When Jesus Responds to Opposition, We Should Listen


Tracing Jesus’ Response to Opposition in the Gospel of Luke

As the story of Jesus unfolds in the Gospel of Luke, opposition becomes a recurring theme. Jesus faces a diversity of conflict from a wide array of characters: his family, his disciples, the Pharisees and religious elite, demonic spirits, and the crowds. In each of these cases of opposition, Jesus responds in a certain way. Some conflicts provoke the telling of a parable and others need only Jesus’ correction. In others, Jesus adds a rebuke along with his correction and sometimes he simply rebukes. Then, in moments where his life is threatened the most, Jesus seems to have no response at all. These categories of Jesus’ response to the opposition he faces in the Gospel of Luke will now be explored in further detail.

Parable

Luke records six instances of opposition towards Jesus that provoke the telling of a parable. In each instance, the opposition finds its source in either the Law of Moses or rabbinic tradition. First, Jesus is confronted over the behavior of his disciples who eat and drink instead of fasting and praying like the disciples of the Pharisees and John the Baptist. Jesus uses the parable of the new cloth and new wine to explain his disciples’ behavior.[1] The parable of the debtors[2] and the parable triad of the lost sheep, coin, and son[3] are told in response to the Pharisees’ and scribes’ complaints about Jesus associating with sinners, which conflicted with their understanding of purity and holy living. In the parable of the Good Samaritan,[4] Jesus is responding to the lawyer’s test of his scriptural knowledge and his specific definition of “neighbor.” A very interesting situation unfolds when Jesus responds to Pharisaical ridicule by telling the parable of the rich man and Lazarus.[5] In this parable, he chides the Pharisees for their failure to recognize him as the Messiah even with their great knowledge of the scriptures. Finally, the chief priests and scribes question the source of Jesus’ authority as he is teaching in the temple since he acts as if he were above the Law of Moses and those who are charged to enforce it. In telling the parable of the wicked tenants,[6] Jesus reveals the wickedness of the chief priests and the scribes and his own superior status as the son of the vineyard owner. In each of these conflicts, Jesus tells a parable in order to reshape and broaden the understanding of the Law accepted by his opposition.

Correction

On at least twelve occasions, Jesus offers correction to those who have either misunderstood his mission or are confused about the nature of the Kingdom he proclaims. The misunderstanding of his mission begins in Jesus’ adolescence as he reminds his mother at the temple that he must be “in his Father’s house.”[7] Just as his ministry launches, Jesus must tell the crowds who want to keep him for themselves that he must proclaim the gospel to the other cities as well.[8] Simon Peter experiences his first correction when he commands Jesus to depart from him. Jesus must explain to Simon that he has come to make him a fisher of men.[9] A major source of misunderstanding arises from Jesus’ interaction with various kinds of sinners. The gospel records three episodes where Jesus explains his mission towards sinners: calling them to repentance,[10] forgiving their sins,[11] and seeking out even the very worst of them – to offer his salvation.[12]

Jesus also felt compelled to correct those who were confused about the nature of his Kingdom. He patiently explains to the Pharisees that his disciples cannot fast and pray like their disciples because the wedding guests do not fast while the bridegroom is present.[13] John the Baptist even appears confused about whether Jesus is the Messiah. Jesus has only to point to the many signs of kingdom being performed in their presence to answer the questions of John’s disciples.[14] Those closest to Jesus also have the wrong idea about his kingdom. As the twelve disciples argue amongst themselves about who will be greatest, Jesus teaches that the least among them will be the greatest in his Kingdom.[15]

Correction and Rebuke

Some experiences of opposition caused Jesus to both rebuke and correct those who were confronting him. This rebuke came in the form of a question from Jesus or as an act of healing. Two types of situations resulted in this combination of rebuke and correction: when Jesus’ identity is at stake and when the spirit, or identity, of the Law is being compromised. Jesus first responds this way when the scribes and Pharisees call him a blasphemer and question his identity as one who can forgive sins when he forgives the sins of the paralytic man.[16] The Pharisees’ are rebuked and corrected by Jesus again when fail to recognize him as “the lord of the Sabbath.”[17] Some in crowds also questioned Jesus’ identity by either claiming that he was from Beelzebul or by demanding other signs from him. Jesus rebukes their claims and teaches them about his power over Beelzebul.[18] When the crowds began to increase, Jesus once again rebuked and corrected them for demanding signs to prove his identity.[19] Jesus’ Messianic identity is especially challenged when the chief priests and scribes question his authority both in the temple[20] and before the Sanhedrin.[21] Finally, Jesus has to rebuke and correct the disciples when they mistake him for a ghost upon his appearance to them after his resurrection.[22] In all these instances, Jesus’ true identity is being questioned and he responds with rebuke and correction.

When the spirit, or identity, of the Law is being compromised, Jesus also responds with rebuke and correction. The first example comes as Jesus “works” in order to heal the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath as the scribes and Pharisees look on in disgust.[23] A similar situation occurs when Jesus heals a crippled woman, also on the Sabbath. When the leader of the synagogue ordered those who were seeking healing to come back another day, Jesus responded with a strong rebuke and correction that put “all his opponents… to shame.”[24] The clearest example of opposition that provokes this kind of response occurs when Jesus is invited to dine with the Pharisees. When one of them was “amazed to see that [Jesus] did not wash his before dinner,” Jesus unloads a litany of woes against the Pharisees, lawyers, and scribes because they “neglect justice and the love of God” even while claiming to follow the Law.[25]

Rebuke

In experiences where Jesus confronts demons, those who do not believe, or those misuse power, his response is simply rebuke. When Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness, he quotes scripture as a rebuke to each of his temptations.[26] Luke records three instances where Jesus is said to have rebuked demons: the man with the unclean spirit in Capernaum,[27] the Gerasene demoniac,[28] and the boy with the evil spirit.[29] Jesus also rebukes Peter, James, and John, along with Jairus and his wife, when they laugh and do not believe that Jairus’ daughter is alive.[30] Peter is once again rebuked when he refuses to believe Jesus’ prediction of his denial.[31] In addition, Jesus pronounces a forceful rebuke of the unrepentant and unbelieving cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida.[32] The misuse of power also provokes a strong rebuke from Jesus. James and John are the first recipients of this rebuke when they ask to call down fire as punishment on Samaritan villages.[33] An unnamed person in the garden who cuts off the ear of one of the officials coming to arrest Jesus is also strongly rebuked for using violence.[34]

Silence

In the moments of opposition fueled by anger or fear, where Jesus’ life is most threatened, he has no response at all. When the angry and jealous crowd at Nazareth led Jesus to the edge of a cliff to throw him off, he simply “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”[35] As the chief priests and scribes plot to kill Jesus, he ignores them and keeps on teaching.[36] Even as he witnesses Peter’s denial,[37] stands unjustly accused before Pilate[38] and Herod[39], and bears the vile hatred of the crowds shouting “Crucify!”[40] – Jesus has no response. He has no response when the soldiers mock and beat him[41]; when they cast lots for his clothing[42]; when the leaders scoff[43]; when the criminal ridicules.[44] Then, in the moment when opposition towards Jesus culminates in his brutal execution, he breaks his silence: “Father, forgive them.”[45]

Personal Reflections

The Power of Parable

In a culture both inside and outside and the church that is permeated with seemingly irresolvable conflict, I find Jesus’ varied responses to opposition in the Gospel of Luke to be very informative. As I consider all the current debate within the church over fine points of doctrine, ecclesial structures, and the ever-vigilant guarding of the boundaries of salvation, I am deeply encouraged by the way Jesus used parables to break through the old understandings of Law and tradition that were opposed to the new work of his Kingdom. Through his parables, Jesus told a new story that was firmly rooted in the old but too big to be contained by it. As I reflect on the hostility I see in the church, I wonder if we have lost the ability, or the willingness, to tell new stories. It seems that we would rather impose our will on those who disagree with us instead of winning their hearts and capturing their imaginations with the stories we tell.

Forgiveness and Grace at the Core

Jesus’ silence during the times of greatest opposition is even more challenging to me. It is hard to imagine the intensity of conviction that empowered him to suffer through the torments of crucifixion. The depth of his love for me and for the world takes on a new meaning as I consider how I struggle to renounce my own rights and privileges. I can hardly bear to be unfairly blamed for trivial problems, yet Jesus endured the pain and shame of the cross as a completely innocent man. Then, when he did speak, he asks for forgiveness. It seems that the core of Jesus’ response to the opposition he faced was an unrelenting and steadfast desire to forgive. As Christians today face various threats – both real and imagined – we would be wise to desire forgiveness and grace above our personal success.


[1] Luke 5:36-39 (NRSV)

[2] Luke 7:41-43

[3] Luke 15:3-32

[4] Luke 10:25-37

[5] Luke 16:19-31

[6] Luke 20:9-19

[7] Luke 2:48-50

[8] Luke 4:42-43

[9] Luke 5:8-10

[10] Luke 5:30-32

[11] Luke 7:44-48

[12] Luke 19:10

[13] Luke 5:33-35

[14] Luke 7:18-23

[15] Luke 9:46-48

[16] Luke 5:20-25

[17] Luke 6:2-5

[18] Luke 11:14-23

[19] Luke 11:29-32

[20] Luke 20:1-8

[21] Luke 22:66-71

[22] Luke 24:36-45

[23] Luke 6:6-11

[24] Luke 13:10-17

[25] Luke 11:37-53

[26] Luke 4:1-13

[27] Luke 4:33-35

[28] Luke 8:28-30

[29] Luke 9:42

[30] Luke 8:49-55

[31] Luke 22:31-34

[32] Luke 10:13-16

[33] Luke 9:51-56

[34] Luke 22:49-51

[35] Luke 4:28-30

[36] Luke 19:47-48

[37] Luke 22-54-62

[38] Luke 23:1-5

[39] Luke 23:7-11

[40] Luke 23:20-21

[41] Luke 22:63, 23:36

[42] Luke 23:34b

[43] Luke 23:35

[44] Luke 23:39

[45] Luke 23:34a

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