I am taking this seminar on the Gospel of Luke with Prof. Richard Hays . The class consists of meeting twice a week and engaging in a close read on our selected passage. I wanted to share some stuff I’ve been learning.
From our close read of Luke so far, it seems that Luke has an interesting conception of salvation and eschatology (i.e., study of the end of things). For Luke, salvation appears with Jesus; it looks like Jesus—he performs salvation. Simeon’s prophecy concerning Jesus points us in this direction: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation” (Lk.2:29-30). Simeon sees God’s salvation when he sees Jesus. Salvation has come to the house of Israel on that first Christmas. Luke continues this vision of Jesus as salvation by quoting a few verses from Isaiah to situate the mission of John that baptizer:
“A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all flesh will see God’s salvation” (3:4-6).
John is the harbinger, the one who comes before Jesus in order to prepare the way for all humanity to see the salvation of God, which is Jesus. The shape of salvation is figured in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. And Luke gives us a text from Isaiah that frames his life—that provides the canvass on which Jesus gives salvation color. Jesus’ life speaks salvation for all to see. In his flesh, in his activities, we will see how salvation has come to humanity. Jesus opens the scroll in the synagogue and reads,
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19).
In Luke’s portrait of Jesus, the poor are those who see the good news; the prisoners knows what the freedom of salvation feels like; the blind see salvation; the oppressed experience the year of Jubilee. This is the new epoch in God’s redemptive history where oppressed receive salvation. For Luke the salvation begun at the advent of Jesus is characterized by a Great Reversal (that’s the name biblical scholars use to describe the mission of Jesus—see Joel Green’s work here and here ). God’s salvation comes in the presence of Jesus to those who the religious authorities say don’t deserve it. This is the scandal of Jesus that Simeon prophecied at Jesus’ dedication: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against” (2:34). The way we see God’s salvific grace flow through Jesus into Israel and then into all the nations does not fit the rules set by the experts of the law and Pharisees. We begin to see how Jesus scandalizes the religious authorities in chapter 5 when Jesus announces God’s forgiveness of a paralytic. The Pharisees and teachers of the law say, “Who is this fellow who speaks blasphemy? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (5:21).
I think the most striking place we can see this Great Reversal in Luke’s story of Jesus is 6:20f: “the sermon on the plains,” as it’s called. Now, Jesus’ sermon here bears important resemblances to Matthew’s sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5). But the similarity highlights the differences—important differences that scandalize me (and u.s.?). First of all, unlike Matthew’s Jesus, Luke does not say that the “poor in spirit” are blessed. No. The Jesus in Luke says, “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God”! And those of us who are scandalized try to run away from that statement by spiritualizing it. We say, “Jesus really meant to say poor in spirit because that’s what Matthew has.” But that’s a hard case to make seeing what else Jesus says: “But woe to you who are rich” (5:24)! That’s is totally scandalous: the rich are woed and the poor are blessed. The text is harshly clear. Interpretive gymnastics are required to dull down that piercing living and active sword. But it can be done, if you want. And if you want to dull that double-edged sword maybe that means you should try to listen to how it speaks the good news of Jesus to the poor, like Jesus said he was going to do from the beginning (4:18). This is the Great Reversal of Luke! Jesus, the display of God’s salvation, came to the lowly. And not those who are spiritually lowly (that’s Matthew not Luke), but those who are socially (this might be the category that the Roman centuriun of chapter 7 falls into) and economically destitute, the marginalized, the powerless, the poor.
The scandal of Jesus is again found in the story of Jesus’ compassion for the widow of chapter 7. Why did Jesus choose to raise this widow’s only son from the dead? Well, simply becuase “his heart went out to her” (7:13). And why did his heart go out to her? The only hints we have to answer that question is what the text makes explicit. She is a widow and now sonless. The first century world did not look kindly on widows who had no males to look after them. They were socially, politically, and economically powerless. They had no voice. That’s why it was such a big deal for the church to provide for the widows in Acts 6:1. They were totally subsistent, provisionless.
And Jesus came to preach good news of salvation to the poor, ones just like this widow. Jesus’s miracle here is a picture of salvation. This is the activity that gives color to Luke’s earlier claims about this “good news.” And the salvation displayed in this story, interestingly enough, has nothing to do with faith—there is no mention of the worman’s faith or anyone else’s. This salvation is not necessarily about a faith that gets you into life-after-death, a spiritualized “heaven”. At this point in Luke, salvation is now; it is about Jesus proclaiming good news to the poor and oppressed. In Luke, Jesus’ message of salvation is not spiritualistic, not an opiate of the masses, not some pie-in-the-sky reality. Rather, it is a reality made concrete here and now among the poor.
What can all this mean for us? I think there are many directions in which Christians can faithfully follow this Jesus of Luke. One way that struck me is cultivating a ministry of listening. It seems like Luke shows how the good news of God’s salvation made present in Jesus Christ is something that must be seen as “good” and “news” to the poor. It’s their eyes that are more adequately trained (through the rough knocks of life, maybe?) to see what salvation looks like today. This is what John H. Yoder called “the epistemological priority of the oppressed.” Their eyes are more adequately adjusted to see the light of the Sun in this present darkness. So, maybe the job of rich people like me is to create welcoming spaces where we can hear what the poor have to say about salvation, about what good news looks like to their eyes. Maybe Luke’s Jesus calls us to learn how to see the world from the perspective of the poor and oppressed. Maybe they have been schooled in ways to see that we must learn to depend on in order to see the newness of the good made present in Christ’s Spirit.