Last month [link here] we took a brief look at the so-called “gentile narratives” in Luke. These are the stories about Jesus and Jesus’ teaching that highlight gentiles, outcasts, women, and anyone who was marginalized in society in Jesus’ day. Luke focuses on these particular people in his “Travelogue” section (Luke 9-19). His purpose in telling these stories is clear. He wants to reassure Theophilus, and all his gentile readers, that the good news about Jesus isn’t just for Jews. It is for the whole world.
For apparently the same purpose, Luke highlights Jesus’ condemnations of the powerful and the religious insiders often while demonstrating God’s mercy on non-Jews and those who are neither powerful or insiders. Jesus condemns religious Jews for how they use their power to self-promote and how they use their power to oppress, especially non-Jews. The bad behavior of the traditionally religious obscures the gospel and preaches a distorted picture of God, and that, more than anything else, incites Jesus’ anger. Here are two key examples of these condemnations from chapters 11 and 12 where they are most concentrated:
11:29“This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and behold, something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
Over and over again the Jewish leadership demanded proof from Jesus that he was the messiah. But no amount of proof would ever satisfy them. In the Gospels Jesus often goes out of his way to demonstrate that he is the Messiah of the Old Testament, but the Pharisees were never satisfied, not even when he raises Lazarus from the dead. So in Luke 11 Jesus, fed up with their false and hypocritical requests for proof, condemns the entire generation for their unbelief. In a jaw-dropping exclamation, Jesus compares his moment in history to the story of the prophet Jonah. The people of Nineveh received a message from God through a very imperfect messenger, Jonah. And yet they turned to God and repented, and God showed them great mercy. The people of Israel have also received a message from God—God himself became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ and delivered that message himself to them, and they rejected his message and him. In other words, the “evil” and “backwards pagans” in Nineveh saw the truth and knew God, but the religious elite in Israel did not. Likewise, the pagan Queen of the South recognized God’s king and what God was doing in the world and came to listen, but the Pharisees refuse to listen. Thus Jesus says, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.”
God offers his mercy and forgiveness and a chance to repent to the likes of the Ninevites. God calls gentiles from all over the world to hear the prophetic word. These words must have been great comfort to Theophilus. Surely they are a great comfort to us as well.
11:45 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” 46 And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. 47 Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. 48 So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. 49 Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ 50 so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, 51 from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. 52 Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”
I don’t know for sure if Luke intended verse 45 to be funny, but it always makes me laugh. The truth is, however, Jesus is angry with them. They hear his words as insults, but they are true. These Jews were supposed to be his people. They were supposed to be the people who would point all the nations to God, to the faith of Abraham, to the messiah, but instead they used God’s Law as a way to justify themselves and to exercise power. It is no wonder the gentiles didn’t really know God. The prophets were the people God sent to the world to reveal God to us, but the most religious people, the people who supposedly knew God the best, murdered the prophets. They murdered the early apostles and missionaries. By Luke 11, they were about to murder the Son of God. These “experts,” Jesus says, missed the messiah when he came and then tried to keep the nations from knowing him as well. As Paul says in Romans 2, “The name of God is blasphemed among the nations because of you!” Thank God for his mercy. He had another plan in mind, the Church and the Great Commission, whereby all the nations would have a chance to know God again.
As we’ve said before, given Theophilus’ name, he was almost certainly a gentile. The Gospel of Luke was written to Theophilus and to us to ensure everyone that God loves us. Even though those first missionaries were Jewish, they came from Judea, and they brought with them the Jewish Holy Scriptures and the good news of a Jewish Messiah, we don’t have to wonder what all of that has to do with us. God loves the whole world. He loves us, the gentiles too. And there is no more vivid reminder of that than Luke 11 when Jesus puts himself squarely in a story about God sending one of his prophets to show great mercy to gentiles who do not deserve it. There is no more vivid reminder of that than when Jesus condemns the religious insiders for behaving in a way that keeps the nations from hearing the good news about Jesus.