Tag Archives: Luke

At Work in Your Midst

Ever pray for God to be at work in a situation, in a place, in a relationship, in a church?

I’m pretty sure I have. And it never much occurred to me that I might be doing something exceedingly dangerous. It was reflecting on “atonement” in the Luke-Acts that made me think twice.

I remember being taken aback my first semester of my PhD program when people were off-handedly talking about Luke not having an atonement theology. But as I started to dig in I saw the point: Luke seems to have purposely eliminated Mark’s ransom saying. It may be replaced by the saying about coming to serve at table. And, if Bart Ehrman is right, Luke may have eliminated the sacrificial overtones of the last supper.

The cross serves a different kind of purpose in Luke: it makes the Jewish people, in particular, realize that they need God’s forgiveness (rather than making such forgiveness possible).

But then, that brings us up to the problem: the reason they should see they need forgiveness is that God was at work in their world–and they didn’t see it.

Worse, they didn’t merely miss seeing it, they actively worked against it. They opposed the one through whom God was at work, actively and powerfully.

And here is where I circle back to my question: are we really sure we want God to be at work in our midst? What if he is, and we miss it? What if he is, and we actively oppose it?

If the ministry of Jesus shows us anything, it is that the people who should have the clearest vision–both because of their knowledge of scripture and the ways of God and because of their proximity to God’s work–are the ones who oppose the work of God most vehemently.

Yes, of course, I want God at work.

But we should be as diligent in praying for eyes to see and celebrate that God at work as invoking the action in the first place.

Can’t God Just Forgive?

When people wrestle with atonement theology (i.e., how does the cross, in particular, bring about forgiveness of sins), the objection to atonement theology as a whole is sometimes voiced: why can’t God just forgive? Does God really need some sort of payment?

On the one hand, yes, God can do whatever God wants. This is possible.

On the other hand, we develop our understanding of how the cross works ex post facto. We’re not setting up parameters that have to be met, but trying to understand the biblical witness about how the death of Jesus did, in fact, function. We have books like Hebrews that say things like, “You could almost say that without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.” We have the language of Jesus’ death as atoning sacrifice.

So atonement theology is our attempt to make sense of what did happen, not to set requirements on God.

But there’s another piece of the biblical puzzle as well. That piece is Luke-Acts.

Luke seems to go out of his way to mute the idea that Jesus’ death is somehow a ransom or payment for sins. You know that, “Son of Man didn’t come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” saying? It’s replaced by the son of man being among his people as one who serves the table.

Look at the sermons in Acts. Here, of all places, we should get a clear exposition of the purpose of the cross. And we do! But its focused purpose is to fulfill the scripture about Israel rejecting its own Messiah, so that Israel will see that they, as much as the Gentiles, stand in need of the forgiveness of God.

God forgives.

God isn’t paid.

Sin isn’t covered.

Blood doesn’t cleanse.

Canonically, this is not enough. There is more to be said, other developments of the significance of Jesus’ death that need to be incorporated into a fully developed understanding of the atonement.

But here’s the question: is this atonement-free forgiveness a viable starting point for us to take with people who find the idea of God needing payment to be barbaric, weird, etc.? Can we set aside the other angles on Jesus’ death and cultivate a Lukan theology of the God who forgives, and who is at work in the world through Christ and the Spirit, as the gospel with which we begin?


NT Scholarship and the Starving Poor

Last night I had one of those classic Bible professor moments.

Ok, so perhaps the form of the interaction wasn’t so classic. I’m teaching Gospels and Acts on two campuses at once using videoconferencing. This means that students will make up for not being able to come up and ask questions during break by texting me or DMing me on Twitter.

So after a particularly wonderful and lucid explication of the Synoptic Problem and its proposed solutions, I took a break and discovered this text message form someone on the other campus:

Can u pls summarize why this matters when there are people starving…?

There it is, the classic moment where the professor who loves all this stuff just because it’s wonderfully interesting has to deal with the student who wants to know how this is going to change the world.

But after grumbling to myself about this, and pondering all sorts of grade deductions in my heart, I began to realize that there was a very good answer to the question.

The Synoptic Problem wrestles with why Matthew, Mark, and Luke look the way they do: what accounts for their similarities, and what accounts for their differences?

In answering this question, we come face-to-face with the reality that these books were intentionally written to be different from each other. The writers of two of them changed what they found in one or two of the books that we have in front of us. This means that the impulse to “harmonize” the various versions of the stories we find is not merely beside the point, it undermines the entire purpose of the documents’ writing.

The Synoptic Problem, with its focus on the human hands at work crafting distinct, particular messages, has the power to shatter our preconception that the story of Jesus is one simple story that must always be told the same way. It has the power to shatter our desire to have difficult passages explained by simpler passages that seem to address the issue more clearly.

And if we can accept it, such study will drive us to more deeply believe that the Bible we actually have, with four different voices depicting four different understandings of Jesus’ ministry, is the Bible God wants us to have–not a harmonized Bible with some fifth “Gospel” that we have thrown together on its own.

Once upon a time, I thought that listening to multiple voices was a way of telling us what the “one meaning” really was.

You know what happens when you do this?

Luke’s “blessed are you who are poor” becomes silenced by Matthew’s “blessed are the poor in spirit.” Obviously, “poor” can refer to penury in any number of realms–friendship, finances, spirituality. Matthew tells us what “blessed are the poor” really means.

Luke’s “blessed are you who are hungry” is muted by Matthew’s “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

You see what happens if we don’t allow the multiplicity of Biblical voices to speak? The concern for worldly poverty and starving kids in my city gets “spiritualized”–and the next thing you know, the church begins to think that having a quiet time is more important than feeding our starving neighbors.

Of course, we must not allow Luke to mute Matthew, either. Hungering and thirsting for righteousness are states of the blessed citizens of the Kingdom.

But we can only allow both voices to speak if we are willing to allow the Bible to be what it actually is. We can only listen to both Matthew and Luke if we are open to see that they shaped their messages in accordance with robust theological agendas that situate Jesus within the world and the story of Israel in unique ways.

So why does the Synoptic Problem matter for the starving people of the world?

It demands of us that we hear the voice of Luke, who would tell the church that any purported pursuit of righteousness that does not manifest itself in giving to the poor and feeding the hungry is insufficient to masquerade as true Christian righteousness.

(Ed. note: Yes, Matthew cares about feeding the hungry, giving to the poor, and the like as well (cf. Mt 25). I get that. But Luke brings the issue front and center in a number of places where Matthew or Mark might provide other ways of getting out of it.)

The Lord Becomes the Lord (Again)

Luke loves to refer to Jesus as the Lord.

Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord,” when baby Jesus is in utero. Those petitioning Jesus for help will defer to him as “Lord.” It is “the Lord” who appoints seventy-two and sends them out on their mission.

And it is “the Lord” who turns to look at Peter after Peter has denied him for the third time (22:61).

And then… nothing.

Throughout the trial before the elders, Jesus is not referred to as “the Lord.”

Throughout the trial before Pilate, Jesus is not referred to as “Lord.”

Standing before Herod, he is simply “Jesus.”

Before the crowd, he is simply “this man.”

Led to the cross, he is Jesus. Crucified, he is mocked as the would-be Christ or would-be King of the Jews. But he is not called the Lord.

Through the taunting of the one bandit and the petition of remembrance from the other, he is derided as “the Christ” or simply called Jesus.

It is “Jesus,” not “the Lord” who gives up his spirit, and “Jesus” whom the women watch from afar.

“Jesus'” body is buried.

But on the first day of the week, when the women come to anoint the body with their aromatic spices they discover less than they came to find. And also find out that they should have been looking for more.

They find that the body of “the Lord Jesus” is missing.

The risen one is the Lord once again. And so the two who come running back from Emmaus say to the rest, “The Lord has really risen!”

And so Peter can say on the Day of Pentecost, in reference to the resurrected Jesus, “God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

The resurrection is an enthronement. It is the heavenly reinstatement of what Jesus showed forth and then set aside while on the earth.

Peter says in that same sermon in Acts 2: “Jesus was a man testified to by God through signs and wonders.” The Lord Jesus was acting on the power and authority of the Lord God. And was rejected: finally rejected by even his closest followers, he walks through the passion narrative as simply “Jesus,” as the messianic pretender.

But God witnesses to him again by the resurrection, enthroning him as the Lord once more. The missing body is not simply the body of Jesus. It is, once again, the body of the Lord.

Celebrating Carols Part 3: Canticle of the Turning

In this, the third installment on the wonder of Christmas carols, I turn to “Canticle of the Turning.”

The lyrics are a paraphrase of the Magnificat: God is great, and yet even as the great God this deity looks upon the weak, the small, and causes the servant girl’s name to be blessed forever:

    1. My soul cries out with a joyful shout
    that the God of my heart is great,
    And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
    that you bring to the ones who wait.
    You fixed your sight on your servant’s plight,
    and my weakness you did not spurn,
    So from east to west shall my name be blest.
    Could the world be about to turn?

The refrain captures the dual nature of Luke’s Christology that I reflected on this morning and as part of the Advent Blog Tour a couple weeks ago. The coming of the king is an ambivalent affair: salvation and judgment come close at hand to one another.

But more than that, the refrain (and title) strikes me as capturing something of the magnitude of the Christian confession that Jesus is Lord that we too often miss. It is the same point made by referring to our years as “A.D.”: the ages have turned, the new era of God’s reign is upon us:

    My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
    Let the fires of your justice burn.
    Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near,
    and the world is about to turn!

The lyrics continue to hold together the human weakness of the singer, the grandeur of God, and the world-transforming consequences of that God taking those weak people for God’s own:

    2. Though I am small, my God, my all,
    you work great things in me,
    And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
    to the end of the age to be.
    Your very name puts the proud to shame,
    and to those who would for you yearn,
    You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
    for the world is about to turn.

    3. From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
    not a stone will be left on stone.
    Let the king beware for your justice tears
    ev’ry tyrant from his throne.
    The hungry poor shall weep no more,
    for the food they can never earn;
    There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
    for the world is about to turn.

    4. Though the nations rage from age to age,
    we remember who holds us fast:
    God’s mercy must deliver us
    from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
    This saving word that our forebears heard
    is the promise which holds us bound,
    ‘Til the spear and rod can be crushed by God,
    who is turning the world around.

Peace is coming. Fullness for the empty has drawn near. The Merciful One will remember to show mercy to those who fear him. The dominion of plenty has drawn near to conquer the economy of lack.

The kingdom of God comes near through the birth of David’s great Son. The ages turn.

Luke’s Joyful Advent

Today was the day when all the holy, righteous, and good order of Advent was broken by lighting the pink candle before finishing off the purple ones. Seriously, people, finish dinner before you head for dessert, ok? But I digress.

The candle in question, the pink one, is the joy candle (or, at least it is in our little world, so if you do it differently just enter my world for a few minutes). Being solemnly charged with the leadership of Bible time, I therefore had to figure out how to talk about joy in a manner apropos of the season.

My quick, unscientific search indicated to me that joy surrounding the birth of Jesus is the particular focus of Luke. (Ok, so he didn’t have much competition since only he and Matthew tell stories surrounding Jesus’ birth, but throw me a bone, ok?) Yes, Matthew tells of some rejoicing over the sight of the moving star, but Luke tell us:

    John the baptist will be a source of Joy for many
    This same John leaps for joy in the womb at the voice of Mary
    Mary sings a song of rejoicing at the work of God
    Elizabeth’s neighbors rejoice at John’s birth
    The angel tells the shepherds of the coming joy for all

As I wrestled with the content of joy in the context of Advent, it seemed to me that joy in these stories is particularly slanted toward the theme of faithful waiting. Joy abounds here not because of what has already been brought to pass, but because of what the faithful characters in the story believe is right around the corner because of the faithfulness of God.

John is a source of joy–because he is calling many back to the God of Israel in anticipation of God’s visitation.

Mary’s voice is a source of joy, not merely because she is carrying the Messiah, but also because she believed what the Lord had spoken to her (*ahem, Mr. Zechariah*).

Mary’s song is full of joy–because she looks to the coming acts of God and proclaims them in the past tense as though the advent and exaltation and subduing of the powers is a done deal.

And it all got me thinking about what joy looks like in 21st-century advent. Somehow we have to live into, grab hold of, the promised future of God. The boldness that would seem to be an over-realized eschatology must proclaim that the Kingdom of this world is become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Messiah–even as we still await the throwing down of the tyrants and the coming consummation of God’s reign.

How can we have joy? Not [just] by looking at our present circumstances and believing that somehow God has orchestrated it all and thus we should be thankful. Advent joy speaks to a different field of vision altogether.

Joy is faithful looking to the future and celebrating it–not as something to be trusted in as what is yet to come (which is hope)–as something that has already dawned and is reaching back into its past, our present, to transform now into the Age to Come.

So get ye up unto a high mountain, behold the coming salvation of your God, and rejoice.

Muted Kingship?

As I come toward the end of my latest run through Luke, I am passing through the passion narrative. Luke’s telling of the story is distinctive on several accounts.

It is in Luke that Jesus heals the guy who loses his ear during Jesus’ arrest. It is in Luke that we hear of Pilate sending Jesus to Herod, and the ensuing friendship between the two leaders.

But Luke’s omissions are perhaps even more intriguing.

Jesus is mocked during his trial, but by the Jewish guards rather than the Romans (Luke 22:63-64).

Jesus does get an “elegant robe” put on him–but it is put on by Herod rather than the Romans, with no indications that it is the mocking purple of a would-be Messianic pretender.

Pilate hands Jesus over to be killed, after protesting his innocence, and there is no indication that the Romans torture Jesus before the crucifixion. No scourging. But even more importantly: No crown of thorns. No purple robe. No scepter.

Luke does include the charge over Jesus’ head, “This is the King of the Jews,” but otherwise, the Roman mockery of Jesus as a messianic pretender is muted.

The conclusion of Jesus’ life is followed by the centurions’ confession, which in Luke is not a testimony of Jesus’ divine sonship but instead his innocence: “Surely this man was innocent (or, just).”

All of this seems to play into the idea that Luke is concerned to depict the early Christian movement as something that is not of a political nature. Though Romans do mock Jesus as “King” on the cross, the impression of Jesus being a claimant to the royal throne is toned down. Yes, Jesus is enthroned king, but this happens at the resurrection, when God then makes him Lord and Christ.

Other interesting threads are woven here as well.

Jesus is more in charge and less destitute in Luke than in Mark. He pauses along the way to comfort the women of Jerusalem and tell them to fear for the future of the city. It seems that Jesus not only speaks a word of admission into the kingdom to the crucified bandit, but also a word of forgiveness to his persecutors.

Finally, when it comes time for Jesus to die, he does not die as one abandoned. In place of the cry of dereliction is the faithful commendation of Jesus’ spirit into the hands of a loving and, apparently, present Father: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

In all, I find it interesting that Jesus is more kingly, more in possession and control, than we see in Mark, while at the same time the overall royal thrust of the passage is less. For Luke, it seems that this whole scene is more of an entryway into the coming kingly resurrection, whereas for Mark the crucifixion is more directly the path to coronation itself.

For Luke, the death opens up the possibility of people seeing their need to be forgiven in the unjust murder of a righteous man, a forgiveness that will go forth to the ends of the earth once Jesus has been enthroned.

At least, that’s what I’m seeing. Anybody else out there worked through this data? What have you seen?

This is My Body… But Why?

I have a general take on the Lord’s/Last Supper: the Synoptic Gospels depict Jesus predicting his death as the pathway to his Messianic enthronement. This cross-shaped life is also the call to Jesus’ followers: take up the cross and follow.

In addition, you might start probing the significance of rewriting the Passover ceremony around Jesus, such that the “ransom saying,” (the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many) is illustrated in the meal. The body of Jesus is given in order that we might be set free and might become the New Covenant people of God. Taking and eating is our participation in [the people of] this deliverance.

All this from some combination of Matthew and Mark, perhaps with a little Paul thrown in if I’m honest.

But what’s going on in Luke?

One thing, at least, is definitely different in this telling of the story of the supper itself. A cup is passed before the bread.

Another interesting choice Luke makes is to put the disciples’ dispute about greatness here. Whereas in Mark this happens on the way to Jerusalem, after a passion prediction, Luke locates the fight in the upper room after they’ve taken the Supper.

This is even more interesting in that Jesus’ response to the disciples here is part of the talk he gives them that culminates in the ransom saying. But Luke eliminates the ransom saying. He substitutes a more generalized call to imitate him, who is in their midst as a servant.

Finally, this is followed by another lesson from Jesus: the disciples are the ones who remain with him in suffering, and therefore receive from Jesus the same kingdom that Jesus receives from the father–its food, its drink, and its rule (you will sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel).

What are we to make of all this?

First, Bart Ehrman has famously argued that the interpretation of the bread (“which is given for you”) and the “second cup” are not original to Luke, but later insertions to bring the passage into conformity with the other Synoptic Gospels.

Although the manuscript evidence for this is weak, it works really well with the passage as a whole.

With the removal of the ransom saying in particular, the idea of Jesus dying “for you” is muted, and the notion that Jesus dies as an example and in order to bring about a surprising sort of divine reign is drawn to the forefront.

By placing here the saying about Jesus as servant to be imitated, without ransom, participation in the supper is drawn more in the direction of finding our own lives drawn to self-giving service.

By following that with the definition of the twelve as “those who remain with Jesus in his sufferings,” and thereby receive the kingdom, the imitative note is struck even more forcefully.

Why take the cup? Why drink the bread?

Here, the most clear reason is to remember that Jesus received the kingdom through suffering, and that self-giving life in service of others is the call of discipleship.

Jerusalem & Judgment in Luke

I’d say it’s common fare to point out the centrality of the Jerusalem in general, and the Temple in particular, in Luke’s writing. The whole thing begins with Zechariah in the Temple; Jesus’ parents bring him to the Temple when it’s time for Mary’s cleansing sacrifices; Jesus hangs out at the Temple when his parents leave him behind in Jerusalem as a boy. Each of these episodes is unique to Luke.

The other side of Jesus’ life is rather Jerusalem centered as well, with the resurrected Jesus appearing in Jerusalem rather than Galilee and the early followers worshiping in the Temple during their early days. As the narrative unfolds, the story spirals out from Jerusalem, with the action always coming back to that community. They don’t always go to the Temple, but the city is important as a hub of early Christianity.

In light of that, I find it fascinating that Luke takes a couple of steps to ensure that we don’t miss Jesus’ message of judgment on the city.

Luke¬† 13:33-35 ties together Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem, its praising of him at his arrival, their rejection of him, and the city’s destruction.

Jesus expresses a yearning to gather the children of Jerusalem, “but you would have none of it.” And so, he says “Your house is left desolate.” What house? Perhaps it is simply a metaphor indicating that the people of Jerusalem will be killed; perhaps it is an allusion to the house of God, being deserted by the divine presence.

Either way, Jesus shows up in Jerusalem as an agent of prophetic judgment. This part of the passage has always intrigued me. He says, “You will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.”

In Matthew, this saying material is placed in Jerusalem, while Jesus is teaching in the temple. Jesus had already been welcomed with the words, “Blessed is the one who comes…” and so this word of judgment is stored up for the future. Perhaps that time of acclamation is something that the community could look forward to in hope.

But in Luke’s Gospel, the prognostication is made in ch. 13, and the triumphal entry occurs several chapters later. In this way, the refusal to be gathered by Jesus comes together with their welcome of him into the city such that their affirmation of his divine mission becomes part of Jerusalem’s witness against itself.

Why is your house left to you desolate? Precisely because the one whom you acknowledged to be a blessed messenger of Israel’s God you then rejected and had crucified.

Incidentally, I think that this meshes quite well with the charges Peter lays out before the Jewish audience in Acts 2: God did great things and witnessed to this man Jesus, but you rejected him and handed him over to be killed.

You had enough to know his divine mandate, and you still rejected him. And this is why you must repent (Acts 2). This is why judgment is coming (Luke 13).

Luke 19 is where we hear the crowds taking blessing of Jesus to their own lips. While Jesus enters Jerusalem they say, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”

In step with the pathos of Luke 13, here in Luke 19 Jesus weeps over the city: “If only you could see the things that make for peace! But they are hidden from your eyes!” Being gathered to Jesus as king makes for peace, but Jerusalem’s children were unwilling to be gathered.

And the result?

“Days are coming when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you and hem you in on every side!” (Luke 19:33, NRSV).

While Matthew and Mark have the cursing of the fig tree as an allegorical hint about the coming destruction of the city and/or Temple, Luke removes the fig tree episode and inserts this instead. No beating around the bush here. Jesus comes and lifts his prophetic voice to declare that the coming destruction of Jerusalem by Rome is a consequence of their rejection of the blessed king who has come.

One more change that Luke makes to his Markan source puts the final punctuation on this word of judgment. Where Mark 13invites his readers to interpret the cryptic saying that Daniel’s abominating sacrilege is standing where it should not, Luke spells things out.

When should those in Judea flee to the hills? “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Luke 21:20-21).

The destruction of Jerusalem is, for Luke, the great post-script to the ministry of Jesus. Paradoxically, Jerusalem is the epicenter both of the life-giving gospel message and the judgment that ensues for those who will not acknowledge that God was at work in Christ.

Funny Money in Luke

I know you know the stories. But what is the effect of reading them as a big story?

First, there’s the rich Jewish ruler. He comes to Jesus asking what must be done to enter eternal life. The commandments he keeps just fine,¬† but giving up his money to follow Jesus? Not so much. Jesus looks on him sadly: how hard it is for the rich to enter the Kingdom; it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. (Luke 18:18-27).

Oh yeah, but don’t forget that all things–even this impossible thing–are possible with God.

And we find out how true that is. After predicting his death to his disciples, Jesus enters Jericho. And there he sees Zacchaeus. Little dude up in a tree. Jesus invites himself over for a meal, and perhaps to spend the night. And, while everyone is grumbling about Jesus hanging out with a sinner, Zacchaeus boldly addresses Jesus as his master, and proclaims that he is giving away half of what is his, and recompense for all his frauds.

So it is possible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom? Apparently.

“Salvation has come to this house today, because even this guy is a child of Abraham–not that he just needed his identity reaffirmed, but that the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Even the lost rich guy.

And, somewhat to our surprise, Jesus then tells a story–a story in which he plays the part of the rich guy.

There’s a king going off to receive a kingdom. He entrusts his cash to his servants while he’s gone. (Oh, and there are some rebellious ones who don’t want him to be their king.) When he comes back, he demands an accounting of what he’s left behind. And the guy who gets in trouble? It’s the one who didn’t even let his money be lent at interest so that the master would have a return on his investment when he comes back!

At this point I will just say that the parable is “interesting.” Not that Jesus’ ultimate goal for us is that we make tons of money for him. But what if part of the point is that money is, in fact, given for the purpose of making a return for the King and his Kingdom? What if the point is to unexpectedly juxtapose the danger of money as something that will keep someone out of the Kingdom with a story of money well used so that the King is enriched?

Just something to ponder in your heart.