The Fourth Sunday of Lent – March 11, 2018
While Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome and Matthew was more focused on the Judeo-Christian community in Antioch, Luke stresses that Christianity is a way of life for Gentile as well as Judeo-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal recognition in the Roman Empire. Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly needed in our own contemporary society.
Luke’s author was a highly educated Gentile Christian who came from a thoroughly Greco-Roman environment. Unlike Matthew’s author he is not well-grounded in the Judaic tradition. Scholars speculate on whether his “ordered account” was written for a Christian community in Antioch or some other location in Asia Minor, like Ephesus or Smyrna. Luke and the Acts of Apostles make up a two-volume work often called simply Luke–Acts; and they are addressed to the “most excellent” Theophilus (Friend of God).
For documentation, Luke’s author drew from the Gospel of Mark, the sayings collection called the “Q” source, and a collection of material called the “L” (for Luke) source. The author is not named in either volume, but a tradition dating from the 2nd century suggested that the author was the Luke who was a companion of Paul. While this view is still occasionally put forward, many biblical scholars today question that supposition. I tend to agree with them. There are significant contradictions between Acts and the authentic Pauline letters. Textual analysis suggests that Luke-Acts was written not earlier than 80–90 CE; and most likely as late as 90–110 CE, because the text was still being revised well into the 2nd century.
Last week I stressed that Matthew saw Jesus as the fulfilment of Hebrew history. He began his infancy narrative with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary. Luke, on the other hand, understands Jesus as the high point in all human history. His genealogy is presented at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and runs backwards from Joseph to Adam. Luke is also more Mary-oriented than Joseph-oriented. In Matthew’s infancy narrative the light is on Joseph. In Luke’s account, it is Mary who shines. She is the one who hears and keeps God’s word.
What strikes you, as you re-read this gospel? Three themes caught my attention: women, building bridges, and religious hypocrisy.
WOMEN: In Luke Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39), a 12-year-old girl (Luke 8:41-42, 49-56); a woman with a 12-year infirmity (verses 43-48); and a woman who had been crippled 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). In Luke we see Mary, an early disciple of Jesus. She sits before Jesus and listens to him. Her sister Martha complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her with serving. Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha…it is Mary who has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:38-42). In the Resurrection accounts, women not men are most important: Women were among those who observed the crucifixion (Luke 23:27, 49). Women prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body (verses 55-56). Women were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty (Luke 24:1-3) and angels told them Jesus had been raised from the dead (verses 4-8). Women were the first to proclaim the Resurrection to Jesus’ other disciples (verses 9-11). (Reading these verses, I thought: How ironic that the former president of Ireland, Mary McAleese, was barred by the Vatican from taking part in a conference celebrating International Women’s Day, due to her views on gay rights and clerical sexual abuse.)
BUILDING BRIDGES NOT WALLS: Luke’s stress on peace-making implied a new relationship with the Roman Empire. Dialogue had to start, and destructive polarization had to end. In Luke’s infancy narrative, angelic messengers proclaim: “Good news of great joy for all people. To you is born this day . . . a Savior! . . . Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:10-11,14] These words echo and go far beyond the Roman monument inscriptions that had praised Augustus Caesar as “god” and “savior.” Luke hereby stresses that Jesus had completed more fully and uniquely the work of Augustus. Later in this gospel, Luke offsets the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans, by having the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate declare Jesus innocent three times (Luke 23:4,14,22). Only Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, has the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross exclaim: “Surely, this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:47) Building bridges. In Luke’s narration, Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate become unlikely friends, after being in Jesus’ presence (Luke 23:12). And finally, only in Luke’s Gospel does Jesus pray for forgiveness for his crucifiers (Luke 23:34).
RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY: Some observers accuse Luke of antisemitism, because he regularly shows Jesus criticizing Jewish religious leaders (Pharisees, scribes, and Levites). I think these critics miss the point. Jesus was strongly critical of the arrogant religious hypocrisy of the religiously elite in his day. When invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee, for example, the religious leader accused Jesus of not washing ahead of time. Jesus replied: “Now then, you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people!…give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you…you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God….Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:37-44) Luke speaks strongly to our own contemporary society, in which the religiously elite praise God and ignore the poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and the marginalized.
And I conclude this week’s reflection with a quote from Billy Graham: “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” I think Luke would agree with that….
Next week, we look at John.
— Jack firstname.lastname@example.org