Luke 12:1-3: With chapter 12, we have a long discourse by Jesus in which he alternates between addressing the disciples and the large crowd. In each case, the words to the disciples are overheard by the crowds. As the church discussed within itself what it means to follow Jesus, it is important that those on the outside are able to hear if they are interested. The theme of this section might be “vigilance in the face of crisis.” Remember, all this is happening as Jesus us headed toward Jerusalem, and Luke knows what is going to happen there. Luke is also aware of the kinds of crises the early Christians faced in trying to live their faith in Jesus. Jesus prepares his followers for the coming troubles by insisting on a twofold transformation: the one oriented to their understanding of God, the other in the arena of social practices. In fact, these are not two, but one, for a conversion in how one understands God and God’s practices leads into transformed practices related to hostility, possessions, social relations and more. (New Interpreters Study Bible) In these verses, Jesus addressed his disciples encouraging a congruity between inner life and outer action. We who speak of God’s love, should be loving. We who talk of compassion should have both compassionate hearts and be engaged in compassionate action. Most of us would admit to a less than perfect congruence between our inner and outer lives, but we keep trying – and the God who knows us both inside and want to work with us to bring these parts of our lives into alignment.
Luke 12:4-12: In the first part of this section, again addressed to the disciples, there is an interesting tension. First, the disciples are told to fear the one who can do more than kill the body, but then in verse they are told “do not be afraid.” When one gets beyond threats to one’s life (threats that were real for many early Christians) and lives with integrity in faith in spite of those fears, one discovers the God who also tells us not to be afraid. God is with us, paying attention to the smallest details of our lives. We trust God amidst the slings and arrows of life, amidst threats and persecutions. The words about blaspheming against the Holy Spirit are used in a very different context here than in Matthew and Mark, but the point is similar. It is not a speculative word about some certain sin, but a simple reminder that if one does not trust that God’s Spirit was at work in Jesus, one cannot receive the gift of God’s Spirit that is offered through Jesus.
Luke 12:13-21: Someone from the crowd asks Jesus to mediate between him and his brother. Jesus uses the occasion to say a word about our attitude toward possessions. “The questioner is not an evil man; he simply shares the common assumption that life does in fact consist of one’s possessions” (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Jesus flatly contradicts such a view of life. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Instead we are encouraged to be “rich toward God,” which in Luke has something to do with generosity toward others. In times of crisis, we often cling to familiar notions of what makes life worthwhile. Jesus asks us even in crisis to trust that life is more than what we have.
Luke 12:22-34: After sharing a story about having an appropriate attitude toward one’s possessions, Jesus teaching on the topic continues. The shift is that these words are again directed toward disciples. He encourages holding our possessions lightly, worrying less about what we will eat and drink. This is what “the nations of the world” strive after. Jesus’ remarks are as applicable today as during the Roman Empire. Aren’t so many of our cultures preoccupied with material gain, and at what cost? There is a different order, a different kingdom, that Jesus thinks we should orient our lives toward – God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world. When we do this, we value a different kind of treasure. When we do this, we give of our possessions generously. In a world where consumption is often “king,” these words should give us pause.
Luke 12:35-40: The disciples should be ready for both crisis and for a coming of the Son of Man. Paradoxically, these event sometimes come together. How often we find our faith deepened in difficult times. I don’t believe God intentionally plans for difficulties in our lives so that we might grow in faith. Difficulties and challenges are simply there. How we work with and through them determines whether they become moments for growth or times when life just seems hard. Whether life is easy or difficult, we should be ready to receive the Spirit of Jesus as the Spirit comes to us.
Luke 12:41-48: Peter asks an interesting question, are these words for the crowds or for the disciples. Sometimes we would like the words of the Scriptures to be directed only to others, but we do better always to ask what they might mean for our lives. Jesus uses a story to essentially answer, “act on what you know.” The story also indicates that what is expected is kindness toward others.
Luke 12:49-59: As previously discussed, Jesus uses some of the thought-forms and familiar language of the time to make his points. He uses language about “eschatology,” about the end of things to emphasize to those listening that decisions need to be made. Is God at work in a remarkable way in Jesus? If so, follow along, live differently – not in fearful clinging but in joyful generosity. Those who see God’s Spirit at work in Jesus may be divided from those who do not. Jesus does not intend division, but it happens of its own accord. Jesus encourages his listeners to watch, to pay attention. To rightly discern the signs of the times is to see God’s Spirit at work in Jesus. Therein lies the central Christian affirmation, that God’s Spirit was at work in Jesus and that same Spirit remains at work in Jesus even in our lives. To make this claim does not preclude the possibility that the Spirit of God may be working in other ways, through other traditions (this is a question on which Christians have disagreed for centuries – for a defense of the position that God works in diverse religious traditions one could read Marjorie Suchocki, Divinity and Diversity).
Luke 13:1-9: Again the crowd gets into the action. A question is raised about an awful incident in which the Roman governor Pilate had mixed the blood of some Galilean pilgrims with their sacrifices. Jesus mentions another horrible tragedy, the death of eighteen who were killed when a tower fell. The purpose of raising these stories is unclear (though the story about Pilate gives us some indication of the brutality of Roman rule), but the response of Jesus seems to indicate that he was concerned that such stories might be a diversion. Let’s talk about somebody else’s life. Maybe this is a mirror of Peter’s earlier question, “Is this addressed to us or to others?” It is always addressed to us. God is up to something in Jesus and the appropriate response is repentance “a change of heart and life manifest in fruitful lives” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The story about the fig tree illustrates the point. Be fruitful – work for love, compassion, justice.
Luke 13:10-17: Here we have another story of a healing on the Sabbath. While Jesus is teaching, a woman who had been ill for eighteen years, crippled “with a spirit,” appears. Jesus calls her over and tells her she is free from her ailment. He is chastised for doing so, for healing on the Sabbath. Much has already been written about the Sabbath and Jesus interpretation of Sabbath laws and rules and I won’t repeat that here. What is fascinating about the story, and only Luke tells this particular Sabbath healing story, is that the woman has been ill eighteen years, yet the leader of the synagogue is worried about timing. Its as if Jesus is saying, “The time has come.” For Luke as a gospel writer, the story he tells is that a unique time had come in Jesus, a time when God’s Spirit was working powerfully. There come times, special times in our lives when we need to ask what direction the Spirit is moving us. I plan to preach on that on Sunday.
Luke 13:18-20: The healing story is followed by two parables about the kingdom of God. Healing is a part of that kingdom, a part of God’s dream for the world – helping crippled spirits rise up straight and tall. The kingdom is powerful, even when it happens in small ways, through quiet acts – like sowing a mustard seed or putting leaven in bread. One remarkable thing about using leaven as an image is that it would have startled Jesus’ listeners – leaven was almost always seen as a negative image.
Luke 13:21-30: The journey toward Jerusalem continues. In one of the villages, someone asks, “Will only a few be saved?” Some would hear Jesus’ response as a veiled “yes” – “strive to enter through the narrow door.” I don’t think Jesus really answers the person’s question. Instead he tells him how to get on board with what God is doing. It is a narrow way, not so it has limited capacity, but to help us understand it is a way that is different from the usual understandings of life in the larger culture – where power and wealth and fame are what matter. The narrow way sees small, mustard seeds acts of compassion and justice and love as making for a meaningful life, as building a true “kingdom.” While the way may be narrow, verse 29 indicates that a whole lot of people will be on it. I don’t think Jesus is making some abstract statement about people making it to heaven in the end, here. I think he is again encouraging a response to the Spirit at work in him.
Luke 13:31-35: Jesus journey to Jerusalem appears headed toward a collision. The Pharisees here may legitimately trying to warn Jesus, though their motives may have been mixed. If Jesus stirs up trouble in Jerusalem, it could redound to all Jews. Luke does not have as negative a view of the Pharisees as Mark and Matthew. Jesus is about the work of the kingdom, filled with God’s Spirit. He is casting our demons and performing cures, but Jerusalem does not have a good history with prophets. Jesus image for the divine love is distinctly feminine here – gathering people as a chick gathers her brood.