Luke XXVIII: Luke 7:18-35
This story is all about expectations. John needs reassurance that his expectations about Jesus are correct. Jesus asks the people about their expectations concerning John. And finally, Jesus explains why the expectations of the Pharisees are wrong. And the questions looming behind these expectations are about who Jesus is and whether He can really be the Messiah spending so much time with sinners.
Among the crowd listening to Jesus and following Him, were disciples of John who went and reported to him (in prison, cf. Mt. 11:2) all the things Jesus was doing and saying (Lk. 7:18). John sends two disciples to Jesus to ask Him if He is the Messiah or not (Lk. 7:19-20). Part of John’s question may have been related to the fact that he was in prison, but Jesus said He came to set captives free (cf. Lk. 4:18). Jesus answers John by healing (Lk. 7:21), and He tells the disciples of John to tell him what they have seen and heard and summarizes His mission again (Lk. 7:22, cf. Is. 61:). But Jesus notes that it is a particular blessing not to be offended or scandalized by him (Lk. 7:23). But what might be offensive about the ministry of Jesus?
Jesus asks what the people went out to the wilderness expecting to see when they went out to see John (Lk. 7:24). Jesus says they didn’t go out to see a “reed shaken by the wind.” This could mean several things, but likely points to the expectation that John would be a political power (cf. Is. 9:14, Mt. 27:29). Some have pointed out that a reed was one of the symbols that appeared on the coins minted during Herod’s reign. And this matches the follow up questions about “soft clothing” and living in “kings’ courts” (Lk. 7:25). Jesus says that if you were looking for that kind of leader, you were disappointed. But if you went out looking for a prophet, you found a prophet, the Elijah prophet promised by Malachi (Lk. 7:26, Mal. 3:1). If that’s true then the Messiah is come, and the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John (Lk. 7:28).
Now this brings us to the offense of Jesus. When all the people and the tax collectors hear that John was the new Elijah preparing the way for the Messiah, they “declared God just” because they had been baptized by John (Lk. 7:29). But Luke says that the Pharisees and the lawyers had already rejected the purpose of God by not being baptized by John (Lk. 7:30). And now Jesus tells a little parable. He says that this generation is like children playing in a marketplace, changing their minds randomly about what kind of music they prefer (Lk. 7:31-32). Remember the scribes and Pharisees have already objected to Jesus by pointing that He and His disciples didn’t follow the fasts and prayers of the Pharisees, which at least John did (Lk. 5:33). But it’s not like they actually followed John: they weren’t baptized by him. Jesus says that the Pharisees are like little kids that can’t decide what they want. They apparently accused John of having a demon for all his fasting and austerity (Lk. 7:33), but now that Jesus has come eating and drinking, they accuse Him of gluttony and drunkenness (Lk. 7:34). But Jesus makes it clear that their real objection is not to the feasting but with whom Jesus eats and drinks. And Jesus makes this clear by pointing to the tax collectors who have declared God just – as the proof of God’s wisdom (Lk. 7:35).
Like A Strong Man Shouting With Wine
It’s not an accident that Jesus came eating and drinking with sinners. All through the Old Testament salvation was pictured in meals. The Passover celebrated the Exodus deliverance. The elders ate with God on Mt. Sinai. The tabernacle and temple were houses of worship where priests and Israelites ate and drank in God’s presence. But all of these feasts, all of this food, constantly begged a profound question about God’s justice. He fed the people, He ate and drank with the people, and yet they treated God with contempt. Psalm 78 describes this story of Israel as a parable, a dark saying to learn wisdom, and it’s all about Israel’s stubborn and rebellious ways. He gave them drink from a rock in the wilderness, and they sinned against Him (Ps. 78:15-17). He rained down manna from heaven and meat fell in the midst of their camp, and they sinned more (Ps. 78:23-32). He delivered them from their enemies, He led them like sheep to safety, and they still served idols until He finally gave them over to captivity and destruction. The question is: How can God associate with people like this? If He is righteous and true and good, how can He eat and drink with sinners? The psalm ends hinting at a solution: “But then the Lord awoke as from sleep, like a strong man shouting because of wine, and He put His adversaries to rout… He chose David his servant… to shepherd Jacob His people… (Ps. 78:65ff).
In Proverbs, Solomon says that Wisdom has mixed her wine and set her table and invites all the simple to come eat her bread and drink her wine (Prov. 9:1-6). The Pharisees are right to object to God’s purposes if His presence doesn’t actually have any effect. It’s a pretty worthless “wisdom” that spreads a feast and doesn’t actually make anyone wise. But Jesus points to the tax collectors and sinners who are declaring God just. The implication is that Jesus is the Lord awaking and shouting full of wine, a new David raised up to shepherd God’s people.
In the providence of God, we arrive at a text that is all about justification by grace on Reformation Sunday and All Saints Day. The whole Bible from beginning to end is about the righteousness of God revealed in saving sinners by His grace. But every single descendent of Adam has a sense that at some point, some sinners, have just gone too far. We think that at some point human sinfulness makes God look bad. We want God to draw a line somewhere to protect His own reputation, His own righteousness, but this is ultimately because we are ashamed to be associated with a God like that.
But the crazy, insane thing is that God has not merely determined to do justice no matter what we or anyone else thinks, the crazy thing is that God has determined to do it out in public, for everyone to see. He’s determined to prove His righteousness by having sinners declare Him righteous. This is why Paul says in one place to get ready to have your mouths shut: Once you were disobedient and have now received mercy. He forgives rapists and murderers and angry dads and disobedient children and invites them to His table, and we fall before His grace, one by one. And when the next guy comes walking in swearing and cursing and accusing God of being unjust and ineffective, Jesus points at us, and asks: What do you think? And we look at the guy, and we say, Look, man, you got it all wrong. It’s grace all the way down.
The crazy thing about justification by grace is that God allows Himself to be justified by sinners. Wisdom is justified by tax collectors and sinners. That’s unexpected grace.
“Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!” (Rom. 11:33)