Luke 11 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Controversies, Corrections and Calls to Trust
This third portion of the Jerusalem journey section deals with themes of opposition to Jesus. Religious leaders question the source of Jesus' healing power. They think Satan is responsible. Next Jesus warns about response to him. The portion closes with Jesus' strong condemnation of the Pharisees and scribes. The lines are being drawn, and positions about Jesus are hardening. In the midst of this growing opposition there is the call to know what miracles mean and to understand the times. To think Jesus' power comes from Satan is to miss the arrival of God's kingdom and thus to make a grievous mistake.
Contemporary Western culture is highly visual. As I teach, I can hardly think of lecturing without considering what audiovisuals I might use to reinforce an idea. And we can hardly watch television or use a computer without being amazed at the visual variety and creativity in our electronic world.
Visuals are powerful. They say things that words cannot say. As the saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words. Pictures reach places that words may fail to reach, penetrating the closed vault of our hearts and allowing us to see things that words only obscure.
This passage is probably the most strategic text for explaining why Jesus performed miracles. In other miracle stories considerable attention is given to the occasion, setting and nature of the miracle. In some texts, such detail spans thirteen verses (Mk 5:1-13). But in Luke 11:14-23 all these elements appear in a single verse. The rest of the account gives the reaction to the miracle. It is a miracle story turned upside-down. Here it's the commentary on the miracle that counts. The fact that this passage's form departs from the standard shows its importance. What Jesus tells us here is that miracles are an audiovisual, a graphic display of how God's plan and power advance.
The event that leads to the discussion is an exorcism of a demon that had caused its victim to be struck dumb. The exorcism makes the man able to speak again, so the crowd was amazed. Speculation begins regarding the kind of power Jesus possesses. His healings must be explained. That they are taking place cannot be denied.
Two options are suggested by those who have doubts. First, some attribute his capabilities to Beelzebub, the prince of demons. They clearly have Satan in mind and imply strongly that Jesus is demonically controlled. The name Beelzebub in its English form comes from the Latin; it appears to refer to the Philistine god Ekron (2 Kings 1:2-3, 6, 16). In all probability the name means "Lord of the flies" (on this discussion and other options, see Fitzmyer 1985:920-21). The name was a derisive characterization of Satan.
The second alternative is a wait-and-see approach. Some want more proof through some sign from heaven. It is unclear what this might have involved--a heavenly portent or just more miracles? In any case, not all are persuaded that demonic control is the answer.
These two possibilities well summarize reactions to Jesus today. Some reject him; others want to see more from him. But clearly, those who were exposed to Jesus realized that they could not ignore his actions or claims. His ministry demanded that people consider his identity.
Significantly, the opponents did not doubt Jesus' miraculous power. The opinion of skeptics today, that miracles do not happen or that whatever Jesus did was not miraculous, was not a line Jesus' opponents took in his day. This is very significant. Surely if this nonmiraculous option existed, it would have been taken. But the opponents and those they hoped to persuade were too close to Jesus to deny that something supernatural was happening. Unfortunately, historical distance can so blur reality that explanations not considered possible at the time of the event can seem possible later. We can reject Jesus, but to doubt his miracles is to question not only him but also, curiously enough, his opponents.
Jesus, knowing their thoughts, responds. He raises the issue of the divided house. How can Satan stand against himself if he wants to survive? A divided kingdom does not stand. Jesus argues that it is a strategy of foolishness if Satan has sent one of his henchmen to undo his own work of destruction.
Then Jesus makes a second argument. By whose power do their own followers cast out demons, if Jesus casts out demons by Satan's hand? Now this argument is making one of two points. Jesus may be saying, I do the same exorcisms as Jewish exorcists do, so to attribute my exorcisms to Satan is to attribute theirs to Satan as well. Do you wish to demean the activity of your own exorcists in this way? Another possibility, and the one I prefer, is that Jesus is arguing that their "sons"--that is, his disciples--also do this work. So if the people are going to question his work, they must also question the work of those who follow him. I prefer this argument because I am not sure Jesus would endorse the activity of Jewish exorcists and, more important, predict their positive role in the future judgment, since they are currently outside God's will in their rejection of him. More likely Jesus is arguing that he is not alone in this ministry. Either way, the argument that Jesus is enabled by Satan falls like a house of cards.
So Jesus offers another alternative, in a statement loaded with theological significance: "If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you." Jesus says the miracles are evidences of the arrival of God's promised, redemptive rule. They are audiovisual testimony to God's power and rule.
The key term in the verse is ephthasen (from phthano), "has come." Theologians debate this arrival language. Some question whether arrival is in view and argue that Jesus is simply saying the kingdom has drawn near, as in Mark 1:15. They note that this term can carry that force (Mt 26:45; Lk 15:1; Jn 21:1). However, against this view is the presence of epi with the verb. Daniel 4:24, 28 (Theodotion) show the force of this combination of terms. The combination means "arrive." In addition the contextual emphasis in verses 18 and 21-23 indicates that it is current events that are pictured and current power that is described (Kummel 1961:107 n. 8). The miracles trumpet the arrival of God's ruling power in such a way that Satan's display of power on earth is challenged and is in the process of being defeated.
To say the kingdom has arrived is not to argue that consummation has come, only that its presence has begun. The process of establishing kingdom authority is a long one, as Jesus will reveal, and it will take his return to bring the full promise of the kingdom to completion (for more on the kingdom see above discussion of 9:57-62). God is breaking peacefully into the creation through Jesus to reclaim humanity from Satan's grip.
Jesus overcomes the presence and power of evil in the world. His power is greater than that of demons. He is stronger than Satan. His power and authority reverse the effect of sin. This exercise of power through Jesus is why Paul can call the gospel "the power of God" in Romans 1:16-17. The story of the gospel is the story of how Satan, sin and the flesh are overcome through Jesus' provision of the Spirit. So Paul calls the kingdom of God a matter of power (1 Cor 4:20) as well as justice, peace and joy inspired by the Spirit (Rom 14:17). And Ephesians 1:15--2:10 and 6:10-18 refer to the battle we have against the forces of evil and note how Jesus has a position of authority over them. These theological realities are pictured in Jesus' words.
The parable that follows in verses 21-23 shows that this cosmic struggle is the point and that the miracles provide evidence for Satan's defeat. The strong man in the palace at the parable's start is Satan. But someone stronger than he comes and overpowers him, takes his armor and divides the spoil.
Here is the ultimate cosmic war. Jesus and Satan stand toe to toe in battle. The miracles are an audiovisual that Satan's cause is ultimately lost. He can do great damage, as any enemy can; but the die is cast. He will lose. The picture of the "stronger one" alludes back to 3:15-16. The stronger one is the promised Messiah who brings fire and the Spirit. The dividing of the spoil recalls the imagery of Isaiah 53:12 (see also Is 49:25-26). Jesus' work means that Satan is no longer in control of the palace.
Other New Testament texts highlight this theme of cosmic victory and refer to the cross and resurrection (Eph 4:7-16; Col 2:14-15). The entirety of Jesus' first coming sets up the kingdom's coming and Satan's defeat. The spoils in these texts are the benefits of salvation distributed to those who have been redeemed. Thus Paul presents Jesus' lordship as an expression of grace as Jesus richly bestows his blessings on all who call upon him (Rom 10:9-13). Our sins can be cleansed, and Jesus can pour out the Spirit because of our Savior's victory.
There are no Switzerlands in this cosmic war. He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me, scatters. Jesus says that neutrality to him is opposition to him. To decide for God, one must decide for Jesus. In a cosmic war there are no spectators; everyone lines up on one side or the other. The implication is to be careful which side you choose. The miracles not only make a statement about Jesus' authority; they ask a question about our response.
But even where there is opposition, the opponents are not abandoned to their fate. Evangelism is infiltration into enemy lines. Rejection is not a cause for abandonment, since we never know when a Saul might become a Paul.
The previous passage has shown that Jesus' presence forces a choice. This unit reinforces that idea. In a series of short sayings Jesus warns of the dangers of rejection and states the benefits of responding to him. Images of threat are juxtaposed to images of light. As often in this Gospel, the question has to do with how we respond to Jesus.
It is popular in our day to be neutral. In a culture where tolerance is highly valued, nonpartisanship is attractive. In religious discussions we try to avoid stepping on toes, for in Western cultures religious views are generally considered private. We want to avoid offending others in a culture that is diverse. But neutrality is not always a good thing, and neither is polite disengagement. Some issues are important enough to require our considered choices. That is Jesus' premise in this passage.
If God exists, should we think of him as having a laissez-faire attitude, not interested in how we relate to him? Jesus argues that is not the case. Religion by its very nature is a public affair, since it deals with how people relate to reality and to others. Though religious coercion such as marred European history in the Crusades and the Thirty Years' War is wrong, so is our culture's tendency to relegate religious concerns to the fringe world of private reflection. The issues are too important to be kept peripheral. Ultimately we must ask each other, What centers our lives, what do we accept as truth, what defines our character? And so in this short passage Jesus calls us to consider what directs our lives.
In the first of five short units, Jesus tells a parable that urges us to make a spiritual response. Blessing provides an opportunity for response to God, but ignoring the opportunity brings tragic results. Having just discussed exorcisms, Jesus maintains the theme by speaking of an unclean spirit that looks for a place to reside after an exorcism. The man who has had the exorcism is compared to a house that is swept clean. Nothing has replaced the demon that once took up space in the house. Empty, it is fit to be reinhabited. So the spirit brings seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they take up residence there. The man's situation is now worse than it was before.
Jesus' point is simple. When you are blessed by a cleansing of evil that allows you to receive fresh spiritual input, do not leave your inner "house" empty. The risk is that the void will be refilled with something even worse than what had been banished. Neutrality is emptiness, a void that eventually is filled by something--often something like what was there before. When we do not respond to God, opportunity becomes tragedy, and the chance for permanent reversal is lost.
Jesus has used exorcism as a graphic example of the principle he wants to convey. He says that we should make sure our inner house is not empty and that we take in light, since emptiness will likely lead to darkness.
Perhaps because all this talk of demonic confrontation has been making the crowd nervous, one woman now offers a blessing for the mother who nurtured Jesus to life. Jesus deflects her praise and replaces it with a blessing that calls for reflection. His beatitude is for those who hear the word of God and obey it. Reminiscent of 8:21, this blessing encapsulates a major theme of Jesus' teaching. In short, Jesus is saying, Respond to the preached offer of the kingdom. Believe the gospel.
The call to respond also provides an opportunity for rebuke. The rebuke extends to the fence-sitters of verse 16, those who want more signs. Neutrality always seeks more evidence. Now careful consideration of truth is a good thing, but to delay decision in the face of repeated demonstrations of power is really avoidance. Jesus calls this generation an evil one for seeking a sign. He implies that the time for signs is passing away. For having refused to believe God's Word, the people will not believe a sign either (16:30-31). Only the sign of Jonah remains to be given.
A surface reading might lead us to think that by the sign of Jonah Jesus means resurrection, since a striking feature of Jonah's career was his three-day reflective sojourn in the belly of the fish. But when we look carefully at Jesus' remarks in Luke, we find that the sign he means is Jonah's preaching of repentance. Jesus mentions both Jonah and the Queen of the South in making his point (1 Kings 10:1-13; 2 Chron 9:1-12; Josephus Antiquities 8.6.5-6 165-75). In both cases he mentions teaching or preaching as the point of contact.
So Jesus argues that someone greater than Solomon or Jonah is present. Response is demanded, and looking for more signs is not the way to proceed. Rather, the preached word is the issue. It is time to decide, not sit on the fence. At risk is condemnation from those of a former era who did respond to the preached word. The Son of Man is a sign to this generation in the sense that he brings the Word of God to light, so people can come to know God. Thus Jesus issues both a rebuke and an exhortation here: Do not be evil and seek more miraculous signs; believe the Word as the Ninevites did and as the Queen of the South did. Jesus is the bearer of God's wisdom (7:31-35; 10:21-22; 1 Cor 1:24, 30).
Finally Jesus turns to the image of light. Again he makes his point through comparison. Lamps are not lit to be hid, but to be set on a stand where the light can do some good. Then the light allows those who enter a room to know where they are going. The image is very much like that of 8:16. In the ancient world such light usually was kindled in an oil lamp; what the KJV calls "bushel" (bowl in NIV) was a vessel for grain. Light did not go in bushels but on stands. Here Jesus' teaching is compared to light. Jesus has not failed to discuss what God is doing. Guidance is available through Jesus' teaching. But it guides only when it is seen and received.
Receptivity is Jesus' final point. The metaphor shifts slightly as the eye is now compared to a lamp for the body, but it can either be lit or be dark. Be careful what you take into your soul. The opportunity exists for the body, the person, to be full of light, if he or she takes in what God makes available. Jesus emphasizes the positive here; thus in the span of the entire passage he has both warned and exhorted. A healthy eye is a clear or pure (haplous) eye that takes in the light and benefits from this illumination. For Jesus there is no automatic inner light; light must be received. And the possibility of taking in darkness means that some things received are not the light. In sum, we must take in the teaching Jesus offers, for it is our source of spiritual light and spiritual health.
Luke loves meal scenes and often reports discourses of great significance at the table (5:29; 7:36; 10:38; 14:1; 22:14). This meal is no exception. If diplomats had been present at this meal, the press release afterward would have said, "The two parties held frank and direct discussions, but no agreement was reached." In typical diplomatic terms that description would be an understatement. Jesus takes the occasion of this meal to condemn his host's religiosity. The harshness of his critique strikes our modern, sophisticated taste as almost rude, but in ancient culture, as in many non-Western cultures today, discussions about religion were very open and direct. So Jesus delivers his honest opinion about the leadership's spiritual life. Here is a checklist of potential pitfalls in the pursuit of piety. The differences between Jesus and the leadership are not small; a great gulf yawns between them.
The evening starts simply, with Jesus responding to a Pharisee's invitation to dine with him. As Jesus begins he does not wash before the meal, a fact that astonishes the host. Jewish tradition made a point of washing (Gen 18:4; Judg 19:21; Josephus Jewish Wars 2.8.5 129; especially m. Yadayim 1). The Old Testament describes such washings, but they are not commanded. Later writings from Judaism speak of washings both before and after a meal. The Pharisees are concerned with ritual purity before God, but Jesus will view this concern as adding burdens to God's revelation.
Jesus' host is thinking about these things--there is no indication he says anything to Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus responds. What follow are a general condemnation and then six woes. The first three are directed at the Pharisees and the last three at the scribes. The general condemnation is for hypocrisy, and in the woes Jesus specifies the subtle variety of forms such hypocrisy takes.
He begins with the picture of a cup that is clean on the outside but filthy with extortion and wickedness on the inside. When I read this text, I often recall walking over to my children's sandbox after a rainstorm. The cups the children played with would be covered with sand and dirt on the outside but, because they were turned upside-down in the sand, absolutely clean on the inside. They were so filthy that I almost hated to pick them up. Though Jesus' image is the reverse of this, what he is evoking is similarly distasteful. Jesus creates a powerfully emotive visual.
Jesus' reply moves beyond hand-washing to address issues of character. In speaking of cups that are clean on the outside, Jesus alludes to the precise care that went into washing utensils so as to avoid ritual uncleanliness. Often this was called "fly impurity," for if an unclean or dead bug fell onto a cup or plate, that would render the dish unclean (Goppelt 1968b:149). The practice was grounded in Leviticus 11:32-33 and 15:12 (in later Judaism, t. Berakot 5:26; see Booth 1987:119-50, 194-203). Jesus is not condemning physical cleanliness. However, he is reacting to the contrast between compulsiveness in external cleanliness and an absence of concern for the heart. The two vices Jesus names are greed and wickedness. Both are broad terms for immorality of various types, usually attitudes that lead us to treat people and possessions as objects to be used and manipulated. Luke 20:45-47 is similar in tone. The rebuke has Old Testament roots (Is 1:10-17; 58:4-8; Amos 5:21-24; Mic 6:6-8). From the very start of his rebuke Jesus shows that a person's heart concerns God most.
As he completes the general rebuke, Jesus turns his attention to God's role as Creator, the One who made both the outside things and the inside. God cares about both. To think otherwise and act otherwise is foolish. In calling the Pharisees foolish people Jesus harks back to the book of Proverbs' many rebukes of the fool. The fool exhibits the exact opposite of the wisdom the Pharisees think they possess. To be a fool in the Old Testament is to be blind to the things of God (Bertram 1974:230-31). The question whether God created both the outside and inside is structured for a positive answer (note the use of the Greek particle ouk). God made both, and both cups and hearts are subject to him!
Jesus' next remark is difficult. To what does the reference to giving alms refer? In the ancient world giving alms meant contributing to those who had material needs. The practice reflected a sensitive religious concern for the unfortunate (Bultmann 1964b:485-87; Sirach 7:10; Tobit 12:8-9). To give alms is to show mercy (Is 1:10-31; Hos 6:6). Giving alms requires conscious action. But what do alms have to do with hypocrisy? The saying "Give alms for those things that are within" (Greek) means one of two things. (1) Most read it to mean that one should be generous from the heart (NIV). Such generosity makes for spiritual cleanliness. The opposite of extortion and evil is generosity. (2) But another meaning is possible: to apply the consideration we give to almsgiving to the issues of the heart. If we give special attention to the heart, then cleanliness is the result. Given the heavily figurative language of the context, this second sense seems more natural and sets the theme of Jesus' remarks: true piety begins when we pay careful attention to the issues of the heart.
Now Jesus begins the woes. A woe is a cry for God's just judgment in light of an action that deserves a divine response (see 6:24-26). The first woe says to the Pharisees, "You give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God." Another religious practice of Jesus' day was giving one-tenth of all one had back to God for the temple and its ministers. This practice also had Old Testament roots (Lev 27:30-33; Num 18:21-32; Deut 14:22-27). In fact, there were various types of tithes, including tithes of produce and tithes involving livestock. By tithing minute herbs the leaders showed themselves scrupulously faithful. Elaborate rules existed for such tithes (m. Ma`aser Seni; m. Demai 2:1). But two large relational imperatives were ignored--justice and love for God. It is no accident that these two ideas are linked, as they were also linked in 10:25-28. The basic call of God is to love him and respond properly to others (Mic 6:8; Zech 7:8-10; Col 3:12-13). Jesus corrects the Pharisees by saying that they should tithe without neglecting the pursuit of love with justice.
The second woe addresses pride. Why do the Pharisees seek the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces? Judaism had elaborate greetings for rabbis, and the prominent seats drew attention to the leaders' status. Jesus offers no correction here, only the rebuke.
The third woe is the most direct. The Pharisees are like unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it. Here is the height of uncleanliness. Jesus suggests not only death but also uncleanliness. Jesus' view of the Pharisees is exactly opposite of their self-image. In fact, what they thought about Jesus' not washing his hands is true of them. The "cleanliness tables" have turned! Jews were careful about their contact with dead bodies or things associated with death (Num 19; Lev 21:1-3; m. Demai 2:3). Yet Jesus says the Pharisees, far from being paragons of purity, are bearers of burial, death and uncleanliness. Only they carry their uncleanliness in a stealthy, underground fashion. Unfortunately, few knew just how deadly they were.
At this point a scribe tries to come to the Pharisees' rescue: if Jesus is going to attack the Pharisees, he'd better realize he is also attacking the scribes. The logic seems to be that surely Jesus would not want to throw his net of rebuke quite so wide. In fact, the scribe actually accuses Jesus of insulting (hybrizeis) them all. Does he really want to take them all on, and does he really want to tell them all to repent? Surely the religious leadership is above reproach.
Briefly, Jesus' answer is yes, they all need to repent. So he continues to issue woes and turns his attention to the scribes. There is plenty of guilt to go around. The first woe for them is because "you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers" (Greek). This woe can also be read in one of two ways: either (1) they are hypocrites, asking others to do what they do not ask of themselves, or (2) they are heartless, asking others to labor hard at spirituality while doing nothing to help those people accomplish the task (NIV will not lift one finger to help them). The term for burdens in the verse (phortion) is normally used to describe a ship's cargo. So the burdens are indeed heavy ones. Given the Pharisees' reputation for being very careful to keep the letter of the law, it is unlikely their kind of hypocrisy is the point. Since the other passages refer to failures at a relational level, we might expect a similar failure to be cited here. The rebuke is for a failure to show mercy and encourage others in their pursuit of God (view two above). Quick to point the finger but slow to lend a helping hand--that is Jesus' complaint.
True devoutness is never cold and withdrawn. The scribes' hypocrisy lies in claiming to know God's will yet being cold to others. The leadership was loading others down with a U-Haul or lorry full of demands and then standing by and watching them get crushed under the load. The scribes were so right in their own eyes that they unconsciously but constantly did wrong. What a rebuke to those whose life was focused on getting the law exactly right.
The second woe for the scribes is for their support of the slaying of the prophets. Now this woe contains irony: "you build the tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them." They built these tombs, no doubt, to show how they honored the prophets. But Jesus argues that in fact it shows their support for killing these divine agents! By building the tombs, he says, you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did. Here is one of Jesus' fundamental critiques of the leadership: they have been disobedient as their ancestors were. This evaluation also has Old Testament roots. It has been called the "deuteronomistic" critique of the nation, for throughout the books of Samuel and Kings the nation is condemned for consistent unfaithfulness before God in light of standards God proclaimed for the nation in Deuteronomy (Moessner 1989).
Jesus, speaking for "the Wisdom of God" (Greek), goes on to predict that another line of sent prophets and apostles also will be slain (NIV has simplified the construction by removing the personification of the Greek). This will be proof that Jesus' point is correct. This generation will have to answer for the slaying of all the prophets, since all the prophets preach the same call to obey God.
The final woe to the scribes is a stinging rebuke for their assumption that they know the way to God and hold the key to knowledge (Weiss 1974:48). Jesus argues that in fact they have taken away the key. In fact, not only have they not entered into knowledge themselves, but they have put up barriers for those who were entering! They are doing the exact opposite of what they assume. No one enters the house of the knowledge and blessing of God through them. They are a wall instead of a door.
The woes are a devastating critique of pride and self-assurance in religious practice. Amid concern for external righteousness, the heart was neglected. Rules existed for everything except for how to relate honestly to God and to others. Self-importance replaced humility, and destruction replaced pursuit of God's will. These remarks are strong because they show how deceived people can become if they do not rely humbly on God. Sometimes the obsessive pursuit of what is right results in some very serious wrong.
The reaction to Jesus is strong. The leaders press around him and try to think of questions that may provoke him. Lying in wait, they hope to catch him in something he might say. Enedreuo ("to lie in wait") and thereuo ("to catch") are hunting terms. The opposition to Jesus has become a hunt with Jesus as the prey. But this time the hunters will be shooting themselves.
Luke is showing not only how the opposition grew but also how they failed to heed Jesus' earlier call to repent (11:29-32). Luke also reveals what piety does not look like. The way to God is not that of the Jewish leadership. The way to God is not in a piety of pride and rules without care and compassion. The God-lover should not point the finger but lend a helping hand.
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