Saturday, November 18, 2017

Bible in a Year: Luke

This calendar year, I’m reading through the Bible and taking informal notes on the readings. Since we so often read verses and passages and passages of the Bible without appreciating context, I’m especially focusing on the overall narrative and connections among passages.

This week I’ve been studying Luke. Luke is likely the only Gentile author among the New Testament writers. He wrote this book and Acts to someone named Theophilus (“lover of God”) in order to provide an account of Jesus’ life  and of the early church. But is Theophilus a particular person, or anyone who loves God?

As I wrote a few posts ago, a favorite book from my college religion courses was Gospel Parallels, which lays out the Synoptic Gospels—Mathew, Mark, and Luke—in order to show textual similarities and differences. Over 90% of Mark’s gospel is also found in Matthew and Luke, and the latter two gospels have material in common that is not found in Mark: the so-called “Q” material (likely meaning “Quelle,” the German word for “source”). Matthew and Luke also have material unique to their own gospels, implying other sources that they used. Unfortunately, we do not know what sources Luke used for the first fifteen chapters of Acts (that is, up to the point where Luke himself subtly and personally joins the story).

(Here is a site, based on another book, that provides the parallels of texts among the three Synoptics:

While Matthew gives us the Wise Men and Herod’s murderous rage and the flight to Egypt, Luke gives us “the rest” of the Christmas story: the stories of John the Baptist and his family, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the journey to Bethlehem and the manger, the shepherds, the angels.  We also have Jesus’ circumcision, his presentation at the Temple, and the praise of Simeon and Anna. The only canonical story from Jesus’ growing-up years is found in Luke: the accidental abandonment at the Temple. Thankfully we have a positive story of the Jewish teachers at the Temple: not only did they enjoy his company but they also must have fed him and tucked him into bed at night for three days. Luke genealogy is different from Matthew’s.

There are several passages—-some of them quite beloved—that are unique to Luke’s gospel: Jesus’ first rejection at Nazareth, the stories of Mary and Martha, Zacchaeus, the widow’s son, the Walk to Emmaus, the brief story of the widow and her small contribution, the saying about the narrow door, and also the parables of the rich fool, the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan, the friend at midnight, the Pharisee and the tax collector in contrasting prayer, and others. Little wonder that Luke is a favorite among the gospels for many people, including myself. While in Dublin several years ago, I purchased a pewter goblet featuring Luke's symbol, the ox.

Here is a good outline of Luke’s gospel: In his book The Writings of the New Testament, Luke Johnson points out that Luke together with Acts occupied about a fourth of the entire New Testament in terms of chapters—though the writing style is not verbose and is a high quality Greek.

Analogous to 1 Chronicles, Luke-Acts actually begins with Adam (in the genealogy of Jesus) and through the abbreviation of genealogy gives us a vision from the beginning of biblical history to Luke’s own time, when the apostle Paul was still alive and preaching. The narrative itself covers about sixty years.

Luke’s gospel lacks the darkness and irony of Mark and also the xenophobia of Matthew (Johnson, p. 202). The Romans and other Gentiles are not portrayed so negatively, and neither are Jews (although the Pharisees, Sadducees and scribes are, as usual, criticized by Jesus). Luke’s gospel seems to depict Christians as no political threat to Rome, and to depict Jesus’ life, teachings, suffering, and death as part of Israel’s history and consistent with the Hebrew scriptures (Johnson, pp. 202-203). But Luke-Acts also offer to Jewish contemporaries a chance to follow Jesus, and when many do not, Gentiles acceptably become part of the new community.

In her book The Reluctant Parting, Julie Galambush points out that Luke’s theology of the fulfillment of scripture (and Matthew’s, too) has given Gentile Christians assurance of being part of God’s promises to Israel—and, in fact, the authentic kind of Judaism, to the exclusion of the broader community of Jews. Again, we are dealing with Christianity not as a major religion that looks disdainfully at its parent religion, but as a tiny sect that considers itself still Jewish and compares itself to other Jews. In her interest in showing how early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism went their separate ways, Galambush notes Luke’s gospel has been a popular source of religious validation for Gentile Christians, as well as for messianic Jewish movements (which, she points out, are not considered religiously Jewish by the larger Jewish community) (pp. 90-91).

One characteristic of Luke’s gospel is his concern for the poor (see, for instance, 6:3-4, 6:20-25, 16:22, 18:22, 21:1-3). In my study book, What’s in the Bible about Life Together? (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2008), I reflected on Luke 6:20-25:

“If you feel disdain for poor people, avoid Luke’s Gospel. one of Luke’s themes is the blessedness of the poor, to just ‘the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3). The gospel is good news preached to the poor (Luke 1:52-53; 4:1-19)… God has special love for the por. When the kingdom of God comes, the poor will be redeemed, given pride and joy. The hungry will have food; the sorrowful will find happiness.

“What about the rich? According to Jesus, the tables will turn on them in the Kingdom if wealth is at the center of their lives and concern or the poor is lacking… A lack of money is a terrible source of heartache and worry… It’s tough to hang on to God’s promises when you’re choosing between paying for your medicine and buying food or when you made a financial decision that seemed sensible but now is failing. An abundance of money is a source of heartache, too, because in times of prosperity, we still worry… (p. 39). Luke gives those of us who are financially better-off to consider our uses of money and the devotions of our hearts.

(I'll return to these informal studies in a few weeks, after I delve into several books of Bible scholarship that I purchased this week at the Society of Biblical Literature meeting.)   

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