Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Luke 17

Questioning involves being able to preserve one’s orientation to openness. The art of questioning is the art of questioning even further. This is then the art of thinking.
Hans-George Gadamer

We bring our questions to the biblical text, we bring out best thinking, not simply to engage in a never-ending series of questions, but so as to shape our lives, or rather have our lives shaped by the Spirit of God as we engage these texts.

Luke 17:1-10: Jesus now turns from a conversation critical of the Pharisees to offering words directed toward his disciples. He is encouraging a life that contrasts with the life of the Pharisees as he has criticized it. In verses 1-5, Jesus encourages community care, especially for those who are most vulnerable. The life of discipleship is meant to be lived in community and I am convinced that the quality of a church’s life together is a significant factor in its ability to attract other persons to Christian faith. When our church communities are broken, fractious, riddled with unresolved conflict, they are not attractive places for those seeking a deeper spiritual life, nor are they a model of a more just and peaceful world. Our faith communities will have instances of stumbling and falling, but they should be taken seriously – hence the millstone image. But taking great care in attending to how we treat one another is only one part of the picture, forgiveness is another. A community that takes Christian faith seriously takes forgiveness seriously. Forgiveness does not mean we allow the forgiven person to continue to harm, or that such a person should not suffer the consequences of their misdeeds. Forgiveness means being willing to let go of the hurt and pain someone has caused us. One of my favorite “definitions” of forgiveness is one offered by Jack Kornfield. “Forgiveness is giving up hope of a better past." That forgiveness is complex and messy is no reason for us to give up on making it a reality. In light of the command to forgive, the apostles ask for faith! “The ability to forgive others depends on the awareness that one has been forgiven by God, and this is a matter of faith.” (Peoples New Testament Commentary) Faith is not so much a quantity, though, as a quality of life. The last saying in this series, which has to do with the kind of life in community the followers of Jesus should strive for, seems harsh – “we are worthless slaves.” Again, Jesus is not beyond exaggeration to make a point. The community life of Christians is intended to be a life of mutual service, but sometimes even service can lend itself to oneupsmanship. Try to avoid even that, just serve, just love, just forgive, and quit comparing.

Luke 17:11-19: As Jesus’ journey gets closer to its destination in Jerusalem we will read a number of stories that illustrate what a faithful response to Jesus might look like. “It is striking that these examples of faithfulness are drawn in each case from the margins of acceptable socioreligious society.” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Here the example of the most faithful response to Jesus is both a leper and a Samaritan. He is healed, along with nine others, but in a spontaneous (and technically disobedient – he does not go to the priest as Jesus had asked) action, he turns back to Jesus, and praises God with a loud voice. Jesus remark at the end is puzzling – “your faith has made you well.” He had already been healed, what’s this about? Perhaps there is more to healing than physical cure, perhaps wellness/wholeness are about more than the body (not less than the body, but more than the body). Gratitude is more than just a pleasantry. When we are grateful, we tend to be less grasping, less greedy for more. I want to say more about this on Sunday.

Luke 17:20-37: Another shift in conversation takes place. Some Pharisees ask Jesus a question about the coming of the kingdom of God. There is a wonderful irony to this question, following the previous story. The Samaritan leper sees that he is healed and responds with thanks and praise to God – God has acted for well-being. What is that but the kingdom of God? But the Pharisees don’t get it, so they ask. And Jesus tells them to look around, the kingdom of God is among you. Other translations read “within” you, and that has some validity as well. The Spirit of God with heals and frees is at work within and among us if we have eyes to see. But while the kingdom is among them there is still suffering ahead. When one sees what God is up to in Jesus, one must follow, even when to do so is risky. Trying to secure our lives in the usual way leads to losing them. Jesus makes use of traditional images from his religious culture to get the message across – keep paying attention, keep following the way where you find it. The disciples are unsure of just what he means – “where?” God’s kingdom will be as evident to those who are looking for it as vulture are in view when there is a dead animal around. Jesus sure uses some colorful images!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Luke 14-16

Luke 14:1-6: Here we again have evidence that Luke’s picture of them is not as negative as Matthew’s and Mark’s. Even though critical of some Pharisees, Jesus continues to associate with them. Here he goes to the home of a leader of the Pharisees on a Sabbath day. Yet there is some tension as it is said they are watching him closely. Again we have the question of the appropriateness of healing on the Sabbath. Luke seems to have more of these stories than the other gospels we have read. He heals the man with “dropsy,” and argues for the appropriateness of healing on the Sabbath. In the world of Jesus’ day, “dropsy, the swelling of the body due to an excess of fluid… was used as a metaphorical label for the greedy” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The healing metaphorically sets up some of the teaching that follows. Whatever one makes of the healing stories in the gospels, they are often used metaphorically by the gospel writers, in addition to being used to say something about the power of Jesus.

Luke 14:7-14: At the dinner, after the healing, Jesus notices how those dining with him tried to chose the place of honor. They are like the man swelling up with his own fluid, in need of healing, and Jesus tries to “heal” them through his teaching. Humility has nothing to do with debasing oneself. It has everything to do with both rightly assessing one’s gifts and skills, but even more importantly with being open to the world. When one is most concerned with one’s own place of honor, one easily loses focus on what else might be going on. Part of what is going on in the world of Jesus time, and our own, is that there are the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind who need to be invited in. This language has both literal and metaphorical dimensions. To do so is to act in accord with God’s kingdom (the resurrection of the righteous is another way of speaking about the kingdom of God).

Luke 14:15-24: But the people Jesus is having dinner with still don’t seem to get it. They know that those who will “eat bread in the kingdom of God” will be “blessed,” but they still seem to associate it with privilege and status instead of service. So Jesus offers another story, a story in which inviting the poor, crippled, the blind and the lame is again held up as important in the kingdom of God. One ought not to put off the kind of transformative work in one’s life that moves one from seeking the places of honor, to working to heal those who need it (and opening oneself up to the healing one needs).

Luke 14:25-35: While the scene shifts, some continuity of message remains. Jesus is traveling with a large crowd and he tells them that the kind of transformation in life that the Spirit often works, the kind of transformation toward living out God’s dream for the world, is not always easy. Jesus uses very strong language here, pushing the language to make a point. Sometimes family ties will be frayed when one decides to follow Jesus and live in a new way. Sometimes possessions can get in the way. Know that, but follow anyway. When you do, your life is like salt that retains its usefulness. Living in a culture that is consumed with consuming, we need to take seriously Jesus’ concern for the way possessions can begin to possess us. When our lives become too oriented to earning so we can buy, and buying so much that we have to continue to earn more, then our lives are out of sync. We are not all we can be as human beings and as God’s people.

Luke 15: This chapter is rich with story, and the most well-known story here is one unique to Luke’s gospel, the parable of the prodigal. Jesus is using story here to both defend his own actions of associating with sinners and tax collectors and to invite others to open up and rejoice that those who had been on the margins, those who had been excluded, are welcome in God’s dream for the world. Reading these stories, we should both feel joy that we are embraced by God with the joy of a shepherd who has lost a sheep and found it, of a woman who has found a lost coin, of a father whose son he has given up for dead returns. At points in our lives we know this. The danger is that having ourselves been embraced by God in love, we lose the joy in seeing others so embraced. We become like the elder brother in the third story being told.

Luke 15:1-7:
Jesus has just finished saying that discipleship can be difficult, but sinners and tax collectors come to listen. These are people on the margins of acceptability. If there is a way into God’s kingdom, even if it may be difficult, they are willing to listen. They have been told again and again that there is no place for them, but Jesus offers them a place. Some of the religious leaders grumbled about his association with such persons – he not only welcomes them, he eats with them (though he eats with Pharisees, too). In response, Jesus tells three parables. The first is about a lost sheep. The scene is one of great joy when it is found, a joy that is shared with all around.

Luke 15:8-10: The next story is also about strenuous searching and extravagant joy. In some ways, the scene is filled with humor. One imagines almost a frantic searching, or at least I do. I know how I can get intensely focused on finding some little thing I misplaced. In this story a woman turns the house upside down looking for a coin – though here the coin is probably worth about ten day’s wages, no small matter. When she finds it she is filled with joy, a joy meant to be shared.

Luke 15:11-32: Last, but not least in this series of lost and found stories is the story of the prodigal son, the prodigal father, and the stingy older son. Put yourself in the position of each character and let the story speak to you. Sometimes we are like the son who squanders away his potential. At some point he comes to himself. Can we also sometimes be like the father, not concerned about scolding his way ward son, but only rejoicing in welcoming him back. Shared joy should characterize the life of the church. We are filled with joy as we sense God’s Spirit working in our lives and in the lives of others. Are we sometimes like the older son, focused so narrowly on “getting his due” that he misses out on the party. The comparison of the older son to the Pharisees in the first part of the chapter is obvious. God is like to prodigal father, prodigal with love. We are invited to be people of love and joy.

Luke 16:1-13: The focus of the Gospel in chapters 14-15 has been on the significance of table fellowship. Jesus has welcomed the socially marginal into the kinship of shared meals and urged others to do the same, as a reflection of God’s own openhanded graciousness. In chapter 16, this teaching about table fellowship is grounded more firmly within Jesus’ overall message about possessions: Wealth should be used to welcome outsiders, particularly the poor, who are incapable of returning the invitation or of advancing their social status (New Interpreters Study Bible). This first parable is filled with details that perk up our ears. The “hero” of the story is a rather dishonest fellow. Jesus often told stories, not so those listening would emulate the details, but so that they would get the main point. Here the main point has to do with being intelligent, being shrewd, being faithful with one’s possessions. For Jesus that meant using generously what one has. Such activity characterizes those who know what God is about. The story has touches of realism. Using money to make friends reflected the Greco-Roman world “where the exchange of money created, maintained, or solidified various forms of friendship” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Being faithful with one’s possessions, not clinging to them, being generous with them indicated a deeper faithfulness. Getting caught up in wealth gets in the way of being able to be God’s person in the world. Jesus uses a story about making friends with money to speak against being too caught up with money!

Luke 16:14-18: I am not sure that there is any place else in the gospels where the Pharisees were characterized as “lovers of money,” as they are here. They ridicule Jesus for not putting the same store in wealth as they did, for advocating about another value system. “What is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” - - - another value system indeed! The culturally approved means for attaining status are null and void – wealth and force (verse 16). A deep faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, a faithfulness reflected in responding to the word and work of God’s Spirit in Jesus, is what really matters – love, compassion, generosity. These are not simply abstract notions, however. They find expression in how one lives within one’s covenants and promises, such as marriage. Jesus’ words seem harsh, but we should note to whom they are directed. They are directed toward men, and in the Jewish understanding of the time, men were the ones who had the power to divorce. Divorcing a woman often left her destitute, left her with few options except poverty or prostitution. To take Jesus words as an absolute prohibition of divorce for all time is to misunderstand and misuse them. He is drawing out the implications of God’s love, and we would be encouraged to do the same. Occasionally, love can include the regrettable choice to end a marriage. Such a choice should never be easy, but it may not be wrong.

Luke 16:19-31: The Jesus of Luke’s gospel tells parables, but many are significantly longer than those we encountered in Matthew and Mark. Here is another story unique to Luke. In a great reversal of expectation, it is the poor beggar who ends up with Abraham and the rich man (such persons were often considered to be blessed by God) ends up in Hades. He failed to do anything to help Lazarus, and even in the afterlife would ask of Lazarus that he serve him! This is a story and should not be used to make any definitive cases about the afterlife. The point of the story is that faithfulness to God and to God’s dream for the world involves generosity toward the poor, helping those in need. It is the heart of the message of Moses and the prophets, and it is at the heart of the message of Jesus. Jesus is one who has demonstrated life-giving power, but some will not listen even to him.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Luke 12-13

Luke 12:1-3: With chapter 12, we have a long discourse by Jesus in which he alternates between addressing the disciples and the large crowd. In each case, the words to the disciples are overheard by the crowds. As the church discussed within itself what it means to follow Jesus, it is important that those on the outside are able to hear if they are interested. The theme of this section might be “vigilance in the face of crisis.” Remember, all this is happening as Jesus us headed toward Jerusalem, and Luke knows what is going to happen there. Luke is also aware of the kinds of crises the early Christians faced in trying to live their faith in Jesus. Jesus prepares his followers for the coming troubles by insisting on a twofold transformation: the one oriented to their understanding of God, the other in the arena of social practices. In fact, these are not two, but one, for a conversion in how one understands God and God’s practices leads into transformed practices related to hostility, possessions, social relations and more. (New Interpreters Study Bible) In these verses, Jesus addressed his disciples encouraging a congruity between inner life and outer action. We who speak of God’s love, should be loving. We who talk of compassion should have both compassionate hearts and be engaged in compassionate action. Most of us would admit to a less than perfect congruence between our inner and outer lives, but we keep trying – and the God who knows us both inside and want to work with us to bring these parts of our lives into alignment.

Luke 12:4-12: In the first part of this section, again addressed to the disciples, there is an interesting tension. First, the disciples are told to fear the one who can do more than kill the body, but then in verse they are told “do not be afraid.” When one gets beyond threats to one’s life (threats that were real for many early Christians) and lives with integrity in faith in spite of those fears, one discovers the God who also tells us not to be afraid. God is with us, paying attention to the smallest details of our lives. We trust God amidst the slings and arrows of life, amidst threats and persecutions. The words about blaspheming against the Holy Spirit are used in a very different context here than in Matthew and Mark, but the point is similar. It is not a speculative word about some certain sin, but a simple reminder that if one does not trust that God’s Spirit was at work in Jesus, one cannot receive the gift of God’s Spirit that is offered through Jesus.

Luke 12:13-21: Someone from the crowd asks Jesus to mediate between him and his brother. Jesus uses the occasion to say a word about our attitude toward possessions. “The questioner is not an evil man; he simply shares the common assumption that life does in fact consist of one’s possessions” (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Jesus flatly contradicts such a view of life. “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions.” Instead we are encouraged to be “rich toward God,” which in Luke has something to do with generosity toward others. In times of crisis, we often cling to familiar notions of what makes life worthwhile. Jesus asks us even in crisis to trust that life is more than what we have.

Luke 12:22-34: After sharing a story about having an appropriate attitude toward one’s possessions, Jesus teaching on the topic continues. The shift is that these words are again directed toward disciples. He encourages holding our possessions lightly, worrying less about what we will eat and drink. This is what “the nations of the world” strive after. Jesus’ remarks are as applicable today as during the Roman Empire. Aren’t so many of our cultures preoccupied with material gain, and at what cost? There is a different order, a different kingdom, that Jesus thinks we should orient our lives toward – God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world. When we do this, we value a different kind of treasure. When we do this, we give of our possessions generously. In a world where consumption is often “king,” these words should give us pause.

Luke 12:35-40: The disciples should be ready for both crisis and for a coming of the Son of Man. Paradoxically, these event sometimes come together. How often we find our faith deepened in difficult times. I don’t believe God intentionally plans for difficulties in our lives so that we might grow in faith. Difficulties and challenges are simply there. How we work with and through them determines whether they become moments for growth or times when life just seems hard. Whether life is easy or difficult, we should be ready to receive the Spirit of Jesus as the Spirit comes to us.

Luke 12:41-48: Peter asks an interesting question, are these words for the crowds or for the disciples. Sometimes we would like the words of the Scriptures to be directed only to others, but we do better always to ask what they might mean for our lives. Jesus uses a story to essentially answer, “act on what you know.” The story also indicates that what is expected is kindness toward others.

Luke 12:49-59: As previously discussed, Jesus uses some of the thought-forms and familiar language of the time to make his points. He uses language about “eschatology,” about the end of things to emphasize to those listening that decisions need to be made. Is God at work in a remarkable way in Jesus? If so, follow along, live differently – not in fearful clinging but in joyful generosity. Those who see God’s Spirit at work in Jesus may be divided from those who do not. Jesus does not intend division, but it happens of its own accord. Jesus encourages his listeners to watch, to pay attention. To rightly discern the signs of the times is to see God’s Spirit at work in Jesus. Therein lies the central Christian affirmation, that God’s Spirit was at work in Jesus and that same Spirit remains at work in Jesus even in our lives. To make this claim does not preclude the possibility that the Spirit of God may be working in other ways, through other traditions (this is a question on which Christians have disagreed for centuries – for a defense of the position that God works in diverse religious traditions one could read Marjorie Suchocki, Divinity and Diversity).

Luke 13:1-9: Again the crowd gets into the action. A question is raised about an awful incident in which the Roman governor Pilate had mixed the blood of some Galilean pilgrims with their sacrifices. Jesus mentions another horrible tragedy, the death of eighteen who were killed when a tower fell. The purpose of raising these stories is unclear (though the story about Pilate gives us some indication of the brutality of Roman rule), but the response of Jesus seems to indicate that he was concerned that such stories might be a diversion. Let’s talk about somebody else’s life. Maybe this is a mirror of Peter’s earlier question, “Is this addressed to us or to others?” It is always addressed to us. God is up to something in Jesus and the appropriate response is repentance “a change of heart and life manifest in fruitful lives” (New Interpreters Study Bible). The story about the fig tree illustrates the point. Be fruitful – work for love, compassion, justice.

Luke 13:10-17: Here we have another story of a healing on the Sabbath. While Jesus is teaching, a woman who had been ill for eighteen years, crippled “with a spirit,” appears. Jesus calls her over and tells her she is free from her ailment. He is chastised for doing so, for healing on the Sabbath. Much has already been written about the Sabbath and Jesus interpretation of Sabbath laws and rules and I won’t repeat that here. What is fascinating about the story, and only Luke tells this particular Sabbath healing story, is that the woman has been ill eighteen years, yet the leader of the synagogue is worried about timing. Its as if Jesus is saying, “The time has come.” For Luke as a gospel writer, the story he tells is that a unique time had come in Jesus, a time when God’s Spirit was working powerfully. There come times, special times in our lives when we need to ask what direction the Spirit is moving us. I plan to preach on that on Sunday.

Luke 13:18-20:
The healing story is followed by two parables about the kingdom of God. Healing is a part of that kingdom, a part of God’s dream for the world – helping crippled spirits rise up straight and tall. The kingdom is powerful, even when it happens in small ways, through quiet acts – like sowing a mustard seed or putting leaven in bread. One remarkable thing about using leaven as an image is that it would have startled Jesus’ listeners – leaven was almost always seen as a negative image.

Luke 13:21-30: The journey toward Jerusalem continues. In one of the villages, someone asks, “Will only a few be saved?” Some would hear Jesus’ response as a veiled “yes” – “strive to enter through the narrow door.” I don’t think Jesus really answers the person’s question. Instead he tells him how to get on board with what God is doing. It is a narrow way, not so it has limited capacity, but to help us understand it is a way that is different from the usual understandings of life in the larger culture – where power and wealth and fame are what matter. The narrow way sees small, mustard seeds acts of compassion and justice and love as making for a meaningful life, as building a true “kingdom.” While the way may be narrow, verse 29 indicates that a whole lot of people will be on it. I don’t think Jesus is making some abstract statement about people making it to heaven in the end, here. I think he is again encouraging a response to the Spirit at work in him.

Luke 13:31-35: Jesus journey to Jerusalem appears headed toward a collision. The Pharisees here may legitimately trying to warn Jesus, though their motives may have been mixed. If Jesus stirs up trouble in Jerusalem, it could redound to all Jews. Luke does not have as negative a view of the Pharisees as Mark and Matthew. Jesus is about the work of the kingdom, filled with God’s Spirit. He is casting our demons and performing cures, but Jerusalem does not have a good history with prophets. Jesus image for the divine love is distinctly feminine here – gathering people as a chick gathers her brood.

Monday, August 20, 2007

June 2007-June 2008

This is an updated version. I found an error in the one previously provided.

All dates listed are Monday – Sunday. Sermons will be based on some part of the five chapters read prior to Sunday with seasonal exceptions.

June 4-10: Matthew 1-5
June 11-17: Matthew 6-10
June 18-24: Matthew 11-15
June 25-July 1: Matthew 16-20
July 2-8: Matthew 21-25
July 9-15: Matthew 26-28, Mark 1-2
July 16-22: Mark 3-7
July 23-29: Mark 8-12
July 30-August 5: Mark 13-16, Luke 1
August 6-12: Luke 2-6
August 13-19: Luke 7-11
August 20-26: Luke 12-16
August 27-September 2: Luke 17-21
September 3-9: Luke 22-24, John 1-2
September 10-16: John 3-7
September 17-23: John 8-12
September 24-30: John 13-17
October 1-7: John 18-21, Acts 1
October 8-14: Acts 2-6
October 15-21: Acts 7-11
October 22-28: Acts 12-16
October 29-November 4: Acts 17-21
November 5-11: Acts 22-26
November 12-18: Acts 27-28, Romans 1-3
November 19-25: Romans 4-8
November 26-December 2: Romans 9-13
December 3-9: Romans 14-16, I Corinthians 1-2
December 10-16: I Corinthians 3-7
December 17-23: I Corinthians 8-12
December 24-30: I Corinthians 13-16, II Corinthians 1
December 31-January 6, 2008: II Corinthians 2-6
January 7-13: II Corinthians 7-11
January 14-20: II Corinthians 12-13, Galatians 1-3
January 21-27: Galatians 4-6, Ephesians 1-2
January 28-February 3: Ephesians 3-6, Philippians 1
February 4-10: Philippians 2-4, Colossians 1-2
February 11-17: Colossians 3-4, I Thessalonians 1-3
February 18-24: I Thessalonians 4-5, II Thessalonians 1-3
February 25-March 2: I Timothy 1-5
March 3-9: I Timothy 6, II Timothy 1-4
March 10-16: Titus 1-3, Philemon, Hebrews 1
March 17-23: Hebrews 2-6
March 24-30: Hebrews 7-11
March 31-April 6: Hebrews 12-13, James 1-3
April 7-13: James 4-5, I Peter 1-3
April 14-20: I Peter 4-5, II Peter 1-3
April 21-27: I John 1-5
April 28-May 4: II John, III John, Jude, Revelation 1-2
May 5-11: Revelation 3-7
May 12-18: Revelation 8-12
May 19-25: Revelation 13-17
May 26-June 1: Revelation 18-22

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Luke 11

Luke 11:1-13: When one pays attention to it, it can be fun and interesting to see how the gospel writer composes his material, how he moves from one thing to the next. Right after the episode with Mary and Martha, which seems to have something to do with the importance for the spiritual life of paying attention, Luke places Jesus teaching on prayer. In Matthew, much of this material is a part of the Sermon on the Mount. Here Luke places the material in a different location. It does not radically alter the meaning of these sayings of Jesus, but it is fun to note the creativity at work in the gospel writers. The disciple notice Jesus at prayer and ask to be taught how to pray. Jesus teaches them what has come to be called “The Lord’s Prayer,” though here in Luke it is in a slightly different version than we found in Matthew. God is addressed in familial and intimate terms (Father), yet God’s sacred nature is also acknowledged (hallowed). God’s nature as Father is elaborated in this section. “In an environment in which fathers wielded such far-reaching, coercive power, it was important that the fatherhood of God be qualified in terms of generosity, compassion, care, and faithful activity on behalf of God’s children” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Those who address God in familial terms also pray that God’s dream for the world will become a reality. Some other ancient manuscripts read “Your Holy Spirit come upon us and cleanse us.” The prayer for daily bread can also be translated “essential bread” – asking God for what is needed for life (physical and spiritual). Prayer for forgiveness follows, and is linked with prayer for the strength to forgive. The early Christian community experienced times of great testing and trial, and the prayer here asks God to be with them in such times, and to help them through. This prayer is a vital part of our Christian faith tradition and we should feel free to pray it often. The story Jesus tells following the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer is unique to Luke. It is often read as an encouragement of persistence in prayer. Apparently verse 8 is a tricky one to translate, and it probably has more to do with what is going on in the one who has heard the request for bread and the “persistence” of the one asking for bread. The man with the bread responds out of his own desire to be persistent in goodness – just like the God one may pray to as “father.” Like a kind and generous parent, God will give, and will give God’s own Spirit to those who ask. Verses 9-11 are no guarantee that we will get whatever we ask for, if our asking arises out of impurity of heart. In context, these verses seem to suggest that as we keep praying along the lines Jesus has given, prayers such as these – for God’s kingdom, for essential bread, for forgiveness and the strength to forgive, for courage and strength in the midst of life’s trials – will be responded to. Notice the humor Jesus uses in these verses

Luke 11:14-23: Jesus work of healing and freeing continues, here he casts out a demon. Some who witness this claim that Jesus is able to do this because he is in league with demonic forces. Jesus argues against the logic of such a claim – would evil really divide against itself to weaken itself? Beyond that, Jesus then makes a stronger point, if he is really doing good because of the power of God’s Spirit, then the kingdom of God has come near. And while he does not say this in exactly these words, the logic of the next verses is that if God’s kingdom has come near, you will want to get with it. “Whoever is not with me, is against me. And whoever does not gather with me scatters.” This seems in tension with 9:50 where Jesus says, “whoever is not against you is for you.” In context the tension between these verses is mitigated. There good was being done in the name of Jesus, and Jesus wanted the disciples to welcome good whatever its source. Here, good has been called evil, and when one cannot make that basic distinction, then one is missing out on the movement of God’s kingdom. Think about people who are unable to believe that anything good can ever come from the church or any religious institution. They will never be open to receiving what good they have to offer.

Luke 11:24-26: Jesus uses the occasion to say more about the spiritual life. Dramatic deliverance from demons is not the end, but only the beginning. “Following Jesus does not mean merely clearing out one’s life of what is objectionable, getting rid of evil spirits, but being filled with the Spirit of God” (Peoples New Testament Commentary).

Luke 11:27-28: These verses, found only in Luke, form part of the Rosary prayer in Roman Catholic Christianity. Some have criticized Jesus, others believe him blessed and so must the one who gave birth to him be blessed. Jesus reiterates that those are truly blessed who follow God’s way. In a series of stories about making decisions for God’s kingdom and for Jesus’ way, here is yet another.

Luke 11:29-32: Jesus sometimes has a funny way of attracting followers. Just as the crowds are increasing, he call this generation evil. Given what has gone on to this point, it is difficult to believe that people would ask for something more in the way of a sign. If we witnessed the kind of healings and exorcisms reported in the gospel, wouldn’t we at least be curious? Wouldn’t we work hard at trying to figure out what was going on rather than ask for something more? In Jesus day and time, he was not the only healer or exorcist (see verse 19). He was not the only traveling teacher. Maybe their request for a sign does not seem so out of place. What Jesus seems to be saying, in return, is “Listen!” “Pay attention!” It is already there in the combination of teaching and preaching and healing and freeing. To demand more is to be captive to the spectacular, rather than attentive to the sacred. The Queen of Sheba was a Gentile, and Ninevah a Gentile city. They responded when others didn’t. A positive response is what Jesus (and Luke) are encouraging.

Luke 11:33-36: Luke has already used a saying about light (8:16), but here he gathers together a few sayings about light that were a part of the teaching of Jesus. These verses reflect an ancient view of how eyes functioned. We think of the eye as a recipient of outside light. The ancients thought of the eye more like a flashlight, inner light was projected out, enabling people to see. So if you want to see the world rightly, the light within must be healthy. Jesus uses different imagery to again invite people to look at their lives. Is their light within? If there is really some light within, one probably sees God’s Spirit at work in Jesus.

Luke 11:37-54:
While we have seen some controversy surrounding Jesus to this point in Luke’s gospel, and experienced some of that coming from Jewish quarters, there has not been to this point the same intensity of feeling against Jesus coming from Jewish leaders (chapter 6 has some, but this is relatively slight compared with the earlier intense opposition found in Matthew and Mark). Here the controversy heats up considerably and Jesus pointedly criticizes some of the spirituality of the leaders. We do well in reading such passages not to focus on how awful some people from the past were. Instead, we can use such passages to ask how our own lives may have slipped into some of these unhealthy patterns of spirituality. Where have we so externalized our life of faith, that it fails to reach the deepest places within, so that we have become almost grave-like in our spirituality? Where have we neglected justice and the love of God and focused instead on rather minor aspects of the faith tradition? Where have we used our faith in a game of oneupsmanship? We should ask ourselves such questions not to induce guilt, but to ask where we can grow as people of faith, people of the Spirit. Jesus harsh words, meant to startle his listeners to a faithful response to God’s Spirit at work in Jesus, move them to hostility. They begin seeking a way to trap him.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Luke 10

Luke 10:1-24: In Matthew and Mark, Jesus sends out the disciples to be in ministry. Luke has already had Jesus do that. Here he sends out seventy or seventy-two (ancient manuscripts have both numbers) people to cure the sick and to share with others that the kingdom of God has come near. The number chosen, 70 or 72 is probably symbolic, reflecting the number of nations in the world according to Genesis 10. The sense is that Jesus will call people from every nation to continue his work of teaching, preaching and healing. The material in verses 13-16 probably reflect the experience of the early church. Jesus had been in some of these very communities, yet they never opened up to his message about the kingdom of God coming near, nor did they welcome those who came later in the name of Jesus. Just after these words of warning, we receive a report that the mission has gone well. Demonic powers have been subdued. For Luke, the church that comes after Jesus will have the ability to touch people’s lives with healing. It will help people overcome the demonic in their lives. Even if we struggle with the idea of literal demons, the image is powerful. Jesus tells them, however, not to get too caught up in the spectacular, but to simply be glad that they are part of the work of God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world. That is more than enough to create joy – and Jesus relishes in the joy of the moment. He thanks God for those who have been about his work, many of whom were not considered very important by the standards of the time. Jesus is not against the wise and intelligent, but recognizes every good gift can also have a destructive shadow. Being smart can mean that one doesn’t listen to others, nor pay sufficient attention to what others have learned. Life itself is a gift, a gift from God and should be appreciated as such. When we come to “find” God, we usually find that God has already found us.

Luke 10:25-37: “Just then” – this time of rejoicing over the successful ministry of people sent by Jesus is interrupted by a question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus asks him what he thinks and his response is the commandment to love – to love God and love one’s neighbor as oneself. Jesus affirms his answer. In the other gospels, the question is about the greatest commandment. Here the question is different, and the response gets elaborated in light of a follow-up question – “who is my neighbor?” The story Jesus tells, which is reported only in Luke’s gospel, has become justly famous. In many ways, we hear in this story within its context the heart of Jesus message and ministry. Jesus has been teaching and preaching. Jesus has been healing. He has sent others out to do the same. Why? Out of love, out of compassion. His ministry has included many of the margins of the religious and economic life of the time. The hero of this story is someone the Jews of the time likely despised – a Samaritan. He is the model because he loves, because he has compassion. And Jesus has loved and given compassion in ways that scandalized the people of his time – he extended compassion to those considered unclean. The priest and the Levite are concerned that contact with a dead person will make them unclean. The Samaritan does not let the lesser rules of his religious faith get in the way of compassion and caring. “Go and do likewise.”

Luke 10:38-42: We are then presented with a very different story, again one only Luke tells. In the story of the Good Samaritan, action that is compassionate, loving and caring is encouraged. Doesn’t Martha seem to be doing just that, welcoming Jesus into her home and trying to make sure all the right things get done? Yet her sister Mary comes to sit at Jesus feet, to listen, to be his disciple. To many in Jesus time, that would have been an inappropriate role for a woman, but Jesus welcomed her to it. Martha is hospitable, but also “worried and distracted by many things.” It is this quality of her life that Jesus finds lacking. It is not that he does not appreciate what she is doing, it’s just that sometimes slowing down and listening and are sometimes more important. Welcoming, above all, is paying attention to the one being welcomed. Mary paid attention to Jesus. The Good Samaritan paid attention to the injured person on the side of the road. Martha was too worried and distracted to give anything much attention.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Luke 7-9

Luke 7:1-10: This story has a parallel in Matthew 8, but Luke tells the story with some interesting differences. Here the centurion, part of the Roman occupying force, sends Jewish elders to Jesus on his behalf – and the elders testify to the goodness of the centurion. Later the centurion sends others to speak to Jesus on his behalf. Jesus marvels at the faith of the centurion, he is, in fact, a model of faith. Jesus heals the man’s servant from a distance. For Luke’s largely Gentile readers, all of this was good news – a Gentile as a model of faith, Jesus ability to heal without actually touching the person to be healed (for Jesus was no longer physically present to Luke’s readers). Jesus is no longer in our world, but do we trust that his presence still retains the power to touch our lives in healing ways?

Luke 7:11-17: This story is found only in Luke and it hearkens back to Luke’s early reference to the story of Elijah and the healing of the widow’s son in Zarephath (see Luke 4). Jesus act of raising this man from death was deeply compassionate in a number of ways. Widows in Jesus time were almost always economically destitute. They could not own property and work was limited. Many turned to prostitution. By restoring this woman’s son, Jesus not only returned to her a loved one, but put her own life in a much better position. For Luke, this act is another testimony to the power of God at work in Jesus. For us, the story is no doubt difficult. We just don’t see funeral processions stopped and the dead raised back to life. If we read the story as parabolic, whatever its historical roots, we can see in it hope rising out of despair, relationships restored, life brought from death by the power of God’s Spirit working in Jesus. We can open ourselves to that same presence and power when our own lives are filled with despair, when they feel like a living death.

Luke 7:18-35: John the Baptist is in prison (Luke 3:20), but stays in communication with his disciples. Is Jesus the one John was expecting or should they look for another? Jesus asks John’s disciples to look around and see what is happening. These verses give Luke another opportunity to share the news that God’s Spirit is at work in a uniquely powerful way in Jesus, and to say words that both praise John, but also put him in a lesser place than Jesus. Again, remember that followers of John hung around even after the emergence of the Jesus movement. Those who respond positively to John and Jesus are those who dance to God’s tune, even if they are tax collectors. They are wisdom’s children. Our spiritual lives probably require a bit of both the discipline of a John and the celebration of a Jesus, both dancing and singing and weeping. Wisdom’s children discern when each is appropriate.

Luke 7:36-50:
The gospels have three versions of a similar story. Matthew and Mark locate this story toward the end of Jesus’ life and ministry (Matthew 26, Mark 14). Luke and John locate the story in a different time frame and tell it somewhat differently. Here the setting is Jesus eating with a Pharisee. Jesus welcomed the opportunity to share meals with all kinds of people, tax collectors and Pharisees – opposite ends of the religious and cultural spectrum of the time. But a figure intrudes on this dinner, a woman, a woman who is of questionable reputation. She anoints Jesus’ feet, shed tears on them and wipes them with her hair. The images are striking. The Pharisee is offended, apparently knowing something of this woman’s reputation. Jesus tells a story to make the point “the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Jesus tells the woman her sins are forgiven, causing yet another stir. He says to her, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” Being saved here would seem to have much more to do with the woman’s present experience of life, her ability to live with a measure of respect and dignity. Perhaps we all yearn to hear Jesus say to us, “your faith has saved you; go in peace.” We trust that we can. We also want to be those who know love and forgiveness in our lives. When we are forgiven out of love, we love. When we see life as a gift of love, we love.

Luke 8:1-3:
Only Luke includes this summary statement of Jesus’ ministry. What is particularly important about it is Luke’s mention of women as a part of the entourage of Jesus. For many, this would have been scandalous – as scandalous as eating with “sinners” or letting a woman of doubtful reputation anoint and kiss his feet. Jesus was often one to break through the social conventions and reach out to those on the margins, those considered unclean. Neither Joanna nor Susanna appear elsewhere in the New Testament and nothing is known about them. Mary Magdalene was a follower from Galilee, and it is only in Luke that we hear that she had seven demons. Christian tradition has often identified here with the woman who earlier anointed Jesus feet. Tradition has also sometimes identified her as a prostitute, but there is nothing to indicate that in the gospels. Luke’s inclusion of the names of these women may have been an affirmation of the women in the Christian communities he was familiar with.

Luke 8:4-15: The familiar parable of the sower is told here. Once again, Jesus is reported as telling the disciples that he speaks in parables in part to make understanding more difficult. Obviously one issue for the early Church was that not everyone welcomed or accepted the teachings of Jesus. Some get it and some don’t. Luke’s reporting of the interpretation of the parable has some slight differences from Matthew and Mark. The ending language is particularly unique. “These are the ones, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” What a wonderful description of being a disciple of Jesus – cultivating an honest and good heart and out of that heart patiently producing good fruit.

Luke 8:16-18: Luke uses some words of Jesus in a little different context here – following the parable of the sower. The image of lighting a lamp and letting the light show is a further encouragement to pay attention to how one listens. When we listen well to God’s Spirit, light shines in our lives, and it shines brighter and brighter as we listen and respond. For those who stop listening, their light dims.

Luke 8:19-21: Luke has taken some of the sharp edges out of Mark’s telling of this incident, but the point is similar – family commitment needs to be seen in light of the more important commitment to God and God’s work in the world. It is not that family commitments are unimportant, it is just that they need to be seen in light of one’s ultimate commitment to God. One effect of such thinking in a society that often kept people rigidly separate depending on their family background was a breaking down of such boundaries. One could be a part of God’s family no matter one’s family of origin.

Luke 8:22-25: This is the first of three (or four) stories Luke uses to demonstrate the remarkable power of God’s Spirit at work in Jesus. Luke is not terribly interested in chronology here – “one day.” There is a storm, the disciples are fearful, Jesus calms the storm and asks the disciples about their faith. They are left marveling and amazed. If we are willing to read the story as parable, in addition to whatever historical reading we may give it, we have here an affirmation that no matter what life may bring, no matter what storms may rage in the world around us, God, in Christ can see us through. It is not that we will necessarily be delivered from everyone, but that God is with us and with God we can make it to the other shore.

Luke 8:26-39: This is another telling of a story we encountered in Mark and Matthew. Here Jesus is in Gentile territory and meets a man troubled by demons. The picture of the man is dramatic – naked, living among the tombs and the swine, often shackled, out of control. By the end of the story, he is calm, clothed and sitting at the feet of Jesus. Healed and freed, the man is sent to tell others what God had done for him. Subtly, Luke shifts the language, telling us that the man went and told people what “Jesus” had done for him. For the Christian faith, the God we know is the God we know through Jesus. Like this man, we are encouraged to let others know what God has done for us through Jesus. The contrast is with the people who respond in fear.

Luke 8:40-56: This story is really two stories in one. Luke has told us that Jesus has Spirit power over the storms. He has Spirit power over demons. Now we will see that he has Spirit power over debilitating ailments and even over death itself. For the woman with the hemorrhaging, her condition was not only physically difficult, but would have left her in a permanent state of ritual impurity and thus isolated from the community. Once again, Luke is affirming that because he is filled with God’s Spirit, Jesus does remarkable things – making people well. One difficulty many have with healing stories is that not everyone gets healed in life as we know it. And in life as we know it, everyone dies, and sometimes at tragic times. Does God simply choose some to live and some to die? Does God choose to heal some and not others? Do those who continue to suffer lack faith? We grasp the profundity of these stories more when we distinguish between healing and cure. Not everyone who takes the same medicine experiences the same results. Not every disease is curable. But healing is always possible, a greater restoration to fullness of life in whatever circumstances one finds oneself. To trust that our lives matter, that they are worthwhile, even when we are physically less than we once were takes a great deal of faith, of trust. Again, to read these stories as action parables is often more helpful to our faith development than to only deal with them as if they were newspaper reports.

Luke 9:1-6: The disciples, who we were told were also “apostles,” are now actually sent out to heal and to share the good news that God’s dream for the world, God’s kingdom is happening. Luke’s readers would have understood these words to apply to them, and so should we.

Luke 9:7-9: Herod, about whom we have heard very little for awhile is perplexed at what he is hearing about Jesus. He had rid himself of John. What action would be required now?

Luke 9:10-17: Herod may be perplexed by the identity of Jesus, but Luke is not. The disciples return from their work, and they retreat with Jesus to share their stories. The crowds soon follow, and Jesus welcomed them – he taught and healed them. But by day’s end, there was one more thing needed, food. Jesus tells his disciples to feed them, but they hardly have enough to do so. Jesus takes what they have, blesses and shares it, and it is enough. Luke is not perplexed about who Jesus is, one through whom God does remarkable things. Luke also wants to communicate that Jesus does his Spirit work as others offer what they have, even if it does not seem like enough.

Luke 9:18-27: Jesus is praying with the disciples nearby and he poses the question that Luke’s gospel has been answering all along – who am I? Peter gets it right – Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah of God. Jesus then goes on to say some surprising things. Rather than be a triumphant king, this Messiah will suffer. Of course Luke knows the end of the story, but it is entirely possible that the historical Jesus understood the possibilities of his own death at the hands of others. Notice, there is no objection offered by the disciples, as there had been in Matthew and Mark. Not only will Jesus suffer, but discipleship to Jesus often comes at a cost. Whatever the cost, discipleship is a “daily” decision. Daily we open ourselves to God’s grace and the power of God’s Spirit. Daily we live in grace and in the Spirit, trying to be loving and kind and compassionate, trying to make peace and work for justice, trying to create beauty and foster reconciliation. When we “lose” our lives in such a way, we find life.

Luke 9:28-36: In all the gospels we have been reading, there is this interesting series of stories – the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah; words about discipleship as a costly proposition; and then this picture of Jesus transfigured. It is as if each writer wants us to understand the mysterious mixture of wonder and challenge that are a part of being God’s Spirit person. Our lives are transformed, transfigured, sometimes luminous, and yet we suffer, we struggle, we make difficult decisions to do the right thing even when it costs. Sometimes our spiritual lives have these moments of deep clarity and vision, yet we always come back to the hard work of living that out day by day.

Luke 9:37-43a: Down from the mountain, the demands of ministry continue – there is a crowd and a child who needs to be healed and freed. The disciples were unable to help. Jesus response is a bit mystifying. Is he terse because the people were not patient with the disciples? Is he frustrated by the disciples’ inability to help this child? Whatever is going on, Jesus cares for the boy. Maybe there is a lesson here for us. Our own ministries may have their moments of frustration, but we should not let that get in the way of doing God’s healing work.

Luke 9:43b-45: From a remarkable moment to yet another reminder that the road ahead will be difficult. The disciples don’t really grasp that, but Jesus keeps trying. “Let these words sink into your ears.”

Luke 9:46-48: They really don’t get it, do they? The disciples wonder about greatness and Jesus shows them a child. Welcome children. The least among you is the greatest.

Luke 9:49-50: Not only should they not be terribly concerned about greatness, they should not be concerned about having a “franchise” on Jesus. If someone is doing healing work in Jesus name, let them do it.

Luke 9:51-56: Jesus ministry in Galilee is coming to a close as he sets “his face to go to Jerusalem.” The tone here is a bit ominous. The material in the coming chapters is sometimes referred to as Luke’s “travel narrative.” Mark has very little transition material between Jesus ministry in Galilee and his ministry and death in Jerusalem. Luke will take the next ten chapters to get Jesus to Jerusalem, and here we will find a lot of material unique to Luke’s gospel, and some of the best-known and well-loved stories of Jesus. That Luke puts so much into stories along the way is significant. The church of Luke’s time was sometimes knows as “the way.” As God’s people, we are on a spiritual journey with Jesus, learning and teaching, being healed and healing. The journey gets off to an interesting start. Jesus and the disciples are headed toward a Samaritan village, but the village would not welcome them because they were headed toward Jerusalem. This is a clue to the animosity between Samaritans and Jews during the time of Jesus. Samaritans were ostracized by Jews, who traveled to Jerusalem to worship at the Temple. The Samaritans probably returned the hostile feelings. Even though they were not welcomed, Jesus will not give into vengeful feelings.

Luke 9:57-62: Being on the way with Jesus is not always easy. These vignettes are another way to say what has already been said. Sometimes the way is difficult indeed, but the good news is that this sometimes difficult way is the way of life. Jesus is headed toward Jerusalem. Will we go with him?

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Luke 4-6

Luke 4:1-13: The Holy Spirit, which had descended on Jesus at his baptism, continues to fill him and guide him. Jesus ends up in the wilderness to be tempted there. The narrative repeats that in Matthew 4, though the temptations are ordered differently. That Luke places the scene of the final temptation in Jerusalem may be his way of foreshadowing that this will be the place of a future trial of Jesus, a future time of struggle. Luke ends his story with ominous words about the tempter/devil. “He departed from him until an opportune time. Unfortunately, temptation to wander from living faithfully will always be with us. It is never completely absent. All these temptations of Jesus are presented as opportunities to do greater good – provide bread, rule the world, bring people to God through spectacular means. Jesus refuses each. The end result is not all that matters. How we achieve what we understand to be God’s purposes for the world also matters. Material needs are important, but they are not all of life. One can lead and rule for good, but such leadership can lose its moral force if getting to the top was all that mattered. The way to God is not always spectacular, but often requires traveling the dusty back roads, teaching and healing along the way. The way may even be the way of a cross.

Luke 4:14-15: In Mark, transitions were often abrupt – “then” and “now” were often used. Luke has a strong sense that Jesus was a person full of the Spirit of God (as would be appropriate for one called “son of God”). Jesus ministry begins “in the power of the Spirit” in Galilee. There is no mention here that John’s arrest was a part of the beginning of his ministry. In this summary statement we are simply told that Jesus was “filled with the power of the Spirit,” went to Galilee where word about him spread (though we don’t know why at this point), and he began to teach to the praises of everyone.

Luke 4:16-30: Both Matthew and Mark place a similar incident in Nazareth later in the ministry of Jesus. Luke places it here perhaps as a way to communicate to his largely Gentile audience that very early on, Jesus was rejected by some of his own people. Rejection will be an important part of the ministry experience of Jesus, and here Luke helps foreshadow that. Jesus quotes from Isaiah (61:1-2 and 58:6). The words are words of promise to a people in exile, and Luke uses them as a way to summarize what the ministry of Jesus will be about. For Luke, the ministry of Jesus defines what God’s kingdom is all about, and in Jesus it was happening (today this scripture is fulfilled). As God’s people who also live “in the power of the Spirit,” our lives should share in this ministry. There seems to be an initial positive response, followed quickly by a negative reaction that is a little difficult to understand. It seems related to Jesus familiarity in this his hometown. Jesus cites stories from the Hebrew Scriptures which indicate that God often works through those outside the typical community of faith. The anger of the people rises to such a pitch that they want to run him off a cliff, but he has work to do and goes no his way. Doing good is not always well-received. When people change for the better, those who knew them before are often skeptical of the change. We continue the work of Jesus even when there is opposition and rejection.

Luke 4:31-37: Now Jesus goes to Capernaum, and teaches there. While teaching (and his teaching was well-received) a man who had the spirit of an unclean demon makes an appearance. This story repeats the story in Mark 1:21-28. For Luke, the Spirit that fills Jesus has the power and authority to overcome spirits that are detrimental to human life. This healing/exorcism leads to word being spread about Jesus. As we do the healing work given us, positive word may spread as well.

Luke 4:38-41: Luke has not yet introduced us to Simon until now. We have no context for his going to Simon’s house, just the report that he did, and when he got there he healed her fever. This is just the beginning of a series of healings and exorcisms in that place. As previously noted, such stories are often difficult for modern readers who seek healing from a doctor, not a spiritual teacher, and who have virtually no experience of demons. Healings and exorcisms were a part of the intellectual and cultural landscape of Jesus time. In fact, Jesus was not the only first-century Jew about whom healing and exorcism stories were told. Our focus in reading such passages should be less on trying to figure out what may have happened and more on what is this story trying to say in its context and for our lives. Luke tells these stories, passes down traditions he has heard, in order to say something about Jesus. His presence in people’s lives was a healing and freeing one. While we may consult physicians for physical ailments today, there remain in our lives wide areas for “healing.” Though we may have difficulty with the idea of unclean spirits possessing us, many of us experience things inside of us which cause us to engage in actions harmful to ourselves and others – anger that gets out of control, a sadness which taints our view of the world. There are large social forces which also hold us “captive” in a meaningful sense of that word. Is there something “demonic” about a health care system that keeps 45 million citizens of our country uninsured and also causes us not to ask whether it has to be that way? Was there something demonic about our country when we just took for granted that African-Americans should be segregated? In stories of healing and exorcism, Luke is making a point about the powerful presence of the Spirit-filled Jesus. His touch healed and freed. As Christians we believe it still does. I recently read a story about a man that was so moved by the sight of a Zen teacher leaving a Zen center that he was lead to begin meditation. “I never saw a back that straight before. I watched it. I stood there a moment after I could no longer see it. Then I crossed the street, went in, and asked them to teach me how to sit.” (Natalie Goldberg, Long Quiet Highway, 117-118). I am not equating Jesus with this Zen monk, only noting that Luke is trying to convey something of the powerful impact of Jesus on people’s lives and reminding us that such things still happen. Again, as Christians, we believe they still happen as Jesus is present in human lives. Where do you need healing from Jesus? How can you let the presence of Jesus shine through you so that others are drawn to him?

Luke 4:42-44: As in other gospels, Jesus is portrayed as a person who seeks silence in his life from time to time. Crowds seek him out, here afraid that he may leave them and wanting him to stay. Jesus has a mission (proclaiming the kingdom of God) and must move on. Like the crowds we are afraid to let good things get too far away from us. We need to be reminded that the spread of goodness anywhere contribute to God’s dream for the world, a dream which includes us all. This is Luke’s first introduction of the term “kingdom of God” “a reference both to the saving activity of God and to the community and practices of people who embody among themselves God’s saving purpose” (New Interpreter’s Study Bible). For Luke, the kingdom of God was something that Jesus embodied, that was present in Jesus and his work, and was something that would come in its fullness at some future time. But what Jesus meant by the kingdom of God divides contemporary Jesus scholarship…. The primary disagreement is… not about the content of what the kingdom would be like, but how and when Jesus thought this would happen…. The phrase “kingdom of God” names God’s passion for the earth – God’s will, God’s promise, God’s dream…. It’s not just about politics, but is the way the world would be if God were king, and the kings and domination systems of this world were not. It is God’s dream, God’s passion, God’s will, God’s promise, God’s intention for the earth, God’s utopia – the blessed place, the ideal state of affairs…. It is about our relationship to God as persons…. It is about God’s passion for a different kind of world. (Marcus Borg, Jesus, 186, 188, 252, 225). I have previously written about Borg’s view of “participatory eschatology” and probably will mention it again later in these reflections about Luke’s gospel.

Luke 5:1-11: Jesus is on his way to proclaim and embody the kingdom of God, and along the way he begins to gather disciples. The lake of Gennesaret is another name for the Sea of Galilee. A crowd is gathered here around Jesus. He asks for some help from a local fisherman, and then offers him some advice about fishing. Simon Peter and the others reluctantly follow the advice and to their astonishment, a great catch is made. In light of this amazement, Simon Peter sees something special in Jesus and sees something lacking in his own life. In words that have become rather common in Luke, Jesus tells Simon, “Do not be afraid” (remember how often these words were used in the stories of Elizabeth and Mary). Simon, James and John were invited to change vocations – from fishermen to those who would catch people. They leave everything to follow, something many first-century Christians knew about. For Luke, this life-changing encounter with Jesus serves as a model for becoming Jesus’ disciple.

Luke 5:12-16: In contrast to Mark, where words like “then” and “immediately” are used in the transitions, Luke uses the more leisurely “once.” While I am not sure just what to make of this, it indicates again that the gospel writers told the story of Jesus in particular contexts and for particular purposes. It shaped how the story was told. As twenty-first century Christians we need to be asking how we can tell the story of Jesus in such a way that its power and its impact can be experienced by people in our day and time. In some way our job is more difficult than Luke’s. The Jesus movement/Christianity was relatively new on the scene. In our day and time, so many have heard something about Jesus and the Christian faith that sheer familiarity sometimes gets in the way of the power of the story – in our lives as well as in the lives of others. Once, Jesus encountered a leper and healed him. As noted before, healing lepers often was more than physical healing – it involved reintegrating them into the community from which they had been ostracized. Jesus fame spread. “But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” Good advice for our lives, even if we have to create “deserted places” in the midst of our busy schedules.

Luke 5:17-26: Jesus was teaching in the presence of a crowd, including Pharisees and teachers of the law. “The power of the Lord was with him to heal.” A paralyzed man is brought to Jesus through the roof of the house! Jesus notices the faith of those who have brought the man, and tells the man his sins are forgiven. It was quite common in that day to think that sin had something to do with physical ailment (and in our day we recognize that what goes on inside our heads, hearts and souls can have a physical effect). Anyway, Jesus tells the man his sins are forgiven, creating a controversy with the scribes and Pharisees (groups portrayed in Luke as sometimes friendly and sometimes hostile toward Jesus). The Pharisees were lay… leaders of the synagogue. They were non-professional students of the Law…. They emphasized living an authentic, holy life, applying to all Israel the strict rules given only to priests in the Old Testament…. For the most part the historical Pharisees were sincere, serious advocates of the divine law, ethics, and the mission of Israel as a holy people among the nations. They were widely respected among the people and were themselves critical of hypocrisy in their ranks. (Peoples New Testament Commentary) I share that to note that the portrayal of the Pharisees in the New Testament arises out of a conflicted context. Different groups were offering varying definitions of what Judaism should be after the destruction of the Temple. Eventually followers of Jesus were shown the door by persons more associated with Pharisaical Judaism. By the end of the story, however, all are amazed. God is glorified, and the people are left saying, “We have seen strange things today.” It might be nice if people left church now and again saying something like that!

Luke 5:27-32: Jesus call to discipleship extends to “strange people,” too. (Do any of you feel better knowing this?) Tax collectors were “generally regarded with disdain by Jew and Gentile alike” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Jesus calls, Levi the tax collector follows. But Levi does more, he invites Jesus to dinner and there are other tax collectors eating with Jesus and Levi. There are complaints, but Jesus responds to them. He wants to reach out to all who are in need, as a physician reaches out to the sick. Other spiritual traditions use this metaphor as well. “Just as a capable physician might instantly cure a patient who is in pain and seriously ill; so also, dear sir, whatever one hears of the Buddha’s Dharma – one’s sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair will vanish” (Anguttara Nikaya).

Luke 5:33-39: Controversy continues as people note differences between the practice of John’s disciples and Pharisees, who frequently fast and pray, and the disciples of Jesus who eat and drink. Jesus responds by noting the need for celebration at the arrival in him of God’s kingdom. Now Jesus shares a parable, or rather reflects on a series of proverbial sayings about what is old and what is new. The combination of sayings is a little confusing. Luke’s point seems to be that something very new is happening in Jesus and it may burst to bounds of traditional categories. Who really are the sick and sinners? Does associating with those on the edges of society really contaminate one religiously, or does it not bring the sacred to the places it really belongs? Isn’t celebration as important as fasting in response to God’s grace? Sometimes we get so satisfied with the familiar that we simply say, “the old is good” without ever checking out the new.

Luke 6:1-11: We have seen this controversy before in the other gospels – what does it mean to faithfully keep the Sabbath. Keeping Sabbath includes doing good, saving life, feeding and healing. Jesus challenge to some of the religious leaders leads them to wonder what they might do to him. In all our spiritual practices, there is a line between faithful observance and an unhealthy clinging that takes the very life that the practices were meant to enhance out of those practices. We usually can’t determine where that line is in advance.

Luke 6:12-16: After another period of prayer, Jesus choose from among his disciples (meaning learner, student, follower) some who would be “apostles” (meaning one sent with a commission). The number twelve is probably symbolic. The lists of names varies from gospel to gospel. Apostle should not be seen by us as someone from the past. In reality, as Christians we are all invited to be both disciples and apostles, followers and students of Jesus and those sent by Jesus to continue his work in the world.

Luke 6:17-19: Luke has not shared much about the content of Jesus’ teaching to this point. In these verses he summarizes Jesus’ ministry and sets the context for an extended look at the teaching of Jesus. Much of this material is comparable to Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, but here Jesus has come down from the mount and is on a level place. A great crowd has gathered from all around, even from Jerusalem. Among the crowd are his disciples. The crowd has gathered to hear him and to be healed. Isn’t that what we want from our faith, and from the Christ of our faith – to be taught a way of life and to be healed?

Luke 6:20-26: In the midst of the crowd, Jesus directs his teaching to his disciples, just as in Matthew. Verses 20-22 repeats some of the Beatitudes in Matthew, and they make a similar point – God’s dream for the world is often the opposite of what the world considers successful and blessed. When God’s dream for the world arrives in its fullness, those who are now poor and hungry and who weep and are persecuted will be blessed. Perhaps they are blessed even now for their ability to be open to God’s Spirit in Jesus. They have little old wine to be content with, and so are open to receive the new wine of the Spirit in Jesus. On the other hand, those who are currently well-satisfied may find that God’s kingdom has some bad news before it has good news. Those who are now rich and full and laughing and considered well-to-do may find that they way they got there was not the way God wanted them to live. Being content with old wine, they may miss the new wine of God’s Spirit in Jesus. I don’t mean that they won’t get to heaven – that’s not Jesus' focus here. His focus is on distinguishing those who are open to the movement of God’s Spirit from those who are missing in now. Whether they miss it forever is another question.

Luke 6:27-36: If unexpected people are really the one’s who are blessed, then the code of behavior Jesus identifies as appropriate for God’s dream for the world is also surprising. It seems only “natural” to despise one’s enemies. Most of us have felt this personally. As God’s people, touched by the healing Spirit of God in Jesus we are to love our enemies, do good even to those who hate us, bless those who curse us and pray for those who oppose us. Do good to others as you would have them do good to you (v. 31). Be as merciful, as compassionate as God. This is not simple acquiescence to wrongdoing and harm. It is dignified response and sometimes resistance. In each of the examples Jesus provides for not seeking retaliation, the dignity of the respondent is reaffirmed. Turning the other cheek would force the person hitting you to strike you with the palm of the hand, the way equals fought one another, not backhandedly, the way a superior hit a subordinate. Soldiers were only permitted to conscript a person to carry their gear for a mile, to do more put the soldier in an awkward spot. Giving up a second garment in a two garment society provides for interesting street theater. Resistance to evil is not to be violent, but it may be resistance. The teaching here has deep resonance across some religious traditions. “For hate is not conquered by hate: hate is conquered by love. This is a law eternal.” (Buddha, The Dhammapada, verse 6) These words are as challenging to us as to those who first heard Jesus utter them.

Luke 6:37-38: Love and compassion entail being open to others, not being judgmental toward others. These instructions do not mean that followers of Jesus should blandly and indiscriminately accept all practices and lifestyles as equally valid…. Jesus here places all one’s interpersonal relationships in the light of one’s relationship to God. One who knows God’s acceptance despite human sin will see others in the same charitable light in which God has seen us. (Peoples New Testament Commentary). Forgiveness and generosity are also a part of love and compassion -and somehow we will find that as we are generous and generous in spirit, we will be recipients of such generosity. “Generosity begets generosity” as Eugene Peterson renders some of this in The Message.

Luke 6:39-40: The model for our lives is our teacher, Jesus.

Luke 6:41-42: This is a repeat of Matthew 7. Matthew and Luke obviously draw from a common source for the material they use as describing the teaching of Jesus. Again note the humor Jesus uses. . Paying more attention to how others are doing seems to be a sign that one’s own transformation in love needs some work. Don’t be judgmental. Pay more attention to your own spiritual life than trying to find fault in the spiritual life of others. If you really want to help others in their spiritual lives, begin by growing in your own. There is an interesting parallel in Buddhist literature. “Look not at the faults of others nor at what they do or leave undone; but only at your own deeds and deeds unachieved” (The Dhammapada, 50).

Luke 6:43-45: Jesus uses yet another image to encourage those listening, and those to whom these teachings will be passed down, to not only listen but to let the teachings become a part of one’s heart, soul and practice. In verses 39-39 “Jesus brings his discourse to a close with a series of parabolic sayings urging his audience not only to listen but to really hear and obey his message” (New Interpreters Study Bible). Here the parabolic image is of good trees bearing good fruit. Jesus wants us to be transformed in love so that we are like good trees bearing good fruit.

Luke 6:46-49: Here Luke ends his version of the Sermon on the Mount, this central collection of Jesus’ teachings. There will be other teaching moments in Luke, and some containing memorable stories. Here Jesus ends with a simple story. As commentary on it, let me cite Eugene Peterson’s rendering from The Message. Why are you so polite with me, always saying ‘Yes, sir’ and ‘That’s right sir,’ but never doing a thing I tell you? These words I speak to you are not mere additions to your life, homeowner improvements to your standard of living. They are foundation words, words to build a life on. If you work the words into your life, you are like a smart carpenter who dug deep and laid the foundation of his house on bedrock. When the river burst its banks and crashed against the house, nothing could shake it; it was built to last. But if you just use my words in Bible studies and don’t work them into your life, you are like a dumb carpenter who built a house but skipped the foundation. When the swollen river came crashing in, it collapsed like a house of cards. It was a total loss.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Luke 2-3

Mary, the Mother of Jesus: I would like to say a bit more here about Mary and the story of Jesus birth before commenting on the story as Luke tells it (and tells it so well). Luke has already said that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph, betrothal being a legal promise that served as a precursor to marriage. “In Roman law, the minimum age of marriage for girls was 10, and Jewish practices were similar. Marriage generally took place before a girl reached 12 and a half. As a virgin, Mary would have been a young girl of marriageable age (i.e., about 12 or 13) who had not engaged in sexual intercourse.” (Interpreters Study Bible). That is the cultural context for Luke’s telling of the story. He is making a very dramatic point about how God will begin to make God’s presence felt and known in the world in a new way. It will happen through a young woman, one who should not be pregnant, giving birth. The young woman was not powerful, but ordinary, yet she is willing to be a part of God’s purposes for the world. That is what matters to Luke, and at the end of this reflection, I want to share part of a poem about Mary that I have found profoundly meaningful.

First, however, I want to say something about the Christian doctrine of the virgin birth. Some Christians have made believing in the literal truth of Luke’s story a definitive mark of Christian faith. Should it be so considered? “How strange that the virgin birth became an article of faith for some Christians! The conviction seems to be that believing the unbelievable is an act of faith that has some merit with God and assures believers of being faithful Christians.” (George Ricker, What You Don’t Have to Believe to Be a Christian, 45). Ricker goes on to note that none of the earliest writings in the New Testament, Paul’s letters and the Gospel of Mark, even mention the virgin birth. Bishop John Shelby Spong notes the same when writing about the virgin birth stories and thinks that they are “a fascinating first century way to suggest that Jesus was a spirit person. Surely this was not biology that was being described.” (Spong, Why Christianity Must Change of Die, 108) In another book, Spong writes about first century understandings of the birth process. “The early Christians simply did not understand the woman’s role in reproduction. They reasoned not from scientific knowledge but from an analogy drawn from their common life. They knew that a farmer planted his seed in the soil of the earth and that Mother Earth nurtured the seed into maturity. This was the analogy that shaped the way ancient Jews understood human reproduction. The life of any newborn baby was believed to dwell in the seed of the male. The woman’s contribution, like that of Mother Earth, was only to provide a nurturing womb.” (Spong, A New Christianity for a New World, 118) Back to George Ricker. Virgin births were part of the thought-forms of the Graeco-Roman world. It should come as no surprise, for those who know that ancient culture, that Christians relied upon the same ways of thinking to proclaim their faith in the uniqueness of Jesus…. The virgin birth may be a historical event, a literal happening, or it may be a wondrous tradition, the poetic expression of a profound faith. The basic issue, it seems to me, is not about believing the virgin birth literally, but whether Christian faith should rest upon something so uncertain and so removed from our experience. Yet, the virgin birth is essentially true in a depth dimension. As Frederick Buechner has written: “Whereas the villains of history can always be seen as the products of heredity and environment, the saints always seem to arrive under their own steam. Evil evolves. Holiness happens.”… Is it not possible for us to choose our interpretation and at the same time not exclude from the Christian family those who choose another?

Again, the primary point of Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus is to say something about the importance of Jesus and about the amazing way God works to achieve God’s purposes in the world. If I think this story is more parabolic than historical (in the narrow sense), it still leads me to affirm that the God I know in Jesus Christ is a God who brings new life when the odds seem stacked against it. God works in unexpected ways, through quiet people, just as often, perhaps even more often, than in the grand designs of the powerful and well-heeled. And don’t forget, Mary said “yes” - - - Mary age 12 or 13 said “yes” to God.

Here is the part of a poem I promised. It is written by Rosario Castellanos and is entitled “Nazareth.” It is a reflection on Mary and is taken from The Gospel in Our Image, edited by David Curzon.

Like any cup, easily broken;
like all vessels, too small
for the destiny she must contain.

Luke 2

Luke 2:1-20: We read these words every Christmas Eve in Christian churches, and in them, Luke’s literary artistry is on full display. Luke sets the historical context, though some of his information does not fit what we know of who ruled when. That is not that important to Luke. His point is theological. Emperor Augustus was Octavian, grand-nephew of Julius Caesar, and the title “Augustus” implied both political power and religious respect. Rome collected taxes, and to many Jews, this was a deep offense – having to pay taxes to a pagan government for living in their own land. It was a prime reason for revolt among Jews, eventuating in the Roman-Jewish war of 66-73, and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. The census referred to was of Judea, in preparation for its direct rule as a Roman province after the death of Herod. “Luke thus sets the story of Jesus is the context of political struggle, taxation, and the imperial and religious claims of Rome.” The issue for Luke is “the stand one takes in regard to whether it is the birth of Jesus or of Caesar that is good news, whether the title ‘Savior’ is legitimately applied to Caesar or to Jesus.” (The Peoples New Testament Commentary) The circumstances are extremely humble – a guest room in a home where animals also dwelt. There is no palace for this God-blessed child. The good news of his birth goes out not to the powerful, but to the ordinary, shepherds going about their work. The term used for “good news” originally meant a victory message from a field of battle and had become almost a technical term for the birth of the emperor. This will be good news for all people – Luke will emphasize again and again how the good news about Jesus, about God touching human life through the life of Jesus, will be for all people. “Savior” and “Lord” were titles used for the emperor, and sometimes of gods. “Christ” or “Messiah” is a term meaning “one anointed by God to do something for God.” The announcement of “peace on earth” is also an echo of Roman imperial theology. Rome proclaimed itself the maker of peace. The gospel says that God in Jesus will make peace, not Rome. Perhaps as Christians we need to ask again and again how it is God would make peace through us in our world.

Luke 2:21-38: These stories of the beginnings of Jesus are told only in Luke, and again reveal his creativity. Jesus’ parents do what is appropriate for Jewish parents. They name Jesus and have him circumcised, and they bring a purification offering for Mary to the Temple. By the way, the offering Mary brings indicates that she is among the poor. While at the Temple, a significant location, a man named Simeon, a person filled with the Holy Spirit, sings the praises of God for what God is up to in Jesus. God is up to “saving work.” Another person, Anna, also proclaims good news. Praise is a natural part of the language of faith. Luke makes that point, and reiterates how special Jesus is in God’s dream for the world.

Luke 2:39-52: This story seems to serve two functions for Luke, it emphasizes the humanity of Jesus – that he grew up in a home, traveled to religious festivals, etc., and also foreshadows his importance. Even as a boy, his faith was strong and he asked profound questions in the Temple. Greek and Roman stories about heroic figures often included such foreshadowing. That twice in these verses we are told that Jesus grew should be an encouragement to us to keep growing as people of God.

Luke 3

Luke 3:1-20: A familiar figure appears again in Luke’s gospel, Elizabeth and Zechariah’s son John. Again, Luke is careful to locate John’s ministry in a historical context. John and Jesus are not just ethereal figures from the mists of a mythic past, but people who trod the trails of Galilee and climbed the hills of Judea. Luke may not always get all the history right, but he wants to make sure the people understand that the God of John and Jesus is not one removed from everyday life. This God acts in human lives within history. The emperor has changed, Tiberius, not Augustus/Octavian. Herod in Galilee is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. Rome now directly controls Judea through the governor, or prefect, Pontius Pilate. These are the powerful, but the word of God comes to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness. From his experience he proclaims and baptizes. Luke cites a passage from Isaiah to give a theological shape to John’s work, and to again emphasize that this is a part of God’s work of saving God’s people – something God is always doing in various ways. And how does one get in line with God’s saving work – repent. In Hebrew, repentance meant to turn or return. In Greek, it meant to change one’s mind, or go beyond the mind that you have. Repentance means “a fundamental reorientation of the way one thinks about the world and life, a revolution in one’s thinking that effects a change of direction in one’s life” (The Peoples New Testament Commentary). And what does a reoriented life look like? It is a life of sharing, a life of compassion and justice in whatever one does. John does not tell those whose work is for Rome (soldiers and tax collectors) to quit their jobs, but to do them with a new mind and heart. John’s powerful message attracts attention, but he tells them that another even more powerful person is on his way. John’s ministry also attracted some of the wrong kinds of attention and he found himself on the wrong side of Herod, who threw him into prison. The kind of reoriented life that John speaks of remains relevant for those of us who follow the one John spoke about.

Luke 3:21-22: In Luke’s telling of the story of Jesus baptism, there is no indication of John’s hesitancy. The focus becomes Jesus own experience – baptism, prayer, the Spirit descending, the word that he is beloved by God and God’s son. When have you experienced in prayer or through a meaningful ritual the closeness of God, being beloved by God?

Luke 3:23-38: To reemphasize the Jesus is indeed the “son of God,” Luke includes a genealogy that takes Jesus all the way back to God. If one compares it to Matthew’s genealogy, one finds differences. That should be no surprise for the purpose of these genealogies is not biology but theology. “The net effect is to provide for Jesus a legitimation appropriate to Luke’s world.” (New Interpreters Study Bible)

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Luke Chapter 1

1:1-4: The prologue to the Gospel of Luke, the first part of a two-part work. Luke is making use of a familiar convention in Greek and Roman writing here, presupposing that his audience might be learned and cultured. The name “Theophilus” was relatively common in the Roman world, and the way Luke addresses this person again indicates that his anticipated audience has some learning and status. Luke wants to make sure the story of Jesus gets told on a “world stage” because it is about someone who has made all the difference in the world. “Theophilus” can be translated as “friend of God,” so Luke may also have in mind someone who has just begun the journey into the Christian way.

1:5-25: Though a Gentile, Luke makes extensive use of Jewish tradition. He also makes extensive use of names to identify a time, an era, in which things occurs. We find that here, at the beginning of the final chapter in the birth story of Jesus and then again at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In these verses (5-25) Luke tells the story of the birth of John the Baptist, and tells it in such a way that it parallels the story of the birth of Jesus – though Luke is never in doubt about whose birth is more significant. Remember that followers of John continued to exist after Jesus life, ministry and death. Luke wants to make the point that the birth story of Jesus really begins long ago in the promises of God to save God’s people. Angels serve as messengers that God is again up to something. It is interesting to note the contrasts. In the days of King Herod of Judea – Luke’s readers would have expected God to be acting through the king, but God instead chooses a priest and his faithful wife (who also was in a priestly line). We are reminded of the story of Abraham and Sarah, both on in years, who give birth. Elizabeth is to give birth an angel tells Zechariah, but Zechariah finds this hard to believe. For Luke, God’s purposes are not ultimately thwarted by seeming impossibilities. Does this mean God will always do the impossible? No, but it means that people who trust in God deeply never abandon hope. Elizabeth responds to the news of her pregnancy with joy.

1:26-38: While Elizabeth’s pregnancy precedes apace, the same angel who had announced her pregnancy visits another woman, Mary, in Nazareth of Galilee. Elizabeth was old and childless. Mary was young, and a virgin. In neither case would pregnancy have been expected, but in both cases, God will act. And again, it is not just surprising that God will act so that physically unlikely people become pregnant (old and barren, young and a virgin) but socially unlikely people become pregnant. These are not royal families. Within Roman imperial theology, the emperor was the son of god, descended from the divine. In this story, God acts in the life of a young, perplexed woman who nevertheless is willing to be touched by God’s Spirit. As with Elizabeth, Mary is a model of faith – another unlikely hero in a culture that tended to devalue women. Mary’s exact physical status has been an issue for many Christians for countless years. Luke is not really interested in that question, except as a way to make his point about a God who acts in surprising places and ways, and through surprising people. Virgin birth stories were told of the emperor. God is interested in another kind of kingdom and is willing to work in extraordinary ways to help make it happen. Making it happen seems to require the willingness of human persons. Mary responds to Gabriel: “Here am I, a servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” In contrast to Matthew’s gospel, here Mary is center stage and Joseph a more minor character. Nevertheless, it is mentioned that Joseph is of the house of David. If Mary is a relative of Elizabeth’s she would somehow be in the lineage of Aaron, the priest from Exodus.

1:39-56: Mary, fresh with strange and wonderful news, goes to visit Elizabeth. The baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaps when Mary arrives, another signal that Jesus will be greater than John. Mary sings a song of praise, which has been known in the Christian faith as “the Magnificat.” The insertion of this song here is a wonderfully creative literary move by Luke. While Mary may have been filled with joy, who would really know what she sang out by Luke’s day and time? Mary continues to be a model of faith and joy for the people for whom Luke was writing and for us as well. Read her song carefully. It is filled with a sense that God’s kingdom, God’s dream for the world may upset the usual applecart. The lowly, the hungry, the humble are those who have a special place in God’s dream – just the opposite of what Luke’s culture probably proclaimed.

1:57-80: John’s birth story will end the first chapter of Luke’s gospel. Elizabeth gives birth, and wants to name the child John, but this is not in keeping with her family tradition. While God obviously cares about family, family traditions can, sometimes get in the way of God’s purposes. Zechariah agrees that the child’s name should be John and his mute voice is given speech, which he uses to praise God. Again, Luke’s literary artistry is in evidence in this wonderful song praising God and proclaiming God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Listen to these beautiful words: “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” God’s tender love remains active in our world, that is part of the Christian proclamation of faith. The light of God’s love continues to shine, breaking into our lives, guiding us into the way of peace – if we will be so guided.
The Gospel of Luke: Introduction

Introductory Remarks: So the adventure begins again, yet another telling of the story of Jesus. In what context was the story told this time and how might that context shape how the story gets told. What is old, what is new, what is borrowed…. You get the point! And who tells this story? The composer/author’s voice is present from the very beginning of Luke. You hear him give some reason for writing and the name of a person to whom he is writing. In both Matthew and Mark, that “voice” is missing. Matthew begins with genealogy and Mark simply with the words, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” Another interesting feature of this gospel is that it is part one of a two-part work. The Book of Acts is part two (see Acts 1:1). Sometimes scholars and writers will refer to this combined work as Luke-Acts. This combined work covers 27.5% of the New Testament, making Luke its most prolific author.

So what do we know of the author and his context? Tradition identifies the author as a companion of Paul (Philemon 24, II Timothy 4:11, Colossians 4:14), but there is no way to validate such a claim. By the author’s own admission, he was not an eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus. The language of the gospel is an excellent Greek, of fine literary quality (or so I am told!). This seems to indicate that the writer was a Gentile Christian, and there are other clues in the narrative which would also support this. Given what the author, who we will continue to call “Luke,” says in the beginning of both parts of his work, the gospel appears to be written for a wider public that has had some brush with Christian faith, either as persons newer to the faith or as outsiders. It may be somewhat less grounded in a particular Christian community than Matthew or Mark, but its purpose would have been, in part, to strengthen the Christian movement in the face of opposition. Luke is writing/composing theological history both for those within the Christian movement and for those outside of it. He expects his audience to be a bit more learned and cultured. It was probably written from 80-100 CE in an unknown location. Again, there is a bit less of a link to a more specific Christian community here than with the other gospels.

Like Matthew, it seems clear that the composer of Luke used material from the Gospel of Mark. His own introduction indicates that he used other materials. As with Matthew, Luke seems also to have used a source of Jesus’ sayings. Most scholars argue that both Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel and a similar “sayings source” (often called “Q” for the German word for “sayings”). In addition, there is significant material that is unique to Luke (about one-fourth of the gospel). In this material we find some of the most beloved and well-known stories about Jesus or told by Jesus – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the story of Jesus birth in Bethlehem, the walk to Emmaus. As we move along, we will see how Luke uses his material to present the good news about Jesus in his own unique way.

The Gospel of Luke is an old book and there is much in it that will seem strange to someone picking it up for the first time today. Nevertheless, it is impossible to read it without being challenged by the mysterious presence of Jesus. As well as a sense of enormous compassion for the human condition, we find in him a burning anger against all systems, religious or political, that come between God and the poor of the earth. In the furious pity of Jesus, we catch a glimpse of God’s dream for a transformed humanity.
(Richard Holloway, Revelations)