Most people don’t realize that many if not most of Jesus’ parables were intended not as general morality tales, but as particular pronouncements of coming judgment and change. Jesus was warning Jerusalem to repent and to accept its new King (Jesus) or else fall under ultimate condemnation of God. In fact, much of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels pertains primarily to that pre-ad 70 crowd, and without reading it in this light, we misunderstand it. And when we misunderstand it, we misapply it.
The following section of Luke requires this understanding. The parables Jesus tells during His final journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-20:26) almost all pertain to the rebellion, faithlessness, judgment, and coming destruction of Jerusalem.
In the Gospel of Luke, an important turning point comes in chapter 9. In Luke 9:51, Jesus decides to make His final ascent to Jerusalem from Galilee, and He turns with strong determination to go that way: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The phrase “set his face” is a little weak in my opinion. The Greek word for “set” here indicates a steadfast resolve: he fixed his face, or firmly set his face. The Greek word sterizo is probably distantly related to the Greek word often translated “cross” (stauros). A stauros referred to the upright member of that Roman instrument of cruelty: a sturdy pole that was fixed uprightly in the ground and upon which the cross-member with the victim of crucifixion would be fixed as well. The word indicates strong fixity.Ironically, Jesus had made His first reference to the cross just a few verses earlier: “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.’” (Luke 9:23-24). We don’t often stop to think at this verse that Jesus’ audience did not already have the Christian story of the cross in their background. He had not yet explained that He would be crucified. All they would have understood at this point would have seemed like hyperbole: gentle Jesus meek and mild says following Him will be as rough as Roman torture and execution. He expects me to take up a cross?
Now, in Luke 9:51, He fixes His face toward that very destiny for Himself.
The 65-mile journey from Galilee to Jerusalem would take at least three days on foot, and this only if you went directly through Samaria. Many Jews would take a longer route around, wishing to avoid contact with the “half-breed” idolatrous Samaritans (as they saw them). Jesus did not refuse them, and took His message directly to the Samaritans as well: “And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him.”
But everyone could see it in His face: He was intent on going to Jerusalem; and thus “the people did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53).
Being disdained by the Jews, the Samaritans returned the favor. They took something of a puritan position—they accepted only the books of Moses as authoritative, and insisted that the true biblical place of worship was the original place of blessing, Mt. Gerizim (Deut. 11:29; 27:12; cf. Josh. 8:3; 9:7), not Jerusalem. Jesus had already had this discussion with a Samaritan woman (John 4:19-26), and had rejected the Samaritan view.
It is no wonder, then, that when the Samaritans perceived Jesus to be fixed on going to Jerusalem they did not receive Him, for they took His Jerusalem focus as a rejection of their central beliefs. He was definitely not one of them.
In His rejection of the Samaritan view, however, Jesus also rejected the traditional Jewish view. The truth would be something altogether different:
Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:21-23, my emphasis).
Jesus’ comment here gives us a particular insight into His ascent to Jerusalem that began in Luke 9:51. From this point forward, Jesus would do nothing but elucidate, repeat, and intensify that very message: God is calling out the true worshippers, and Jerusalem would not be a part of the long-term future.According to Jesus, the hour for this great change was coming, and in fact “is now here,” meaning it had already begun in that time, in the first century. His disciples were clearly angered by the cold treatment from the Samaritans. They wanted to call down God’s vengeance:
And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them. And they went on to another village.
The less reliable manuscripts include additional text saying how exactly he rebuked them. The King James reads, “But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them” (vv. 55-6). But this is almost certainly added to the original text later (in fact, some of these various later manuscripts that include additional text differ from each other in what Jesus allegedly said). The story should read that He simply rebuked them.
This rebuke does not mean that Jesus did not have judgment in mind. Indeed, He very likely had judgment primarily on His mind. But it simply was not yet time: He did not want immediate judgment, because the ultimate witness to His message had not yet occurred. In just a brief time the Pharisees would confront Jesus demanding a sign. He would respond: “This generation is an evil generation. It seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of Jonah. For as Jonah became a sign to the people of Nineveh, so will the Son of Man be to this generation” (Luke 11:29-30; see also Matt. 12:39-42).
Jesus’ resurrection had to occur first. Then the Gospel had to go out to all the nations with this very sign as a witness (Matt. 24:14). This would occur (and it did occur—Acts 17:6; Acts 24:5; Rom. 1:8; Col. 1:5-6) and “then shall the end come” (Matt. 24:14). But until that moment came, it was not time for vengeance, only prophetic warning.
I don’t think it has been widely enough noted just how intensely Jesus’ journey ministry (Luke 9:51ff) focused on that warning of Jerusalem’s impending judgment. We have often noted Luke’s version of the Olivet Discourse (Matt. 24) in Luke 21, and that much is clear. But really from the moment He sets his face to go to Jerusalem, the lawsuit against unfaithful Judaism dominates His message and His journey. The proceeding chapters of Luke right up to the Olivet denunciation in chapter 21 contain no less than 27 separate denunciations and warnings. These were not general warnings against wickedness; they were pointed accusations specifically directed at Jerusalem and the unbelieving Jews.
Jesus fulfilled the prophet’s role of bringing a covenant lawsuit against an unfaithful covenant partner—in this case, Jerusalem. She had been unfaithful. Her idolatries amounted to spiritual adultery. This is why Jerusalem is called the “Great Whore” in Revelation 17-18. Earlier prophets had used the same theme (Jer. 3; Eze. 16:26).
About half of these 27 instances are parables. We have not often enough expressed how directly these parables apply to the coming destruction of Jerusalem. Jesus did not simply tell them as morality tales to make good little boys and girls. He told them as barbed warnings against the unbelieving city upon which He had just fixed His face.
Charges of Unfaithfulness
During the journey that followed the turning point in Luke 9:51, Jesus told at least 14 politically charged threats of judgment in parable form. Before the great divorce, Jesus would lay out the whole case. Here is how we should understand the relevant parables in this section of Scripture.
The Good Samaritan (10:25-37)
Jesus had just traveled through Samaria, and in fact might still have been on the fringes of that region. The road to Jericho featured in the story crossed right through that very region (Jesus Himself would travel through Jericho during this journey—Luke 19:1). It was fitting, then, for Jesus to leverage the animosity between Jews and Samaritans for this parable. It was a lawyer who came to Him asking how to inherit eternal life. He was a details man who also had that universal human knack for rationalizing his behavior around minute points of law and fact. The indictment against
Israel here comes in two ways: First, Jesus’ unfolding of the true nature of the law. It is not series of hurdles for which you earn merits for jumping; it is a guide to the great commandment of love. Israel with all of her rites, rituals, and purities had ignored this. Jesus would later berate the lawyers for turning the law into heavy burdens upon people’s backs (Luke 11:45-6). Second, and this was the real shocker, a random Samaritan could better represent true religion than a Pharisee or a Levite! This was direct condemnation of the Pharisees’ boast in their purity and the Levites’ attention to their Temple rituals—both of which had become devoid of God’s mercy and love. Now that was radical. Could it really be better to be a half-breed Samaritan than a Pharisee or even a priest? Jesus had gotten the lawyer to confess this with his own mouth. Jesus said, “Go, and do thou likewise.” In this parable, Jesus reveals how Israel had perverted and thereby ignored God’s law—the very law of the covenant.
Parable of the Strong Man (11:15-26)
Having been accused of casting out demons by Beelzibub, Jesus responds by arguing that a divided kingdom cannot stand. He immediately applies this for His own kingdom as well, which was not divided:
But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you…… Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. (11:20, 23).
The illustration of the stronger man binding the weaker was of Jesus binding Satan. It was now time for His audience to choose whether they would side with the Stronger Man or the bound. Jesus had indeed driven out the devil. But should these unbelieving Jewish listeners continue not to accept Jesus into their house, that house would be left empty and vulnerable to attack from Satan.
Jesus began His response here referring to desolation: “Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation” (Luke 11:17 KJV). The Greek word for “desolation” (from eremoo) has a technical pedigree attached specifically to God’s judgment upon Israel for covenant unfaithfulness. Leviticus 26:21-43 is the seminal promise of desolation for unfaithfulness: the words “desolate” or “desolation” appear seven times within just 20 verses of these covenantal curses. The word then appears dozens of times in the prophets, including Daniel’s famous reference to “the abomination of desolation” (Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11), all in reference to judgment. Jesus later refers directly to a then-coming desolation of the house of Israel (Luke 13:34-35; 21:20; Matt. 24:15).
Desolation contrasts with living presence. The desolation was not primarily an absence of the people in the land (though this was a product of it), but was primarily a reference to the absence of God from among the people and the land. Whereas for obedience God promised to make His dwelling and “walk among” His people (Lev. 26:11-12), the curse for disobedience meant desolation. We see, for example, God literally leaving the Temple due to the people’s rebellion (Eze. 10-12). The Lord leaves the Temple and goes over to the Mount of Olives.
This corresponds to the house left “swept” (empty) and “in desolation” in Luke 11. God in the flesh, Jesus, was dwelling and walking among the covenantal people (Emanuel, God with us). But they, being rebellious, reject Him. This was the ultimate priestly infraction—to reject and murder God’s chosen High Priest. Thus, He announces the coming desolation of the house. After He arrives, inspects, and finds corruption in the Temple (Luke 19:45-46; Matt. 21:12-15), He literally culminates His prosecutorial lawsuit—just as He did in Ezekiel 12:22-25—by removing His presence from the Temple and going to the Mount of Olives (Matt. 24:3; Mk. 13:3). From there He pronounces the coming desolation of that house (Matt. 24; Mark 13; Luke 21).
Not only is Jesus threatening the “faithless generation” (Luke 9:41; 11:29-32, 50-51) with “desolation” (11:17, 13:34-35; 21:20), but there is further textual correlation with Leviticus 26. Four times in Leviticus 26 God promises that if the rebellious Jews do not respond to His chastisements, He will punish them seven times more for their sins (Lev. 26:18, 21, 24, 28). In Jesus’ parable in Luke 11:26, the cast-out demon goes and finds seven more demons to return and possess the desolate house.
In announcing this seven-fold worse punishment, God phrases it this way: “I will set my face against you” (Lev. 26:17). The Greek phrase in the Old Testament Greek (called the “Septuagint” or LXX) is the same as in our turning-point passage here (Luke 9:51): Jesus “set His face” to go to Jerusalem. In Leviticus 26:17, God says His face will be set against the people. This Greek phrase eph’ humas “against you” obviously designates judgment in this context. The exact same phrase appears in the Strong Man parable: “the kingdom of God has come upon you [eph’ humas]” Luke 11:20). In the person of Jesus, the Strong Man, the kingdom had indeed come not only “upon” but literally “against” the unfaithful people.
Some people may find it difficult to believe this “binding the strong man” passage has its primary if not only interpretation in the first-century context of unbelieving Israel. But the parallel account in Matthew makes this context and application explicit. After his version of the story where the wicked spirit is cast out, Matthew records Jesus concluding with this statement:
Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation” (Matt. 12:45).
The last sentence in this verse proves the context: Jesus was applying this parable of judgment to “this generation”—the generation to whom He was speaking. And, that generation Jesus considered “evil,” and thus deserving of the judgment that was to come. He was bringing a legal declaration of desolation to come. He had truly set his face against Jerusalem.
[This essay and many more like it are available in the author’s book Jesus v. Jerusalem: Jesus’ Lawsuit Against Israel.]