Luke: A Theological Commentary

Today I review the second in the new Belief series published by Westminster John Knox Press. Luke: (Belief: A Theological Commentary) is written by Justo L. González.

Again, I give my deepest thanks to WJK for giving me the opportunity to participate in reviewing this extraordinary series.

If Plachter’s book on Mark was excellent, this  second offering by González, meets that standard in every way. While Plachter perhaps placed more emphasis on the exegetical-historical aspects of the gospel, González focuses a bit more on the theological implications of Luke to our world today.

In the end, this seemed most right to me. Quoting Gustaf Wingren:

All good interpretation of the Bible is contemporary. If it were not so, it would not be good. . . .The Bible is not on a par with the subsequent interpretation; it is above it, as the text is antecedent to the commentary. And the interpretation is always an interpretation for the time in which it is written or spoken.

There is also a distinctive flavor of liberation theology which permeates the text. This also seems logical to me, since any fair reading of Luke renders the conclusion that Luke portraits a Christ who favored the poor and the marginalized as the true inheritors of the Kingdom of God.

Paramount in González’s theology of Luke is that the evangelist emphasized above all that Jesus’ teaching was one of the “great reversal.” His teachings were indeed revolutionary to his world. His was a world of power held by Rome, of patriarchy, of Temple priests and church hierarchy. His teachings again and again told of the coming Kingdom where none of this would be so.

The poor, the marginalized, the unclean, the unwanted, the unworthy, the sinners, the children, the women–all these would find a new world in God’s Kingdom, one in which those who were served would serve, those first would be last, those most religious and pious would often find themselves judged less than the most simple of the country folk of Galilee, that most marginal of lands.

In fact, Mr. González suggests that if one were to remove all the “reversal” stories from the text, there would be few pages left.

Perhaps the most stunning theological commentary comes with González’s explanation of the Paralytic. He shows how Luke weaves a story of how the teachers and scribes, the Pharisees sat around listening to the teachings of Jesus. The friends of the lame man could not get through the crowd of the listeners to reach the Healer. The end up opening the roof to lower the man to Jesus inside.

González reflects on these “circles” about Christ that we as church construct. We sit as pious listeners before the Word. We block the way for those who come in need of healing and comfort.

“Today, just like then, there are lame people who cannot reach Jesus, because access is blocked by the numerous and tight circles, circles of religious leaders and wise and profound theologians, circles of ecclesiastical, academic, and social structures. . .”

He points out that these people are not necessarily bad, but in their zeal to be at the forefront, they (we) block the way of others. We are cautioned to open the doors to those who are marginalized outside the circle. These are the people Jesus most came to help.

Of special importance to me, are the continued references to Jesus’ table hospitality. Too many of our churches set themselves up as arbiters of who is invited to the table of Christ. Any fair reading of Luke, suggests this is a grave error.

Time and time again, as González points out, Jesus welcomed the sinner to the table, and did not require any repentance as a condition to the invitation. He teaches that we should be inviting those who cannot repay our offer, instead of those who will extend a return invitation to ourselves.

González powerfully reminds us that:

“All too often  Christians have claimed control of the Table as if it were ours, and not his. We decide whose belief is sufficiently orthodox to share Communion with us, who is sufficiently good and pure, who belongs to the right church. . . .Rather than inviting those who seem most unworthy and cannot repay us, we invite the worthy. . .”

There is example after example of gentle, and not so gentle reminders to us as readers, that the Gospel of Luke calls us to a discipleship that is not easy, and not comfortable either. Luke tells of a Jesus who comes not preaching so much an afterlife of bliss but a life offered that is truly life. A full life, filled with the Spirit, faithful to God, bearing the cross of discomfort with the joy of knowing that we are doing God’s will as did He who was his image.

At the end, Mr. González ponders the church of tomorrow. And as we see a decline in the Western Church and a rise in the church of the South, the African, and the East, we see new thinking, new interpretation. We see reflections through the eyes of the poor and the marginalized. He asks:

“. . .could it be that God’s great gift to the worldwide church today is the growing church of the poor, who are teaching us to read the Bible anew? Could it be that God is using the last, the least, the poor, and the excluded to speak once again to the church of the first and the greatest?”

Is this the final reversal? Such questions as these do we ponder as we read this most excellent book. Do buy it. You will not regret the decision.

Holy Righteousness

Today’s gospel is the story of the Prodigal Son. Yes, I know, the picture at left, is not that, but bear with me.

Paul Tillich paired the story of the Prodigal Son with the story of the sinful woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears. I think it is a good match.

But, as did Tillich, I focus on the elder son in the Prodigal story, and the Pharisee in the sinning woman story. (And you should assume that the kernel of what I relate is pure Tillich.)

In both cases, we deal with righteous individuals. The elder son is so familiar to us, and frankly I’ve always had a soft spot for him. He’s the obedient one, the one who doesn’t get in trouble. If he were a girl, he’d be called a goodie-two-shoes.

What is often missed is that the Pharisee by all accounts is an obedient one as well. Although we are wont to think of Pharisees as those who spout what they don’t preach, actually they did. They defined things in their own way, and then lived them to the letter. Much of Jesus’ condemnation of them had to do, not with their lack of piety, but that they often missed the point of piety. It was form over substance that was their problem.

Here, there is no complaint that this Pharisee was not righteous. He was, by all accounts. Jesus thinks well of Simon it seems and Simon has honored the Lord with an invitation to dinner, a clear sign of hospitality.

In both cases, the rule-follower gets no respect. The sinner is upheld and pampered with praise. And you have to ask why.

Jesus suggests the answer. In both cases, the sinner has sinned hugely, gigantically in fact. One is a whore and the other a frequenter of whores. And God, in his immense graciousness, has forgiven them. Yet this is not the real point either.

Both ASK for and receive forgiveness, and their gratitude is immense. Jesus in fact says this:

It is someone who is forgiven little who shows little love.

What does this mean?

Tillich suggests and I certainly concur, that Jesus tells us that both the elder son and Pharisee are technically righteous, and what’s more they know it. And they expect to be acknowledged as such. They are quick to point out the flaws of others.

Yet, they are not comfortable in their righteousness, and that is why they struggle so hard to be righteous or more properly perfectly obedient to the letter of the law in the Pharisee’s case, and obedient to a father’s home rules in the other.

Tillich sees this psychologically as suggesting that for such a person, there is no feeling of being forgiven, they feel constantly unappreciated, unloved, and unrewarded. This expresses as a lack of ability to love on their part.

They cannot love greatly, and they thus are always judging others as coming up short. The acknowledged sinner, however, is overwhelmed by the graciousness of God’s forgiveness and loves God, and themselves finally precisely because God loves them. They realize they are worthy. Such people invariably can turn that self-love and God-love outward to a greater world. They love greatly.

The woman who wept over Jesus’ feet did not in fact love first, she accepted that she was loved by God, and thus accepted the forgiveness offered. She is to be commended.

The Pharisee and elder brother? They are still locked in their anger and feeling that somehow they still don’t measure up, simply because they are not accorded the blessings they feel they would receive if God truly found them acceptable.

The lesson for each of us I think is to explore the Pharisee/elder brother in ourselves. Are we doing all the “stuff” of righteous behavior? Are  we always attending to our prayers and our rosaries, and our church attendance, our acts of charity, and then wondering why God isn’t blessing us more? Are we concluding that we have not been deliberate enough, focused enough, pious enough, faithful enough?

Are we feeling less than worthy of God’s love, and thus are we more prone to point to others as appearing to do less than us. At least we are not them! we think.

Does this explain the mind of the fundogelical? The bible pounding, “amen” “Praise God” types who can explain in detail why this person, this group, this whatever are not what God wants them to be? Does this explain why certain people want there to be a hell where all those they think are not as good as they, will find themselves?

I rather think it explains them. But they are but the extreme side of the equation. We all, as I said, have to fight down that urge. We all need to accept, really accept God’s gracious love, and not connect our forgiveness with some “sign” of blessing, leaving our lives free of stress and trouble.

We, perhaps, shockingly, would all be better off to have been the whore than the goodie-two-shoes. We might have the capacity to love more, forgive more, and be joyous.


In the Hands of an Angry God?

Yesterday I was reading blogs, and came across a gem from Christian at Sharp Iron. His post is entitled, Mel Gibson in the Hands of an Angry God. Some of the insights Christian offers were profound and helpful in my ever ongoing quest to understand the mind and motivation of the fundamentalist.

I’ll be summarizing some of his points and expanding upon them, but please do go read his post. It is well worth your time.

Christian has that unique position of having traveled from the far right evangelical to the more moderate middle. He speaks with first hand experience of what it means to be of the “born again” genre. Born again seems to refer in the fundamentalist mind, to one who has surrendered to Christ. And that seems to mean one who has publicly admitted that they belief that Christ is savior, come to earth to die for our sins and through our faith in him, guarantees our eternal life.

Christian ponders how this coincides with who Jesus was as prophet, healer, and revisionist Jew. And he offers, I submit, an excellent rationale for how conservative Christians reconstruct Jesus to fit into their already extant worldview.

He in effect claims that they fail in the born again transformation, merely carrying their inborn anger at “the way things are” over into their new faith. God becomes the avenger of all that they dislike, and Jesus, as he puts it, will return with  wrath upon “those who have it coming.”

In this he provides I believe a big answer to why fundamentalists are the way they are.

Let me explain. First lets look at the concept of being “born again.” Although the Right Wing Christian believes born again refers to “acceptance of Jesus as personal savior” it quite clearly doesn’t mean this at all. Refer to John 3:3-8 wherein Jesus explains what it means. He says that being born again is not belief in him but being reborn (transformed) by the Spirit.

Moreover, the Greek phrase is gennatha anothen.  While it can be translated as “born again,” it is more properly translated as “born from above.” This latter is the translation of the NRSV. Indeed, the KJV (preferred text of fundamentalists) ONLY translates anothen as again in these two verses from John: 3:3 and 3:7. In every other place, the KJV translates the word in some other way.

More to the point, the purpose of being born of Spirit, is to be transformed. And this is where Christian makes his point most strongly. They are not really transformed at all.

 One of the most serious errors that fundamentalists make in their “theology” is to equate the bible as some textbook guide to PERSONAL salvation. It is not that, and never was. It is NOT what Jesus taught.

Sure, Jesus spoke TO people, but his message was not directed toward some personal piety that would guarantee  “salvation to individuals. He spoke, rather, against the prevailing cultural consensus of his time–against the Holiness codes and purity codes and that strict adherence to these was what would save Israel. Rather, he charged that one must have a heart of compassion and love, and by following that, they were imitating the Father’s love and compassion, and THAT would save Israel.

What the fundamentalist gets wrong is he “transforms his conduct from drinking, gambling, whoring, swearing, and all manner of PERSONAL inadequacies and presumed evils, and then goes to church regularly, or at least reads the bible a good deal, and declares to everyone within hearing that they too must do as he has done or they will be condemned.

God is the avenger who will punish those who are not born again, Jesus will judge and consign to Hell all slackers upon his second coming. Nowhere is there a true transformation which causes one to love one’s enemies and  that by “doing  unto the least of these” you do it to me.

War and hatred are not discarded as any fair reading of Jesus’ preaching would entail. Instead, the fundamentalist retains all his angers and hatred for others in the guise as Christian points out, of “righteous indignation” which they happily show you in the New Testament. Indeed the “Cleansing of the Temple” is found in all four gospels. It remains the singular statement of perhaps an angry Jesus.

I say perhaps because there is nothing said about anger at all in the synoptic versions. In Matt. 21:10-17, Mk. 11:11, and Lk. 19:45,  all agree, “he came into the temple and drove out the moneychangers and overturned the tables. Nothing is said about anger. Nor  does John’s version, (thought by many to be the closest to accuracy) Jn. 2: 13-17.

As Christian points out, this event could hardly have been a new thing for Jesus. He had been in the Temple many times. There was nothing new in what was going on there. He could not have been truly angry; rather, he wished to make a point, to get the events of his final days in Jerusalem underway. All texts report that the disturbance got the attention of the high priests and the scribes and Pharisees. It was this that was the final straw, and they determined that his ministry must be stopped lest it gain the upper hand. That fairly seems to have been his motivation.

This I think helps us to understand why right wing Christians maintain that war is a viable means to an end, and indeed seem to be in the forefront of promoting it to secure political ends. It explains why the death penalty finds adherents in this group.

It also I think, explains why social justice issues, fall on deaf ears, as regards them. All too often those on the margins, like those in the time of Jesus, were not good believers. Not good followers of the rules. Condemned by the Pharisees as unclean, as sinful by their conduct or failure to abide by the purity and holiness codes, they were the very folks that Jesus spent their time with. But alas, as we are all to a degree wont to do, we discard that which doesn’t fit our preconceived notions.

The fundamentalist finds fertile ground in the Hebrew Scriptures for an angry, avenging God. They relate to this God who will right all the wrongs they themselves perceive, and they then pervert and subvert the message of Jesus to conform as the returning JUDGE of all.

As Christian points out, this is not transforming, but merely recreating God and Jesus to suit one’s own proclivities. Personal salvation is the only goal, the Kingdom is only about heavenly mansions where we will get to live like the rich finally.

It explains a lot.


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Oh Martha, I Barely Knew You

I’ve been thinking about Martha and Mary recently. It was the Gospel reading Sunday past, but I’d been thinking before then. The actual story is quite short. Located at Lk 10:38-42, I will quote it in full.

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

There are many treatments of this periscope, most of them refer to the fact that Martha is concerned about the realities of this life, while Mary recognizes Jesus as the Son of God, and wishes to learn from the Master. Clearly this is the “better part.” God first, dishes second.

But thanks to Mompriest  at Seeking Authentic Voice and Elizabeth Kaeton at Telling Secrets, who both wrote on this story, I’ve learned a much deeper meaning. Even more so, what follows is informed by Ebeling’s, Women’s Lives in Biblical Times, and the rector of Christ Episcopal Church, +Martha. And it is mostly from that perspective that I wish to write today.

Ebeling informs us that women in biblical times were seldom autonomous beings. The system of patrimony dictated that women went to live in the villages and homes of their husbands and were under the authority of the husband and his father or elder brother if alive. Women seldom inherited property–all went to any male progeny.

So at the start we are faced with a strange fact. The house here is defined as Martha’s. Yet, Martha is the sister of Lazarus, and presumably Lazarus is alive. A couple of points. In John’s Gospel, this same Lazarus does die, but is raised some days after his burial.(John 11:41-44)  He is not the same Lazarus who is mentioned in Luke 16:19-31, who had conversation with the rich man in the afterlife, outside hell.

We know from the Lazarus rising story that the siblings lived in Bethany, a village about 1.5 miles from Jerusalem, and indeed the modern day site of  al-Eizariya means Tomb of Lazarus. So it appears that at this visit by Jesus, Lazarus was still living in the home.

This makes it curious that the home is denoted as Martha’s, since clearly, tradition would have made it Lazarus’s. This may have been simply a literary change to fit the point Luke wished to make.

More importantly, the cultural norms would never permit a woman to invite any man to her home period. And it is this which I had never considered before. So indeed it was Martha who was first stepping way out in uncharted territory by being so bold. One can imagine other people of the village witnessing her standing forth at the door and beckoning Jesus into the home. How they must have talked!

Tradition would also dictate that Martha was responsible for the cooking and other home care tasks. While Lazarus might have been the one to offer a pallet for Jesus to sit upon (chairs were not known I don’t believe in small village homes), it would have been the women’s duty to supply water for washing and the food.

Anyone who reads the bible regularly would realize that a major aspect of Jesus’ ministry was his table hospitality, his radical departure from what was considered right and even in a sense legal. One did not dine with the unclean and certainly not with sinners. He pushed the limits of hospitality to include all.

So it is somewhat disconcerting when he downplays Martha’s efforts. After all, she has courageously seen him for who he is, and ignored all propriety in inviting him forth. Yet he gives no recognition to her, nor does he validate her dedication to good hospitality in making her guests comfortable. No doubt Jesus was accompanied by his disciples (more strange men), since “they” is used in the story.

It is clear that Mary too is courageous and not typical of her gender. She boldly sits at the feet of Jesus to listen to his words. I’m not completely clear, but I suspect that women were not allowed to dine in the same room with strangers who were male, but were separated from them. Her actions are indeed bold, and also recognize that this Jesus is not just your average rabbi.

Our priest, Martha, suggested that what Jesus means by his upholding of Mary’s choice is that when we invite Jesus in, we should be prepared to have our lives upset and turned upside down. In order to make this point, poor Martha (from the story) is chastised softly. Hospitality is one thing, and usually most important, but when God’s chosen arrives, all else must stop lest one miss the message being offered.

God disturbs our complacency, much as both Martha and Mary disturbed the social customs of their village and time. Something big is afoot here, they trumpet by their actions. God changes the rules, much as Jesus suggests that Martha and perhaps the men in the room might rethink all this business of who does what, where and when. It’s a new day. The Kingdom has arrived.  And things will never be the same.


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Who is My Neighbor?

It’s a good question. One that we should be asking ourselves on a regular basis. As is my usual method, a number of instances which brought this question to mind coalesce, and I realize that God is asking me to probe more deeply.

The Gospel today was from Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the Good Samaritan. As you recall, Jesus relates the story of the man who is beaten and robbed and left by the side of the road. Both a priest and Levite pass by, apparently following ritual purity laws, moving to the other side of the road.

A Samaritan sees the man and comes to his aid. “Who is the neighbor?” Jesus asks. Of course the answer is obvious.  As our rector said, the question asked by the lawyer,”Who is my neighbor?” also seems obvious and unnecessary to ask in the first place.

But, I can see the lawyer’s dilemma. We don’t treat everyone the same, so perhaps not are our neighbor. Yet Jesus seems to imply that there is but one answer: everyone is my neighbor.

Unfortunately it was not and is not so clear to us, I don’t think.

It was clear to William James in his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience. In a lecture on saintliness, he points out that saints are noted for their treatment of all persons with equal love and charity. Unlike the rest of us who are all too willing to fight “fire with fire” and treat others with the same meanness they may treat us.

James is unwilling to let go of the saints being the better angels here. In a rare insight into the human psyche, he claims, regarding the tendency to categorize humans into “good, bad, and in the middle:”

“We have no right to speak of human crocodiles and boa-constrictors as of fixedly incurable beings. We know not the complexities of personality, the smouldering emotional fires, the other facets of the character polyhedron, the resources of the subliminal region. St. Paul long ago made our ancestors familiar with the idea that every soul is virtually sacred. Since Christ died for us all without exception. . . .”

Yet, far seeing as his sentiments are, we need look no further than scripture to find plenty of evidence that suggests that we must too be wary.

St. Jude says this in Jude 17:20-25:

When there are some who have doubts, reassure them; when there are some to be saved from the fire, pull them out; but there are others to whom you must be kind with great caution, keeping your distance even from the outside clothing which is contaminated by vice.

I’m not sure what is being presented here.  But clearly it does not sound like Jesus’ words to the lawyer, nor that all are our neighbors without fail. Jude seems to suggest that we must be careful of the truly evil among us, keeping our distance as he says.

It confuses me assuredly.

But it reflects certainly who I am.

One need not spend a long time on this blog to realize I have very unkind things to say about any number of people I consider to be self-serving evil presences among us. We can start there.

But I really got to thinking about this after the latest rounds of excrement to exit the mouth of Mel Gibson. We have long since decided that we no longer can watch Mr. Gibson’s movies, given his past expressions of racist thinking. It seems now that this man considers all who are not white to be something scornful and not quite as good as himself.

It’s all ironic given that Jesus was a Jew. And with all due respect for Mr. Gibson’s ultra orthodox positions, most scholars are pretty clear that Jesus had no desire nor intent to become something else. He seemed intent on correcting Judaism, not starting a new religion altogether.

Given that Mr. Gibson has  noted his displeasure with Jews, African Americans and Latinos, I suspect he harbors no love for Arabs, Eskimos or American Native peoples, to say nothing of Asians, Indians and Greenlanders.

Overall, I’m inclined to think rather poorly of the man, again as I say, so ironic, given his ultra conservative position as a Roman Catholic. I don’t know as I’ve heard an explanation as to why he had an affair, a child out of wedlock, and is either in the midst of, or legally divorced. None of these comport with the rigid believes of the right wing Roman Catholic. I have no idea whether he receives communion, but those who espouse his positions regularly call for the barring of various politicians from receiving, based only on their voting record on abortion.

I figure, based on the Samaritan story that I shouldn’t think so ill of Mr. Gibson. I would like to think I would assist him should I find him bloodied and beaten in the street. But I’m not so sure I’d invite him in for dinner. Jude suggests perhaps that is a wise choice on my part, but, frankly between Jesus and Jude, I’m opting that Jesus carries the weight.

Maybe I’m missing something here. I guess it’s pretty clear that sainthood is not right around my corner, at least. If you have any ideas about where to draw this line, I’d be happy to hear them.

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