He eats with lawyers and Pharisees!

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In a previous post I argued that Jesus’ initial prophetic aim was to gather together the inhabitants of Jerusalem—its Torah-observant Pharisees, scribes, and priests—into an eschatological remnant community. This community would stand firm on the day of judgement and then inherit the kingdom of God when it came in power.

History did not play out as expected though. The Pharisees, scribes, and priests by in large rejected Jesus and as a result Jesus’ mission to Israel’s elite slowly transformed into Jesus’ mission to Israel’s outcasts. I argued that this gradual transformation is most evident in Luke 13:34/Matthew 23:37 and in the parables of the Wicked Tenants and the Wedding Banquet. These texts present Jesus’ prophetic ministry in three parts:

  1. Jesus is sent to Jerusalem and its leaders to announce the coming reign of the kingdom of God.
  2. Jesus is rejected by those he came to evangelize.
  3. Jesus invites Israel’s sinners to take their place.

O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! (Luke 13:34)

Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. (Matthew 21:43)

A foretaste of Jerusalem

Further evidence for this pattern can be found in Luke’s unique portrayal of Jesus as one who dined with Pharisees and lawyers (Luke 7:36-50; 11:370-54; 14:1-24).

Though only singly-attested (L), this part of the Jesus tradition is likely historical for one main reason: the New Testament texts grow increasingly hostile towards Jews, and in particular towards Pharisees, as time progresses. In fact, while Paul still held out hope for the conversion of the Jewish people (Romans 11), the Evangelists entertained no such possibility. Rather, in order to explain Israel’s stubborn rejection of Jesus and the nation’s subsequent devastation by Roman armies, the Evangelists likened Jesus’ mission to Isaiah’s—both were ordained to fail from the start (Isaiah 6, cf. Mark 4:11-12, Matthew 13:10-15, Acts 28:25-28, John 8:42-47; 9:39). It is therefore unlikely that Luke would have concocted such seemingly cordial meals between Jesus and his already-condemned opponents.

If this is the case, Luke has preserved a primitive element of the Jesus tradition underneath the vitriol that became normative in the second half of the first century. Jesus and his first followers regularly ate with and debated Pharisees and lawyers in order to spread the good news. Their inclusion in or exclusion from the eschatological remnant community was still to be decided.

This initial disposition of goodwill towards the Pharisees, though often missed, is evident at other times in the Jesus tradition as well.

  1. The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat and therefore must be obeyed in all they teach (Matthew 23:2-3).
  2. Some Pharisees protect Jesus from a murderous Herod (Luke 13:31-32).
  3. The Pharisees are members of the flock that have not gone astray (Luke 15:3-7).
  4. The Pharisees are not in need of a physician because they are not sick. They are “righteous,” not sinners (Mark 2:17, Luke 5:31).
  5. The Pharisees are not as sinful as the sinners they criticize (Luke 7:36-50).
  6. The father in the parable of the Prodigal Son does not dispute the older son’s claim to have slaved away and never disobeyed his father (Luke 15:29-30).

In the end, however, Jesus’ willingness to forgive repentant sinners (Luke 7) and his deviant views on purity (Luke 11) and Sabbath (Luke 14) hindered his success with the Pharisees and Israel’s well-to-do. In response to severe resistance from Israel’s leaders, Jesus and his followers embraced both the acclaim of sinners and the censure of Pharisees: Jesus’ mission to the Torah-observant became Jesus’ mission to the tax collectors, prostitutes, and the unclean.

Though each of the meals presented by Luke results in schism between Jesus and his Pharisee hosts, they represent Jesus’ original desire to win over well-respected Torah-observant Jews.

As Jesus approached his goal, the city of Jerusalem, these meals in Galilee and Judea served as a foretaste of what was to come. The ones Jesus had hoped to eat the Passover meal with would reject him and lose their privileged place in the kingdom. Meals with lawyers and Pharisees were becoming meals with tax collectors and sinners.

13 thoughts on “He eats with lawyers and Pharisees!

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