Advent 3 • Luke 7:18–28 (29–35) • December 13, 2015
By Jeffrey A. Oschwald
Luke 7:18‒35 presents the preacher with a challenge: although unified by references to John, the three subsections are diverse in topic and style. As Fitzmyer notes, the passage deals with (1) John’s question and Jesus’s answer, (2) Jesus’s testimony concerning John, and (3) Jesus’s judgment of his generation’s assessment of himself and of John. “As a group, they spell out the relation of John and Jesus to the execution of God’s plan of salvation and recount the reaction of John’s disciples and of Jesus’s own generation to him.”¹ That is a lot for a single sermon, especially if the preacher hopes to tie in Advent themes, too. Still, the passage does build to its climax in the enigmatic v. 35, and the preacher would do well to work with the whole section, vv. 18‒35.
The previous two Sundays have provided an opportunity to reflect on watchfulness for the (final) coming of the Son of Man and on the appearance and mission of John the Baptist. This third gospel brings these two figures together and addresses the matter of expectations from a variety of perspectives: John’s expectations of the Messiah, the crowds’ expectations of John, and this generation’s expectations of Jesus. This strong sense of expectation and the underlying threat of disappointment make this passage particularly well suited for the encouragement of God’s Advent people. The three subsections of the text form the most natural outline for its proclamation.
Verses 18‒23 are probably the most familiar. Luke’s reader has been given no reason to think that John has lost faith, and yet, there is also no reason to think this is not John’s question—as if he were asking it for the sake of his disciples. The question is honest and straightforward, sincere and genuine. Neither does our Lord’s response condemn or call to repentance, warn or chastise. It is an equally honest and straightforward listing of the evidence by which the question may be answered. The response closes with a blessing, personal and direct, in the singular, for the one who finds in Jesus no stumbling block, no reason to lose faith, hope, or heart. John’s one-line “captivity epistle” finds its response in living testimony to the identity of Jesus and a promise of blessing for his faithful follower.
The middle section addresses the crowd’s assessment of John. We could summarize by borrowing John’s own question: “What do you think of John? Was he a prophet sent by God, or should you have looked for another?” After showing how John was not less than a prophet, Jesus proceeds to state why he was more than a prophet. Here was the messenger sent by God to prepare the way for God himself (cf. Mal 3:1), and the prophecy now becomes a promise spoken by the Father that Jesus claims for himself.
Finally, “the least one” (sg.) in the kingdom: is this a reference to Jesus himself or to the little one who believes in him? Reference to the people and the tax collectors in v. 29 might seem to favor the latter, but a stronger case can be made for the former. The whole passage intertwines the identities and missions of John and Jesus. John prepares the way for Jesus. John’s baptism, which these people had accepted, was one for repentance because the kingdom was at hand. And the passage will conclude with a strong word of warning to those who couldn’t accept either John or Jesus.
Who then are “Wisdom’s children”? Had Jesus said only “Wisdom is justified by her children,” the most natural reading would be to take that as a reference to John and Jesus. But our Lord adds “all”—“by all her children.” Clearly, then, he must mean to include not only the more-than-a-prophet John and himself, the “littlest one,” but also all those who have come to believe the messenger and believe in the coming one. This is the chorus of voices who know and proclaim that God is both just and justifier—and justified.
¹ Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke (I—IX) The Anchor Bible, Vol. 28; New York: Doubleday, 1970), 662.