Toward Understanding the New Testament
Obert C. Tanner, Lewis M. Rogers, Sterling M. McMurrin
On the Way to Jerusalem
[p.174]From passages in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, it is evident that Jesus intended to go to Jerusalem, where he expected to encounter severe opposition that would lead eventually to his death (Mt 16:21). Some Pharisees warned Jesus to leave Galilee because Herod wanted to kill him. Jesus replied that he would go to Jerusalem, not because he feared Herod but, according to Luke, because “it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem” (Lk 13:33). And when the time came for the final proclamation of the Kingdom of God, Jesus went into Judea beyond the Jordan (Mt 19:1f).1 For the evangelists, the events on the way to Jerusalem, the preaching and teaching about the Kingdom, sustained and reinforced the beliefs and practices of the early church at the time the Gospels were written. For Matthew especially, Jesus was the model for the true believer to follow. His teaching as he journeyed to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover became a manual of instruction for Christian disciples seeking the Kingdom of Heaven.2
Luke’s Gospel points to a time beyond the ministry of Jesus. It is a gospel of anticipation, a foreshadowing of what is to come in Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, his account of the beginning of the church after Jesus’s death and resurrection. In Luke Jesus’s ministry sets the stage for the Christian church, for the interim period before the End. According to Acts, at the Feast of Pentecost the Spirit came upon the early followers of Jesus and gave them the power to proclaim the gospel to all nations of the world.
[p.175]Much of Luke’s material on the meaning of discipleship in the Kingdom appears in a special section (9:51-18:14), which begins with Jesus’s resolve to go to Jerusalem. Luke departs in 9:51 from the Markan format and follows a different tradition perhaps based on “Q” and his own source, sometimes referred to as “L.” Some New Testament scholars hold the view that Luke’s formula—on the “way to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51, 13:22, 17:11)—is an artificial, literary structure. G. B. Caird, for example, is of the opinion that Luke’s chronology is “full of topographical inconsistencies.” Jesus started out from Galilee by the short route to Jerusalem through Samaria but arrived by the longer route through Jericho. On the way he appeared at the home of Martha and Mary in Bethany, a few miles from Jerusalem (Lk 10:38; Jn 11:1), but later Luke locates Jesus on the borders of Samaria and Galilee (Lk 17:11).3 Whatever the order of events was historically, Luke’s reconstruction of them, as Caird points out, preserves “the dramatic tension of his story by constant reminders of the crisis which lay ahead.”4 It also provides an account of the growing opposition to Jesus, his discourses on the end of the age, the costs of discipleship, and the meaning of alienation and acceptance in the coming Kingdom.5
[p.176]Commitment to the Kingdom
As Jesus and his disciples went toward Jerusalem they were approached by three men, each declaring his intention to become a disciple (Lk 9:57). Jesus responded with dramatic statements about the urgency of the time and of the cost of total commitment: conflicts in loyalty will inevitably arise, and commitment to the kingdom requires extreme personal sacrifices. Such commitment means the subordination of family ties and affections to discipleship, the loss of public approval, and great risks to personal security. To the first man Jesus said, “the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head”; to the second who wished first to go and bury his father, “Leave the dead to bury their own dead”; and to the last who desired to say farewell to his family, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Lk 9:57-62; Mt 8:19-22). Matthew mentions only the first two claimants to discipleship and identifies the first as “a scribe,” who addresses Jesus as “teacher.”
The Unjust Steward
The Gospel of Luke introduces a number of parables into the account of the journey to Jerusalem that helps readers better understand the message of Jesus. In the Parable of the Unjust Steward, a rich man called his steward to account for wasting his goods and threatened to remove him from his office (Lk 16:1-13). However, the rich man later commended his steward for the shrewd way in which he provided for himself in this crisis. Originally this was probably a parable of warning—that the impending disaster required vigorous and decisive action. The steward resolutely pursued his goal of providing for his own future. The lesson was drawn from this that the “sons of light,” who may have been too passive about [p.177]the urgent needs of the time, should in their time of impending crisis emulate the zeal, the boldness, and the tenacity of the “sons of this world” (or worldly men, exemplified by the unjust steward).
The Servant’ s Wages
However, after the sense of urgency about the imminent end passed, the parable of the Servant’s Wages was probably used by the church in Luke’s day to teach the proper attitude of a Christian toward riches. Luke extended his interpretation of the parable to include a warning against divided loyalty—”no servant can serve two masters. … You cannot serve God and mammon” (riches) (Lk 16:13). The parable also attacked the Pharisees, who were “lovers of money” and interpreted their own prosperity as God’s reward for righteous living. (Lk 16:14f.) The Parable of the Servant’s Wages in 12:47f and in 17:7-10 illustrated the same point—commitment to the Kingdom requires more than merely doing one’s duty. More is expected of those to whom much is given. An employer does not thank his employee because he did only what was expected (Lk 17:10).
The Rich Fool and the Great Banquet
In the Parable of the Rich Fool (Lk 12:13-21), Jesus warned against covetousness: a person’s life does not consist of the abundance of possessions. And on humility (Lk 14:7-14) Jesus taught that a true disciple must be totally devoted to God and not choose places of honor or seek to exalt himself. A humble servant does not invite guests to his banquet whom he expects to return his invitation—his relatives, rich neighbors, or business associates—but rather those who are unable to repay—the poor, the maimed, and the blind (Lk 14:12-14, 15-24).
The Friend at Midnight and the Unjust Judge
Joachim Jeremias ties Luke’s twin parables, The Friend at Midnight (Lk 11:5-8) and the Unjust Judge (Lk 18:1-8), to the parables in both Mark and Matthew of the Mustard Seed, and Leaven, the Seed Growing Secretly, and the Sower. All assure believers of the coming [p.178]of God’s kingdom. These later parables, according to Jeremias, were occasioned by doubts arising among the followers of Jesus when he failed to elicit a satisfactory response from the people and their leaders. According to Jeremias, these parables exhibit confidence that God’s hour is near and that the End is already implicit in the beginning as fruit is implicit in the seed.6
The point of the twin parables in Luke is not, as is often assumed, with the importunity of the petitioners—the friend and the persistent widow—but rather with the certainty and speed of God’s vindication. If the friend and the persistent widow prevail, then surely God will hear and will respond. It is unthinkable that God who is just should refuse to fulfill his promise.
Sending the Seventy
This expectation of fulfilled promises was borne out in Luke’s report of the sending of the seventy, or according to the earliest manuscripts, the seventy-two (Lk 10:1-16). But the story, which is not found in the other Gospels, poses some problems. Is the account of the seventy a historical event from Luke’s special source which was not available to the other evangelists? Or is it an editorial statement in which Luke intends to convey an important symbolic meaning? If the latter, what do the seventy or seventy-two symbolize? Caird suggests that the “seventy” may have been derived from the table of nations in Genesis Chapter 10 (said by the rabbis to have been seventy in number) and interpreted by Luke as a prophecy to be fulfilled among the seventy nations of the gentile world. More likely, he continues, it is based upon the seventy (or seventy-two, including Nadab and Abihu) elders appointed at Sinai to assist Moses, who went up with him to the mountain (Ex 24:1, 9). According to Caird, Luke’s deliberate symbolism establishes the Moses and Elijah theme.7 In his account Luke presents Jesus as [p.179]one like Moses, sharing responsibility for the kingdom with his seventy assistants, and as one like Elijah, possessing the spirit and power of Elijah to maintain continuity with the ancient Mosaic covenant.
The seventy returned with joy over the fact that even demons were subject to them. According to Luke, Jesus in response to their high expectations recounted to them his vision of the End in which Satan would fall as swiftly as lightning from heaven (Lk 10:17-20). But, he cautioned them, although they had been given power, and Satan’s dominion on the earth would surely collapse, the time of the End was still in the future. This Lukan theme reaches its climax with Jesus rejoicing in the Holy Spirit and with his prayers of gratitude that the vision of God’s purpose, up until this point committed to him alone, would be shared with his disciples: “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see” (Lk 10:23f).
Several of the parables in Luke’s special section may originally have been directed at Jesus’s opponents: The Good Samaritan, the Rich Fool, the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son, and the Rich Man and Lazarus.
The Good Samaritan
In Jesus’s time, the Samaritans were excluded from normal association with the Jews, and a faithful Jew ordinarily would not accept a kindness from them. Yet in Luke’s parable (Lk 10:29-37), it is a Samaritan who is acclaimed by Jesus as righteous in contrast to a Levite and a priest who passed by on the other side of the road. The importance of this story is fully appreciated only if it is understood that the animosity between Jews and Samaritans was deep seated and long standing. The Samaritans were apparently descendants of colonists imported into Samaria by the Assyrians following their deportation of large numbers of the people of the northern kingdom of Israel after Samaria, the capital city of Israel, fell to the Assyrians in 722 BCE (2 Kgs 18:9-12). The imported colonists intermarried with the remaining Hebrews of the kingdom of Israel and were eventually assimilated into the Hebrew religion, but were [p.180]never accepted as orthodox by the Jews of the later post-exilic period.
Luke connected the Parable of the Good Samaritan with his account of the lawyer’s question: “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” (Lk 10:25-28). In response to Jesus’s reply that the Law required one to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, the lawyer, according to Luke, in an effort to portray himself as righteous, asked Jesus “and who is my neighbor?”
The point of the parable turns on two details: that the robbers left their victim not dead but “half dead” and that the two principal characters other than the Samaritan—a priest and a Levite—were highly placed in the Jewish religion as functionaries of the Temple in Jerusalem. The love of God and one’s neighbor, enjoined in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, was especially incumbent upon them. In the parable, both the priest and Levite passed by, perhaps because they assumed the stricken person to be dead and were concerned with the ban against touching the deceased and risking defilement. This suggests that in Luke’s interpretation of the Jewish religion, concentration on purity and holiness had come to mean exclusiveness and separation. As a result the term “neighbor” had come to carry a limited sense of responsibility. It applied only to those who belonged to the same religious community and were committed to the same beliefs and practices. Others were regarded as not belonging, not neighbors in that sense, but as outsiders, and in some instances were regarded as sinners. The parable, interpreted for church use in Luke’s day, is perhaps the most widely known of all Jesus’s parables. It is remarkably effective in impressing listeners with the meaning of loving service by showing that it transcends institutional policy and rules and parochial prejudices. One’s neighbor is any person who is in need and that person’s need lays a claim upon the love and good will of others.
The Mary and Martha episode which appears in Luke 10:38-42 has been widely misunderstood.8 Through the centuries, Chris-[p.181]tian interpretations have focused upon Mary, the idealized spiritual person, rather than Martha, who is portrayed as worldly and materialistic. However, a close study of the Lukan text reveals that this story is a sequel to the Parable of the Good Samaritan and that Luke intended Martha to be the central figure. She was the hostess attending to all of the details required of her in that role. But, like so many well-meaning and ordinary people tending to their jobs, she had a somewhat pedestrian attitude toward life. She was preoccupied with the particulars of her daily tasks to the extent that all else was overlooked; she was “distracted with much serving.” Like the priest and the Levite, she was lost, not as they were in the mesh of rules and regulations of the official religion, but rather in the details, the little chores, the routine of being a good housekeeper and hostess.
The Lost Sheep and Lost Coin
On another occasion when Jesus was teaching tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees and scribes complained, “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Lk 15:1f). Jesus responded with the Parables of the Lost Sheep and of the Woman Who Lost a Coin (Lk 15:3-10). These are parables on being lost and found. Who does not search for a lost sheep? Or a lost coin? According to Luke, Jesus announced that there is joy in heaven over one sinner who is reclaimed.
The Two Sons
This motif is further emphasized in the story of the Prodigal Son, which follows in the Lukan chronology and is one of the best known parables (Lk 15:11-32). However, the commonly employed title, “Prodigal Son,” does not adequately describe the story or express its central theme. The parable is about “a man who had two sons.” One selfishly and recklessly chose to spend his inheritance in “loose living,” and the other was the model of an obedient son. Yet in a calculating and subtle way, he too was selfish. He chose to serve his father, possibly to earn a richer inheritance at his father’s death.
[p.182]When the younger son’s inheritance was spent, he was compelled to herd swine to survive. In his despair, he gained a new perspective on life; he repented and determined to return to his father’s house as a hired servant. His father was overjoyed with his return and bestowed upon him all of the tokens of forgiveness—”the best robe … a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.” A banquet was prepared for the reinstatement of this son who “was dead, and is alive again,” who “was lost, and is found.” Here the focus of the parable shifts from the younger to the elder son. Advised of his brother’s return, he was resentful and refused to attend the celebration feast. He angrily complained to his father, “you never gave me a kid.… But when this son of yours came … you killed for him the fatted calf!” Observe the language which Luke so skillfully employs here—”this son of yours” not “my brother.” Obviously, the elder son was thinking of that portion of the estate which he now stood to lose. The younger brother was getting more than was just, and his father was being unfair in his dealings with them. The father concludes the parable: “It was fitting to … be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.”
The opponents of Jesus, according to Luke, are like the elder brother whose claim upon the inheritance was planned and calculated as in a business contract. They claim God’s promises through adherence to customs; they had earned the rewards of God through righteousness. Yet they remain estranged from God because they ignore God’s way with sinners, the way of restoration through mercy and forgiveness.
The Rich Man
Luke’s assessment of the Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees and Sadducees, is clearly visible in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). This unnamed rich man is often referred to as Dives, the Latin for “rich.” When the rich man, who feasted sumptuously every day, died, he went to Hades. When Lazarus, [p.183]who ate crumbs from the rich man’s table in order to survive, died, he was taken by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. In Hades the rich man saw Abraham far off and petitioned him for relief from his miserable plight. But Abraham pointed out to him that a “great chasm” had been “fixed” between them which neither he nor the rich man could cross. The rich man then appealed to Abraham that Lazarus be sent to warn his five brothers of their fate. But Abraham refused on the grounds that the evidence was clear and sufficient and signs or miracles would not convince those whose minds were already set and insensitive to the truth.
The rich man had taken his salvation for granted. His mind was closed to any claim other than that he was a descendant of Abraham. Moreover, he assumed he had fully carried out the rules for righteous living prescribed by the established religion. The point of the parable is that being a descendant or son of Abraham does not by itself guarantee one’s salvation.
The Ten Lepers
This theme—that the failure of discernment led to insensitivity, then to a lack of humility, and finally to ingratitude and arrogance—was spelled out further in Luke’s story of the Ten Lepers (Lk 17:11-19) and in the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Lk 18:9-14). Jesus was passing between Samaria and Galilee on the journey to Jerusalem, and as he entered a village ten lepers approached and called to him from a distance. Jesus instructed them to show themselves to the priests. Then, Luke adds, “as they went they were cleansed.” But only one, a Samaritan, turned back to express his gratitude to God. And Jesus asked, “Where are the nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?” It was not the priests who healed the lepers nor did Jesus claim credit for the miracle. Rather, he declared that their faith had cured them. Moreover, it is significant that for Luke, the Samaritan was the only one who realized that his healing was brought about through the loving mercy of God. He was not only cleansed from leprosy but transformed in spirit.
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
[p.184]Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Publican to those “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others” (Lk 18:9) Two men went up into the Temple to pray, but the Pharisee stood apart and prayed, “God, I thank thee that I am not like other men.” He had done all that was legally required—he fasted twice a week and paid a full tithe. But the tax collector, anxious about his wrongdoing and his standing in the sacred place, prayed, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” And, Jesus said, “this man [the tax collector], went down to his house justified rather than the other.”
Like the rich man, the nine lepers who were cleansed, the unworthy servants who were satisfied to do only what their duty required, and the elder son in the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the Pharisee took for granted his privileged status before God on the basis of his meticulous observance of the rules of formal religion. His piety and claim to righteousness as a son of Abraham rested upon the foundation of institutional religion. He had done all that was expected of him and was therefore secure in his belief that all was well between him and God.
The Imminence of the Kingdom
When certain Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God was coming, he replied, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Lk 17:21). The question of what Jesus meant by this statement has been a persistent problem in New Testament study. The phrase employs the Greek term entos, which can be translated as “in the midst of” or “within.” There can be little doubt that Jesus as a Jew, albeit a Galilean Jew, held a popular eschatological view of the Kingdom: that its coming was imminent, probably within his lifetime. Indeed, this urgent faith may explain his determination in Jerusalem to confront the Jewish religious leaders in an effort to bring the nation to repentance and effect a restoration of commitment to the ancient Mosaic covenant. No doubt Jesus’s original point, made in response to pharisaic skepticism about the literal-[p.185]ness of his proclamation of the kingdom, was that the seeds of its beginning were to be found in the commitment and integrity of the believers themselves. But the critical problem for Luke and for the followers of Jesus in Luke’s day was Jesus’s execution and the apparent failure of his promise that the kingdom would come. Luke’s interpretation of the declaration “the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” seems to address this problem. For Luke this was the capstone of Jesus’s teaching. He joins it with Jesus’s proclamation about the day of the Son of man (Lk 17:22-37). Luke understood Jesus’s proclamation as meaning that to be a disciple was to have a present vision of God’s Kingdom, a vision which demanded a total commitment to God’s will and to the practical ideals enjoined by the Jewish faith. Being “rich toward God” (Lk 12:21) and serving one’s fellows are the meanings of the kingdom which is already at work within you or “in the midst of you.” Luke’s interpretation provided the foundation upon which the early church faced the paradox of the crucified Christ and his promise of the kingdom.
Rejection of Jesus
A more general problem relates to Jesus’s rejection by Judean leaders, who supported the charges brought against him. No doubt the fact that Jesus was a Galilean Jew from a rural village, a village with no traditional credentials for leadership, is part of the explanation. That he appeared to be without formal schooling in the Torah, with little or no sophistication in the Jewish tradition, could have added to their opposition to him. And since Judeans regarded Galileans as outside the mainstream of Judaism, Jesus the Galilean could not readily be regarded as an authentic leader for the Jewish people—certainly not the Messiah. Most Judean Jews looked to the established parties and professions as the sources of religious authority and leadership. Finally, Galilee had a history of generating extremists and radicals whose actions threatened the stability of the Jewish state under Roman rule. The appearance of a charismatic Galilean such as Jesus in Jerusalem at the time of a great pilgrimage might agitate the Judean populace [p.186]and would thereby generate concern among their leaders and Roman officials.
But it was not simply a problem of Galileans versus Judeans that generated the antagonism of the established authorities toward Jesus. Despite Jesus’s essential agreement with the Pharisees on matters of religious belief and morality, Jesus went to Jerusalem as the leader of an apocalyptic religious movement. Both the Sadducees and Pharisees were in principle opposed to the popular apocalyptic religion which could destroy the status quo. The Pharisees were concerned primarily with religion and the Law and were somewhat indifferent to the cause of overthrowing Roman rule. The Sadducees prospered under their favorable status with Rome and their power in domestic affairs. Both opposed on theological and practical grounds the spirit and doctrine of the sporadic messianic movements that fired the imagination and enthusiasm of the masses and kept them in a state of unrest. With its strong eschatological bent, messianism was foreign to the rabbinical tradition that eventually produced the Talmud, and it was opposed as well to the social authoritarianism of the priests and Sadducees. Although Christianity had its birth within apocalyptic Judaism and this kind of religion was prominent in the literature of that period, apocalyptic religion was not in the main line of Jewish thought and belief at the time of Jesus, nor has apocalypticism been central to normative Judaism at any time in its history.9
Of course, when considering the opposition to Jesus it should not be forgotten that for the most part the New Testament has given only one side of the story—as seen by those who became Jesus’s followers either in association with him or in the Christian communities a few decades later. Its authors wrote from a prejudiced and sometimes polemical viewpoint. The position of those who for one cause or another opposed him and the reasons for that opposition received short shrift at the hands of the Christian writers. And, as has been mentioned, the evangelists composed their books at a time of strong antagonism between the Jews and [p.187]primitive Christians, an antagonism probably produced by political circumstances.10
Jesus on Marriage and Divorce
The Gospel writers saw Jesus’s teaching of the Law as more profound, penetrating, and persuasive than the tradition of the Pharisees. When the Pharisees challenged him, for instance, on the question of divorce, presumably to expose his ignorance of the Law and thereby make a case against him, Jesus replied with a careful exposition of the problem. “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” (Mt 19:3-6) was their question. Referring to the Genesis passages on the creation of man and woman and the institution of marriage, Jesus called on the authority of the Torah, saying that from the beginning God made male and female and that a man should leave his mother and father and be joined to his wife. He climaxed his statement by saying, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
Jesus’s statement was regarded by some in the early church as a direct reproof to the Pharisees, who were considered to be so immersed in the oral tradition that they neglected the written Law. The clear intent of Jesus’s answer was to insist that from the beginning marriage was an institution ordained by God (Gn 1:27, 2:21-24).11 The Pharisees pressed the issue further, asking why Moses commanded that a certificate of divorce be given to a wife. It was a clever question, for it would seem that Jesus was caught in either compromising the principle of marriage as given in Genesis or the law [p.188]of Moses set forth in Deuteronomy (Dt 24:1-4). But he avoided the trap by saying, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). In Deuteronomy the Law was adjusted to the conditions of the time. Here Moses was seen as regulating rather than prohibiting divorce. Jesus’s final statement was a strong condemnation of unrestricted divorce. “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery” (Mt 19:9).12
Jesus’s teaching in Matthew about divorce is sometimes regarded as pertaining to the coming kingdom.13 The law of Moses might be interpreted to permit divorce—Moses may have allowed it—but how woefully that missed the point! In the kingdom of Heaven which is to come, the original law joining a man and his wife would be restored. It is equally important that in his statement in Matthew Jesus is revealed as one greater than Moses. For after referring to Moses, he concludes “And I say to you …”14
The disciples, sensing the implication of the discussion, commented further that if such is the case, “it is not expedient to marry.” According to Matthew, Jesus responded, “not all men can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given.”15 The context of Matthew 19:10-12 suggests an argument for celibacy, for Jesus concluded his statement by identifying three categories of celibates—those impotent from birth, those “made eunuchs by men,” and those who do not enter into marriage for the sake of the Kingdom. There is a question of whether these [p.189]comments were authentic to Jesus. The seeming case for celibacy may represent the position of a faction of the early church rather than that of Jesus. The discussion on celibacy appears only in Matthew. In the parallel passage in Mark, Jesus simply said, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mk 10:11f). He did not mention refraining from marriage.
On several occasions Jesus had employed the image of a child to impress upon his followers the qualities required of a true disciple. Now the disciples rebuked those who brought their children to him, but Jesus took them in his arms and blessed them: “Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (Mk 10:14).16 Only those who have a childlike sense of need and dependence and are open and able to trust are ready for the kingdom. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mk 10:15). A true disciple does not rest his case upon his achievements or his status among men. He is like a child, unencumbered by the pride and prejudice which too often characterize those who give the appearance of piety. The kingdom belongs to those who have trust and faith.
Few incidents in the accounts of the life of Jesus are better known than that of the man who came asking “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mk 10:17). Luke describes the man as a “ruler” who was “very rich” (Lk 18:18, 23). He may have been an official of the synagogue or a member of the Sanhedrin. The young man’s eagerness in seeking Jesus is vividly portrayed in Mark’s account, which reports that the man ran up and knelt before him.
In addressing Jesus as “Good Teacher,” the young man elicited a response which has occasioned considerable debate among Christian theologians about whether Jesus was confessing his own sin-[p.190]fulness. “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone” (Mk 10:18).17 However, this remark can be seen simply as an indication of Jesus’s own modesty and lack of spiritual pride. When the young man, who believed he had kept the commandments, heard Jesus’s admonition that he sell all his possessions, give to the poor, and follow the master, he became gloomy and “went away sorrowful; for he had great possessions” (Mk 10:22). The central meaning of this incident should not be overlooked—the simple observance of the moral law without a full religious commitment that overrides all other attachments is not sufficient for discipleship. This principle figured prominently in the early church’s struggle for survival.
The encounter with the rich young man set the stage for Jesus’s statement, and the early church’s position, on the matter of wealth and the kingdom.18 The reference to a camel going through the eye of a needle is an instance of Jesus’s employing a popular hyperbole to make the point entirely clear (Mt 19:23f).19 On hearing the harsh judgment on the possession of wealth, the disciples, who so often failed to discern their master’s teaching, asked, “Who then can be saved?” (Mt 19:25). They probably were under the common assumption, supported especially by passages from the Old Testament, that having extensive possessions or other prestigious credentials was a sign of divine approval. But in Jesus’ view, as set forth in all [p.191]three Synoptics, a man’s salvation is not under his own control. “With men,” he said, “it is impossible, but not with God; for all things are possible with God.”(Mk 10:27.)20 Here is an expression of the concept that eventually became such a powerful force in the Christian Church, that salvation is by God’s grace and not through human effort alone.
When Peter said, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” thinking no doubt of home and family and of nets and fishing, Jesus assured his disciples that those who followed him would “receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life” (Mt 19:27, 29). Then he uttered the paradoxical statement, “But many that are first will be last, and the last first” (19:30). These words contain a warning—the rich, the powerful, and the pious who expect to come first will be last, and the meek, the outcasts, and sinners will be first in God’s kingdom. The values commonly established among men do not reflect the standards of the kingdom; man’s judgment is not God’s judgment.
As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way toward Judea, he again attempted to make clear to his disciples that in Jerusalem he would face a confrontation with Jewish and Roman authorities which would lead to his death. The disciples experienced increasing tension, for Mark reported that they were afraid. However, their fear may have been more for themselves than for Jesus. As Mark pointed out on two earlier occasions, they did not understand his prediction that he would be delivered up, condemned, and put to death.21 But despite their fears, Jesus’s predictions about his death had so far apparently failed to destroy [p.192]their hope and expectation for an immediate fulfillment of his promises.22
As was indicated earlier, the disciples’ lack of a clear understanding of Jesus’s intentions and their inability to comprehend his meaning are prominent themes in the Gospel of Mark. At the miracles of the loaves and walking on the water, for example, they were utterly astounded, for they did not perceive the meaning of these events. Certainly, of growing concern to Jesus was the lack of awareness among his own disciples, their pride and ambition, and their apparent inability to understand clearly his purposes. These failures led finally to their deserting him at his Passion.
On the occasion of the confession in Caesarea Philippi, Peter had proclaimed Jesus as Messiah and then immediately presumed to correct him as if he were chastening a wayward child. In turn Peter was severely rebuked, “Get behind me, Satan!” (Mk 8:33). It is likely that Peter’s vision and expectations were precisely those of his fellow countrymen who held the view that the messianic agent would use political and military power to overthrow Rome and restore Israel’s prestige and glory as in ancient times. This common hope was almost native to Galileans. According to Mark and Matthew, Peter’s understanding was at odds with Jesus’s own expectation—that as the servant of all he would suffer and be put to death. But the zest for power and position which had infected all of his disciples finally came into the open. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, approached Jesus with the request that they be permitted to sit beside him in glory. According to Mark this request for high position in the kingdom came directly from the disciples, but in Matthew, perhaps to soften the presumptuousness of the request, it is made by their mother (Mt 20:20). Apparently the two brothers looked forward to the coming kingdom as a place of grandeur and power.
“You do not know what you are asking,” was Jesus’s reply. Again his disciples failed to comprehend the relation of the King-[p.193]dom to suffering. “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” The cup symbolized the dramatic and tragic events to come.23 “We are able,” they replied. “And Jesus said to them, ‘The cup that I drink you will drink; … but to sit at my right hand … is not mine to grant'” (Mk 10:38-40).
According to Mark the other disciples were indignant at James and John, perhaps out of jealousy that these two might gain some advantage or possibly in disgust at the nature of their request. Jesus warned his disciples against becoming ambitious like the gentiles, whose chief aim was to gain power and the authority to command. “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them,” he said, “and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you” (Mk 10:42f). The Kingdom of God is to be different. There would be greatness, but greatness measured in terms of one’s service to others. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Mk 10:43). According to Mark the “Son of man” was the supreme example of service. He came not to be served but to serve and “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45).24 This was to become the key to the Christian concept of discipleship in the second century: “The Way” of a Christian is to serve even in the face of persecution and, if necessary, at the cost of one’s own life.
Jesus and his disciples passed through Jericho on the way to Jerusalem. As they were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, cried, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me! … let me receive my sight” (Mk 10:47, 51). Blindness was common in the ancient Middle East, and its victims often sat at the city gates to gain the attention and sympathy of those who might give them alms. This was [p.194]especially true during the Passover season when the roads were crowded with travelers to Jerusalem. But there is more to this story than Jesus’s healing a blind person. For the writer of Mark’s Gospel, the healing expresses release from spiritual blindness through humility and faith. Luke and Mark are explicit in their accounts, “‘Go your way; your faith has made you well.’ And immediately,” says Mark, “he received his sight” and followed Jesus.25
According to Luke, when Jesus and his party passed through Jericho a man named Zacchaeus, a wealthy tax collector who was anxious to see Jesus but unable to get near him because of the crowds, climbed a tree in order to see him as he passed. As Jesus came near, he called to Zacchaeus “come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Here Jesus is represented by Luke as ignoring social and religious prejudices by reaching out to a man who belonged to the despised class of publicans. Predictably, this friendly association of Jesus with Zacchaeus, who received him joyfully, aroused concern and censure from some in the crowd. For the Gospel reports that when they saw it they complained, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Lk 19:5, 7.)
Zacchaeus had shown his fitness for the kingdom because he saw what the typically rich and powerful did not see—that integrity, humility born of the sense of need, and service to others must be placed ahead of temporal well-being and ambition for wealth. Jesus did not condemn Zacchaeus or criticize him for his vocation. Rather, he said, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man came to seek and to save the lost” (Lk 19:9).[p.195]
5. Many of the events and teachings treated in Luke’s special section have parallels in Matthew, and some have parallels in Mark. Most of the parallel passages in Matthew appear earlier in his order of events: The Lord’s Prayer, on seeking and finding, the Parable of the Lamp (Lk 11:1-36), and Jesus’s comments about being anxious (Lk 12:22-34) and agreeing with one’s accuser (Lk 12:57-59) appear in Matthew’s collection, the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). Other parallels relate to Jesus’s instruction to the Twelve (cf. Lk 10:1-16, 21f with Mt 9:37f, 10:7-16, 11:25-27) and to growing opposition to Jesus and his responses—on the Beelzebul controversy, the return of the evil spirit, the sign of Jonah (cf. Lk 11:14-23, 24-26, 29-32 with Mt 12:22-30, 38-42, 43-45), and Matthew’s account of Jesus’s ministry in the critical period following the Transfiguration and the first predictions of his passion. This includes Jesus’s statements on the meaning of discipleship, on causing another to sin, on reproving another and forgiving, and on faith (cf. Lk 9:57-62, 14:25-35, 17:1-6 and Mt 8:19-22, 10:37f, 18:6f, 15, 17:20). All of these passages appear earlier in the chronology of Matthew than in Luke.
Important parallels to Luke’s special section also appear later in Matthew’s Gospel: Jesus’s confrontation with Jewish officials, the scribes and Pharisees (cf. Lk 11:37-12:1 and Mt 23:4, 6f, 13, 23, 25-27, 29-31, 34-36); his comments on [p.176]the lawyer’s question (cf. Lk 10:25-28 and Mt 22:34-40; also Mk 12:28-31) and on watchfulness and faithfulness (cf. Lk 12:35-46 and Mt 24:43-51); his lament over Jerusalem (cf. Lk 13:34f and Mt 23:37-39); his Parable of the Banquet (cf. Lk 14:15-24 and Mt 22:1-10); and the description of the Day of the Son of man (cf. Lk 17:22-37 and Mt 24:26-28, 37-41).
7. Caird, Luke, 144. The language of Luke’s drama of salvation involving the fall of Satan (10:17f) is similar in some respects to the statement in John’s Gospel, “Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out” (12:31).
8. There are at least five variant readings of the text in which Jesus replies to Martha, “one thing is needful” (Lk 10:42), all of which appear to be later glosses probably intended to describe Mary as an example of the superior, contemplative life. Joseph A. Fitzmeyer, The Gospel According to Luke (New York, 1985), 894.
11. At the time of Jesus, one school of thought, advanced by Rabbi Hillel, held the liberal view that a man might divorce his wife for no other cause than that he had found another woman more pleasing to him. The opposing rabbinical school, that of Shammai, taught that divorce was only justified when a wife was unfaithful. The more lenient position of Hillel seems to have prevailed in practice. For an extended discussion of Jesus’s position on divorce in relation to the Law and the rabbinical teachings and its implications for the practice of polygamy as well as the ancient myth of the androgynous Adam, see David Daube, The New Testament and Rabbinic Judaism (London, 1956), 71-86.
12. There are some variations among several of the Greek texts of Matthew 19:9. In one group of texts, it is rendered “except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery”; another group following the parallel in Matthew 5:32 reads, “except on the ground of unchastity, and marries another, makes her commit adultery.” Since this exception is not found in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18, some scholars suggest that the exception, “for unchastity,” may have been added by the church in Matthew’s day. According to Matthew, the church had been given authority by Jesus to forbid or to allow divorce (16:19; 18:18).
17. Compare Mark 10:17f with Matthew 19:16f. Matthew changes Mark’s “Good Teacher, what must I do …” to “Teacher, what good deed must I do.” Matthew also changes the question, “Why do you call me good?” to “Why do you ask me about what is good?” Perhaps Matthew was concerned about Jesus rejecting the appellation of “good” for himself.
18. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus’s continuing discourse on riches is directed to his disciples. In these two Gospels, Jesus’ discussion with the rich young man seems to have set the stage for a more general discourse about how wealth estranges one from good and compromises one’s loyalty. However, in Luke (18:24) Jesus addresses his comments to the wealthy ruler.
19. Many attempts have been made by Bible commentators to interpret this statement in a way that will qualify at least some wealthy persons for the Kingdom, for example, the suggestion that the “eye of the needle” was a small gate which, though difficult to negotiate, was not impossible. Such an explanation is probably not authentic to Jesus but reflects rather the typical Christian’s reluctance to accept the severity of the judgment.
20. The theme of Deuteronomy, that if Israel would keep God’s commandments she would be blessed, runs through the Old Testament books of history—Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings. This principle was sometimes applied to individuals as well—as though their prosperity were a sign of God’s favor and their poverty a sign of his disfavor due to their sins. This was one line of argument followed by the so-called “friends” of Job, 4:6-9, 8:2-7, 22:21-30.
23. Isaiah 51:22 contains an example of such usage of the cup motif from the Old Testament. Second Isaiah proclaims that God would comfort Zion: “Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more.”
24. Luke emphasized the suffering servant theme but did not include Mark’s mention of ransom. The term “ransom” appears nowhere else in the Gospels. However, the concept of Christ as a ransom for souls, a purchase price for souls, is found elsewhere in the New Testament, for example in Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the first letter to the Corinthians. This is a matter of some importance in relation to the origin of the “ransom” doctrine of the atonement in early Christian thought.