Thursday, December 12, 2013

Experts In The Law (part 1)

They devour widows property, and as a show make long prayers… - Luke 20:47a  (NET)

In the forty-fifth verse of chapter twenty of his Gospel, Luke informs his audience that Jesus was speaking specifically to His disciples, but that “all the people were listening.”  As these two groups of people were listening to Jesus, they heard Him say “Beware of the experts in the law” (20:46a).  This phrase, “experts in the law,” is an oft-recurring phrase in all of the Gospel accounts.  At this point in Luke’s narrative, this phrase has already been used a number of times, thus creating an expectation on the part of those that are hearing this Gospel record read aloud (most likely in a performance fashion) in a single sitting. 

The first time this phrase is heard is in the fifth chapter.  There, Jesus has healed a paralyzed man, while also informing him that his sins were forgiven (5:20).  Without going in to all of the nuances of what was connoted by talk of the forgiveness of sins in first century Jewish thought, Jesus’ statement prompts a response on the parts of the “experts in the law and the Pharisees” (5:21a), as they “began to think to themselves, ‘Who is this man who is uttering blasphemies?  Who can forgive sins but God alone?’” (5:21b) 

To that thought must be added the fact that the Temple in Jerusalem, with its attendant priesthood, was understood to be the place of the Creator God’s mediation of the forgiveness of sins.  Therefore, Luke is communicating through his record of Jesus’ words and actions (with this record coming post-crucifixion and Resurrection) , that Jesus is seemingly offering implicit information about His own mission and the way that He perceives Himself. 

As a presumed forgiver of sins, Jesus is blatantly (and purposely) usurping the role of the Temple and the priests (Luke’s record indicates that Jesus will have much to say about the Temple and its leaders), while becoming a threat to the livelihood of those who managed the Temple.  This usurpation is also a commentary on the legitimacy and need for the Temple.  Thus, the reaction of the experts in the law and the Pharisees cannot be disconnected from this commentary on the Temple, which these two groups, in many ways, served and legitimated.  By calling the Temple itself into question through His actions and His mediation of forgiveness, Jesus is calling into question the roles of the experts in the law and the Pharisees as well.  This creates a charged situation and introduces a new dynamic into the culture. 

Now, just in case His words and actions of healing and forgiveness were not quite explicit enough, and just in case the challenge that He was offering to the Temple (which would have been well understood by Luke’s Jewish hearers) was not overt enough, Jesus adds “so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (5:24a).  So not only is Jesus acting in a messianic fashion, stoking hopes of rebellion and revolution and the overthrow of Rome that will bring an end to the occupation of Israel and thus making Himself a target for the empire, Jesus is making Himself a target for the Temple regime as well. 

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