Redaction criticism in gospel studies is a well-known discipline. It is the study of the selection and arrangement of the materials the evangelists used to construct their accounts of the life of Jesus. Redaction does not imply that inspiration takes a back seat, rather, that the Holy Spirit moved in the writers in a way that resulted in the gospels we have. The inclusion (or exclusion) of pericopes, the placement of them in the record, tells us something of the purpose the evangelist had. Redaction need not mean something nefarious, that the gospel writers suppressed something or changed things to make the events of Jesus’ life more acceptable. It is the Holy Spirit’s method of moving each of the gospel writers to record what God wanted to be set down. Redaction is a tool that allows us to consider the questions of “why this, why here?”
Luke 13 as a “redaction as interpretive aid” case study
In Luke 13, there are pericopes that suggest redaction as an interpretive aid. The chapter begins with the story of “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” v. 1. Jesus replies with questions that point his hearers to an equality of judgment. That is, no one should expect their heritage or pedigree to count for anything. “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” v 5. Any Jew, a descendant of Abraham, should not take comfort that this will mean they do not come under judgment.
From there, Jesus tells the parable of the barren fig tree. The fig tree and it’s fruit were part of an illustration God used in Jeremiah 24. The prophet saw good figs and bad figs, and God told him the good figs were the exiles whom he would bring back to the land, after the captivity, and he would again establish them. These were the Jews who humbled themselves under God’s discipline. The bad figs were Zedekiah and the other nobles who refused to serve the king of Babylon and rebelled. God judged them severely. When Jesus refers to the fruit of the fig tree in Luke, his Jewish hearers would think of Jeremiah, and if they are paying attention, draw the lesson of judgment for fruitlessness. Jesus includes this detail: “And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none.” v. 7. Could this three year period refer to the earthly ministry of Jesus, the years he has sought for faith in Israel, but has not found it? The rulers and the Scribes utterly reject him and his message.
After this comes wrangling with those in authority. Jesus heals a woman who had a disabling spirit, but it was a Sabbath day, and the ruler of the synagogue berates the people for “profaning” the day. Jesus rebukes him sharply. “You hypocrites!” Again, official Israel is being judged, set aside. This is a “bad fig.”
Following this come two parables that appear out of place. That is, Matthew gathers parables of the kingdom together in chapter 13, where these two are found. By placing them here, after the material he has already included in the chapter, Luke is signaling their application. He said therefore, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” v. 18-19
Some believe this indicates the growth of God’s kingdom to a great stature, and to have wide influence. But Luke has already signaled to us what the meaning is. In chapter 8, we have the parable of the sower, and Jesus explains its meaning to include “then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts.” 8:12. Birds of the air are not anything good, but they represent satanic influence, and evil. Having told us what the birds of the air signify in that parable, it is logical to see that same meaning here.
The parable of the leaven is the other brief one, and it, too reinforces the idea of evil influence in God’s kingdom, where good should have flourished. Leaven is always a symbol of evil in Scripture. I know some have tried to see this as the spread of the gospel, but the way Scripture consistently presents this rules it out. Leaven is a corrupting influence. Jesus warns the disciples to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees. At the start of Luke 12. He explains it to be hypocrisy. Recall the words he spoke to the synagogue ruler. “You hypocrites!” Here, then, in the parable, we shouldn’t expect leaven to mean something other than what Jesus has already told us; hypocrisy and an evil influence.
By the selection of these parables here in chapter 13, Luke means to tell us something about their meaning. Not the spread of good and the permeation of the gospel, but a warning about evil and how Israel, which should have been fruitful, should have been true to her Lord, was not. The chapter ends with the lament over Jerusalem—a culminating event in the place of Israel as a people before the Lord. There is a setting aside coming, a judgment for their rejection of their Messiah, Jesus says. Indeed, it is not a final setting aside, God will again take up dealing with Israel as a nation, but the way Luke arranges his material in this chapter gives us important hints on what happens before that.