The Kingdom is Like A…Whaaat? or: This is Your Second-to-Last Chance (Luke 13:10-35)

So here we find Jesus teaching in the synagogue on a Sabbath, and he sees a man there whose right arm is shriveled. And the Pharisees and lawyers are all there secretly watching to see if he is going to “work” on the Sabbath by healing the man. But Jesus knows what they’re thinking, so he calls the man to come and stand in front so everyone can see clearly, and Jesus heals him. The Pharisees, of course, are furious that Jesus claims to speak for God and is such an obvious law-breaker. But Jesus rebukes them by saying, “Um, excuse me: the point of the Sabbath is not ‘avoiding work’. The point of the Sabbath is to take some time off of work in order to rest and celebrate the good things that God has done. Good things like…healing people!” —

But, wait a minute, I’m in the wrong chapter, aren’t I? That story is from Chapter 6; we are here in Chapter 13. And yet, somehow, this is almost the same story: Sabbath; Jesus teaching in synagogue; crippled person; Jesus calls them to the front, heals them; and then the Pharisees are furious!

Why is Luke repeating himself? He has already shown us back in Chapter 6 that Jesus thinks the Sabbath is for resting, worshiping, and doing good things, and that this makes the Pharisees angry. Why the repeat all these chapters later?

Well, the fact that the story is repeated is the point of repeating the story.

See, Luke is showing us that, despite chapter after chapter after chapter of Jesus teaching about compassion as the heart of God’s Law, the Pharisees still refuse to listen. They have been fired from their job! and still they refuse to listen. They have been warned that if they do not repent God’s Judgement is going to fall on their generation — on their wives and children and grandchildren! and still they refuse to listen.

And if you turn the page to Chapter 14, you will see that this same story is repeated for a third and last time. And that is significant. For ancient writers like Luke, repeating something three times meant, “Pay attention! This is very important!” And if you failed to pay attention by the third time…well, that was your last chance.

So what we are seeing here is that Jesus has still not given up hope for the Pharisees. He is still giving them a chance to repent, and start over!

And that is really amazing! I do not think any of us would be that patient. Look at it from this perspective: let’s say you had to go away for five years, and you left one of your best friends in charge of caring for your family; and then when you came back you found out that your friend had stolen all your money, sold all your assets, sold your wife and kids into slavery and taught them to hate you! — well, if you had the power of life and death in that situation, you would use it, am I right? I know I certainly would!

And we caught a glimpse of that rage in Jesus last week, when he cried out, “How I wish I could bring Judgement Day now!”

So the very first thing we learn from this repeated story is that Jesus is so unreasonably gracious, so incredibly patient.

The second thing we learn is that — even while Jesus is being patient with those he can’t wait to destroy — he sets to work at once to undo the damage.

Jesus is deliberately slow to bring Judgement — frustratingly slow, from our perspective! But he is quick to heal, quick to save. He lets nothing stand in his way.

So Jesus is teaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath (and this is for the last time, by the way, Luke will not record him teaching in a synagogue ever again — which is also significant), and a woman is there who has been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years: she is bent over in this humiliating position; her body mirrors her spirit.

So Jesus sees her, calls her forward, touches her, and sets her free. He “unties” her from what is binding her.

But the pastor of that synagogue — Jesus is the guest speaker — interrupts everything and says, “Excuse me, everyone: what our guest speaker just did is against God’s Law.”

Now, to be fair, this man is not actually being rude. As the pastor of that synagogue his job was to make sure that whoever preached, preached correctly. In those days, any Jewish man could sign up to preach if he wanted to; but his sermon would be critiqued right then, right there, by the pastors and elders, right in front of everyone! Which is good!

And you should know that really, this is our practice here also. If we ever had a guest preacher who taught scripture completely wrongly, we would stop him, and we would tell you all why. In fact, even my preaching does not stand alone. There are a number of people here who know scripture very well, and if I get something badly wrong it is their job to correct me, and to inform you. That is one of the safeguards we have in place to make sure we teach God’s Word properly.

So, really, this pastor is doing his job! Unfortunately, his interpretation of scripture is completely wrong. But no one can tell! So when he stands up and says, “That was wrong!” everyone in the synagogue agrees, “Oh, yeah, like: totally!”

So Jesus says, “You hypocrites! —

— and remember, for Jesus, “hypocrite” does not mean “pretender”, it means “someone who deliberately distorts the obvious truth” —

You hypocrites! God’s Law allows you to ‘untie’ your animals on the Sabbath so they can go drink! So surely God’s Law also allows me to ‘untie’ this woman on the Sabbath?”

And that is an obvious truth, isn’t it? That makes perfect sense.

And that’s why, in verse 17, Luke tells us that everyone in the synagogue agrees, “Oh, yeah! Like: totally!” And so all Jesus’ opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.

And this is the beginning of a theme that will grow more pronounced as Jesus approaches Jerusalem: Luke is going to show us how, time and again, the crowds change their minds just like that. One minute they’re saying, “Oh, Jesus is so bad!”, then, the next minute, “Jesus is so great! No, no wait, he’s bad. No, he’s great!”

And why are the crowds like this? Because they’re confused. They’re like lost sheep. Their shepherds have failed to feed them God’s Word. If the Pharisees had done their job, and cared for the people properly, the crowds would have accepted Jesus and stuck with him.

The crowds have a decision to make: will they continue with the Pharisees and their Law of Judgement, or will they join Jesus and his Law of Compassion? Are they going to continue as slaves of Satan? or will they follow the King who has come to set them free?

And by the way, the choice really is that stark. There is a reason Luke tells us the woman was crippled by “a spirit”. There is a reason Jesus says that this is a woman whom “Satan has kept bound”. Luke — who was a medical doctor, remember! — Luke is not trying to suggest that all sickness is caused directly by evil spirits. But he is making the point that Satan’s job is to bind and imprison people, to bend them over in the pose of slavery.

Satan binds. Jesus sets free.

The pastors and Pharisees want to leave this woman bound for the sake of “The Law”. Jesus wants to unbind this woman for the sake of God’s true Law.

So the reason Luke emphasizes how Satan is at work in this particular illness is to show us that the pastors and Pharisees are doing Satan’s work, while Jesus is doing God’s work.

So the choice really is that stark: will the crowds follow Satan or God? The Pharisees or Jesus?

At this point in the story, they are so poorly fed, so poorly educated, they don’t know which way to go!

And this is an example of the division Jesus promised to bring upon Israel only last week. It has already begun.

So, for the moment, the people are on Jesus’ side. So in verse 18, he asks them, “What is the kingdom of God like? What shall I compare it to? [19] It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his garden. It grew and became a tree, and the birds perched in its branches.”

[20] Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? [21] It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about [thirty kilos] of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

So: what is the kingdom of God like? Well, in both of these parables, the kingdom of God begins with something tiny, ordinary, and easily overlooked, and and grows into something huge…ordinary, and easily overlooked?

Because that is the pattern here! Jesus could have said, “The Kingdom of God will grow to be a beautiful cedar hundreds of meters tall, and all the birds in the world will come to live in its branches!” — after all, that is how the Old Testament describes God’s kingdom, and how people from all the nations will come to live in its shade. But instead, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God will grow to be a…mustard bush.”

And then, Jesus could have said, “The Kingdom of God is like a land flowing with milk and honey and new wine!” — because, after all, that is how the Old Testament describes God’s kingdom. Instead, Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is going to grow like yeast in…in a lot of bread!”

These images are a little underwhelming, don’t you think?

If you were advertising your construction project for your investors, wouldn’t you try to make it sound as amazing as possible? “Gentlemen, I have a dream of building a city of casinos on a mountain nearby KL. And it is going to launder our millions like…like Indah Water purifies sewage!”

It’s almost as if Jesus’ imagination failed him here. “God’s kingdom is like a bush! God’s kingdom is like bread made by a woman in a kampung somewhere!”

And the people would be thinking, “Oh, liddat ah?”

But see, the underwhelming imagery is part of the point. The Pharisees and the people are looking for earth-shaking signs; they’re looking for Jesus to make the sun turn black, or the stars to fall. They are totally missing the fact that by healing this humble, ordinary, easily-overlooked kampung woman, Jesus is planting the tiny seed of the kingdom right in front of their very eyes.

Now, of course, some of the Pharisees might object and say, “Oh, come on! It’s easy miss something tiny! But once it grows up into something great, then we will recognize it!”

But the imagery of Jesus’ parables is saying, “No, you won’t. If you cannot recognize the humble seed now, you will not recognize the humble results later! The problem is not with your eyesight; the problem is with your mindset! You are looking for cedars. You are are looking for lands flowing with milk and honey and wine. You are obsessed with wealth and power, and your obsession has blinded you to the true nature of the kingdom, which is compassion!”

Wealth and power bind people into systems of slavery. Compassion sets people free.

A person who is obsessed with wealth and power participates willingly in Satan’s system of tyrants and slaves. A person who is obsessed with wealth and power will never see the true nature of God’s kingdom — because compassion is, by its very nature, humble. The kingdom of God produces a mustard bush. Is it glamorous? No. But the birds come and live there safe from predators. The kingdom of God takes 30 kilos of flour and turns it into a lot more bread. Is it glamorous? No. But it can feed a kampung.

[22] Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.

— remember, ever since Jesus broke Satan’s demonic army in Chapter 10, Satan has been retreating to Jerusalem — his headquarters! — while Jesus has been advancing toward Jerusalem — his capital city! And Jesus has already warned his disciples that when they get to Jerusalem there will be some kind of major confrontation as Satan makes his last stand there. And we have already seen that what should have been the victory march of the conquering King has become petty arguments with local leaders, who should be thankful that Jesus has come to set their people free!

So every time Luke reminds us that Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem, we should experience this growing sense of tension and dread. Jesus has prophesied his own victory! but we also know that something terrible must happen first, a moment so dark that it could destroy our faith.

So that is the atmosphere here, as someone asks him,

Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?

See, to their credit, this person been paying attention and is asking for clarification. Jesus has just said that God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed or yeast: one mustard seed produces a very large plant; a sprinkling of yeast produces a lot of bread — so is Jesus saying that the kingdom will begin with only a “sprinkling” of people?

Now we already know that Jesus was not really talking about size; he was talking about quality. That’s why he does’t actually answer this person’s question about numbers; instead, he steers the concept back to a discussion of quality:

He said to them, [24] “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.

Why won’t they be able to?

Because the door is “narrow”.

Now, this may be a little sensitive for some of us, but let’s be honest: what kind of person has trouble fitting through a narrow door?

The big-size one mah!

Now, to be clear, Jesus is not saying that only skinny people go to heaven! So: relax, okay? But the truth is, in the economy of two thousand years ago only people of higher status could afford to put on some extra weight. In our modern culture, being thin is the ideal; in the ancient world being fat was more desireable.

(I know that in Asia we are somewhat in transition: in some places, “You are so fat!” is still a compliment. But not in our cities anymore.)

So Jesus is telling us what quality of person will enter God’s kingdom; he is telling us that lower status people will enter more easily; he is suggesting that, if you are the kind of person who is obsessed with the trappings of high status, you may have to put off some of your earthly concerns if you want to fit through the door.

But there is a second layer to this parable. Jesus is not just talking about the quality of the people who enter; he is also talking about the quality of the house itself. In those days lower class houses had smaller, narrower doors. This is because lower class people are trying to conserve heat. It gets cold in Palestine at night; firewood costs money; small doors are more economical. Only upper class houses had large doors, large windows, open courtyards — because rich people don’t care how much money they spend on firewood. The size of your door was also a status indicator!

So what is Jesus saying about God’s “house” here? He is making the same point that he made with the mustard seed and the yeast: God’s kingdom is not going look like you think it should look like. It is going to look a lot more humble and ordinary and low-class that you expect. Many people won’t even try to come in because they don’t recognize it as God’s kingdom. But many will recognize it, try to come in, and fail — because they are still carrying too much baggage: the obsession with wealth and power and status.

And that is exactly the point Jesus makes next:

[25] Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’ “But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

[26] “Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

Remember, in those days you only had dinner with people from your same class of society. These people are saying, “But, Lord, we ate together at the same table! We are equals! We deserve to be at your dinner party!”

[27] “But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

Jesus has already proven that he is willing to eat with anybody! So, sharing a meal with Jesus doesn’t actually make you special! In fact, quite the opposite: if you think you’re special because you’ve eaten with Jesus…well, that is exactly the kind of obsession with status that could keep you from fitting through the door!

[28] “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. [29] People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God.

And this is the part that would have been shocking to the people standing there. See, they thought they were on the same team with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets. They thought, “Hey! We are all Jews! So we have guaranteed invitations to God’s feast!”

But Jesus is saying, “Ummm, no, you don’t. In fact, your obsession with your status as a Jew is exactly the kind of obsession that could keep you from fitting through the door!

“In fact, your situation is even worse than that! Not only will you find yourself on the outside, but pagan non-Jews from all over the world are going to be on the inside, eating and drinking with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets!”

In other words: pagans will prove to be equals with all the Old Testament saints — but this generation of Jews will not!

And that is a devastating critique.

[30] “Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.”

The Jews were first to receive God’s Word through the prophets. This great gift from God was supposed to humble them, and make them compassionate and generous to everyone else. Instead it made them arrogant and selfish. It made them presume that they were better people than everyone else!


So, [31] At that time some Pharisees came to Jesus and said to him, “You’d better get outta here: Herod is trying to kill you.”

Herod was the king of the Jews at this time, the same guy who beheaded John the Baptist. So he is definitely capable of arresting and killing God’s prophets. However, scholars are divided as to whether the Pharisees made this up to scare Jesus away, or if they really were trying to help Jesus out.

But it doesn’t really matter: the point is, Jesus is not scared:

[32] He replied, “Go tell that fox, ‘I will keep on driving out demons and healing people today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will reach my goal.’

Remember how, in that culture, repeating something three times means, “Pay attention!” and, “This is your final chance!” Notice how Jesus points out how he will be busy for two more days — today and tomorrow — and how on the third day, he will reach his goal. Jesus is not saying he is literally three days from Jerusalem; he is speaking figuratively to say, “Herod, you impotent little dog —

— in that culture to call someone a fox did not mean they were crafty, but that they were pathetic and cowardly —

“Herod, you impotent little dog, pay attention: your time is running out!

“You think you’re going to kill me? Ha ha! No. When I arrive I’m going to end you!”

And then Jesus makes this bitter little joke: [33] “In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem!”

See, Jerusalem has a bad reputation for killing God’s prophets. In the Old Testament, God sent one prophet — Jonah — to Nineveh, a pagan capital city, and that pagan city repented at once! God sent prophet after prophet after prophet to Jerusalem, the Jewish capital city, and the Jewish capital city consistently murdered them.

So Jesus is saying, “Herod’s threat is nonsense anyway! My destiny, as one of God’s prophets, is to die in Jerusalem. It’s impossible for me to die somewhere else!”

Jesus is being heavily sarcastic here.

But then compassion overwhelms him again, and he cries out:

[34] “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.”

And then he quotes from a terrible prophecy in the Old Testament, where the Prophet Jeremiah — who was almost murdered several times — tells the people of Jerusalem that if they do not repent, God will abandon them, and let their enemies sweep in and destroy everything:

[35] “Look, your house is left to you desolate.”

“It has happened before,” Jesus is saying, “and it will happen again if you do not humble yourselves and sing this song…”

And then Jesus quotes from Psalm 118, “you will not see me again until you say — until you sing — ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’

Psalm 118 is meant to be a psalm of welcome to the victorious King of Jerusalem as he returns to his capital city, having just saved the people from their enemy.

So Jesus is saying, “Look, I am going to arrive in Jerusalem soon. If you do not welcome me as your victorious King, the one who has fought and saved you from the worst enemy mankind has ever faced — if you do not recognize me, then God’s Judgement will fall upon Jerusalem. God will leave his temple; the enemy will come in; and the city will be totally destroyed.

“And after that,” Jesus is saying, “you will not see me again until I return a second time. And that time, if you don’t join with the whole world in welcoming me as your king…!”

Time is running out for the Jewish nation. If they do not get over themselves, and open the gates to their king, if they continue to refuse to show compassion to pagans and broken people…something terrible is going to happen to them.

And it all centers on Jerusalem. Jerusalem is at the center of the storm. It is the headquarters of Satan; it is also the capital city of the Messiah. Jerusalem at this time is the only place on earth where God’s forgiveness can be found; it is also the first place on earth where God’s Judgement will fall. All the powers of the universe are beginning to swirl around this one single point on the earth’s surface where Good and Evil are going to meet and decide the fate of the cosmos.

On the side of Evil we find emperors and kings and armies, unbelievable wealth and power. On the side of Good we have…mustard seeds, and yeast, crippled old ladies, and lower-class houses with narrow doors.

And the question Jesus is asking the Jews is this: which side do you want to be on? You know that God is going to win. But now you also know that God is going to win using the most unexpected little things, the tiniest acts of kindness. Are you going to be humble enough to see it? Are you going to be humble enough to give up your dreams of wealth and power, and walk the road of compassion alongside your King?

These are hard questions for the Jews to answer. Of course they want to be on God’s side! — but what if that means giving up the wealth and power of being God’s special chosen people? Because that is what God is saying: yes, he chose the Jewish nation to be his special people in the past; but now he want to choose the whole world to be his special people. And if every nation becomes special…that’s just another way of saying that no nation is special.

Are the Jews of Jesus time willing to become ordinary people, just like everyone else at God’s table? That is what Jesus is asking them to do.

For the Jews, that is a lot to give up.

But of course Jesus is not just asking these questions of the people of that time. We, too, are a lot like the Jews. We are all attracted to wealth and power, big houses with wide doors. We also dream of cedars, of milk and honey and new wine. And these things are promised to the people of God: these things will be our inheritance some day.

But in between now and then, the kingdom of God is…a mustard bush. Large enough for all the nations to come and live safe from predators. But…not especially attractive. Not especially powerful. In between now and then, the kingdom of God is…a lot of bread. Enough to feed the whole world! but…pretty ordinary.

And if we want to be part of it, if we want to fit through that narrow door, we are going to have to get used to the idea of being ordinary. But of course this feels like a lot to give up, doesn’t it? Our age is obsessed with status, with looking good, looking busy, looking successful. So there is a warning here for us too: an obsession with status can blind us to the true nature of God’s kingdom in this age. The church is not meant to be the center of power and wealth and influence in this world; it is meant to be the center of humble compassion, a place where those who have been bound by Satan can come and find freedom.

So this is Jesus’ call upon us, upon everyone: if God is our Father, we need to become like him by laying aside our concerns for social status, race, culture, all the obsessions of this world. We need to learn to look at the world with new eyes, to see people as our brothers and sisters that we never saw that way before.

To the Pharisees, this woman with the bent back was a nobody, an outsider.

But to Jesus, in verse 16, she was a “daughter of Abraham”.

The Pharisees saw her as a slave to Satan, and they were content to leave her that way.

Jesus was not. He saw her as a daughter of God, who deserved to be set free.

That is our job too! We, as Jesus’ church, are in the business of setting slaves free through the preaching and doing of our Father’s compassion. And this means that we are going to have to get used to not being praised and rewarded. Our world runs on slavery of all kinds! and the freeing of slaves is never appreciated by those who profit by them. That is why the church is just a mustard bush in this age, just a whole lot of rather ordinary bread: we just don’t fit in here.

But the day is coming when the true nature of the Kingdom will be revealed. We are a mustard bush in this age; in the next, we will be the Tree of Life. And the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations.

Can we endure the humiliation of being ordinary for a little while longer?

Yes, we can. We will.

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