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(1) The Galileeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.—The incident is not related by Josephus or any other historian, but it was quite in harmony with Pilate’s character. (See Note on Matthew 27:2.) We may fairly infer it to have originated in some outburst of zealous fanaticism, such as still characterised the followers of Judas of Galilee (Acts 5:37), while the pilgrims from that province were offering their sacrifices in the courts of the Temple, and to have been repressed with the same ruthless severity as he had shown in other tumults. It was probably one, at least, of the causes of the enmity between Herod and Pilate of which we read in Luke 23:12.
(2) Suppose ye that these Galilæans . . .?—The tale had probably been told with a conviction, expressed or implied, that the massacre had been a special judgment for some special and exceptional guilt. Our Lord at once, here as in John 9:7, sweeps away all their rash interpretations of the divine government, and declares that all, unless they repented, were under the sentence of a like destruction. The “likewise,” however, is hardly to be taken, as some have taken it, in a literal sense. Some, it may be of those who heard the words, perished by the sword of Titus, as the Galileans had done by the sword of Pilate, but hardly all who were impenitent. Still less could this be said of the form of death referred to in the verse that follows.
(4) Upon whom the tower in Siloam fell.—Here, again, we have a reference to an incident not recorded elsewhere. It was clearly one that had impressed the minds of men with horror, as a special judgment. At or near to Siloam, the modern Birket-Silwan, is a swimming-pool, or tank (John 9:7), where the valley of Tyropœon opens into that of the Kedron. It was supplied through artificial conduits, and appears to have been one of a series of pools so fed. It is not unlikely, connected as Siloam thus was with the water-system of the city, that the tower in question was part of the works which Pilate had planned, and partly executed, for the construction of an aqueduct, and for which he appropriated part of the Corban or sacred treasure of the Temple, and if so, the popular excitement which this measure caused (see Note on Matthew 27:2) might well lead men to look on its fall as an instance of a divine judgment on what they regarded as an act of sacrilege.
(6) A certain man had a fig tree.—The parable stands obviously in very close connection with the foregoing teaching. The people had been warned of the danger of perishing, unless they repented. They are now taught that the forbearance and long-suffering of God are leading them to repentance. The sharp warning of the Baptist, “Every tree that bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down” (Matthew 3:10), is expanded into a parable. As regards the outward framework of the story, we have only to note that the joint culture of the fig-tree and the vine was so common as to have passed into a proverb (2 Kings 18:31; Song of Solomon 2:13). The interpretation of the parable as to its general drift is easy enough. The barren fig-tree is the symbol of a fruitless profession of godliness; the delay represents the forbearance of God in allowing yet a time for repentance. When we come to details, however, serious difficulties present themselves. If we take the fig-tree as representing Israel, what are we to make of the vineyard? If the owner of the vineyard be Christ, who is the vine-dresser? Do the three years refer to the actual duration of our Lord’s ministry? Answers to these questions will be found in the following considerations:—(1) The vineyard is uniformly in the parabolic language of Scripture the symbol of Israel. (See Note on Matthew 21:33.) (2) The owner of that vineyard is none other than the great King, the Lord of Hosts (Isaiah 5:7). (3) If this be so, then the fig-tree must stand for something else than Israel as a nation, and the context points to its being the symbol of the individual soul, which inheriting its place in a divine order, is as a tree planted in the garden of the Lord. (Comp. Psalms 1:3; Jeremiah 18:8.) (4) The “three years” in which the owner comes seeking fruit can, on this view, answer neither to the three stages of Revelation—Patriarchal, Mosaic, and Prophetic—nor the three years of our Lord’s ministry, but represent, as the symbol of completeness, the full opportunities given to men, the calls to repentance and conversion which come to them in the several stages of their lives in youth, manhood, age. (5) The dresser of the vineyard, following the same line of thought, is the Lord Jesus Himself, who intercedes, as for the nation as a whole, so for each individual member of the nation. He pleads for delay. He will do what can be done by “digging” into the fallow ground of the soul, and by imparting new sources of nourishment or fruitfulness. If these avail, well. If not, the fig-tree, by implication every fig-tree in the vineyard that continued barren, would be cut down.
(7) Why cumbereth it the ground?—The Greek verb means more than that the fig-tree was what we call a useless burden or incumbrance, and implies positive injury. It is commonly rendered by “bring to nought,” or some like phrase. (In 1 Corinthians 13:8 it is rendered “fail.”) This would seem, indeed, to have been the old meaning of the English verb. Comp. Shakespeare’s Julius Cœsar, iii. 1:—
“Domestic fury, and fierce civil strife.
Shall cumber all the parts of Italy.”
(8) And dung it.—Literally, and put dung. Homely as the imagery is, it suggests fertilising and gracious influences not less vividly than the dew or rain from heaven, and points, perhaps, specifically to such as are working on us in our earthly surroundings, as contrasted with the directly supernatural action of God’s grace.
(9) And if it bear fruit.—Some of the better MSS. have, if it bear fruit in the time to come . . . With either reading the sentence is elliptical, and the insertion of “well,” as in the English, is needed to convey its meaning.
(10) And he was teaching in one of the synagogues.—The narrative that follows is peculiar to St. Luke. The indefiniteness as to time and place indicate that it was probably one of the previously unrecorded traditions which he met with when he entered on his personal search for materials. This is in part con firmed by the use of “the Lord” in Luke 13:15. (See Note on Luke 7:13.)
(11) Behold, there was a woman. . . .—The description indicates the accuracy of the trained observer. The duration of the affliction (as in Acts 9:33), the symptoms of permanent curvature of the spine, the very form of the two participles, bent together. . . . unable to unbend, are all characteristic. The phrase a “spirit of infirmity,” i.e., an evil spirit producing bodily infirmity, implies a diagnosis that the seat of the powerlessness, as in some forms of catalepsy and aphasia, was in the region in which soul and body act and react on each other. The presence of such a sufferer in the synagogue may, perhaps, be held to imply habitual devotion, and therefore the faith that made her receptive of the healing power.
(12) Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity.—Better, thou hast been loosed . . . The words were obviously a test of the woman’s faith. Would she, on hearing the words, make the effort to do what she had not done for eighteen years? The verb, it may be noted, is in the perfect. The work of healing was already completed.
(13) And he laid his hands on her.—The bodily act was, as in the analogous cases of the blind and dumb (see Note on Matthew 9:29), a help to the faith which was necessary, on the woman’s part, that she might receive the full benefit of the divine act of power. When this was done, she poured forth her joy (as the tense of the verb implies) in a continuous strain of praise.
(14) And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation.—The traditional law for the work of the Jewish physician was that he might act in his calling in cases of emergency, life and death cases, but not in chronic diseases, such as this. This law the ruler of the synagogue wished to impose as a check upon the work of the Healer here.
(15, 16) Doth not each one of you . . .?—The principle is the same as that in Matthew 12:11 (where see Note), but the case is put in even a stronger form. There the illustration is drawn from what might seem an exceptional act for an exceptional emergency; here from the regular practice of men, where their own interests were concerned. If they pleaded that it was not for their own interests, but those of humanity to the brutes committed to their charge, the answer was obvious that the daughter of Abraham was “better” than the ox or ass.
(16) Whom Satan hath bound.—The words imply the belief that there was another source than mere bodily disease for the infirmity—in part, at least, the belief that all disease—or very many forms of it—is directly or indirectly traceable to the power of the Enemy. So St. Paul’s “thorn in the flesh”—assuming it to be some sharp bodily suffering—is “the messenger of Satan.” (See Note on 2 Corinthians 12:7.)
It is obvious that this narrative would have for one like St. Luke a special interest over and above that which like narratives had for the other Evangelists. We can scarcely fail to think of the “beloved physician” as practising his art for the good of men, his brothers, on the Sabbath, as on other days. In doing so he would doubtless be met, on the part of Jews and Judaisers, with words like those of the ruler of the synagogue, “There are six days on which men ought to work; do thy work of healing on them.” For such a one it would be a comfort unspeakable to be able to point to our Lord’s words and acts as sanctioning his own practice.
(18-21) Then said he, Unto what is the kingdom of God like?—See Notes on Matthew 13:31-33. The first impression with most readers, in the absence of any apparent trace of sequence, is that we have an isolated fragment of our Lord’s teaching, torn from the context in which we find it in St. Matthew. On the other hand, we must remember (1) that our Lord was in the synagogue, and it was on the Sabbath day, and that so both time and place called for teaching of some kind; and (2) that the parables that follow may well be regarded but as samples of the teaching which those who were in the synagogue had treasured up in their memories. They were fit and edifying parables at any time; not least so, assuredly, at this. When proof had been given that the Kingdom of God had indeed come nigh unto men, it was well to set before them something as to its nature, its extent, its mode of working inwardly and outwardly; and the fact that the similitudes which did this had been used before, did not necessarily make them inapplicable or unprofitable when used again.
(22) And he went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying.—Literally, making a journey, as implying a circuit deliberately planned. This is apparently the continuation of the same journey as that of which Luke 9:51 recorded the beginning. There seems reason to believe, as stated in the Note on that passage, that it lay chiefly through the cities and villages of Peræa, the modern Hauran, on the east side of the Jordan. Such a journey, though with comparatively little record of what happened on it, is implied in Matthew 19:1, Mark 10:1, in the retirement “beyond Jordan” of John 10:40. It had led our Lord at first through Samaria (Luke 9:52), then back to Samaria and Galilee again (Luke 17:11), then either from the east, crossing the river, or from the west to Jericho (Luke 18:35).
(23) Are there few that be saved?—More accurately, that are being saved, or, that are in the way of salvation. The Greek participle is present, not perfect, and this sense should be borne in mind both here and in 2 Corinthians 2:15—still more so, perhaps, in Acts 2:47, where the English version gives, with a singular infelicity, “such as should be saved.”
We are left to conjecture to what class the questioner belonged, and what feelings prompted the question. Was he thinking of salvation in the higher Christian sense of the term, or of safety from that destruction of which Christ had spoken as coming on the impenitent people? In the mind of the questioner the two things may have been blended together, but the answer clearly points to the former, and we have sufficient evidence that such questions were agitating men’s minds in the apocryphal Revelation known as the Second Book of Esdras. This book is probably (in part, at least, certainly, see 2Es. 8:28-29), post-Christian, and has been assigned to the time of Nero, or Domitian, or Trajan; but it reflects with a wonderful fulness the fevered, anxious thoughts that were working among both Jews and Gentiles, and among those none is so prominent as that “many are created, but few shall be saved” (2EEsther 8:1; 2EEsther 8:3; 2Es. 8:55). Among the strange cabbalistic fancies of the Rabbis, one was an attempt to fix the number of the saved by the numerical value of the letters of this or that text that prophesied of the Kingdom of Heaven. Assuming the question to be of this nature, its form indicates that it was a speculative inquiry. A man anxious and in earnest would have asked, “What must I do to be saved?” And, being a speculative question, our Lord put it aside, gave no direct answer, and sought to force the man back on the thought of what was needed that he himself might take his place in that company.
(24) Strive to enter in at the strait gate.—See Notes on Matthew 7:13-14. Another instance of general teaching adapted to a special occasion. We note, however, the variation, “strive to enter in”—i.e., struggle as the wrestler struggles (the word being the same as that in 1 Corinthians 9:25; 1 Timothy 6:12), instead of the simple “enter ye in,” and the compression of the whole illustration.
(25) When once the master of the house . . .—The passage contains elements that are common at once to Matthew 7:22-23; Matthew 25:10-12, where see Notes.
(26) We have eaten and drunk . . .—Better, we ate and drank . . ., and Thou didst teach. The words differ slightly from those in Matthew 7:22, which put higher claims into the mouths of the speakers, “Did we not prophecy in Thy name . . .?” They are, i.e., the representatives of those who hold office in the Church of God, yet have not truly submitted themselves to the guidance of the Divine Teacher. Here the words clearly point to actual companionship, to the hopes that men were building on the fact that they had once sat at meat, in the house of Publican or Pharisee, with the Prophet whom they acknowledged as the Christ. In its wider application it, of course, includes all who in any sense eat and drink with Him now in visible fellowship with His Church, and who rest their hopes of eternal life on that outward communion.
(28, 29) There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.—See Notes on Matthew 8:11-12; but notice, as an interesting variation, the addition of the “prophets” to the names of the three patriarchs.
(30) And, behold, there are last . . .—See Note on Matthew 19:30. In point of time, it may be noticed, this is the first utterance of the great law that God’s judgment reverses man’s. When it was uttered in reference to the young ruler, it was but a fresh application of the wider law. Here the application is primarily national. Israel had been the first of nations, but it should become, in its outward fortunes, the last, and the heathen who had been “without hope and without God in the world” (Ephesians 2:12) should gain the high pre-eminence of being the heirs of the kingdom. The individual application of the words grows naturally, however, out of the national.
(31) Herod will kill thee.—This is the only intimation of such a purpose, and it is, of course, a question whether the Pharisees reported what they actually knew, out of feelings more or less friendly to our Lord, or invented a false tale in order that they might get rid of His presence among them, or were sent by Herod to announce his purpose as a threat that he might be rid of it. Our Lord’s answer, “Go tell that fox . . .,” points to the last of these views as the most probable. It is true that in Luke 23:8, we are told that Herod “had desired to see Him of a long season;” but oscillations of vague curiosity and vague fears were quite in keeping with the Tetrarch’s character. Accepting the conclusion suggested in the Note on Luke 13:22, that we have here a record of our Lord’s Peræan ministry, we may probably connect the message with the fact that His journeys had brought Him near Machærus, where John had been imprisoned, and in which was one of Herod’s most stately palaces (Jos. Wars, vii. 6). Thence the Pharisees may have come with a threat, in which we may possibly trace the hand of Herodias, and which, at least, reminds us of the message sent by Jezebel to Elijah (1 Kings 19:2). St. Luke’s knowledge of the incident may have been derived from Manaen; or, as Machærus was famous for hot medicinal springs, and for herbs that had a widespread fame for special virtues (Josephus, as above), it may have been one of the places to which he was attracted by his pursuits as a physician. (See Introduction.)
(32) Go ye, and tell that fox . . .—The word was eminently descriptive of the character both of the Tetrarch individually, and of the whole Herodian house. The fact that the Greek word for “fox” is always used as a feminine, gives, perhaps, a special touch of indignant force to the original. He had so identified himself with Herodias that he had lost his manliness, and the proverbial type of the worst form of woman’s craft was typical of him.
Behold, I cast out devils.—What was the meaning of the message? What we read in Luke 23:8, perhaps, supplies the answer to that question. Herod “hoped to have seen some miracle done by Him,” and Jesus, reading his thoughts, tells him that the time for such sights and wonders was all but over. One day, and yet another, and yet a third—so our Lord describes, in proverbial speech (comp. the analogous forms of Exodus 5:14; Hosea 6:2), an interval of very short duration, and then “I am perfected.” The word is strictly a present tense used predictively, and may be either middle or passive in its meaning, the latter being most in harmony with the use of the verb elsewhere. “Then I am brought to the end; then I reach the goal of this human life of Mine.” Very noteworthy in connection with this passage is the prominence given to the verb throughout the Epistle to the Hebrews, as, e.g., in Hebrews 2:10; Hebrews 5:9.
(33) Nevertheless I must walk.—Better, I must journey, or, I must go onward, the word being that used in Luke 9:51; Luke 9:53. The words indicate the intensity of conviction and of purpose as that expressed before. I cannot bring myself to accept the words that follow—“to-day and to-morrow . . .”—as meaning that there were but three days to pass before He should enter Jerusalem. It would not have been true in fact. It would have seemed obvious, had we not too abundant proof of men’s want of power to enter into the poetic forms of Eastern speech when they differ from our own, that the literal meaning here is altogether out of place, and that the same formula is used as in the preceding verse, with the same meaning—i.e., as conveying the thought of a short, undefined interval.
It cannot be that a prophet perish out of Jerusalem.—The word used here for “it cannot be,” occurs in this passage only of the New Testament, and has a peculiar half-ironical force—“It is not meet, it would be at variance with the fitness of things, it is morally impossible.” Jerusalem had made the slaughter of the prophets a special prerogative, a monopoly, as has been said, of which none might rob her.
(34, 35) O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, which killest the prophets.—See Notes on Matthew 23:37-39. Here, as in other like cases, we have to choose between the alternatives of the words having been spoken on two different though similar occasions, or of one of the Evangelists misplacing the words which were actually spoken but once. As with most other passages thus re-appearing in a different context, I hold the former to be by far the most probable. In each report, it may be noted, they fit into the context with a perfectly natural coherence.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Luke 13". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany