Luke 11: 29-36
And with (great) crowds milling around, he started [once more] to say: “This generation is malignant; it is going bad in its seeking a sign and a sign will not be given to it except the sign of Jonah. Just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so the Son of Man will become a sign to this generation.
“[To put it another way:] The Queen of the South, at the judgement, will be raised along with the men of this generation and she will thereby condemn them: she [for her part] came from the furthest margins of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and do you know, someone greater than Solomon is here, right here in front of you. The men of Nineveh will take the stand in the judgement with this generation and condemn it.
“No one having lighted the lamp, places it in a corner to hide it, or under a basket but on a lamp-stand where all who come in [to the room] may see [by] it.
“The lamp of the body is your eye; when your eye is focused all the body is then illumined. When your eye is malignant [going bad] all your body is in the dark. Watch out, therefore, in case the light in you be darkness. If therefore your body is wholly bright, not having anything to do with darkness, everything will be lit up, just like a lamp shining to give you light.”
Luke has already written about the way Jesus’ public ministry began with him infuriating his home town synagogue at Nazareth, with teaching in which he explicitly refused to become their “home town hero” (4:16-32). Now, Luke takes that theme and records how Jesus expanded it further. Here this expansion follows on from his public rejection of the acclamation of a woman, obsessed with female fertility and, as we have suggested, accommodation with, if not an outright retrieval of ancient Ba’al religion.
So what is Luke here seeking to convey to us? Was it that the woman’s cry is to be understood as a symptom of “this generation’s chronic illness”? Is Luke going on to say that the milling crowd is merely a symptom of “this generation’s malignancy”? Well, he had warned his disciples about the “yeast” of the Pharisees, and the agitation against him and his teaching that is present within the crowd. Here the crowd’s agitation demands a sign. The pertinent point is Jesus’ awareness of people’s inability to respond appropriately to what is clearly presented to them, before their very eyes.
The sign of Jonah and the coming of the Queen of the South is indicative of the Bible’s recognition that the Gentiles can and do repent and become recipients of God’s mercy. And this, says Jesus, is the only sign, the very sign, that “this generation” needs (indeed, Paul affirms this same teaching, seemingly so hard to digest, in Romans 11).
Jesus’ repeated teaching of what the Law and the Prophets teach about the unbelief of God’s own people, draws upon Psalm 69 (see 22-23), and the Lord God’s commissioning of Isaiah (Isaiah 6 see especially vv. 9-10).
In our age in which “spirituality” is proclaimed as the great way to bind people together, this recurrent Biblical teaching, this teaching of Jesus that infuriated his own people, is repeatedly downplayed if not over-looked.
So, in weighing the impact of this Biblical teaching, let do so by identifying those to whom Jesus directed his words.
In the first instance, Luke says he was addressing the crowds, those coming to him – sometimes in their thousands – those who were part of the population inspired by John, but also now living within the general clamour that he give a sign. And it is to such a crowd, stirred up in such ways, that he gives this teaching. He aims to counter the malignancy, to counter the “bad yeast”, among those who follow him. Here he challenges the populist demand for evidence to prove his credentials.
Then of course, his words were directed to his disciples, those to whom he would leave the task of teaching after his own peculiar contribution to God’s Kingdom had been made. We can come across similar teaching in the accounts of the Sermon on the Mount. But here Luke is wanting Theophilus to understand that Jesus was not the “guru” who simply gave our the words of peace, for passive contemplation.
What Jesus said was calculated to both counter what was being actively promoted as false teaching about God’s kingly rule in the midst of his people, and to prepare them for future service in the midst of this public contention. Of course there are slight differences in the presentation of the Gospel accounts of Jesus teaching. These are differences in nuance and contrast. But when we now read these different accounts we deepen our appreciation of the variant ways that Jesus’ teaching was heard and remembered among his disciples, among those who lived by his word, taking up the cross and following him.
And thirdly, these remarks are addressed in such a way, that Theophilus himself, and we 21st century readers after him, can to our great benefit take up the challenge of living according to Jesus’ teaching – hearing what he then said gives us definitive guidance about who we are and how we are to live.
In explaining what it is to live in the light, to live as “the children of the light”, Jesus uses an everyday example of how we live in households: in turning on the light you may see better to add to the pot on the stove, you may better measure the ingredients or even see so you can write a letter while the water is on the boil. But having done so, you lighten the room for all who would come in.
Likewise, Jesus suggests, that if the one hearing his words is, as his disciple, focused upon him as the teacher, then it is like turning on the light, and everything about the disciple will be lit up.
On the other hand, if the person listening has a skewed vision, if the eye of the one coming to hear is skewed, if it is malignant (that word again), then, sad as it may be to say so, the person’s entire existence, everything a person is and does will be in the dark. This is the application of the Biblical injunction to the prophet to
Keep on hearing, but do not get it; keep on seeing, but do not perceive (Isaiah 6:9).
Jesus is conceding that, as a teacher of God’s way among His Father’s people, he is also subject to this injunction in terms of how he forms his teaching and what he is to expect of those hearing his words. He is saying that those who come along with the crowd in order to demand a sign are still in the dark.
So what is it to be? Jesus was throwing out a challenge to Judaea and Israel: having heard my words and seen my works, he says, are you still wanting the light to be turned on? Or are you now going to live in this light that is given to you for the enlightenment of the Gentiles which is also your glory? Zacharias, John the Baptist’s father, had prophesied in these terms!