The question is always heard in a context.
Why ask Jesus this Question?
The unidentified person who asked Jesus this question asked it to Jesus for a reason. People were wondering about Jesus.
- He had exhibited power in miracle working and casting out demons.
- He was controversial because he didn’t quite fit into the categories of their culture war
- He made claims to be not just a prophet, but more than one. There were rumors he might be sent special by God to rescue Israel suffering under imperial occupation and oppression.
- There was enough of a chance that he might have insider information about what was happening in the heavens, behind the curtain. Everyone knew that matters on earth were controlled in the heavens. That’s why Romans and nearly everyone else looked to astrology to see what was about to happen, just like Californians look to the storm fronts over the Pacific to see if they will get rain enough to break the drought. It is certainly worth a question. But even if he answer the question will the asker believe the answer or just take it as just another tidbit in his murky process of analysis?
What Did the Question Mean to the Asker?
The Jewish people, both scattered through the empire and those still living in the tatters of the promised land, continued to debate the future with respect to their God, Yhwh.
- Some I’m sure had given up waiting for him and were trying to make their life work as more spiritual and less religious, looking for wisdom or spiritual strings to pull or loopholes to fit through.
- Some were holding to the tried and true, that Yhwh would return to restore the fortunes of Israel through a leader. Jesus was just the latest leader they would speculate upon. He showed promise, but as always opinions were divided. In any case such a leader would rescue ALL Israel, the ones separated by the proper rites of circumcision.
- Others were debating where the bar was for being a REAL Jew in good standing. Some had fled into the desert to remove themselves from the contamination of Greeks and Romans in their midst. Others, like the Pharisees asserted you could remain true Israel in the general population as long as you vigorously observe the law and oppose the corruption of God’s people. Unfortunately the various groups who would assert that circumcision and a few basic rights weren’t enough could not agree specifically on all that would be required to be saved.
The asker of the question probably wanted Jesus to weigh in on this theological point. Jesus will, however, deflect in a surprising way that will likely fail to offer the asker the definitive proof or evidence the asker was seeking. More on that later.
What Does he mean by “saved”?
The word “saved” can have a broad meaning but we do know from this context how Jesus understood the frame of reference.
Luke 13:28 (NET)
28 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves thrown out.
It may come as a surprise to many who only know Jesus by popular culture that he spoke more about a divided afterlife than anyone else in the Bible. This verse is typical. He envisions a grand party hosted by God where he and his friends enjoy all the wealth, culture and pleasure harvested from human history. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are commonly mentioned and exhibited as the first guests and patriarchs of the gathering.
The afterlife is divided most often by a door. Inside there is joy and feasting and community. Outside there is darkness, division, regret and despair.
In the context of the man’s question it all makes perfect sense. The man wants to know “who gets it and who doesn’t? How strict are the standards? Which set of rules must I adhere to? Is circumcision and some temple observance enough or must I be kind of strict like the Pharisees or really strict like the desert dwellers?
Within this question we should note, however, that the unspoken assumption was “will only a few JEWS be saved?” The question of Greeks, Romans, and everyone else wasn’t even a question. Of course they will be shut out, with all of the evil doers.
How do Westerners in Post-Christendom Hear in the Question?
The text is of course located in the Christian Greek New Testament. It is heard by many who have had experience with the basic Christian narrative as “will only a few make it to heaven when they die? Will many or most go to hell when they die and suffer everlasting torture and torment?”
Like the Jewish context many will hear it in different ways. You might see if you fall into one of these groups.
- Materialists, some skeptics, agnostics and atheists will see the question as pointless. The believe that when you die you stop. Your brain hosts your self so when the brain is dead the self stops. Death is the big sleep. Jesus has been long dead and isn’t coming again. This is a stupid Christian fable and the world will be improved the sooner it dies. There is no after-life threat to be saved from.
- Many who are “spiritual” but less religious will be curious about Jesus’ answer, because he’s obviously a spiritual superstar and maybe more, but “only a few” is vague. Many will surely assume that God is a God of love so most “good” people when they die will be just fine regardless of how spiritual or religious or moral they were. Most people mean well and do the best they can so on the whole God will let them into the party. Hell, or whatever you want to call it will be for “bad people”. Most people will have different ideas about what “bad people” are. Hitler, Stalin and pedophiles usually make the list. Individual people have particular opinions about this usually depending on their life story. It usually involves adversaries of one form or another, political or religious or personal.
- The religious and maybe spiritual will have more carefully formed ideas about this. It may include their religious group who qualify. Christian religious groups will of course know where some of this is heading because they’ve read the story before of they looked it up while we were chatting. The religious will probably have more tension in listening to the story. Jesus, for many of them is their Lord and so they will embrace what he says and see, like the original Jewish asker of the question, if they qualify.
Why do We Ask?
If you scan the Biblical gospels looking for these kinds of insider questions you might notice that Jesus almost always deflects. Jesus’ deflections are almost always frustrating to the askers because Jesus challenges the ground from which they ask.
Askers, like this person, want to position themselves as those in control, as a spiritual consumer, as a free agent or a responsible mover of history. What we want from Jesus is to fill out the landscape, especially the hidden places, so that we have enough information to keep imagining ourselves as the authors of our own destiny, the makers of our own fortunes, the captains of our own lives.
On one hand it might be tempting to follow this line of thought and say “well, truth be told I AM the product of my environment, my genetics, the time and space in which I was born. I am truth be told, no agent at all, but simply the product of the stream of inevitable history making any actions or decision I make for my part simply the product of a great long line of causation.”
Jesus could say this, but he never takes this tact either. He almost always turns the question back on the asker, noting that the perspective they are requesting from Jesus is beyond them, yet they do in fact are agents of their future and have important and consequential decisions to make.
What Jesus in fact maps out are the two errors that we most often fall victim to:
- We erroneously imagine that if we have all of the information, we will have power of will and circumstance enough to shape our future according to our tastes. Jesus notes that our powers are limited and lack of information is hardly the source of our most significant problems.
- We erroneously imagine that we are not agents at all but simply trapped in a stream of material, physical, sociological and psychological cause and effect making choice itself an illusion. This is a common suspicion of the suspicious today even though they can’t live within this suspicion at all. To truly believe this is to decide not to live. The only ones who truly live this way are hard core addicts, but they are ironically the ones who deny this position entirely.
What Jesus usually does in answering questions like these are hold up a mirror to the person to illuminate the deeper assumptions that are in fact putting them in the jeopardy they might fear but don’t understand.
The Answer that would Puzzle the Asker
Luke 13:23–30 (NET)
23 Someone asked him, “Lord, will only a few be saved?”
So he said to them, 24 “Exert 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 head of the house gets up and shuts the door, then you will stand outside and start to knock on the door and beg him, ‘Lord, let us in!’
But he will answer you, ‘I don’t know where you come from.’
26 Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’
27 But he will reply, ‘I don’t know where you come from! Go away from me, all you evildoers!’
28 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves thrown out.29 Then people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and take their places at the banquet table in the kingdom of God.30 But indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”
What was implicit to the asker but was obvious to us was that the asker assumes that his or her Jewish citizenship qualifies one for entrance to the party. The question was “how observant a Jew must I be?”
Jesus completely sidesteps it and casts down on whether or not the Jewish observance at all will have anything to do with it. This is not an answer the man was looking to receive. What Jesus says about “people will come from the east and west, north and south” seems to imply that Jewishness will not in fact be the criteria at all for who gets included in the party.
The conversation shifts from Jewishness to personal relationship. “Hey, I recognize you. We sat down together at a table. You taught down the street. I heard you. Let me in?!”
When the response is “go away you evil doer” a Jew in Jesus’ day would have heard the house-despot saying “I count you as those outside of God’s relational circle. Why would you be invited into a party of his friends. You are as a Greek or a Roman to a careful and observant Jewish householder.”
In different translations you will find different renderings of the Greek here. You’ll find “head of the house” or “owner of the house” but the Greek is “oikodespotes”. “oiko” is house and “despotes” is the root from which we get our English “despot”. It’s a bit of a rough word in English but the guy at the door here is owner of the house, controller of the party, his decisions are final, not subject to courts of appeals. The door is firm, no one will break it down.
The thing about most of Jesus’ “door” stories is that the doors express relationships, just like they do in our own homes. Doors determine who is in and who is out and what are the relationships like that decide who is in and who is out.
In this story, and many other of Jesus’ door stories timing is everything. Once the door is shut and the party underway it will not be opened. No late comers.
In this story timing seems to be nearly the only thing. It’s not a Jewish thing or a Gentile thing, it’s whether you were friends with the house-despot before he sat down to enjoy the party. Did you notice that in order to respond to the people for whom he wouldn’t open the door the house-despot needed to “get up”? Is that detail coincidental? No, it shows that the house-despot who is also the host was already reclined at the table and enjoying the feast. The knocking and pleading are annoying interruptions that the house-despot will resolve so the rest of the party will not be interrupted. It is an expression of the earnestness of the host.
Hearing the Answer
At this point most of us have already done some sorting out of the story. The Jewish asker has already been frustrated that not only has Jesus not revealed to him the insider information he was looking for, but Jesus has opened up all sorts of new complications and put the asker’s relationship with Jesus right at the center of them.
I would imagine that the asker and the overhearers at this point are quite divided and likely annoyed. They began the interaction taking a chance on an insider information question not really sure they would believe the answer, or Him anyway. They began as spiritual and religious consumers, imagining themselves the captains of their hearts and destinies and Jesus has just confused the matter all the more. Many upon hearing Jesus’ answer would simply walk away and think him an egotists or a madman. What makes this Jesus imagine he’s the house-despot and everything rises or falls on him. What makes this Jew imagine that he is the Jew of all Jews and that now, apart from circumcision and the work of the law and the temple relationship with him is all that counts for entry into the party of the patriarchs! Many would imagine this answer is over-reaching and offensive, especially when all they really wanted to do was engage in a theological/political debate of the day.
Surprisingly listeners today find themselves in a similar quandary. What Jesus has done here is to narrow their options.
What gets narrowed ironically is not the Christian religious or the atheist edges, but the middle.
Just recently I read a blog post entitled “Why I am Still a Christian” by a man who has a PhD in New Testament and taught at a prominent seminary. He’s been on a journey and this post marks where he is today.
I still believe. I still believe the story that tells me there is a God who honors this way of life which is, in its own way, the way of death. I believe that God honors it with life for the world. I believe that in its myriad micro-culminations it creates a more beautiful world than what we would create on our own.
I like what he has to say about the narrative, but I wonder where he falls with respect to the house-despot. Now if you listen to a lot of what the house-despot has to say about obedience to him “my friends will keep my commandments…” following his code is not an inconsequential thing, but neither is this very counter-cultural assertion that through prayer and the church one maintains what we call a relationship with this man who we claim is not only alive but ruling from the throne of heaven. The house, over which he is a despot is nothing less than heaven itself which rules over the creation.
Many will say “well I think its noble that you take this Jesus as your guide but to imagine that you actually have something like a living relationship with this man through prayers and whatnot is weird, or psychologically unhealthy, or socially awkward.”
It would be nice to stop our story here, at a spot where we can simply affirm our institutional tradition, but the part we’ve read is actually tied to a deeper part. It begins at verse 22.
Luke 13:22 (NET)
22 Then Jesus traveled throughout towns and villages, teaching and making his way toward Jerusalem.
Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and that means something. It means that all the miracles and talk and things Jesus has been doing in the Jewish hinterlands is about to get very real politically. Jesus’ followers and watchers are divided on whether or not he should go to Jerusalem. Galilee is safe. Jesus can do lots of things in Galilee and nobody will bother. One strategy might be to continue to gather strength in Galilee and then to develop them into an army and THEN to march to Jerusalem. To go to Jerusalem without an army is suicide. The followers who love him and care for him and his movement as they understand it get this.
Jesus, however, won’t be deterred.
Luke 13:31–35 (NET)
31 At that time, some Pharisees came up and said to Jesus, “Get away from here, because Herod wants to kill you.” 32 But he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Look, I am casting out demons and performing healings today and tomorrow, and on the third day I will complete my work.33 Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the next day, because it is impossible that a prophet should be killed outside Jerusalem.’34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those who are sent to you! How often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you would have none of it!35 Look, your house is forsaken! And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ”
Pharisees are middleists on the Jewish purity scale. They are a swing vote. Some are intrigued by Jesus, others frustrated, others furious. What they are together on is resisting Herod. They warn Jesus about what he and everyone else already know. Herod is the big cheese because Herod is the agent of the bigger cheese, Rome.
The Fox and Jerusalem
Just when you thought Jesus couldn’t get any bolder, casting himself as the house-despot, now he denigrates Herod to the status of fox. A fox in that culture, unlike ours is not a hot young woman or a crafty admired operator, but rather a varmint and a pest. He’s not a wolf, a bear or a lion, he’s something you set the dogs after to eliminate from your vineyard.
Jesus now in this passage denigrates Herod with his political and military power and notes what has become of the center of God’s work through Israel, Jerusalem.
Jerusalem was of course to the the special place where God establishes his scale model of his throne in heaven to gather and rule the peoples of the earth, from the north, south, east and west. At this epicenter all of the conflicts of the old story would converge which means that this was exactly where Jesus needed to go for the convergence of his story.
Herod imagined himself the ruler of Jerusalem but Jesus would return to it and he feared no pesky fox.
This of course enlivened the imagination of his followers along the lines of the temptations from last week. If, however, the asker’s assumptions had blinded and obstructed his access to “entering through the narrow door”, the center of power in Jerusalem and all of those dynamics made their welcome of Jesus virtually impossible. This had been proven again and again by Israel’s story with the prophets and now in Jesus’ coming it will come to its climax.
These passages ask us to make choices about Jesus. Splashing around in the spiritual kiddie pool really isn’t an option.
We can stand, as we naturally do, attempting to survey Jesus, longing to pull back the curtain for insider information all to maintain the illusion that we are the captains of our lives and destinies, trying to put God to the test. Jesus tell us he won’t have anything to do with this and that our project is folly. We are no such creature. We have no such power. We must choose while there is still time. Do we embrace the house-despot or move along?
Neither will embracing the entitlement of class, ethnicity, education or religious tribalism serve us according to Jesus. There is no way to “qualify” to force the door of the house-despot. We can approach him relationally, which will entail life choices down the line, or we can move on.
Either his narrative about the future, our future and the world’s is true or it isn’t. He claims that there will be a party, a door and a darkness. You might have doubts. Your freedom entitles you to them. That doesn’t change the fact that either this will come or it won’t.
Many I think look at the house-despot and say “yeah right word. I don’t want to serve ANY despot, someone who doesn’t acknowledge my value, worth and standing. If this is the one at the door I’ll take my chances outside. Why would I want to party with someone such as this?”
This response is actually very sane and clear headed. It is also, however, blind to how small we are and how weak a platform of pride we take to make our stand.
It might seem practical to try to evaluate all of this, maintaining our posture as captains, by looking for outcomes. Surely we can take a scientific approach to this? Isn’t it like all of the polling with the current presidential contest? Can’t we read the polls and anticipate who the winner will be and join that side to advantage ourselves?
The problem with Jesus is that he lost. In a particularly clever tweet aping Donald Trump someone this week I saw this.
The strange thing about this house-despot is that he fills the party with his friends, and these friends love him not because they are mercenary and want good food, but because of the lover he is. This house-despot knows the darkness because he entered it as the victim of the fox and his backers and those for whom the visitation and house of God were meant to bless. The house-despot is not a mere tyrant but a man of sorrows who actually longs that all would join the party. Keeping the door closed is likely mercy for those who would find the party offensive and the food poison. Those on the other side of the door of course can’t understand the closed door any other way than a violation of their rights and an offense to their dignity.
Gratitude: You are not the captain but neither are you just a product of cause and effect
So, will only a few be saved? Will you ask Jesus this question? Do you want to know?
Do you see that the house-despot is also a lover who will at once protect the party but also longs to have those outside come in to enjoy? Do you see that the problem is not “out there” but deep in ourselves? Do we know how we really are, what we really are and how beginning a relationship with this dead man is really the most important things you can possibly do?