In chapter 20, Luke presents a series of confrontations with the temple authorities, the priests and the scribes. Some of the priests were of the sect of the Pharisees, others were of the sect called Sadducees. The difference between them will be presented in the notes. Luke presents these encounters during the days that Jesus is teaching and preaching in the temple compound, just prior to the Feast of Passover. Though God wanted the temple to be a “house of prayer,” the temple had become home to the enemies of Jesus. Remember that in the previous chapter, Jesus introduced Himself by overturning the tables and carts of the merchants and moneychangers who served as a significant source of income for the temple authorities. The temple authorities will question Jesus about His own authority, and Jesus will respond with a surprising answer. The authorities will also try to trick Jesus by forcing Him to take a political position about taxes, and a theological position concerning the resurrection. During the encounters, Jesus will give a parable that infuriates the authorities, for they realize Jesus is directing the parable toward them.
What to look for in Luke 20
As you read each paragraph ask, “What is God teaching me about who Jesus is?”
Jesus will be asked a question by the temple authorities about His own authority. Look for the clever way Jesus answers the question of those who wouldn’t believe His answer even if He gave them one.
Jesus will give a parable about the Old Testament prophets and about Himself. Look for the relationship between His answer to the scribes and what the crowds shouted when He entered into Jerusalem.
Look for Jesus’ important answer to the authorities about Roman taxes, and ask how that teaching can be applied today.
Look for an attempt by the Sadducees to get Jesus to deny that there is a resurrection. Look for Jesus’ definitive answer.
Seek to understand Jesus’ own question for the scribes concerning David’s offspring, and why His question relates to something Jesus said about the “chief corner stone.”
In the last paragraph, look for the subject of love in regards to the scribes. Who do they love, and who do they fail to love?
20:1-8 Jesus has made His entry into Jerusalem and announced His presence by angrily confronting the merchants and moneychangers in the temple. This act was not just a confrontation about commercialism in the temple compound, but it was an indictment on the temple authorities for allowing the practice of taking unfair advantage of those who came to worship, especially the poor.
Verse 1 states that the “chief priests and the scribes with the elders confronted Him….” Most likely, this group was made up of a delegation from the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin, also called the “Council,” was the ruling authority and supreme court for the Jewish nation. It was comprised of seventy men, including priests of the sect of the Sadducees, specialists in the Scriptures from the sect of the Pharisees (scribes), and elders, who were influential Jewish noblemen. The chief priest of the Sanhedrin was appointed, not by other Jews or Herod, but by the Roman authorities. At the time of Jesus, the president emeritus of the Sanhedrin was a chief priest named Annas. (The position was actually administered by his son-in-law Caiaphas, another appointee.) The office of chief priest was represented by delegated deputies (thus “chief priests” in verse 1). The Jewish nation was under Roman authority, of course, but the Sanhedrin was allowed freedom to rule over the people in religious and some civil and criminal matters. They even had their own police force. The Sanhedrin had the authority to declare an act blasphemous or a violator a blasphemer, which automatically carried with it a death sentence. Even though they could pronounce a death sentence on a Jew, they were not allowed by the Romans to actually carry out capital punishment. Also, at the time of Jesus, their authority was limited to the region of Judea, and did not include Galilee or Samaria. Capernaum, Jesus’ headquarters, lay outside the Sanhedrin’s authority.
The issue raised in this incident is one of “authority.” This is the tenth time in the gospel that Luke uses the term “authority.” Authority was a major concern for the Jewish hierarchy, for it represented an individual’s right and power to act. Therefore, for example, who gave Jesus the “right” (or authority) to overturn the table of the money- changers? There were three main sources of authority for the Jews. First, there was the Roman Empire who, as occupiers, had final authority over the Jewish nation, and over the right to levy taxes or carry out capital punishment. Second, there was the authority of the Sanhedrin who had the right to oversee religious matters, as well as many civil matters, and complete run of the temple. Finally, there was God. Ultimately, God had authority over the Jews (from their perspective) and it was through His authority that prophets were raised up to declare righteousness and serve as mouthpieces for God Himself. Therefore, when the representatives from the Sanhedrin ask Jesus, “Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority” (verse 2), they are asking a very legitimate question. It’s the obvious answer that the representatives are having problems with.
In verses 3 and 4, Jesus answers their question with a question of His own, here paraphrased: “Was John the Baptist and his ministry from God or from men?” The reason that Jesus does not answer the representatives’ question directly is obvious. If Jesus said that He was the Messiah acting directly under God’s authority, the Sanhedrin could immediately declare Him a blasphemer, something punishable by death. If Jesus said His authority was from men, He would, of course, not be telling the truth. By not answering their question directly, He leaves the representatives of the Sanhedrin with no basis for judging Him a blasphemer and no basis for discrediting Him an imposter. Instead, He asks them a different question that, in essence, addresses the very same issue, only instead of referring to Himself, He refers to John the Baptist. (Ingenious, from a human point of view.)
In verses 5 and 6, one can just imagine the delegation from the Sanhedrin calling a huddle and feverishly debating among themselves. If they had had smart phones, they would have immediately sent a text message to headquarters. Their discussion must have gone something like this: “If we say that John the Baptist’s authority was from God, then the people will wonder why did we not listen to him, be baptized for our sins, and repented as a nation? We would immediately condemn ourselves as being outside the will of God. However, if we say that his authority was from men, the people will rip us to shreds and we’ll lose all power over them because he was martyred, and every Jew believes he was a messenger of God. So, let’s not commit ourselves one way or the other because it is a lose-lose situation for us.” Thus, the representatives of the Sanhedrin chose not to answer Jesus’ question (verse 7).
Jesus’ answer to them in verse 8 leaves the entire exchange hanging in the air. What Jesus chooses not to declare to this unbelieving, skeptical and hostile delegation is that He, by virtue of being the Son of God, is His own authority, yet while on earth He, through His love relationship with the Father, places Himself completely under the authority of His Father in Heaven. (See John 17:1-26 for a thorough explanation by Jesus.) Not only would the delegation not believe this, but they wouldn’t even be able to comprehend it. Just as parables are a method to hide spiritual truth from unbelievers and reveal truth to believers, so, too, is Jesus’ answer designed to hide truth from His detractors. Only His disciples, even at this point in time, understand that Jesus is under God’s authority, not man’s. What they as yet do not understand fully is that, while on earth, Jesus has voluntarily put Himself under the Father’s authority. Following His resurrection, however, Jesus will inform them that “All authority has been given to (Him) in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18; italics mine).
20:9-18 In this follow-up parable to the above confrontation with the delegation from the Sanhedrin, the “man” who plants the vineyard is God, and the “vineyard” is the nation of Israel who is supposed to represent the kingdom of God. (It’s quite clear who the owner is.) The “vine-growers” are the leaders of the nation; that is, the religious authorities over the centuries as well as the present-day Sanhedrin. Notice that Jesus gives this parable to “the people” (not just to His disciples), but is clearly directing it toward the delegation from the Sanhedrin. It will therefore serve as a stinging indictment on the Sanhedrin itself.
In Luke’s writing of the parable, there are three slaves (servants) sent to gather fruit (“produce”) from the vineyard. The clear interpretation is that the servants represent the prophets sent by God’s authority over the centuries past. They include Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Jeremiah, and so on. Their purpose was to bring back fruit for the owner of the vineyard. In other words, the prophets were to bring back spiritual fruit in the form of repentance by the nation for its unrighteous behavior. Instead of welcoming and heeding the words of the prophets, the “vine-growers” (the spiritual leaders) rejected the prophets and abused them. Notice that each slave is treated worse than the one before him. In desperation, the owner sends his “beloved son.” The title “beloved son” is meant to remind the reader of the Father’s words at Jesus’ baptism: “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:22). The owner has sent his son because, being the son, he shares the same authority as the owner. He is heir and co-owner of the vineyard. All logic would point to acceptance of the authority of the son by the vine-growers. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Jesus is at this very moment experiencing rejection by the vine-growers.
Notice the reaction of the vine-growers. The first action mentioned is that they “saw him.” They didn’t receive a notice or a letter or a declaration: the son was in their midst, stranding right in front of them, clearly visible to their natural eyes. They have no excuse for saying that they never actually encountered the son. Second, “they reasoned with one another….” The word “reasoned” is based on the same root as in verse 5, “they reasoned among themselves.” Jesus is making a play on words here, for the reasoning action of verse 14 means “to reason thoroughly.” In others words, their response to the son was not a mistake given to impulse or a lack of understanding; it was a thoroughly thought out scheme, well planned and menacingly executed. Nor was there only one person responsible—it was a group decision made by collective individuals. Therefore, all the leadership is guilty as charged.
The collective conclusion of the vine-growers also indicates that they knew in their hearts exactly who the son was: “This is the heir….” Their decision, unbelievably, is to kill him. That Jesus should include this in His parable underscores the fact that He knew He would be killed, a fact He has stated many times to the disciples, and is now quickly becoming reality.
Perhaps the most telling part of this parable is the illogical conclusion on the part of the vine-growers (i.e., the Sanhedrin) as to what they believe will take place after they kill the son: “…so that the inheritance will be ours.” That the vine-growers would come to such a conclusion indicates how removed they were from the knowledge of the owner (God) and how illogical and unrealistic were their expectations. Did they not have the whole history of the Jewish nation, its history of failures and the judgments that followed, from which to gain insight and wisdom? Did they forget the dispersion of the Northern Kingdom by the Assyrians in 722 BC for their apostasy? Had they forgotten the destruction of Jerusalem and Solomon’s temple in 586 BC at the hands of the Babylonians for their unrighteous acts? What possible deceptions were at work to cause them to believe that such a judgment would not follow the killing of the Son? Why would they believe that they could take ownership of the vineyard? The answer is unknown, but this writer believes that they were under the direct influence of Satan who himself wanted to take ownership of the nation. By doing so, Satan believed he could thwart any plans God had for His people, especially in providing the seed line that led to the Messiah.
The three reasons for rejecting the son are typical of all men who reject Jesus Christ today. First, they are comfortable in their present state of existence. The religious leaders were making a good living and enjoying their luxuries. They had plenty of money and wealthy lifestyles. In order to do that, they had compromised with the world, in this case, the Gentile Romans. They had a good life and did not want to give it up. They also had power, power over their own lives and power over the people. They had developed an effective system through religious laws to keep poor people suppressed, rich people content, and their enemies close. In summary, they were comfortable, and they did not want anyone, even God, disturbing their lifestyle.
Second, they ignored truth. The sect of the Sadducees rejected all Old Testament scriptures but the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch. This means that they rejected the writings of the prophets, as well as the historical books such as Kings and Chronicles. For the Pharisees and scribes, who did accept all the Old Testament scriptures, they interpreted the Scriptures only to their own advantage, and only gleaned from them what would be useful to their own agenda. They emphasized scriptures that supported their worldview, and they ignored scriptures that didn’t. The scribes could quickly quote and abide by the first Great Commandment—“You shall love the Lord your God…”—but were woefully negligent at living out the second—“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” They were just as guilty at “selective reading” and “selective obedience” as heretical evangelical preachers are today. They, too, are without excuse.
The third reason the vine-growers wanted to kill the son was because, to accept Him and His word, they would have to admit that they were sinners; that they, too, needed to repent. This was too much for those who prided themselves on keeping the Sabbath laws, tithing, fasting and praying, and assuming the gilded ranks of the religious elite.
The irony of this parable, as stated above, is that the vine-growers deceived themselves into believing that they would gain control of the vineyard and keep the profits for themselves. In following the analogy, the Jewish leaders confronting Jesus somehow believe that there would be no consequences for rejecting the Son. Tragically, they believe they will eventually wrestle the kingdom of Israel back under their own power, out from under the control of the Roman Empire, and that they themselves will miraculously restore Israel to its former glory. They, of course, would remain at the helm of the kingdom and be benefactors of its glory.
Jesus brings His listeners back to reality: “What, then, will the owner of the vineyard do to them?” Verse 16 makes their fate clear. First, “He will come and destroy these vine-growers….” History shows that in AD 70, all the leaders of the Sanhedrin were put to death. After the destruction of Jerusalem and Herod’s temple, the Sanhedrin ceased to exist. Only in the last few years has a new Sanhedrin been formed in Israel, but it has none of the power and prestige that it had in Jesus’ day. Annas and Caiaphas died, the Sadducees and the Pharisees ceased to exist, and only a handful of scribes escaped the carnage by Rome.
Second, the owner—God—will give the vineyard—the kingdom of God—to “others.” This is a clear prophecy concerning the formation of the church which will be composed mostly of Gentiles.
When Jesus’ audience heard these words, they responded with astonishment. It seems pretty clear that Jesus’ listeners understood the parable to some extent. They at least understood that the vineyard, a well-known symbol of Israel, would be taken away and given to another. It would have been impossible for them to visualize the church, but they could have interpreted Jesus’ words as meaning another Gentile nation worse than the Romans. Historically, there had been a precedent; over the centuries, Israel had been conquered by the Babylonians, the Medo-Persians, the Greeks, and by the Romans. Therefore, the people respond with a local idiom used to express disbelief and foreboding: me genoito, meaning “May it not be so!” (The KJV translates it as “God forbid!” The word “God” is not found in the original text.)
Verses 17 and 18 are loaded with irony. Jesus now quotes from the very same psalm as the people shouted during His entry into Jerusalem—Psalm 118. Whereas upon His entry, the people shouted the portion of the psalm which describes the Messiah’s second coming, Jesus now quotes from the portion that describes His first coming. “What then is this that is written…” could be paraphrased, “What then is the meaning of this portion of Psalm 118?” He then quotes Psalm 118:22, a verse that is quoted both by Paul and Peter (Eph. 2:20 and 1 Pet. 2:6, respectively).
A chief cornerstone was the foundation stone for a new building. The cornerstone was the perfect stone by which everything else was measured. Its dimensions had to be exact, as the lines and the remaining structure of the building were positioned according to the foundation stone. In Canaanite times, human sacrifice accompanied the laying of the cornerstone. In this verse, the One who will be sacrificed (rejected) will become the chief cornerstone. There is also a slight play on words here, as the chief cornerstone will be compared to the chief priests. The foundation laid by the chief priests is faulty and the structure will fail. But the stone which the chief priests rejected will, in fact, become the chief cornerstone by which the new building, the church, will be built.
Jesus’ last words concerning His authority are a reference to Isaiah 8:13-15: “Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces; but on whomever it falls, it will scatter him like dust.” This statement simply means that, for the Jews, proclaiming Jesus as the Messiah will be a stumbling block. Unfortunately, their inability to accept Jesus as their Messiah will result in their nation being “scattered…like dust.” Thus, in AD 70, the greatest dispersion of Jews in their history took place, reaching to all parts of the known world and beyond.
20:19-26 The second confrontation with the Jewish rulers most likely occurs on the same day, which many commentators suggest was Tuesday. The issue raised is a volatile one…taxes. (Aren’t taxes always a volatile issue in any society? However, being imposed by an oppressive, occupying, foreign Gentile government particularly evoked an emotional response from the Jews.)
There are a number of reasons the issue of taxes was so sensitive. First, every Jew had to pay an annual poll tax of one denarius. The denarius was equivalent to one day’s labor for a common worker or for a soldier. One must remember that the poll tax was over and above what Jews were required to pay for commercial endeavors such as trade and transport, buying and selling. Not only that, but the Jews were required by their own religious leaders to offer frequent sacrifices at the temple, as well as pay a tithe to the temple and to the priesthood, according to Levitical law. It is estimated that after everything was added up, taxes and tithes amounted to 40-50% of a person’s annual income.
Second, the taxes were collected by tax collectors who were employed by Rome and who charged extra for collecting the tax. The Romans allowed them to make a commission without imposing any restrictions or limits on that commission. So one denarius often turned into two; one for Rome, the other for the tax collector, which, along with being declared unclean, is one reason tax collectors were hated so much.
The third issue involved the coin itself. The denarius was a Rome-minted silver coin. On one side was an image of Tiberius Caesar with the words, “Tiberius Caesar, son of the Divine Augustus.” (Note the word “divine.”) On the other side of the coin was an image of Pax, the Roman goddess of peace, accompanied by the words, “High Priest.” One can see immediately why this coin was so offensive to the Jews. Conservative Jews such as Pharisees and scribes would see this coin as a violation of the first and second commandments regarding having no gods “before Me” and being in possession of idols (Exod. 20:3,4). Being forced to carry and use such coinage was considered equivalent to imposed idolatry.
Luke introduces this confrontation about taxes with the observation that the religious leaders were looking for a good way to get rid of Jesus; He was just too popular, as well as, from their point of view, systematically turning the people against them. He not only undermined their prestige and authority, He threatened their lavish lifestyles. They also clearly understood that the preceding parable was directed toward them, and that He was well aware of their plans to kill Him. They needed a good reason to arrest Him and take Him to the governor (Pontius Pilate), without causing a riot at the same time. So the scheme forged by the chief priests and the scribes is to catch Him in an act of sedition and have the Romans themselves take the heat.
There is another interesting fact about this confrontation. Matthew indicates that the conniving parties are the Pharisees and the Herodians. Ironically, these two groups hated each other. The Herodians were not a religious sect like the Pharisees and Sadducees. They were a political group who saw their role as being mediators between the Jews and the Herodian Dynasty. One must remember that Herod was not a Jew…he was an Edomite, an ancient enemy of the Hebrews who had been appointed “King of the Jews” by Caesar, a clear insult to the Jews. That these two parties would team up to trick Jesus into a political trap shows how desperate the leaders were to eliminate this itinerate preacher who was causing such instability in their ranks. Realizing, of course, that they could not seize Jesus without incurring the wrath of the people who believed He was the Messiah. Thus their plan quickly changed to making Jesus appear as an instigator of rebellion against Rome. That way, the Roman soldiers could seize Jesus and at the same time control the riot with force. The chief priests and the Herodians saw this as a win-win confrontation. They could rid themselves of Jesus and at the same time, let Rome take the heat.
In some cases, flattery will get you everywhere. Not so with Jesus. He knows their hearts and sees right through their evil intent. The fact that they sent “spies” to question Him is almost comical, and one imagines that they might have tried to disguise themselves. Fortunately, disguises don’t work with Jesus…He looks at the heart, not the outward appearance.
The reader needs to pause when reading verse 21. If one were to take this verse at face value, unaware of who was saying it or their motives, one would note that everything they said was absolutely true. They call Him “Teacher” (or rabbi); this is true. They observe that “You speak and teach correctly.” Again, that is absolutely true. They note that Jesus is “not partial to any”; also true. And they say that He teaches “the way of God in truth.” True. There is therefore a powerful lesson here for the Christian. Not only must the words themselves be discerned, but the person behind the words must be discerned. words alone mean nothing if the person behind them has selfish motives or evil intent. Some heretical preachers are quite capable of speaking truth, but their hearts are very, very dark. They are deceivers and heretics, misinterpreting and misapplying Scripture, leading undiscerning believers away from the truth. Jesus knew the hearts of the men who spoke the words. Christians today all too often are duped into following a TV evangelist, revivalist, crusader, faith-healer or even pastor without knowing a thing about the heart of the man (or woman). They follow them on TV, they flock to their crusades or churches, they send them money, and they buy all their books and paraphernalia without so much as learning the character of the person to whom they have pledged devotion. The answer? Give nothing and follow no one until you are convinced that the person is truly a man or woman of God, not by their words alone, but by their deeds, their relationships, their prayer life, their home life, and by the validation of godly people who are not a part of their ministry.
The question posed by the imposters is a very specific one: “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” Notice that the imposters did not ask, “Should we pay taxes to Caesar?” or “Do you agree (with the Romans) that we should pay taxes?” (The question is literally “Is it permitted...?” What is implied is, “Is it permitted according to the law?”) A “no” answer by Jesus would have meant nothing because no Jew thought they should pay taxes to an occupying Gentile government; Jesus would have just been agreeing with everybody else if He said no. But the instigators asked, “Is it lawful…?” This is a very specific question based on the Ten Commandments; namely, the first and second commandments. In other words, the imposters are more concerned about trapping Jesus into violating Mosaic law than having Him oppose Roman law. The reason? By telling the people that they should acquiesce to Roman law by paying a coin that had an image of Caesar on it would necessarily invalidate His teaching and ministry in front of the people; that is, it would discredit Him, and the religious leaders could openly accuse Him of blaspheme.
Jesus’ answer is equally specific. The first thing Jesus does is to have the instigators answer the obvious: “Whose likeness and inscription (is on the denarius)?” The word translated “likeness” is eikon, meaning “image.” The Jews would immediately associate this Greek word with the Hebrew word pesel meaning “an idol; a carved image; a graven image.” Therefore Jesus is acknowledging that the image on the denarius is indeed a “graven image,” consistent with what the Pharisees were teaching, and therefore not at odds with the law. But the second part of Jesus’ instruction stumps the instigators: “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s….” The key word here is “render.” The word means to give back what belongs to another; that is, to give back what has been borrowed. The clear implication is one of ownership. Therefore, in essence Jesus is saying, “Give the idol back to the idol maker,” or, “Get rid of the idol in the first place,” an instruction that is certainly in keeping with OT law (e.g., Ezek. 14:6). He then follows that instruction with one the instigators certainly could not disagree with: “…and (render) to God the things that are God’s.” This instruction, of course, would also be in keeping with the law because it supports the teaching of the law on tithing.
Jesus’ answer to the imposters is one that goes far beyond the immediate situation and is in keeping with Jesus’ other teaching that “You cannot serve God and wealth.” Jesus is clearly saying that money is not something a person should fret or fight over. Paying taxes to the ungodly is not something godly people should be too concerned about. Worldly money belongs to the world; it is not the most important thing in life, and does not comprise “true riches” (Luke 16:11). Money of any kind should not be a source of rebellion nor a cause of idolatry. The imposters concern over the poll tax betrays their consistent rejection of Jesus’ teachings on the trappings of money and possessions, teachings that we have seen so often throughout the gospel (e.g., Luke 12:12-34).
The reason the imposters were not able to “catch Him in a saying in the presence of the people” is because Jesus never said anything they could accuse Him of. He taught nothing in violation of the law of Moses. Not only did He redirect their question, but He made a point that far outweighed the basic question in the first place: “Seek His kingdom, and these things will be added to you” (Luke 12:29).
20:27-40 The third confrontation is one initiated by the Sadducees. Luke adds the comment “who say that there is no resurrection” for the sake of his Gentile readers who may not have known the differences in theological viewpoints between the Sadducees and the Pharisees.
Whereas both the Sadducees and the Pharisees were religious sects in Judaism, there were some marked differences both theologically and politically. First, the Sadducees were made up of well-to-do priests; that is, the nobility of the priesthood. Being the more liberal religious sect, and seeing no way out from under the rule of Rome, they promoted compromise with the Romans for political reasons, saying in effect, “Why can’t we all just get along?” They were also inclined to comingle Greek and Roman culture with Judaism (called Hellenism), as a way of making Judaism more relevant to the times. Because of their friendship with Rome, the High Priest, appointed by the governor, was almost always a Sadducee; they were less likely to cause trouble for the occupiers. Whereas all Sadducees were priests, not all priests were Sadducees. The Sadducees were not the people’s party like the Pharisees were, as they routinely kept themselves aloof from the commoner.
In regard to the Scriptures, the Sadducees took issue with the Pharisees. The Pharisees, the more conservative of the two sects, included with the entire Old Testament the “oral traditions.” The oral traditions were extrabiblical writings and sayings developed over the centuries to interpret and expound on the Old Testament. (They were eventually collected and formed into a volume called the Talmud, produced between 200 and 500 AD.) The Pharisees and scribes considered the oral traditions just as authoritative and binding on all Jews as the entire Old Testament; thus, the many “laws” regarding the Sabbath. Believing that the Pharisees went too far by including the oral traditions with the Scriptures, the Sadducees reacted by taking the position that only the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) was authoritative and binding. This means that they ignored all the writings of all the prophets, including Isaiah, Hosea and Ezekiel. Therefore, Israel’s prophetic future was never an important part of their theology. And, without the historical books to guide them, they denied the resurrection of the dead and the immortality of the soul, believing that the soul died along with the body. Their distain for the Pharisees and scribes was palpable and often resulted in heated debates, each trying to convince one another that the other party was un-Jewish in their theology. The Sadducees therefore considered the scribes’ teachings as antiquated, irrelevant, and parochial. The Sadducees would have scoffed at Jesus’ teaching about the rich man and Lazarus.
One can see immediately that the two religious Jewish sects were at odds with one another in almost every way…except in regard to Jesus, of course. As to being hostile to Jesus and wanting Him out of the way, they were on the same track 100 percent, but for different reasons. The Sadducees wanted Jesus out of the way for political reasons, the Pharisees for religious reasons.
However, for entirely different reasons than the ones presenting themselves earlier in the chapter (religious authority and taxes), the Sadducees formed a plot to use Jesus to undermine the Pharisee’s teaching about resurrection. They put a riddle before Jesus that was undoubtedly used often to stump the Pharisees about their belief in the afterlife. And, quite certainly, the Pharisees bit on it, resulting in hours and hours of theological debate, convincing no one and exhausting everyone.
(One might ask, “What did the Sadducees have to say about the fact that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead?” One must speculate that either they believed the rumors to be false, or that the incident with Lazarus was a grand ruse by the Pharisees to sway the Sadducees to their side. It could also be that, being so far removed from the people, they hadn’t even heard about Lazarus, although this latter scenario seems unlikely.)
So the Sadducees begin by quoting from the Pentateuch, Deuteronomy 25:5 to be exact. It is a law designed to preserve the family (or tribal) name of a Jewish male, and to preserve for the family the land that had been inherited. The law calls for levirate marriage: that is, if a man dies leaving a wife (and possibly children), it is the obligation of the nearest male relative to assume responsibility for the widow. There are two instances of this happening in the Old Testament .(See Gen. 38:8-10 and Ruth 4:1-17.)
The riddle raised by the Sadducees is a “what if” or “straw man” argument taken to a level of improbability, but nonetheless effective in raising hypothetical questions about resurrection. The only problem? A complete lack of understanding as to what the afterlife is like.
20:34-40 The riddle posed by the Sadducees provides an opportunity for Jesus to teach on the afterlife. Notice that He does not enter into a debate with them, but simply corrects their belief system as well as that of the Pharisees who may have been listening in.
The first issue Jesus addresses is resurrection—He affirms it in no uncertain terms. He does this, not by criticizing the Sadducees, but by helping them see the flaws of their reasoning, a reasoning based on the assumption that marriage, or something equivalent to it, takes place in the afterlife. The term “this age” (v. 34) refers to earthly life, and Jesus states that, yes, in this earthly life, people get married. But that is not true in “that age” (v. 35) which refers to life after death; people do not get married in the afterlife. However, in Jesus explanation, He introduces the concept of resurrection with a condition: “those who are considered worthy….” This statement clearly implies that resurrection after death is dependent upon a declaration by God as to their worthiness. At this point in the teaching, Jesus does not elaborate on what constitutes worthiness.
Not only is there no marriage in the afterlife—Jesus affirms in verse 35—but there is not even any death (v. 36). “They” refers to “the sons of this age,” meaning persons who are or have been alive on earth. “They cannot even die anymore, because they are like angels” and are now “sons of God, being sons of the resurrection” (italics mine for emphasis). By using these personal pronouns, Jesus is affirming that individuals still exist after death. In other words, the soul of each individual continues to exist after the person has died physically. If they are “considered worthy,” they exist as “sons of God and sons of the resurrection.” (The use of the definite article here could possibly mean that Jesus is referring to His own resurrection. Therefore, those who are considered worthy are those who are part of His resurrection by faith.) The clear implication here is that those who are not considered worthy are not considered sons of God, even though they still exist. Again, Jesus does not elaborate on the fate of those who are not considered worthy.
In verse 37, Jesus proves the fact of a resurrection by referring to the Pentateuch itself, that part of the Old Testament the Sadducees would accept. He quotes from Exodus 3:6. The passage reads like this: “I am the God of….” Note that God did not tell Moses, “I was the God of….” Jesus uses this great passage to show the Sadducees that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still alive, are presently sons of God, and therefore presently sons of the resurrection. Therefore, “He is not the God of the dead but of the living…” (v. 38). The phrase “for all live to Him” is literally translated “all indeed to Him live.” The emphasis is on the word “all” meaning that all of the sons of this age who are considered worthy indeed live in the resurrection.
The scribes and Pharisees who were listening to Jesus could hardly contain themselves, and must have been thinking: “You see! You see! We told you so!” This is one of the few times the scribes actually agreed with Jesus. Thus, “Teacher, You have spoken well” (v. 39). One might consider this an understatement from their perspective, gloating as they were on the inside.
This incident is the only occasion Luke records of Jesus encountering Sadducees. Therefore, Luke is once again preparing the Gentile reader for the truth of Jesus’ resurrection, an event so crucial to understanding the work of Jesus on the cross.
20:41-44 Jesus now turns the tables on the scribes and Pharisees, still gloating about their victory over the Sadducees concerning the resurrection. He asked them a very simple question that goes something like this: “You scribes teach that the Messiah will be a descendent of David. Yet David himself writes in the book of Psalms, ‘The Lord said to my Lord….’” (Jesus is quoting from Psalm 110:1.)
This question is based on pure logic. The name “LORD” in the Psalms is YHWH; that is, it is the proper name for God, translated as “Jehovah” in the KJV. However, Jesus would have used the word “Adonai” which was substituted for YHWH when saying God’s name aloud. In this verse, David states, “my Lord,” using the same word as the proper name for God. Therefore, Jesus questions the scribes as to how it can be that David would refer to his descendant as “YHWH”? Of course, this stumps the scribes and immediately halts their jubilation over the issue of the resurrection. Point: they don’t know as much as they think they do.
The other important use of the word “YHWH” is that this makes the Messiah equal to God. Therefore, the Messiah was not only referred to as the Son of David, but the Son of God.
What Jesus is informing the scribes in a rather veiled way is that the Messiah will indeed be a descendant of David and that not only will He come in human form, but He will be equal to God. If these experts of the law were to take a good look at the Scriptures, they would quickly realize that the Messiah was standing right in front of them.
There is another twist to Jesus’ use of this verse. Remember the scribes questioning Jesus about His authority at the beginning of the chapter? To bring the scribes back to this, Jesus includes all of Psalm 110:1: “Sit at my right hand….” This phrase refers specifically to the subject of authority. In ancient times, it was beneath the dignity of an emperor or king to make mundane, ordinary decisions concerning his kingdom; that was the responsibility of his “right hand man”; literally, the appointee who was seated at his right hand. (The queen usually sat on the left side of the emperor.) In order for the right hand man to exercise his responsibilities, he also had to be given authority to carry out those decisions. Thus, the phrase “Sit at My right hand” means to take the position of authority over the king’s kingdom. Therefore, Jesus is informing the scribes that not only is He the Lord (and therefore equal to God the Father), but that He is His own authority, for He has been appointed by God the Father to carry out the affairs of the kingdom. Matthew confirms this position by quoting one of the last words Jesus told His disciples before He ascended: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18).
Thus, in this chapter we have come full circle in Jesus’ encounter with the religious leaders. This round of theological jousting with them leads to Jesus warning His disciples and the people about His unscrupulous opponents who were probably still present (verses 45-47).
“Beware of the scribes….” The term “beware” means to be on guard as a military sentry would be on guard, on lookout for the enemy.
Sometimes the most loving thing a person can do is to confront someone with the truth, no matter how much it hurts. In warning the people and the disciples about the scribes, Jesus is also warning the scribes themselves.
Jesus provides four examples of pride (the scribes’ greatest sin), one example of a failure to love, and one example of self-deception. All are violations of the Scriptures.
The first four examples involve pride. “They walk around in long robes….” One has to picture a university professor walking around all day long in his graduation attire, complete with velvet tams, velvet panels, piping, full bell sleeves and pocket slips. The scribes and Pharisees took expensive robes and distinguished them with phylacteries and extra long, colored fringes. This made themselves look important and therefore validated their title, Pharisee, which means “one who is separated.” They wore special clothing to serve as an example to the people that they were to remain separated from the world.
The second condemnation on their pride had to do with greetings. They loved the respect given by the crowd. It is the same problem as the distinguished physician who would prefer you call him “Dr. So-and-So” instead of by his first name. Unfortunately, the respect given the scribes and Pharisees was not on the basis of character or true godliness, but of the most artificial and superficial kind…position.
The third condemnation involved the “chief seats in the synagogues.” These were front-row seats near the sacred scrolls, reserved only for scribes, Pharisees and noblemen. This writer is reminded of churches he has attended where the pastor, associate pastor, and elders sat up on the stage facing the congregation, looking down on the lowly worshippers, dressed to the hilt in expensive three-piece suits, wearing red ties and spit-shined shoes, sitting in large cushioned chairs with armrests.
The fourth point of pride, “places of honor at banquets,” has already been discussed in chapter 14.
All of the gestures cited above point to the need for the religious leaders to exercise authority over others. Their authority was used like a hammer on an anvil, shaping people into conformity with the law as they interpreted it. The irony of their use of authority and coercion by intimidation was that the Romans did the same thing to them, and the scribes and Pharisees hated the Romans for doing it! Instead of swords and spears, the scribes used the law. Instead of threats of imprisonment, the religious leaders used the threat of excommunication by declaring a person a sinner or unclean. Instead of intimidation by force, the scribes used intimidation by legal knowledge few could obtain. And their ability to manipulate others with the law and legal matters led them to take advantage of the weak and vulnerable, the next on their list of sins—taking advantage of widows.
Scribes also served as executors of estates when a death occurred. It is believed many used their expertise and position of authority to manipulate widows into giving their money and inheritance to the temple or for support of the priesthood, not unlike how TV evangelists and faith healers take advantage of seniors and shut-ins today. It is a grave failure of exercising love for one another. Whereas the religious leaders were supposed to look after the widow and the weak, they took advantage of them, and they are without excuse. Those who rejected the Sadducees and took such pride in defending the roll of the prophets of Judah, violated the very Scriptures they defended (e.g., Isa. 1:21-23).
Finally, to make people believe they were zealously hungry for God, they spent long periods in prayer in the temple and in the synagogues. Unfortunately, these prayers were not from a guiltless and righteous heart…they were from hearts darkened by their own self-deception. They believed that what they were doing was good for the cause, for Judaism, for the Jewish race, for the priesthood, and for the honor or God. There was a glaring blind spot in their belief system, however. They lacked the one thing that would have completely changed how they went about their business as keepers of the truth. They failed to understand and live out the second great commandment: they knew not how to love their neighbors as themselves.
For these scribes and Pharisees, Sadducees and Herodians, Jesus reserves the greatest judgment: “These will receive greater condemnation.” Whereas all men who reject the Messiah are condemned, these who were supposed to know and carry out the Scriptures they so adamantly defended will receive more condemnation. Those who are supposed to live by the First and Second Great Commandments, and who could quote volumes of Scripture, including all of the Pentateuch by memory, will experience a greater judgment. And it is not just an idle threat. The verb “will receive” is future tense…it will happen.
There is an important lesson here: knowledge of God’s word alone does not a righteous person make. God’s word must be accompanied by “fruit in keeping with repentance,” and the sure sign of that fruit is love, loving one another and loving one’s neighbor as oneself.
Questions for Your Personal or Group Reflection
In the very first verse of this chapter, Luke records that Jesus was “teaching the people in the temple and preaching the gospel.” What do you believe was the gospel that Jesus was teaching? It could not have been our traditional understanding of the gospel, that Jesus died for our sins. So what was it? Also, note that while He was preaching the gospel, He was confronted by opponents. Have you ever been confronted by opponents while preaching the gospel or teaching about the Bible? What was your response? Do you think you could defend your position by asking a question of your own?
In the parable of the vine-growers, what is ironic about Jesus’ use of Psalm 118? Has there been any instances in your life when you praised God at one moment and then rejected Him or His will in the next? Have there been times when you rejoiced when God answered a prayer and then were dismayed when He didn’t? How do expectations enter into your relationship with God?
Do you struggle with the issue of paying taxes to a government who may not spend your hard-earned dollars wisely? How do you feel about that? How do you think you would feel if 40-50% or your income went to the government and to the church by mandate? How do you cope today with the issue of taxes, and what is your spiritual perspective on the whole issue?
The Sadducees looked for ways to trick Jesus into denying there was a resurrection. Most Christians do not have a problem accepting the truth of the resurrection, but we may have difficulty with other truths. For example, do you actually believe that a person is going to hell if they die without having made a commitment to Jesus Christ? Do you believe that everyone on earth will be saved because God is a God of love and wouldn’t let anyone go to hell? Do you believe that all roads (other religions) lead to God?
What is the relationship between Jesus’ question to the scribes about David’s descendant being Lord, and Jesus’ quote of Psalm 118 in verse 17 (of Luke 20)? Can you come up with any questions about Jesus, His death, resurrection or teachings that might be used to stump your skeptic? When a person makes a silly statement about God, have you ever thought of asking, “What’s your authority for making that statement?” Or, when a person makes a false statement about the Bible, have you ever thought about asking, “Oh, so you’ve studied the Bible. Can you show me where that passage is?”
How did the scribes try to present themselves in front of others? Have you ever attended a church or Christian school where the leaders flaunted their authority, their position or their knowledge? How would you interpret Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 8:1: “Knowledge makes arrogant, but love edifies”? Do you see a relationship between how the scribes took advantage of widows, and how TV evangelists, faith healers, crusaders and so-called Christian ministries take advantage of seniors and gullible people?
If you could come up with a summary statement for this chapter, what would it be? Something having to do with authority? With the resurrection? With apologetics (study of the defense of the faith)? With love? Now that you’ve come up with a theme or summary statement, how would you apply that to your own Christian walk? Is there anything in your life you feel you need to change that would be “fruits in keeping with repentance”?