Who is included in and excluded from the kingdom in Luke 13?

The gospel lectionary reading for Lent 2 in this Year C is Luke 13.31–35, and once again the lectionary does us something of a disservice by cutting this short passage off from its surrounding narrative. That is not such a problem in relation to what follows, since Luke begins chapter 14 with a clear narrative break, ‘And it happened, he [Jesus] going to the house of a Pharisee on a sabbath…’ which is emphasised in many English translations by starting the sentence with the time marker: ‘One sabbath, Jesus went to…’. But the there is more of a problem in the detachment of the lectionary reading from the passage that precedes it, for several reasons.

First, the previous pericope begins with a generalised reference to Jerusalem in Luke 13.22: ‘Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem.’ Luke is not here offering any specific reference to allow us to locate the discussion that follows, but is reminding us of the ‘journey’ motif that he introduced in Luke 9.51, so that this second section of his account (following the opening Galileean ministry) pictures Jesus as travelling determinedly to the city, and that the challenge of discipleship is to join Jesus on this spiritual and metaphorical journey. That journey motif is implicit in our reading as background to the Pharisees’ question, and the reference to Jerusalem becomes explicit in Luke 13.34.

Secondly, although the temporal marker in Luke 13.22 is quite general, our reading is linked to it quite explicitly in the phrase ‘at that time’ (Ἐν αὐτῇ τῇ ὥρᾳ). This is quite emphatic, and is a phrase unique to Luke in the New Testament, occurring at Luke 2.38, 10.21, 12.12, here at Luke 13.31, 14.17, 20.19, 24.33 (seven times!) and in Acts 16.18 and 22.13. In other words, with dialogue with the Pharisees is explicitly located within the preceding conversation that took place on the journey.

Thirdly, both passages address the issue of the paradox of inclusion and exclusion in the kingdom which is characteristic of Luke’s gospel, as we shall see.

The two passages also share the same narrative dynamic: Jesus is asked a question, and that leads on to a discourse starting with an answer to the question, but moving on to related issues. We can see the same happening before, in Luke 12.41 and 13.1, and then in the following chapter at Luke 14.14, as well as elsewhere in the gospel. There would not really be any problem in having our reading beginning at Luke 13.22; there is no reason why we should not modify what the lectionary tells us.

The question of whether ‘only a few will be saved’ was a subject of lively debate in Second Temple Judaism. Although Jesus’ language of people coming to feast in the kingdom in Luke 13.29 echoes the prophetic vision of Isaiah 25.6–9, this ‘universal’ vision had been transformed in 1 Enoch 62 into a vision of judgement of all people, and the Qumran community saw salvation as drawn even more narrowly, to exclude not only the Gentiles but also compromised Jews (1 QSam 2.5–22). A typical view of this perspective is found in 4 Ezra 8.1:

The Most High made this world for the sake of many, but the world to come for the sake of the few.

Jesus’ answer reads slightly oddly to anyone who knows Matthew’s gospel, since the discourse as we have it in Luke corresponds to a number of separate sayings of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel (only one of which is also found in Mark):

  • Matt 7.13–14: enter by the narrow gate
  • Matt 25:10–12: the door is shut…’I do not know you’
  • Matt 7.22–23: ‘Depart from me, you evildoers’
  • Matt 8.11–12: Many will come from the east and the west…wailing and gnashing of teeth
  • Matt 19.30, 20.16: many that are first will be last (and in Mark 10.31)

There is no need to think that Jesus said any of these things only once, so bringing them together might not be just Luke’s editorial action—but there are plenty of other indicators that the gospel writers were happy to gather connected sayings of Jesus together when they had a theme in common.

But presented together in this way by Luke, Jesus’ teaching here has a striking effect. First, though it is unclear exactly who has asked the question, Jesus’ responses are clearly directed to the crowd around him, including the disciples: notice the repeated ‘you’, ‘you will stand…’, ‘you will say…’ in contrast to the reference to ‘they’ in the parallel sayings in Matthew. In contrast to some of the other voices in Judaism of the time, Jesus is being very clear that ethnic identity, in and of itself, is no guarantee of salvation; something more is required. More than that, mere proximity to Jesus is not sufficient either: ‘We ate and drank in your presence…’ ‘I never knew you’. This is an important insight into Jesus’ table fellowship with ‘sinners’ and is something that Luke has made explicit earlier. In response to criticism that Jesus eats with ‘sinners and tax collectors’, he is very clear of the purpose of this:

I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5.32).

Luke is bringing out an emphatic aspect of the challenge of Jesus to those who follow him: unless we both hear his teaching and do something about it (i.e. repent) then we remain ‘evildoers’ (compare Ps 6.8). There is an urgency to respond in the present to the message of Jesus, since there will come a time when it is too late. And the image of the narrow door (here and in Matthew) indicates ‘the arduous nature of discipleship: it is a struggle, not a stroll’ (Mikeal Parsons, Paideia Commentary on Luke p 222).

Alongside this emphasis on narrow exclusion, Luke puts next to it Jesus’ teaching on the broad inclusion of those ‘from the east and the west and the north and the south’. The parallel saying in Matt 8.11–12 in the context of healing of the centurion’s servant makes it clear that these people are Gentiles (and in that gospel it stands out against the general emphasis that the gospel is primarily for the ‘lost sheep of the house of Israel’). If ethnic identity is no guarantor of salvation, but response to Jesus in repentance and faith opens to the door to the kingdom, it follows (theo-)logically that anyone who responds in this way will be included.

In our lectionary reading, clearly located in the context of the preceding narrative by the ‘at this time’, some Pharisees warn Jesus about the threat of Herod Antipas. In Luke’s gospel, the Pharisees are not portrayed in a universally negative light, and there is no hint here that their intention is malevolent. But their warning illustrates the contrast between their view and Jesus’ perspective in two ways. First, they think it important that Jesus avoids opposition and the threat of death, where Jesus consistently has set his face to this destiny as the working out of God’s plan and calling. Secondly, there is the question of where Jesus will meet his end, and he is determined to follow the proverbial example of the prophets before him in facing his destiny in the Holy City, which stands eponymously for the nation of Israel. Will the people respond to the presence of God that has come to them in the ministry of Jesus?

The metaphor of ‘fox’ with reference to Herod could suggest either cunning or intelligence, but in context neither of these is likely. Another proverbial sense of the word is of malicious destructiveness; if you have kept chickens and been visited by a fox, you might have experienced the loss of one chicken and the pointless killing of the others, as though the fox just enjoyed the killing spree.

Upon hearing of Herod’s threat, Jesus pegs the Tetrarch as a varmint in the Lord’s field, a murderer of God’s agents, a would-be disrupter of the divine economy (Darr, Character Building cited in Joel Green’s NICNT on Luke, p 536).

This meaning would fit with the context here, and also the portrayal of Herod in Luke’s gospel. Apart from his involvement in the death of John the Baptist, Luke alone notes his role in Jesus’ own trial in Luke 23.7–12. Jesus’ description of his ministry being completed ‘on the third day’ is an allusion to his resurrection as the crown and fulfilment of his ministry.

Jesus’ lament over Jerusalem has clear connections with the themes already explored in this section—but sits oddly here in terms of chronology. Reading this passage on its own, you might expect that Jesus has already reached Jerusalem, and in the parallel passage in Matt 28.37–39 he already has. There, the lament comes between the seven woes proclaimed to the Pharisees and Jesus’ teaching in Matt 24 about the destruction of the temple, and since Jesus has already come to the city, he talks about them seeing him ‘again’, a word that Luke omits since it would make no sense in his temporal scheme which locates this saying prior to Jesus arrival. Perhaps this is a hint that all the synoptic writers were aware of Jesus visiting Jerusalem many times (indicated by Jesus’ comment ‘How often…’ Luke 13.34), as made explicit in John’s gospel—and something that any observant Jew must have done to attend the pilgrim festivals.

The phrase ‘until you say “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord”‘ is rendered with a temporal sense in most English translations. But the phrase is more commonly conditional, and is perhaps better translated ‘unless you say’. For Matthew, this challenges the inhabitants of the city to respond to Jesus in the same way that the pilgrim crowds welcomed him on Palm Sunday, recognising in Jesus the coming of God’s presence and his kingdom. But for Luke, with his narrative scheme, it raises the question ahead of time: how will Jerusalem and its leaders respond to Jesus? On the one hand, Jesus constantly holds out the hope of his embrace of love being received, expressed in the remarkable imagery of a mother hen concerned to protect her brood for any harm (including foxes!) that might come to them. And yet, fitting with both Matthew’s location of this saying between woes and destruction, and Luke’s account of Jesus’ foreboding comments about Jerusalem under siege in Luke 21.20, there is the ominous warning that ‘your house is forsaken’.

The present moment of urgent response has now passed for Jerusalem. But for Luke’s readers, including those of us reading today, this present opportunity of grace in which we hear Jesus’ challenge and invitation, remains open. How will we respond to it?

Video discussion of the issues can be found here:

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18 thoughts on “Who is included in and excluded from the kingdom in Luke 13?”

  1. See, I reckon (in line with my optimistic thinking in general), that there is a hint of the future salvation of the Jews in the line “until you say ‘blessed is he who comes…'”. In fact, I would see a similar hint in Luke 21:24 “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”. All of it hints at a time in the future when the Jewish people would repent and turn to Christ (per Romans 11:25-27 and other passages).

    • More than hints Chris. I see Roms 11 as a clear indication of a future ingathering. I know other views exists but I find a future conversion of Israel compelling in the passage. Actually I was reading Isaiah 11 and i found the order of v12 quiet arresting.

      He will raise a signal for the nations
      and will assemble the banished of Israel,

      We may have expected a reversed order but in fact this chimes with the NT picture.

      How do you manage to put texts in the reference format? I’m using an iPad Pro but I seem unable to format in comment box.

      • Re final point – if it’s any help, I usually find my citations appear in blue when I quote chapter and verse as well! Or maybe it’s just a Celtic blessing ? (For the truly born- again, four- square, true-blue evangelicals this is just a(pathetic) joke.

        • Colin

          Interestingly as a truly born again , four square, true blue evangelical I am involved with coming to terms with Celtic spirituality just at the moment. My concern is just how strongly the gospel and preaching feature in Celtic traditions. Any suggestions would be helpful.

          • John A good starting point might be hymns attributed to Patrick or Columba; in particular “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” . The “Irish Church Hymnal” has a section called “Hymns from ancient Irish sources” . Some of the more modern *Celtic spirituality* tends to be sentimental rather than theologica.

      • How do you manage to put texts in the reference format?

        There seems to be some textual post-processing of comments going on that parses the input and, if it finds something that matches a certain pattern (based on a regular expression, I’d guess) decorates it with a link to the web-site ‘biblia.com’.

        I don’t think anyone would thank me for experimenting with various inputs to see exactly what sort of thing it matches, how far it could be stretched without breaking, and whether it has any security holes.

        • … but as a guess I’m assuming it looks for , where ‘Book of the Bible;’ includes some common abbreviations, and that’s why things like John 3:16 get decorated but Roms 8v3 doesn’t.

          • Darn it. the HTML parser ate the example. After ‘looks for’ insert:

            <Book of the Bible><space><number><colon>&ltnumber>

            And as I’ve ad to add another comment anyway, I wonder if it is clever enough to not try to link non-existent verses, like Matthew 25:50? And whether it copes with books that only have one chapter, like Jude 14?

          • <number>

            And what about 1 Kings 9:25, I Cor 15:12, and First Peter 4:7?

            Or entirely non-existent chapters, like Luke 50:1?

    • Do you mean a future generation of Jews or all Jews? If the latter, does that include those, of which there are many, who have died over the past 2000 years and rejected Jesus as their Messiah?


  2. Jesus’ description of his ministry being completed ‘on the third day’ is an allusion to his resurrection as the crown and fulfilment of his ministry.

    I don’t think so. Jesus says that on the first and the second day he casts out demons and performs cures, which he did not do when he was in the grave. He is referring to his whole ministry, which was approximately two and a half years, one day representing one year (as in Num 14:34, Ezek 4:6).

    It is true, though, to say that Jesus was dead for approximately two and a half days, from Thursday afternoon until before dawn on the Sunday.

  3. More than hints Chris. I see Roms 11 as a clear indication of a future ingathering. I know other views exists but I find a future conversion of Israel compelling in the passage. Actually I was reading Isaiah 11 and i found the order of v12 quiet arresting.

    ≤i≥He will raise a signal for the nations
    and will assemble the banished of Israel,≤i≥

    We may have expected a reversed order but in fact this chimes with the NT picture.

    How do you manage to put texts in the reference format? I’m using an iPad Pro but I seem unable to format in comment box.

    • You have to put a slash (below ? on the keyboard) before i in the second, closing tag.
      References link when you use any recognised abbreviation for the scriptural work and follow with chapter and verse(s).
      But please go easy with the volume of comments from your good self.

  4. Consequent on the two illustrations of remarkable kingdom growth the question arises that seems to fly in the fave of these illustrations – will few will be saved? Jesus response is to make the question very personal – will you be saved? Worse, the implication is that Israel will not be saved. The expected sons of the kingdom will be cast out and gentiles from the four corners of the globe will come instead. But hope is not completely lost. As Chris says there is a time when ethnic Israel will yet cry, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’.

    Will there be few that are saved? Go out into the lanes and byways and compel them to come in that my house may be full.

  5. An interesting article.

    I agree with you here, I think. Those who are part of the Kingdom are those who are known by Jesus, not, as you say, those who simply associate themselves with him or who are in close proximity. The knowing is something more significant than blood ties or shared religion/ethnicity.

    I also think you are you right to read the difference between Luke and Matthew in the way you have; that Luke is preempting a response from the city which has not yet occurred, whereas Matthew’s Jesus is issuing a direct challenge in the moment.

    Lots to think about.


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