In our last essay we studied 12:35-59, in which we saw Jesus deal with spiritual preparation for his own second coming with a series of parables. In this essay we are studying 13:1-30. In verses 1-5 Jesus shows the necessity for repentance. Verse one suggests that someone came from Jerusalem and interrupted Jesus with a message about an incident there, in which at least two Galileans had been killed while making sacrifices, thus mingling their blood with that of their sacrifices. Howard Marshal suggests that the expression may have meant that the Galileans were killed at the same time as their sacrifices, rather than that their blood literally was mingled with that of the sacrifices.
At any rate, Jesus, after hearing the report, says, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? And answering his own question, he says, “No, I tell you: but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.” Now some Pharisees would have argued that the Galileans Pilate killed were worse sinners, because the Pharisees in general believed that calamities were punishments from God for sin. But Jesus said that was not the case. The book of Job also makes that point in a powerful way.
Then in verses 4-5 Jesus mentions another, apparently well-known incident as an additional illustration. Eighteen people had been killed when the tower of Siloam at Jerusalem fell on them. And Jesus asks the same question in regard to those people. And again he answers “No.” And then he adds the same punch line: “but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Jesus made two major points here. First, he declared that natural calamities are not proof that those who suffer them are worse sinners than anyone else. And second, in his application, Jesus raised the issue to a higher level by making the point that all sinners, including his listeners that day, face the judgment of God unless they repent.
It is important to note the fact that this teaching is not just about repentance, as important as that is. It also concerns the classic theological and philosophical problem of evil. Today, as always, people tend to hold God responsible for natural calamities. They either say, as the Pharisees did, that God is punishing people. Or they say that God has some higher goal in mind that we cannot see. But Jesus says that God is not manipulating nature. People suffer from natural calamities because they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Next, in verses 6-9, Jesus tells the Parable of the Barren Fig Tree. Jesus tied this parable to his teaching on repentance in a subtle but definite way. After announcing that all sinners must repent of their sins, Jesus indicates that a period of mercy is being extended. In the parable, the fig tree has been fruitless for three years in an ideal environment. The owner of the vineyard in which the fig tree was planted discusses the tree with his gardener. The owner believes the tree should be cut down, but the gardener intercedes on behalf of the tree. He asks for one more year of cultivation before a final decision is made. The assumption is that the owner granted the year’s grace. And thus mercy is illustrated. However, the grace period is limited. They must repent soon, or they will face the judgment.
Older interpreters tended to interpret all parables as allegories. So in this case they identified the fig tree as Israel, the owner as God, and the gardener as Jesus. But such allegorizing is unnecessary. Allegorizing simply adds layers of meaning that Jesus did not intend. The point of the parable as just explained is clear.
Now then, at verse ten we see a change of Jesus’ location. Therefore it is the beginning of a new section. It is a lengthy and diverse section that continues until 18:30. I have called it “The Way of the Kingdom.” The first incident in the section is the healing of a crippled woman in verses 10-17.
As you can see in verses 10-14, the setting was in a synagogue on a Sabbath. There is some difficulty in interpretation caused by the fact that Luke says the woman had a “spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years.” And in verse 16, Jesus says that Satan bound her. Of course this raises the possibility that an evil spirit held her in bondage. Yet there is no indication that Jesus cast out a spirit. He simply pronounced her free from the ailment and laid hands on her. And she was immediately healed.
Some scholars try to diagnose the woman’s condition medically. The severe bending over does suggest a couple of medical possibilities, but the medical speculations are essentially useless. Others suggest that she “spirit” mentioned was psychological, and Jesus delivered the woman from her self-made spirit of bondage. The truth is there is no way to know exactly what was wrong with the woman. And it isn’t really important. The important thing is that Jesus healed her, and the healing created a controversy with the leader of the synagogue who believed that healing was work and ought not be done on the Sabbath.
In verses 15-17 Jesus answers the challenge from the leader of the synagogue. He accuses him, and those who agree with him, of being hypocrites, because they feed and water their cattle on the Sabbath, but do not wish to allow people to be healed on the Sabbath. The comparison between animals and people was deadly, and the congregation was shamed. Indeed they began to praise God for what Jesus was doing, because they understood that this is the way of the kingdom of God.
In verses 18-22 we find two parables that present the power of the kingdom. Sometimes these parables are called twin parables, because they both are making a point about kingdom power. The first of the two parables is the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Jesus likened the kingdom to a mustard seed. In Jesus’ day the mustard seed was the smallest known seed, a fact that Mark points out in his parallel (Mk. 4:31). And yet when a mustard seed was planted, it grew into a large bush or tree from four to nine feet tall, which was large enough for birds to take shelter in it. Jesus was making the point that the future of the kingdom of God is related to the present like the future mustard tree is related to the present tiny seed. Although the present state of the kingdom may seem quite small, the future state will be large and strong. Thus that parable illustrates the power of the kingdom to grow.
A different point about the power of the kingdom is made in the parable of the Leaven, or Yeast. In this case the point has to do with the way the church will affect the world, rather than with the church’s size. Leaven often was used in that culture to symbolize the effects of evil; but in this case, Jesus used it to symbolize the positive effects of the kingdom. As a small amount of leaven makes the entire loaf rise, the church (though very small) will have a beneficial effect on the whole society of which it is a part. That is the power of the kingdom to affect the world.
The next segment, verses 22-30, tells us about entry into the kingdom. In verse 22 Luke reminds us that Jesus still is on his way to Jerusalem to suffer and die. Then in verses 23 an unidentified person asks Jesus a question: “Lord, will only a few be saved?”
Notice that Jesus doesn’t answer the question “Yes” or “No.” He doesn’t even answer in terms of how many will be saved. Rather Jesus answers in terms of how many will not be saved. “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” Then Jesus explains why. “When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock on the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’”
There are several items of interest here. First, Jesus says that the door of salvation is narrow. That means that there are restrictions. One cannot enter with a load of sin, for example. We must repent. We also cannot take our worldly goods with us. We must give them up at the door.
Second, there is a limited time, or window, of opportunity for salvation. The day will come when the door will be shut; and those who have refused to enter will not be able to get in.
Finally, third, Jesus makes it clear that a passing acquaintance with him will not be adequate. Just being a Jew who heard him preach or teach in their streets will not do it. Even having eaten a meal with Jesus will not be enough to get one in. One has to have responded positively to his teachings; one has to have been in real fellowship with Jesus, to enter in.
Then Jesus points out that the patriarchs and prophets will be in the kingdom; and many people will be coming in from all points of the compass. These who come from everywhere represent the many Gentiles who will be part of it. Then Jesus concludes with the saying, “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” That saying indicates hat heaven’s view of things is different from ours; and although I believe there will not be any unhappy people in heaven, I believe there will be some who are greatly surprised. Some who have thought they had great ministries will be last in the heavenly realm; and others who didn’t think they had any ministry worth mentioning will be first.