The narrative lectionary reading for this week has three distinct sections, which we will explore one at a time, individually, before considering the selected text as a whole.

March 17, 2013

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Commentary on Luke 18:31—19:10

The narrative lectionary reading for this week has three distinct sections, which we will explore one at a time, individually, before considering the selected text as a whole.

The three sections can be identified as follows:

  1. 18:31-34  — Jesus’ final prediction of his death and resurrection
  2. 18:35-43 — Jesus heals a blind man
  3. 19:1-10 — Jesus and Zacchaeus

Jesus’ Prediction of his Death and Resurrection

This is the third time in Luke’s Gospel that Jesus predicts, or perhaps better promises his death and resurrection (see Luke 9:21-22; 9:43b-45). Each of these predictions could be allowed to stand alone, or be considered primarily in their respective settings in the larger narrative of Luke. But it may also be helpful to read the three predictions together, as a way of getting the full picture of what it means in the Gospel of Luke for the Son of David to be rejected.

In the first prediction of his death and resurrection Luke’s Jesus stresses that his suffering, rejection, and ultimate death will be at the hands of the religious elite in Jerusalem: “the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes.” This first prediction (in Luke’s Gospel) is set in the immediate context of the question of Jesus’ identity. Who do people say that Jesus is? Jesus then declares what his identity means: the people, and in particular the religious, will reject him.

In the second prediction Jesus is far terser, saying only that he will be betrayed into human hands. In the final prediction Jesus says that he will be handed over to the Gentiles, be mocked by them, insulted, spat upon, flogged and ultimately killed. It is interesting to note that in both Mark and Matthew the third prediction summarizes the delivery first into the hands of the religious authorities who in turn hand Jesus over to the Romans. Not so in Luke.

Notice that, when taken together, the three stories essentially come together to paint a larger and, I think, clearer picture. Jesus is rejected by the religious leadership, given into human hands, and finally delivered to the political powers that be, which will mock and insult him. Each piece is but a part of the fuller rejection of the Messiah by humankind. What is more, in this third prediction in Luke the claim is made that this rejection is so that “everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished.”

Jesus Heals a Blind Man

In the first section of our reading this week Jesus was called the Son of Man. Here, the blind man addresses Jesus as the “Son of David.” This phrase, this title, shows that the blind man recognizes Jesus for who he is, the Anointed One of God. This is ironic in that the disciples, hearing Jesus explain again what it means to be the Son of Man — to be rejected, mocked, killed, and rise again — fail to understand. 

The disciples (stand-ins for the rest of the people and perhaps for us as well) fail to see Jesus for what he is, but the blind man doesn’t miss him. And in the blind man, who receives his sight because of his sight (sic), there is a model for those who hear this Gospel reading: we too are called to set aside our earthly “vision” and to see Jesus for who he really is. 

Our only recourse, it would seem, in response to this story, is to take up the blind man’s cry, asking Jesus to “Have mercy on us!”

Jesus and Zacchaeus

The old joke asks the question, Who is the shortest man in the Bible? Answer: Not, as we might suspect, Zacchaeus; not Nehemiah (say it out loud); but Bildad the Shuhite. (My apologies, Bible humor is often hard to take, and for good reason.)

In a sense, however, the stature of Zacchaeus physically is an allegory for his cultural status. Zacchaeus is a tax collector. The implication, the expectation in first-century Israel would likely have been that Zacchaeus was corrupt, practicing extortion, skimming a little extra off the top for himself, and exploiting his fellow Israelites as he collected for Rome. When Jesus goes to join Zacchaeus for dinner the text states that all who witness this identify Zacchaeus as a “sinner.” He is a tax collector and rich, therefore he must be corrupt. His place in the community, his stature, is truly “short.”

And, surprisingly, it for just a one such as this, Jesus says, that the Son of Man has come.

What Brings These Three Distinct Stories Together?

It seems clear that these three vignettes could each stand alone, at least to some degree. So what does one part of this reading have to do with the others? How does one preach this text as a single story?

The key phrase in this text, which ties the three sections together, is the very last line of the text: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Section one sets up the tensions — Jesus is rejected by the people, and delivered to the Gentiles. Section two introduces the blind man who (presumably?) is suffering as a result of his sin. He would have been (at least potentially) set outside the community as one who is being judged/punished for his sin, and who needs to repent (see Job, for example). Section three brings in Zacchaeus, a tax collector, one of the people who has sold out to “the man” (quite literally in this case), and remains outside the in-crowd of the community.

 The force of this story is in its irony. The Son of Man comes to seek and to save the lost — those who, apparently, are the ones who are not only found, seen by Jesus, but who in turn see him.