In the ninth chapter of Luke we hear Jesus say that “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22). This comes on the heels of Jesus proffering two questions to His disciples, which were “Who do the crowds say that I am?” (9:18b) and “But who do you say that I am?” (9:20a), along with Peter’s response of “The Christ of God” (9:20b). Peter’s response is better translated as “the Messiah of God,” which, based upon the myriad of beliefs concerning what it is that the messiah would do, which included, based on the way that previous messianic claimants had gone about their business, the throwing off of Rome’s yoke. Peter’s confession is a highly charged political statement, and owing to that, widespread and public voicing of the claim could lead to an open and premature conflict with the governing Roman authorities.
Though other messianic figures desired to bring about a confrontation with Rome in the mold of the Maccabean heroes, this was not Jesus’ intention. Luke shows us that Jesus did not want His disciples getting ahead of themselves or getting the wrong idea, thus explaining his reporting that Jesus “forcefully commanded them not to tell this to anyone” (9:21). Rather than press concerns over Rome and the rule of the land, Jesus’ response to Peter, in which He spoke of the need to suffer and die at the hands of the Temple authorities (though Rome would be instrumental in His execution), continues to frame Jesus’ issues with the “experts in the law” (and the always attendant Pharisees) in terms related to the Temple and its activities. If Jesus thinks of Himself as a replacement for the Temple, which He would do if He saw Himself as the Messiah---the embodiment of Israel’s God acting within history and therefore the place of God’s dwelling, then this narrative presentation of a conflict with those that represented the Temple makes a great deal of sense. As Luke writes a narrative that will be useful for the people of God that largely saw themselves as a new Temple, a portion of Luke’s purposes, as we remember that the Gospels were historically rooted theological tractates, comes squarely into focus.
Advancing to the eleventh chapter (while remembering that there were not chapter and verse divisions in the original text and that the narrative was most likely designed to be read aloud in an oral performance in a single sitting), we come to the fifty-second verse and hear Jesus say “Woe to you experts in religious law! You have taken away the key of knowledge! You did not go in yourselves, and you hindered those who were going in” (11:52). Obviously, this is another statement that cannot be taken as anything less than highly critical. This is followed by Luke’s report that “When He went out from there, the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to oppose Him bitterly, and to ask Him hostile questions about many things, plotting against Him, to catch Him in something He might say” (11:53-54). This artfully builds on the tension that Luke weaves into his narrative. If we were to review Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ adversaries, we would see that they began with a voiceless questioning of Jesus’ legitimacy, that they moved to an open complaint about His activities, that they proceeded to a desire to be able to accuse Jesus that grew into a mindless rage against Him, and that all of that has now reached a fevered pitch of bitter opposition that is part of a larger plot to bring Him down. There is a rising hostility here, and it is related not to some issues of the preaching of grace versus an outmoded legalism, but rather, to issues surrounding the Temple, its function, and its functionaries. Indeed, we can see as much in this particular passage.
This section began with the report that “One of the experts in religious law answered Him” (11:45a) in regards to accusations that Jesus has just made against the Pharisees, concerned that Jesus’ insults against the Pharisees were insults against them as well. Not backing down in the least, but rather, creating an even more tense situation, Jesus responds with “Woe to you experts in religious law as well! You load people down with burdens difficult to bear; yet you yourselves refuse to touch the burdens with even one of your fingers! Woe to you! You built the tombs of the prophets whom your ancestors killed” (11:46-47). This dissertation by Jesus culminates in what we saw in verse fifty-two. Without getting into an effort to exegete precisely what is implied by Jesus accusations attached to His repeated pronouncements of “woe” against the experts in religious law, what we find being said prior to the final offering of “woe” in the fifty-second verse, crystallizes the locus of Jesus’ problems with the experts in the law and the Pharisees. Jesus makes reference to the Temple as He mentions Zechariah, “who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary” (11:51b). The reference to the Temple is unmistakable, and would be rightly understood by His interlocutors.