Luke makes a point to call attention to the nefarious desire of the experts in the law, as in the nineteenth verse of chapter twenty, after Jesus has delivered yet another parable that is deemed to be yet another scathing rebuke of these antagonistic characters, we hear “Then the experts in the law and the chief priests wanted to arrest Him that very hour, because they realized He had told this parable against them” (20:19a). After this, Luke presents the story of Jesus being questioned about paying taxes to Caesar (20:20-26). This is followed by a strange bit of questioning from the Sadducees in regards to marriage and the resurrection (20:27-40).
We note, with interest, that the Sadducees here make their lone appearance in Luke’s Gospel, and this, after the Pharisees have dropped out of view. Looking to Acts, where we have learned that some members of the Pharisees have joined with the Christian community, we also find conflict between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the twenty-third chapter (in relation to Pau’s trial), in which the Pharisees (believers in the resurrection of the dead) are pitted against the Sadducees (“who contend that there is no resurrection” (20:27) – repeated in Acts 23:8). In addition to the fact that Luke, in the second portion of his narrative, cannot simply have the Sadducees appearing out of nowhere, but needs to have them in conflict with Jesus, our previous excursus and possible conclusion in regards to the situation with the Pharisees and their disappearance from Luke’s narrative may also serve to explain Luke’s cursory mention of the Sadducees.
Jesus then goes into a dissertation, followed by a question, about the Messiah being both King David’s son and Lord (20:41-44), with this followed by Jesus’ warning to “Beware of the experts in the law” (20:46a). This comes on the heels of what looks like it could have been a paradigm shift in Luke’s presentation of the experts in the law. After Jesus had answered the questioning of the Sadducees, flatly rebuking their resurrection-denying position in the process, we read that “some of the experts in the law answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well!’” (20:39). Luke also reports that “they did not dare any longer to ask Him anything” (20:40), though this could apply equally to both the Sadducees and the experts in the law.
Those who are listening to this story, and who are familiar with the Jesus traditions, already know what is soon to happen. Indeed, those that may be unfamiliar with Jesus, who are hearing or reading this presentation, owing to the heightening sense of conflict, as well as Jesus’ actions in the Temple (the tremendous importance of which would be readily recognized by any denizen of the first century---or any century in almost any place for that matter), will more than realize that this story is building to a grand finale. Throughout the story, lines of demarcation are being drawn, and by this point, it is quite clear as to who it is that is going to ultimately be playing the role of villain in this story. Any reasonable person knows that the experts in the law have been positioned as the chief villains, and it merely remains to be seen how Luke’s telling of the Jesus story plays out. The potential paradigm shift comes with this report about the words of the experts in the law. It provides something of a ray of hope for them. This, along with the fact that the Pharisees are no longer the consistent companions of the experts in the law, with their role having been almost completely taken up by the chief priests, might cause one to think that the experts in the law are going to change their position concerning Jesus. Accordingly, perhaps Jesus will change His position concerning them.
Of course, we see that this is not to be. After a glimmer of hope appears for them, this light is quickly extinguished, as Jesus warns the people away from them. We should have come to expect this anyway. Not only have they been well-positioned as the villains of Luke’s narrative, as we can imagine boos and hisses from the crowd whenever they make their appearance on the stage of the story, but after all that we have seen and heard, Jesus adds that “They like walking around in long robes, and they love elaborate greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets” (20:46). Naturally, with Luke’s audience having heard what was said by Jesus in the fourteenth chapter, along with the parable that followed (that of the great banquet), this mention of the burning desire for places of honor at banquets will not be lost on Luke’s hearers. They, as should we, will make the connections. The final nail is driven into their figurative coffins as Jesus informs His hearers (and Luke’s hearers), that these experts in the law, “devour widows’ property” (20:47).
They devour widows’ property? This is unconscionable! How do they do this? Is there evidence of this? Absolutely, there is evidence, and Jesus immediately points His hearers to the evidence, as He “looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box. He also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. He said, ‘I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all offered out of their wealth. But she, out of her poverty, put in everything she had to live on.’” (21:1-4) For too long we have looked upon this as Jesus offering a commendation to this widow, as she was willing to sacrifice all that she had for the Temple. It must be seen, rather, as a rebuke to the Jerusalem Temple, its system, and all associated with it. Indeed, Jesus sees the offering of this widow as a tragedy, as her property was completely devoured by a corrupt system, full of robbers, which He had already condemned. This will become especially clear if we rightly incorporate the idea that Jesus is the true Temple. This Temple, already “adorned with beautiful stones and offerings” (21:5b), and its functionaries, should have been lavishing care upon this poor widow, exercising justice and mercy, rather than taking that which she could not afford to give. This would have been the proper attitude of those that were supposed to be representing the faithful and gracious God of Israel. However, with the portrait of the experts in the law that has been painted, there is nobody, reading or hearing, that is surprised at what has just happened.
Little wonder then, that the remaining mentions of the experts in the law to be found in Luke take the form that they do. Along with the Temple, Jesus has condemned them, so we are not surprised to hear that “The chief priests and the experts in the law were trying to find some way to execute Jesus” (22:2a), that they played a role in an unjust and illegal trial in which “the council of the elders of the people gathered together, both the chief priests and the experts in the law” (22:66), and that “The chief priests and the experts in the law were… vehemently accusing Him” (23:10). The point, which Luke had begun to make very early in his work (in the fifth chapter), when Jesus takes up the role of the Temple by forgiving sins, adding healing to that, with this immediately questioned by the experts in the law (their first mention), is that Jesus is the true Temple. Luke wants all to know that Jesus, as the embodiment of Israel’s God, is the place where God resides.