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?

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