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gospel of Luke: Jesus is salvation

September 23rd, 2005 by isaac · 11 Comments

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.

Tags: theology

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eric Lee // Sep 25, 2005 at 6:08 pm

    Thanks for this post! This cleared some things up for me concerning the whole Matthew~Luke treatment of “in spirit,” like you mentioned. Again, thanks.

    peace,

    Eric

  • 2 Camassia // Sep 26, 2005 at 7:45 am

    It was interesting reading your post after hearing the sermon in my own church, which was on Matthew’s parables but covered basically the same topic. Along the way he criticized some churches for focusing on “simplistic doctrine” rather than social justice. After I read your last paragraph, though, I thought, “The thing that drives most liberals crazy about the poor is that most of them LIKE simplistic doctrine.” Maybe listening to the poor is a challenge not only for wealthy Christians’ wallets but for their hifalutin understandings of God…

  • 3 isaac // Sep 26, 2005 at 11:00 am

    Eric, thanks for the gracious comment. I am glad I might have shed some light on Luke’s lack of “in spirit.” But I also have to admit that this is where the whole Matthew-Luke connection gets fuzzy for me. I get how important it is to see Luke on its own terms and not let Matthew sublate Luke’s voice in some sort of totalitarian, reconciled (Hegelian) unity. Both voices are important in all their difference. But what do we do when we move to the “synthetic task” (that’s what my professor Richard Hays calls it) where we struggle to hear the one voice of the Word of God? That’s where I have to admit my lack of understanding. I don’t know how to reconcile the different voices without silencing one in the name of the other. Derrida has taught me that there is some sort of violence involved in discerning sameness and otherness, and seeing what happens when voices encounter each other. And that gives me pause as I try to say something about a synthesis, about the way the One who is the Word speaks through these voices. All that to say, I hope that hearing Luke’s voice clearly turns us to listen to Matthew’s voice and contemplate the One God who speaks in difference. So, Eric (and others), need to help me hear this voice. I can’t figure it out on my own. Any suggestions?

  • 4 isaac // Sep 26, 2005 at 11:32 am

    Camassia, I hadn’t thought about the way listening to the unique voice of Luke, and the way listening to Luke teaches us to listen to the poor and oppressed, calls into question confident systematic formulations of God. I am totally on board. When I talk to those who are by all standards socially and economically poor, their God is quite simple. The poor and oppressed african-american friends I have here in Durham don’t have a very complicated understanding of this God who offers salvation from all sorts of problems. For them, they have a hard time seeing how all my theological studies helps make sense of their world. And I have to admit alot of times I struggle to find something to say to them. Most of the time their observations about the God who works in their world unsettles my theological confidence, my ability to speak in their linguistic world.

    All this thinking about how we need others to unsettle our doctrines of God reminds me of something I recently read about Gregory of Nyssa. For Nyssa, abstract formulations of God’s being don’t do much. He writes, “The divine nature in and of itself is unapproachable and inaccessible to human conjecture. He who by nature is above every nature, who is both beyond the senses and beyond the mind, is seen and grasped by some other method.” And this other method is discipleship (See Rowan Williams wonderful account of Nyssa in The Wound of Knowledge , 61). In Alex Sider’s essay on negative theology and social justice is helpful here. He shows how for Gregory of Nyssa (and other negative theologians) “there is no more determinative knowledge of God than…imitat[ing] the incarnate Christ in his acts of love, poverty, and compassion…. Negative theology is useful because it points out the resourcelessness of any Christian spirituality, ethics, or dogmatics abstracted from a tenacious following after Christ.” All this says to me that our desire to know God should make us turn to those who tenaciously follow after Christ, in the way of Jesus. Discipleship is christology , as John Yoder puts it. Our way into the reality of God is faithful living, and listening to those who are blessed to see the kingdom of God—i.e., those who Luke identifies as the poor and oppressed. Their “simple” accounts of God are more profound than the most powerful theological elite. They know what the poverty of Jesus feels like; they know what the crucifying powers of the world look like. And it’s against that stark backdrop that we can see most clearly the Light of heaven, the God who is with us.

  • 5 Jason // Sep 27, 2005 at 10:44 am

    Interesting set of observations. The thing that struck me most was your point that, in Luke, Jesus is salvation. Lately I’ve been thinking about how else we can think of what Jesus does in his life, death, and resurrection besides forgiveness of sins. The dominant mode of salvation I’ve heard growing up is that it is through Jesus bearing our sins and thus getting us forgiveness. Your account from Luke emphasizes that some sort of salvation happens just by Jesus coming here, to earth. It seems similar to the Eastern Orthodox view of salvation, which, as I understand it, emphasizes that at the crux of salvation is not the cross and resurrection, but the incarnation. By bridging the chasm between divine and earthly, Jesus accomplishes salvation.

    All that makes sense, but what I don’t yet understand is what it looks like. Anything other than a sinners-prayer for forgiveness type salvation either seems to emphasize works over grace (i.e. salvation is by living how Jesus lived) or tend towards universalism (i.e. Jesus bridged the divine-earth gap so we’re all saved). I have a feeling I’m seeing it wrong, but right now I’m having trouble picturing it otherwise…

  • 6 jared // Sep 28, 2005 at 8:23 am

    Jason I couldn’t agree with you more. Salvation has been taking on an entirely new concept for me. The idea of using the sinners prayer to confess sins and thus be saved from them and promised heaven, no longer seems to fit into what I read in Jesus’ own interactions with people. Yet Jesus seemed very confidant that he carried a tool that was essential to his concept of salvation. Salvation not just as some eternal life in heaven, but salvation as a taste of the everlasting in our current situation. Thus, my concept of sin has begun to change as well. Maybe sin is a life that does not taste the everlasting. I don’t know exactly what I mean by that.
    Isaac I wonder, how do you think Jesus would describe salvation, if he is salvation? How does Jesus’ life offer us a unique alternative? If it sounds like those are loaded questions, they are not. I just would like to hear you talk a little more about it.
    Peace, jared

  • 7 George // Sep 28, 2005 at 3:29 pm

    exactly jared! i’ve been realizing that its not so much my promise and hope of eternity…but my gift of salvation is for TODAY. i don’t have to wait until heaven to experience life with Christ. too many times evangelicals present salvation as a “one-time” offer to life after death. how could i go through what i go through everyday without Christ?
    about sin. thus, everything that a non-christian experiences here on earth is “not tasting the everlasting” , meaning everything are momentary pleasures? temporal? like a shadow?
    there is no lasting satisfaction in anything they experience.
    sorry, a little random! thanks for sharing your thoughts guys. good to know there are others out there
    bless y’all
    george

  • 8 Eric Lee // Sep 29, 2005 at 10:33 am

    Isaac, the only thing that I can think of is that perhaps there isn’t exactly a duality between “spirit” and “body”. Perhaps those who don’t have much, because they are therefore rejected by society, are not only monetarily poor, but also spiritually poor from societal oppression. I don’t know. Then again, I seem to know some very happy poor people who would never want to have a car and what society deems “normal.”

    I guess it really depends on what “poor” actually means. Most of the financially poor that I know actually happen to be truly poor in other ways, though: physical or mental health, screwed over by various institutions, etc.

    Thoughts? From the sound of it, it seems like we hang out with similar peeps.

  • 9 Chris // Sep 30, 2005 at 10:06 am

    Eric, your idea of people being spiritually poor from societal oppression has got me thinking. I’ve done some door to door canvassing with an Industrial Area Foundations group here in Tucson. We’ve done many walks through poor and socially oppressed neighborhoods. We also walk through nice neighborhoods. One difference is that the poorer areas usually have more fenced yards, more locked gates, and more guard dogs. Often when these people’s doors are accessible they won’t answer when we knock.

    But I think it is more complex than this because although it may initially be more difficult for these oppressed peoples to be open and trust, once they do they are often empathetic. Their hearts are still soft and malleable. Below the wounds of their oppression they are often open to others…and open to God.

    Then to take this a step further, I think that the wounds of oppression go both ways, afflicting the rich and the poor. Wendall Berry quotes The Autobiography of Malcolm X, “But I want to tell you something. This pattern, this ‘system’ that the white man created, of teaching Negroes to hide the truth from him behind a facade of grinning, ‘yessir-bossing,’ foot-shuffling and head-scratching-that system has done the American white man more harm than an invading army would do to him.” I think this means that we can listen to both the voice of the rich and the voice of the poor because we all have wounds that make us more sensitive to God and to each other.

  • 10 Eric Lee // Oct 3, 2005 at 7:23 am

    Chris,

    This:

    Their hearts are still soft and malleable. Below the wounds of their oppression they are often open to others…and open to God.

    ...sounds very close to what I think makes up Jesus’ assertion that the poor are indeed blessed.

    Thanks for this.

    Peace,

    Eric

  • 11 nelson okau // Jul 4, 2011 at 9:50 am

    thank you alot my God add you strength for educating and passing the word of God. Im student of master of divinity at Uganda christian university -from Uganda.