Luke tells us that a person in the crowd asked Jesus a question (Luke 13:23). Most commentaries treat the question as legitimate, some even concluding that it is a question many ask even today. However, was the question as innocent as most commentaries make it seem? I have my doubts. It seems to me that the person who questions Jesus in Luke 13:23 is either a rabbi or one of the rabbi’s disciples. I believe he is probably baiting Jesus for a debate of sorts or in some manner seeking to discredit him. This was a question often debated among scholars of Jesus’ day, but as we shall see it precludes a direct or simple answer from Jesus, because it lacks a basic understanding of the Scriptures.
According to the Babylonian Talmud “All Israel has a share in the world to come” (the Kingdom of God):
MISHNA I.: All Israel has a share in the world to come. As it reads: “And thy people-they will all be righteous, forever shall they possess the land, the sprout of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may glorify myself” (quoting Isaiah 60:21 in the Babylonian Talmud, chapter 11—folio 90a).
So, based upon this teaching, which represents Jewish understanding that existed in the first century AD, at least the majority (if not all) Jews would enter the Kingdom of God by virtue of their being Jewish (Abraham’s seed).
On the other hand, and although the book of 2Esdras was written well after the time of Jesus (as was the Babylonians Talmud), its teaching also represents what at least some Jewish scholars taught about the time of the 1st century AD. Notice:
“My Lord, I replied, I know that the Most High is called compassionate, because he has compassion on those yet unborn; and called merciful, because he shows mercy to those who repent and live by the law; and patient because he shows patience to those who have sinned, his own creatures as they are; and benefactor, because he prefers giving to taking; and rich in forgiveness, because again and again he forgives sinners, past, present, and to come. For without his continued forgiveness there could be no hope of life for the world and its inhabitants. And he is called generous, because without his generosity in releasing sinners from their sins, not one ten-thousandth part of mankind could hope to be given life; and he is also judge, and blots out their countless offenses, I suppose that of the entire human race only very few would be spared.
“The angel said to me in reply: The Most High has made this world for many, but the next world for only a few. Let me give you an illustration, Ezra. Ask the earth, and it will tell you that it can produce plenty of clay for making earthenware, but very little gold-dust. The same holds good for the present world: many have been created, but only a few will be saved.” [NEB with Apocrypha 2Esdras 7:62-70; 8:1-3 – emphasis mine]
In other words, according to this rabbinic teaching, the next age (i.e. the age of the Kingdom of God) the Lord will not be compassionate, merciful, patient, rich in forgiveness, a benefactor, generous or a benevolent Judge. Because, he is not concerned with the many, and only a few make it into life.
The lawyers (rabbis) seem to have set a trap for Jesus, hoping to catch him in his words (Luke 13:23; cf. 11:53-54; Mark 12:13-14). The rabbi who asks the question in Luke 13:23 has attempted to push Jesus into a corner, forcing him to either agree that all Israel would be saved, thus admitting that, since Jews are descendents of Abraham, they would be saved whether or not they trusted in Jesus as their Messiah. Or, if indeed Jesus did teach that few would be saved, he must agree that God’s compassion, mercy, patients, forgiveness, office as a benefactor, generosity and his a benevolence as Israel’s Judge have limits and his severity towards his people would contradict what Jesus had been teaching about the Father.
Well, this is the trap that was laid for Jesus, but how should he answer such a question? He does so by following the Scripture in Proverbs 26:4-5. First, Jesus didn’t reply to the questioner according to his mistaken understanding. The questioner believes entering the Kingdom of God is an either / or proposition—i.e. either all enter in or only some do, and probably has Isaiah 60:21 in mind in order to confront Jesus, if he tries to say only a few are saved. However, Jesus has the faithful remnant in mind (Isaiah 1:9). Just as David had been rejected by the nation, while they embraced Absalom, and just as the King with his faithful remnant had to leave the city, so, too, Jesus was calling out those who trusted in him, not because God had rejected Israel, but because Jesus was the Elect One, the Messiah—the King, rejected of men but chosen by God. But, more about this in the next few studies in this series.