This week’s reading puts us in the middle part of Luke’s gospel, the structuring of which has been something of an enigma to bible scholars. The first nine chapters of Luke are a rather straightforward historical/chronological telling of the life and works of Yeshua, but beginning with the phrase “When the days were approaching for his ascension” in 9:51 the narrative becomes somewhat disjointed. It transforms into a seemingly miscellaneous catalog of anecdotes, works, parables and aphorisms associated with Yeshua, grouped loosely by subject matter but in no particular organization. And granted, Luke did apparently have a diverse collection of small vignettes of Yeshua’s teachings and interactions–some found in other gospels and others unique to his account–that he wanted to relate in his orderly account for his correspondents. So is there an order here? A closer look at the middle of Luke’s gospel, in particular chapter 13, shows not just a method but a certain genius to the Lukan narrative and its basis in Second Temple Jewish thought. Also important is how this chapter shows a deep, overriding concern for Jewish followers of Yeshua in an important issue they faced in the first century and which Messianic Jews deal with now: participation in Synagogue life.
Yeshua’s concern for synagogue life is discussed in a (somewhat unfortunately named) article by Robert J. Shirock “The Growth of the Kingdom in Light of Israel’s Rejection of Jesus: Structure and Theology in Luke 13:1-35”. Though the verses of Luke 13 may seem to relate unconnected disputes, sayings and teachings by Yeshua, Shirock argues that this chapter has a certain framework and–by implication– conveys a certain theological message. Shirock writes
Corollary to structural problem is the theological one. When structural discord is evident it becomes well-nigh useless to search for themes and theological ideas which span a sequence of pericopae. Enigmatic structural work leads to uncertainty and disagreement among commentators who are seeking to understand the narrative theology of the gospel writers.
In other words, find Luke’s structure and you’ll find Luke’s theology. Find no rhyme or reason to Luke’s storytelling, then Luke’s narrative becomes only the sum of its parts, the whole no more spiritually meaningful than a news ticker or a police blotter.
The good news here (pardon the pun) is that there is some evidence of a pattern in Luke 13. For one, there are several gematria number allusions in this chapter–a phenomena in scripture this blog has discussed before. Luke 13 uses the number 18 three times, once in relation to the 18 victims in the tower in Shiloach collapse in v. 4 and twice in relation to the bent over woman’s 18 year injury in vv. 11 and 16. It’s ironic and ominous to see Yeshua associate the number associated with life, הי (ḥai) = 18, with death and disease. Alternatively, as in the modern west, the number 18, can denote an age of majority and ability to marry legally. Was Yeshua using this number to show that the set time had come for Israel’s accountability and/or marriage to him? In either case, use of the number 18 three times, along with other triads in chapter 13, shows some reasoning to why Luke puts these incidents together.
Moreover, Shirock argues that Luke 13 was put together in a chiastic, mirror image structure (a common literary device found both in the Tanach and in Greco-Roman literature) looking something like this:
A. (13:1-9) Yeshua responds to an account of violence at the hands of civil authorities. He warns people that repentance is necessary or they will all likewise perish. He then relates the parable of the fig tree that did not bear fruit for three years, but was fertilized and given another year to bear fruit before being cut down.
B. (13:10-17) Yeshua, while teaching in the synagogue, heals a stooped-over woman. The synagogue official admonishes the crown to not come into the synagogue on Shabbat to get healed. Yeshua responds with a rebuke of the hypocritical policy, referring to the woman as a “daughter of Abraham”. There is an ironic reversal of popularity as the religious elite was humiliated while the crowd rejoiced over Yeshua and his actions.
C. (13:18-20) The parable of the mustard tree and the parable of the three loaves, the interpretation of which is problematic. On the one hand, the parables show a growing and expanding kingdom, as a small mustard seed grows or as a small lump expands. On the other hand, unkosher birds roosting in a rather ugly looking shrub or lumps of leavened dough has connotations of sin and pride.
B. (13:22-30) When asked if only a few will be saved, Yeshua makes a reference to entering and not being able to enter into the synagogue (see below) or into a house. Yeshua makes reference to Abraham in stating another ironic reversal of popularity in that Yeshua’s own contemporaries will be locked out of the kingdom while outsiders will recline in the kingdom of God and “there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”
A. (13:31-35) Yeshua responds to warnings of violence to himself from civil authorities. He responds that he will be casting out demons and performing cures for three days, then will travel three days before perishing (i.e, a fourth day of destruction). He laments over the Jerusalem’s violence to prophets and states that the city will be left desolate in it says “Blessed is he who comes in the Name of the Lord.”
So what deeper theological meaning does this structure of Luke 13 convey? Before we answer, the synagogue imagery of this chapter deserves a second look. As Shirock writes
Luke records narrow door/closed door imagery (vv. 24,25) as opposed to Matthew’s small gate/narrow way language (Mt. 7:13,14). The narrow door imagery may allude to the synagogue scene with which it is matched. Although no door is mentioned in the synagogue pericope, it is known that there were small (narrow) and large doors in many ancient synagogues. Different people, based upon their status in the community, entered the synagogue through various doors and were seated accordingly. The bent woman, being low in communal honor, may have entered the synagogue via a small, side entrance. This forms a picture of what Jesus says later: “Enter through the narrow door” (v.24).
There are gaps in our historical knowledge about Second Temple era synagogues and precisely what their structure, function, activities and attendance was like, but hints like the ones we find in Luke 13 give us a springboard for cautious speculation. No doubt “status in the community” depended in great part on whether one was Jew or Gentile and subtle distinctions therein. A Ioudaios Jew proper would have a different status a Hellenized non-religious or nationalistic Jew; or a gentile with a passing curiosity about the God of Israel may receive different treatment a devout God-fearer on a committed track to Jewish conversion. As with the Temple complex, there were likely efforts in the synagogues to separate different people on a pecking order of holiness and ceremonial cleanliness.
Some of what’s said here may sound familiar to modern-day synagogue attendees, especially of the Messianic variety. Houses of worship always have their idiosyncrasies, but doubly so with synagogues and even moreso with older constructed synagogues (like mine). Like any large public meeting place, a synagogue may have multiple entrances, but crowd control and security logistics make keep most of these doors locked from the inside . . . including even the main entrances once services and other synagogue events begin. I’ve actually seen literal cases of people, in biblical fashion, locked out of the congregation building knocking on the door for someone to let them in. (We usually do.) I’ve also seen people–and have done so myself–go through a certain entrance at a certain time to take a certain route to a certain pew in the back as to engage in as little social interaction as possible, either because they are sick, or because they want to be left alone, or because they just aren’t feeling particularly saintly that day.
And this is MJs in their own synagogue. There is also the delicate matter of MJs visiting traditional Jewish synagogues and worrying about obeying decorum, following along with unfamiliar and more complicated liturgy, or answering that sticky question “Where do you usually attend?” Messianic visitors in that situation (including myself) will also take a quick route from the entrance to the back pew to not draw attention to himself or herself for the duration of the service–a great mussar exercise for building humility to say the least. Rabbi Russ Resnik in his essay “Hesed And Hospitality Embracing Our Place on the Margins” relates a similar carefulness when visiting a traditional synagogue. Resnik says that when he informs a traditional shul rabbi who he is, the typical response is that “I am welcome to attend, but not as a Jew” and quotes one typical email reply for permission to attend: “While you are correct as to my opposition to so called ‘messianic’ Judaism, anyone of any faith is welcome to pray/visit our congregation–so long as they do not proselytize. We have many Christians who visit us.” Consider the mindset it takes for a prominent MJ Rabbi to hear himself, his faith and his Messiah discussed in such terms–yet still keep calm and be willing to be led in worship by those who say such things–and you’ll have a good picture of the humility Yeshua wants us to have.
It’s unexpected yet very appropriate that Yeshua used the topic of synagogue decorum to discuss larger themes and prophecies about the Kingdom of Heaven. Shirock derives the theological message Luke 13’s structure that God’s Kingdom will grow and expand despite Israel’s rejection of Yeshua; there will be a reversal of fortunes when Israel is found to be outside the Kingdom while Gentiles are found to be included. This is a plausible conclusion and certainly one borne out by post-Second Temple ecclesial history. But is it correct to draw a bright-line Jew/Gentile distinction in the reversal of fortunes? One one hand, many marginal Jews were incorporated into the Kingdom during the first centuries of the Church, and many marginal Jews (including myself) are being joined to the Kingdom in these last days. On the other hand, many of Yeshua’s admonitions against pride, unrepentance and presumption are just as applicable to Gentile wing of the Church. For example, Arnold Fruchtenbaum goes as far as saying that the three leavened loaves “point to the fact that Christendom eventually develops into three major divisions: Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism. All three, to a greater or lesser degree, will have false doctrine.”
Neither Christian church nor Messianic synagogue are exempt from Ray’s Rule “Every successful system accumulates parasites.” Sin and pride will find its way into church and congregation and–such as things are–sinful and proud people will find a way to be large and in charge. For this reason, despite how much we may grow in our congregations and in the esteem of God and man, we must work to fight off our baser desires and constantly recontextualize ourselves as stooped, humble, marginal people looking to Yeshua, the Door opened for us for entrance to God’s Kingdom.