Q & R: What do you make of Luke 13:23-28? – Brad Jersak

Question: I am wondering, in light of A More Christlike God, what your take is on Luke 13:23-28. It seems like an instance of a not very Christlike Christ!

Response:

In the future, I plan to write something in greater detail about these type of difficult texts, which are similar to some of Jesus parables in their dire rhetoric. In the case of Luke 13:23-28, a number of interpretive factors come into play and I’m still sorting through how to weight each of them for relevance.

The passage goes this way:

23 Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

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. 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.’

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

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.

Here are some bare-bone first thoughts for readers to research and weigh:

1. The rhetoric of Jesus’ most gruesome warnings speaks truth, but should not be literalized or totalized. Rhetoric as Christ and his apostles used it was a well-developed and universally taught approach to persuasive public teaching that permeates the New Testament. As such, their rhetoric was never “empty,” but always communicated profound truth and essential revelation. If we take Christ seriously here, there is a narrow way, there is a small door and there is, in principle, a real possibility of exclusion and destruction. Did I just write that? YES. But that is the “first reading” or literal sense of the text, so let it be what it is and let Jesus say what he said. Dire warnings were common rhetorical devices of the first century, designed to persuade listeners to change course.
NOTE: Historically, the literal sense does not mean reading the whole Bible literally (that’s a modern aberration). Rather, the literal sense means noticing the use of rhetoric and interpreting the passage according to its correct literary genre.
[For a crash course in NT rhetoric, Ben Witherington III’s article, “Defining and refining the craft of persuasion: the history and practice of ancient rhetoric” is the best go-to summary]. 
2. What is this “narrow path”? In this passage, Christ makes it clear that the narrow path is not simply a profession of faith or name-dropping our association with Jesus. Then what is it? Christ explains it in great detail in his “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew 5-7 and it’s parallel “Sermon on the Plain” in Luke 6. Note how he describes the narrow path and small door in terms of the Jesus Way: specifically the “Golden Rule” and enemy love:
Matthew 7

12 So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. 13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.

27 “But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, turn to them the other also. If someone takes your coat, do not withhold your shirt from them. 30 Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back. 31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

Luke 6

31 Do to others as you would have them do to you. 32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. 35 But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

Jesus defines the narrow road and small gate in context as following Jesus in the way of love and self-giving, other-welcoming, radical forgiveness. Few opt for this door, he says, including many ‘believers,’ because we just don’t want to hear Jesus’ hard words and put them into practice (Matt. 7:24). But it’s the way–the only Way–to experience the life and peace of God’s kingdom. Those who reject the directions the Prince of Peace gives for walking under his reign of peace within their actual lives end up following the wide path and worldly way of unforgiveness and retaliation that inevitably leads to violence and death.  In the synoptic Gospels, Jesus’ warnings are especially directed at how the Temple establishment’s rejection of his Way of peace will lead to the fall of Jerusalem–both the immediate and archetypal outcome of their resistance to his Way. And in that sense, YES, only a few are saved! 
3. But the threat is only the rhetorical means of Jesus’ teaching, not its central point. His real and immediate point in these texts is to communicate the ethical program (the constitution) of the kingdom of God. For example, in Matthew 25, believe it or not, the sheep and goats judgment is not, first of all, about eschatology and the nature of the final judgment, but a means of laying out the kingdom ethic for compassionate care of the naked and hungry, the sick and the incarcerated, etc. It’s not about how it all ends, but primarily focused on the ethical content of our Spirit-empowered life in Christ now. But even this immediate point (what Jesus’ listeners were to hear)–the ethical core–is still only the “second reading.” There is a “third reading”: punchline or last word still coming.

4. If we are to take seriously the many NT inclusion texts (over 30 by my count) that speak of the God’s loving intention and sacrificial provision for ultimate reconciliation, then NT rhetorical threats should not be read as inevitable and ultimate. Whether these threats pertain to the fall of Jerusalem or to the final Day of Judgment, they are the penultimate word (that means the next-to-final or second last). They quite clearly describe the judgment we surely deserve but also await the closing punchline for Christ’s final verdict. 

5. The punchline of all Christ’s judgment rhetoric, after all sins and their prospective penalties have been accounted into the ledger, is the death and resurrection of Christ, where the judgment seat of the cross becomes the mercy seat of reconciliation. This punchline theme must weigh most as it comprises the finale or apex of revelation and of the gospel proper. That is, after we face seriously the reality of divine judgment, the Judge himself ascends his cruciform throne and offers the better verdict of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation. 
6. If the threats are only penultimate and if cruciform mercy prevails, do we simply ignore them? “May it never be!” Then how might they function as revelation for us today? What have they to do with “the faithful”? Most obvious is this simple truth from the passage: if we reject the narrow path of the Jesus Way, we reap the destructive consequences of going our own way. That’s how life works. That’s less of a threat than a fact. A quality-of-life decision worthy of a heads-up. We know this by experience and we should not presume that the rules of the game change toward the end. Although the true and final end has been established at the Cross, we can choose to journey there in the righteousness, joy and peace of the Jesus Way, or on the more popular detour through the vale of weeping eyes and gnashing teeth (even if that’s in this world or only penultimate).
7. What we don’t want to do is dismiss or distort Jesus’ own words to fit our theological system. So, I think we need to let our first reading of the text allow for Jesus’ biting jab at the religious establishment as he heads up to Jerusalem. But having let the weight of those words sink in, we then also move to these further readings that a. work seriously with the rhetorical genre, b. ethical content and most importantly, c. their climax at the Cross.
P.S. For readers who wish to dive more deeply into the harsh rhetoric of Christ’s parables, I offer this link to a discussion I moderated on “UnChristlike Images of God in the Matthean Parables.”
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