The Text: Luke 20:41–21:4

Jesus said to them, ‘How can people say that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself says, in the book of Psalms,
The Lord says to the Lord of mine
Sit here at my right hand;
Until I place those foes of thine
Right underneath thy feet.
‘David, you see, calls him “Lord”; so how can he be his son?’
As all the people listened to him, he said to the disciples, ‘Watch out for the scribes who like to go about in long robes, and enjoy being greeted in the market-place, sitting in the best seats in the synagogues, and taking the top table at dinners. They devour widows’ houses, and make long prayers without meaning them. Their judgment will be all the more severe.’
He looked up and saw rich people putting their contributions into the Temple treasury. He also saw an impoverished widow putting in two tiny copper coins.
‘I’m telling you the truth,’ he said. ‘This poor widow has put in more than all of them. They all contributed into the collection out of their plenty, but she contributed out of her poverty, and gave her whole livelihood.’

‘Can you get this balloon into that box?’ I asked the little children at the party. The balloon was big, and the box was small. They tried squeezing it in but it wouldn’t fit. It kept oozing out through their fingers. One little boy suggested sticking a pin into it, but the others agreed that that was cheating.

Then a little girl, with small, nimble fingers, took the balloon, and undid the knot that was keeping the air inside it. Very carefully she let about half the air out, and quickly tied it up again. Then, with a smile of triumph, she placed the balloon in the box, where it fitted exactly.

That wasn’t quite what I’d had in mind, but I had to admit it was clever. Meanwhile, another child had seen the answer. The box was made of cardboard, folded double in places. She unglued two of its sides, and opened it up to its full dimensions. Now the full-size balloon went in perfectly.

Some people, faced with questions like the one Jesus asks about David’s Lord and David’s son, try to solve it by letting the air out of the balloon. They imagine that God, in order to become human, either stopped being God altogether (the equivalent of a pin in the balloon), or at least shrank his divinity quite severely. The whole New Testament, including Luke, would disagree. For the early Christians, part of the point about Jesus was that the living God was fully and personally present in him, not half present or partly present. What happened in Jesus, and supremely in his death, was the personal action of God himself, not some deputy or demi-god.

The real answer in this case is that the meaning of ‘Messiah’ is bigger than the Jews of Jesus’ day had realized. They were thinking simply of a human king like other human kings, who would fight their battles, rebuild their Temple, and rule with justice. The hints in the prophets and psalms, that when the true king appeared he would be the embodiment of God himself, don’t seem to have been picked up at the time. How could they be? The box appeared too small. The balloon wouldn’t fit.
Of course, the illustration isn’t perfect. Nobody in their right mind would try to get serious theology out of a children’s party game. But the question Jesus asked—one of the very few questions he asked, as opposed to the questions other people asked him—went to the heart of explaining what he was doing in Jerusalem, and what his mission was all about.

Much of Luke’s gospel has been warning of what will happen if Israel doesn’t obey Jesus’ kingdom-announcement. Now the psalm Jesus quotes (Psalm 110) speaks of the Messiah as one who will be enthroned until victory is attained over those who have opposed him. The Messiah will be exalted, and judgment will be meted out on those who have chosen the way of violence and injustice. And this Messiah will be one whom David himself, the supposed author of the psalm, does not merely see as a son (and therefore inferior), but as ‘my Lord’. The box labelled ‘messiahship’ is bigger than anyone had realized. It is designed to contain one who will share the very throne of God.

From that point of view, we shouldn’t be surprised that the regular human measures of size look misleading and irrelevant. The scribes measure their own value by the length of their robes, the flattering greetings in public, and the places of honor at worship or at dinner. They are living by one scale, but God will measure them by the true one. Privately, they are using their legal skills to acquire legacies from widows who have nobody to speak up for them. Their religion is a sham, and God sees it.
By contrast—another time when the scale of measurement works the opposite way to what people would expect—the poor widow who gave all she had into God’s treasury had given more than the rich people who gave what they could easily afford. Back to balloons again: when a small balloon is full of air, the air it releases may only be a small amount, but it leaves the balloon totally flat. Release the same amount of air from a large balloon, and you’ll hardly notice the difference.

Putting together these very different stories—Jesus’ question about a matter of high theology, and his comment on the scribes and on a poor widow—may seem odd. But the same principle applies to both, and indeed because of that same principle we must insist on holding them together. Because God’s way of measuring reality is not our way—because it was always his intention that David’s Lord should become David’s son—it is also his desire that the same attention be given to the questions of human behavior and integrity—to matters of ‘justice, mercy and the love of God’ (11:42)—as we give to the questions of defining and defending the faith.

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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