Readings: Wisdom 13:1-9; Ps 19; Luke 17:26-37
On the face of it, the instruction of Jesus that we should ‘remember Lot’s wife’ (Luke 17.32) is a bit strange. ‘Do not forget the one who was turned to salt because she could not forget’, is what he seems to be saying to us. Keep in mind this woman who suffered because she was keeping something in mind, turned into a pillar of salt because she looked back.
Although it is found in that section of Luke that is most distinctive (Luke 9.51-18.14), the passage in Luke 17 in which Jesus refers to Lot’s wife has a parallel in Matthew 24. Both texts speak about the coming of the Son of Man and the events associated with it. Both refer to the days of Noah when people ate, and drank, and married until suddenly the flood came and destroyed them all (Luke 17.27; Matthew 24.37-39). The warning is given in apocalyptic terms: life will go on pretty much as normal until suddenly the end comes.
Luke adds a further Old Testament reference. ‘Just as it was in the days of Lot’, he says, ‘they ate, drank, bought, sold, planted and built. But on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulphur destroyed them all and so it will be on the day the Son of Man is revealed’ (Luke 17.28-30). The message is the same as that drawn from the reference to Noah: life will go on pretty much as normal until suddenly the end comes.
On that day, Jesus continues in Luke 17.31, people will be on the housetop or in the field. They are not to re-enter the house or turn back. This instruction is mentioned elsewhere in Luke (21.21) and also in Matthew 24.17-18 and Mark 13.15. The immediately succeeding verse, however – ‘Remember Lot’s wife’ (Luke 17.32) – is unique to Luke who then strengthens the general warning by citing two sayings familiar from elsewhere in the gospels. The first of these is that ‘whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it but whoever loses his life will preserve it’ (Luke 17.33; Matthew 16.25; John 12.25). The second is ‘there will be two in one bed; one will be taken and the other left … there will be two women grinding meal together, one will be taken and the other left’ (Luke 17.34; Matthew 24.40).
This is the only reference to Lot in the gospels and there is only one other reference to him in the New Testament (2 Peter 2.7). It is easy to see why Lot’s wife comes to mind in a text warning that the appearing of the Son of Man will be as unexpected, for most people, as was Noah’s flood or the destruction of Sodom. The instruction to leave what you are at and not turn back brings Lot’s wife immediately to mind.
The other New Testament reference to Lot is also an apocalyptic text, a warning about wrath and judgement to come (2 Peter 2.7). God, we are told, is quite capable of sifting and picking out the few or solitary righteous ones from a mass of sinners. We know this from the stories of Noah and Lot (2 Peter 2.4-10).
Lot’s wife is to be remembered as one who looked back to, and was held by, what she was being asked to leave behind. It paralysed her and meant that she missed the moment. This is how preachers have often used Lot’s wife and the warning of Jesus to remember her. A certain kind of attachment makes it impossible for us to enter the kingdom. We must be alert, watchful, detached, ready to go out to meet the Son of Man when he comes.
Jesus had already made the point earlier in the gospel of Luke when he said that ‘no one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of heaven’ (Luke 9.62). According to Jeremiah 46.5, warriors fleeing in terror do not look back, and there are other Old Testament texts which speak about ‘not looking back’ in situations of fear, terror and threat (Exodus 14.10; Joshua 8.20; Judges 20.40; 1 Samuel 24.8; 2 Samuel 1.7; 2.20).
Luke 17.20-37 contains elements that are found elsewhere but combined with elements that are not, and in an order that is distinctive, it gives us a unique teaching about apocalyptic and vocation. For example, although Luke 17.31 and 17.33 are found elsewhere in the New Testament, they are never linked in the way that they are here and it is the instruction to remember Lot’s wife that provides the link. The saying of Luke 17.33 about losing one’s life and gaining it is a very familiar saying of Jesus but nowhere in the New Testament, perhaps, is its radical requirement so clear as it is here, illustrated by the case of Lot’s wife.