences. These words alone could have sealed his fate, Luke tells us that, “the teachers of the law and the chief priests looked for a way to arrest him immediately”. All that restrains them from bringing things to a swift end is their fear of a riot.
The political manoeuvring then resumes. The opponents failed in their debate on authority; now they try a different controversial topic, paying taxes to the Roman authorities. They believe that the question is a win-win option for them: if Jesus says ‘yes’ to paying taxes, he will alienate the crowds; if he says ‘no’ then they can call on the Romans to arrest him for incitement to treason. Again Jesus sidesteps with great agility their attempts to catch hold of him. What they believe to be a win-win question ends up as a clumsy piece of duplicitous argument. Jesus is almost dismissive in his manner as he swipes away their effort, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”
If this were a televised election debate, the audience would have applauded loudly at this point. The opposition is stunned, “Astonished by his answer”, says Luke, “they became silent”.
One opposition party fails in its attempts to outwit Jesus, so another steps in. The Pharisees believed in a life after this one; the Sadducees had no time for such ideas and try to catch out Jesus with a question they believed demonstrated the absurdity of a belief in resurrection
It is the question of a woman who is taken as a wife by seven brothers in sequence, each one of them dying and leaving her a widow. A joke might have been made of the wisdom of marrying the woman after the first two or three brothers had died, but Jesus is aware that the Sadducees, who were the dominant party in Judaism at the time, took such abstruse questions with the utmost seriousness.
The Sadducees failing is not that they have not taken seriously Moses’ provision for widows; it is that they have not taken seriously the idea of resurrection, they have assumed that to believe in the resurrection is to believe that life simply continues as it is here. They think the idea of a life to come is absurd because they cannot imagine that it is a life that is different, a life where everything is changed.
Jesus suggests that the things of this age do not apply in the age to come, and then he takes on the Sadducees on their own ground, on the teaching of Moses. Why would Moses address the Lord as the ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ if they were dead and gone forever? If he is God, then he is God of the living.
It is a very skilled piece of debating because, for a moment, it drives a wedge between his opponents. Some of the Pharisees find their disagreement with the Sadducees to be stronger than their dislike of Jesus, “Well said, teacher!” they say.
The opponents have been silenced; their part of the debate is over, “And no one dared to ask him any more questions”.
Now, it is Jesus’ turn to take the initiative. Imagining the scene as a televised election debate, the chairman, says, ‘Well, we have heard from the priests, and the Pharisees and the Sadducees; let’s turn now to Jesus of Nazareth”
First, there is a philosophical point about the relationship between Jesus himself and King David, from whose line he comes. Jesus does not deny he is David’s son, the point is that he is also David’s Lord.
Then there is the practical point, a point which clinched the debate at the time, and has remained with us ever since.—words must be matched by deeds. The teachers of the law are pious in every way; they are treated with respect by those whom they meet in the street; they figure prominently at all the public occasions, but they are hypocrites. Their spirituality is inspired by their own personal gain, “They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers”, says Jesus. “Such men will be punished most severely,” he warns.
Jesus wins the debate and the support of the crowd and had it been an election in a democratic society, would have been swept to power. Instead, his triumph makes his opponents all the more determined to destroy him.
The encounters of which we read leave us with questions to ponder: do we choose the way of truth or do we choose the way of expediency? Do we keep our heads down and melt into the crowd, or do we stand for what is right, even if means standing alone?