Luke 20: The Authority of Jesus Challenged, The Parable of the Wicked Tenants, Paying Taxes to Caesar, Sadducees Ask About the Resurrection, Whose Son is the Christ?, Beware of the Scribes
This chapter contains a number of sub-headings in the ESV, but honestly the first one kind of sums up the entire chapter: “The Authority of Jesus Challenged.” Every incident in this chapter seems to fall under that heading; someone is either directly challenging Jesus’ authority, or is challenging his teachings—which amounts to the same thing, given his teachings!
The Authority of Jesus Challenged
As mentioned in the previous passage Jesus has spent some of his last days teaching in the temple, but obviously the religious leaders don’t like that. So one day they approach him and ask him by what authority he’s doing what he’s doing. But he doesn’t directly answer their question:
He answered them, “I also will ask you a question. Now tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or from man?” (verses 3–4)
This presents a dilemma to the religious leaders: they can’t say that it came from heaven, because then Jesus would rightfully ask why they didn’t believe John. But they can’t say it came from man because the people are convinced that Jesus is a prophet, and they therefore fear that the people will stone them if they disagree with that sentiment. So they simply refuse to answer: they tell Jesus they don’t know, and Jesus responds that neither will he tell the religious leaders by what authority he does what he does.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
Jesus then goes on to tell a parable in verses 9–18, which I’ll summarize even more briefly than usual: A man plants a vineyard, but rents it to tenants to take care of on his behalf. He then goes off to another country, but when it’s time for the vineyard to start producing fruit he starts sending servants to the tenants to gather some. The tenants, however, are not eager to give the owner what he’s due; they mistreat each of the servants increasingly badly, sending them back to the owner empty-handed (and in some cases even injured), until the owner sends his very son to them, thinking that, perhaps, the tenants will respect him. They do not. When they realize that the owner has sent his son—his heir—they decide to kill him, hoping that they’ll somehow get the son’s inheritance.
Jesus asks his readers a rhetorical question about this parable: what will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants? He then answers his own rhetorical question: “He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others” (verse 16).
His listeners have an interesting reaction to that, however, because they know exactly what Jesus is talking about:
When they heard this, they said, “Surely not!” But he looked directly at them and said, “What then is this that is written:
“‘The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone’?
Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him.”
Paying Taxes to Caesar
Given this message delivered to the religious leaders, they are now even more eager to get rid of Jesus—but they still fear the people. So they decide to trap him in his own words, and catch him saying something treasonous; that way they can hand him over to the Romans. (Which is exactly what ends up happening, just not yet.)
They craft what they believe to be a no-win question for Jesus to answer. They send some “spies,” who pretend to be sincere disciples, and they ask him in verses 21–22: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?”
They figure that no matter how Jesus answers this question, he loses:
|“Yes, pay taxes”||The people will reject him, since he’s in favour of the hated Romans|
|“No, don’t pay taxes”||The religious leaders will hand him over to the Romans, who will execute him for treason|
Jesus, however, is one step ahead of them:
But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. (verses 23–26)
Sadducees Ask About the Resurrection
Following this misfire by the religious leaders, the Sadducees decide to take a crack at it with a no-win question of their own. The Sadducees are a religious group who don’t believe in the concept of a resurrection, so that’s how they’re planning to make Jesus look dumb:
There came to him some Sadducees, those who deny that there is a resurrection, and they asked him a question, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, having a wife but no children, the man must take the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. Now there were seven brothers. The first took a wife, and died without children. And the second and the third took her, and likewise all seven left no children and died. Afterward the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had her as wife.” (verses 27–33)
They’re referring to some rules set out in Deuteronomy 25:5–10, which are intended to keep a family from dying out: if a man dies before he’s able to have children with his wife his brother is to have children with her, and the first son born in this manner will be considered to be a son of the first man instead of his brother. (There’s an instance of this happening in Genesis 38.)
Jesus addresses their alleged specific point, and then addresses the wider question of resurrection:
- He points out that, although we marry and are given in marriage in today’s world, in the age to come we will not. So the situation they’re presenting won’t actually something to contend with in the new age.
- He then goes on to point out that when God addressed Moses from the burning bush (Exodus 3), He addressed Himself as “the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob,” but by that point Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were long dead. “Now he is not God of the dead,” Jesus says in verse 38, “but of the living, for all live to him.”
This temporarily shuts his opponents up. The scribes tell Jesus that he has spoken well, and we’re told that they no longer dared to ask him any more questions.
Whose Son is the Christ?
Now that nobody will “dare” to ask Jesus any more questions, he asks them a question:
But he said to them, “How can they say that the Christ is David’s son? For David himself says in the Book of Psalms,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”’
David thus calls him Lord, so how is he his son?”
Beware of the Scribes
And finally (for this passage), Jesus gets one final shot in at the religious leaders—specifically the scribes, in this case:
And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.” (verses 45–47)
As mentioned, this chapter includes a number of short passages that are all related either to someone questioning Jesus’ authority, or to him pushing conversations to a deeper place than his listeners were expecting because he has authority to do so.
- The Authority of Jesus Challenged: The religious leaders question why Jesus feels he has the right to do and say the things he’s been doing and saying.
- The Parable of the Wicked Tenants: Jesus illustrates that the balance of power, when it comes to God’s relationship with His people, is about to shift dramatically
- Paying Taxes to Caesar: Some leaders try to get Jesus into trouble with a hot button legal issue of the day
- Sadducees Ask About the Resurrection: The Sadducees try to trip up Jesus with a teaching that they feel is foolish
- Whose Son is the Christ?: Jesus points out that he understands everything—literally everything—better than the folks he’s talking to
- Beware of the Scribes: Jesus issues some final warnings as to how we are not to live, using the scribes as a negative example.
The Authority of Jesus Challenged
This passage is pretty self explanatory, but it is worth pointing out that, although the religious leaders don’t like what Jesus is doing—are about to have him killed for it, in fact!—their convictions aren’t strong enough to stand up to the people. As mentioned in the previous passage, while they do have some authority, they don’t have the kind of authority Jesus has.
It makes me wonder: if the crowd hadn’t turned on Jesus, would the religious leaders ever have been able to get rid of him? Of course, that’s a meaningless thought experiment. The whole reason Jesus came to this world in the first place was to die, take our sins upon himself, and resurrect himself, so that we can be with him forever. The point is just that part of the reason the religious leaders are questioning Jesus’ authority is that they themselves can clearly see they don’t have that kind of authority themselves.
The Parable of the Wicked Tenants
As mentioned above, in Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants, his listeners know exactly what he’s saying, and who the players are: The “owner” is God, the “tenants” are the religious leaders, the “servants” are the prophets that God has sent through the ages, and the “son” is… well, the Son! Jesus. That’s why they react the way they do to Jesus’ summary: he’s explicitly saying that God (the “owner”) is going to reject the religious leaders (the “tenants”), and, most shockingly of all, give the vineyard to others—that is, non-Jews! (The “vineyard,” in my reading, is a bit more esoteric; I see it standing for “religion,” or “relationship with God.”)
After more than 2,000 years of reading Jesus’ words, this idea that non-Jewish people can now have a relationship with God—the God, the God of the universe!—doesn’t seem so shocking to us. We’ve had some time to get used to it. But we shouldn’t forget that this really would have been shocking to Jesus’ listeners. Before this, God has spent thousands of years telling the Jews that they are His chosen people. They know that He has stuck with them even when they’ve been disobedient, and they know that He has a special relationship with them. He is their God, and they are His people. For Jesus to come along and say, well, you’ve been mistreating God’s prophets, you haven’t been giving God His due, and so therefore we’re going to give “the vineyard” to non-Jewish people… yes, that would be a hard pill to swallow, and I’m not surprised at them outright rejecting it.
Sure, yes, there have been times in the Old Testament Scriptures when God has talked about extending His love to the whole world, but I’m guessing that the Jews of Jesus’ day interpreted that as meaning that formerly non-Jewish people would become Jewish, under their religion. Again, that would be a reasonable thing to think, to me. But that’s not what Jesus is saying here, he’s talking about taking away the vineyard to give it to others: he’s talking about the Jewish people no longer having that special relationship with God! We shouldn’t let a couple of millennia of history lead us to think that this isn’t a big deal. It was and it is.
This would be all the more shocking, however, because at this point in the Israelites’ history they would have felt like they were doing pretty good! Yes, true, they’d mistreated God’s prophets in the past, and they’d disobeyed Him in the past, but right now they were obeying Him (as far as they were concerned) better than His people ever had! Some of them were even tithing their spices! What more could He want? Part of the reason Jesus’ message was so hard to accept for the Jews of his day is that he was telling them that the opposite was true: They’d narrowed the worship of God down to such a narrow degree, making ever increasingly fine-grained rules and regulations to follow, that they’d turned Judaism into rules and regulations, and thrown out the whole “worship” and “relationship” parts! While they felt that they were doing better than the Israelites ever had, Jesus is telling them that, no, they’re worse. They’ve turned a relationship with God into something that can be earned, totally minimizing how sinful humans really are.
Paying Taxes to Caesar
What’s interesting to me about Jesus’ answer about paying taxes is how wrong the religious leaders were in their approach: they’d assumed that if Jesus answered this way the people would reject him, but Jesus does say that they/we should pay taxes. It’s a bit more clever than they’d anticipated—as usual, Jesus gets to the heart of the moral matter, instead of just the surface obedience to a set of rules—but in the end he does say that, yes, people should pay taxes… and yet the people don’t turn on him. They perceive the truth of his words just as well as the religious leaders do.
We should also try to apply this rule to our own situation. There are right-wing Christians who believe that taxes are inherently bad, and shouldn’t be paid, but Jesus says no, you should pay your taxes. In fact, the case of the Jews in his day is more extreme than the situation we’re in: the Jews at that time were a conquered people, so when they were paying “taxes,” they were giving money to their conquerors, whereas in our case, we’re just giving money that’s legally owed to our own government. So if Jesus tells his listeners, at that time and place, that they should “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s,” then all the more we should do the same. Pay our taxes, give our “tithes” to the Church (with “tithes” in quotes because we don’t need to feel limited to just giving 10%), and help the poor.
Sadducees Ask About the Resurrection
When the Sadducees present their question to Jesus, they’re trying to engage in reductio ad absurdum: they’re presenting an extreme argument to Jesus, but in doing so what they’re really trying to do is show how “absurd” the concept of the resurrection is. They think they’re presenting a situation that’s just plain silly: “When this poor woman gets to heaven, what’s she supposed to do? She’ll have seven husbands! Who’s the real husband out of all of them? Is she supposed to be married to all of them at once?!?” Jesus points out that their scenario is absurd, but not in the way they think that it is: they’re assuming that everything will be exactly the same after the resurrection, whereas Jesus points out that, no, it won’t be the same. We won’t even have marriage at that time.
But then he gets to the heart of the matter (as he always does): they’re not really asking about this specific point of the Law, they’re really trying to prove that the resurrection is not a thing. Part of the reason that the Sadducees don’t believe in the resurrection is that they only believe in the first five books of the Old Testament—the books of Moses, or the Pentateuch—and (my study Bible tells me), the concept of the resurrection is spelled out more clearly in later Old Testament books. Jesus, however, quotes a passage from the Pentateuch, to show that even from the portion of Scriptures that the Sadducees claim to be valid, there’s still evidence that death is not the end: God is the God of the living, not the dead. (Paul takes on similar questions in 1 Corinthians 15.)
Whose Son is the Christ?
Luke doesn’t record anyone responding to Jesus’ question/point about the Christ being David’s son, but also being more than David’s son. My guess is that they didn’t have an answer. The net of Jesus’ argument is that the way the Scriptures refer to the Christ, he must be both a son of David and be more than a son of David, at the same time. This doesn’t seem to make sense to the religious leaders of Jesus’ day.
But it makes perfect sense to Jesus, and I think that’s—at least in part—his point. They’ve been questioning his authority, whereas he’s the person with the most authority who’s ever lived. Understand the Old Testament Scriptures? Christ is the Word of God! So yes, he understands things better than I do, better than the religious leaders of his time on earth as a man, and better than anyone else who’s ever lived.
Beware of the Scribes
I think this is another case where we should not be so quick to judge the immediate target of Jesus’ condemnation of the scribes, but instead examine our own lives in light of His words:
|who like to walk around in long robes||There isn’t a direct analogy to this in our modern world… or is there? The long robes worn by the scribes were a way for them to be recognized by others as scribes, so they could get their “due” respect. Are there ways we also strive for recognition?|
|and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts||Who doesn’t like a place of honour, right? Who doesn’t like the best seat in the house? But Christians shouldn’t strive for these things.|
|who devour widows’ houses||Outside of something obvious like a televangelist who’s more interested in money than spreading the Gospel, I hope there isn’t a direct analogy for this point that the average Christian needs to think about.|
|and for a pretense make long prayers||A lot of people don’t like praying in public, and I don’t feel they should ever be forced to. But some people like praying in public way too much! I’ve heard public prayers that sounded more like the person was lecturing God or delivering a sermon than praying.|
|They will receive the greater condemnation.||If I’m a Christian, I should know better than to do some of the things Jesus is calling out here. The scribes of his day would receive greater condemnation than their fellow Jews because the scribes were supposed to know God’s Word better than the average Jew. But as a Christian, I have more Scripture than the scribes did—I’ll be judged even greater condemnation if I don’t live like it.|
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