Several year’s ago, after finally giving my heart to Christ, I asked several people the question, “Okay, now what?” I had no idea what it meant to be a Christian, and little background from my early childhood from which to cull an answer. Almost everyone, including several clergy, suggested I read the Gospel of John, followed by Matthew, Mark and then Acts. What was it about Luke’s Gospel that prompted people to omit it from a new Christian’s reading list? Historically, Luke hasn’t been a favorite Gospel, which, for me at least, prompts the question, “What does it say that might be uncomfortable to the church hierarchy?” Luke’s Jesus, it seems, was an advocate of social justice, a vehement critic of religious authorities and a harsh judge of the people who rejected God’s “true” ministry.
In Luke 1:30-35, the author immediately lays out his opinion of Jesus’ divinity. The angel, Gabriel, told Mary that Jesus would be called “the Child of the Most High” and “Heir of God”, claimed Jesus’ succession to the throne of David, and foretold Jesus’ conception as a product of Mary and God. This notion is reaffirmed several times in the first few chapters, but perhaps most noticeably in Luke’s genealogy (3:24-38) in which Jesus’ lineage was traced back to “…Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” It appears that Luke was purposefully attempting to dispel any doubt about the Holiness of Jesus.
Like Mark, Luke had supernatural beings acknowledging Jesus’ divinity. The aforementioned conversation between Gabriel and Mary is supported by the angel speaking to the shepherds (2:11), the “voice from heaven” following the Holy Spirit descending on Jesus (3:22), the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness (4:1-13), and the exorcisms of the unclean demons (4:34 & 41). Unlike Mark, however, Luke had some humans proclaiming or recognizing Jesus’ divinity early in his Gospel. Elizabeth acknowledged Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (1:43) and even described her unborn child as leaping at the sound of Mary’s voice (1:44), indicating recognition of the divine fetus within Mary’s body. Simeon at the temple in Jerusalem also acknowledged Jesus as God’s “salvation” (2:30). An angel or the Holy Spirit, however, had directly affected each of these humans. In this understanding, Luke can still be considered consistent with Mark in that only supernatural beings, or humans having interacted with the supernatural, recognized Jesus’ divinity.
Luke, in his depiction of John the Baptist’s words (3:4-18 ), gave clues to some themes to come. The first is the foretelling of Christ’s judgment. I can almost picture John on any corner of any college town shouting out the sinful ways of the students. Repent – truly repent – or be tossed into the fire as a barren branch or fruitless tree.
Later Luke reaffirmed John’s words with: “And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. Whoever listens to you [disciples] listens to me, and whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me” (Luke 10:15-16, NRSV). Jesus sent out the seventy disciples in pairs to towns and villages that Jesus intended to visit – complete with instructions for dealing with acceptance or dismissal. In this chapter (10), Luke clearly painted a portrait of Jesus bluntly describing the outcome for the Jewish people who denied or refused this ministry ordained by God. In 12:42-49, Luke repeated this image of Jesus when he warned that the “slave who knows his master’s will” and doesn’t respond, presumably the Jews, will be dealt with more harshly than those who act the same way but in ignorance of God’s will. The severity of the message continued in 13:1-5, in which Jesus stated that those who don’t repent would perish, and 17:26-37, where Jesus likened judgment to the Great flood and destruction of Sodom.
In John the Baptist’s response to “What do we do?” came a second suggestion of a running theme – the qualities Jesus would judge as righteous, namely mercy and caring for the poor, sick and oppressed. Whoever has more should give to those with less; be ethical if you are in a position of authority; do not oppress others by abusing power. Jesus was portrayed in Luke’s version as being a champion of social justice. John’s words, however, were preceded by Luke’s telling of the birth story.
In his version, Luke depicted the angel appearing to shepherds, who were the working poor in Jewish society of the time. While attending a lecture by Kenneth Bailey a few years ago, I heard Dr. Bailey describe the living quarters of shepherds based on his understanding of ancient cultures and archeological findings. He stated that shepherds lived on the outskirts of any town, not being allowed to live with the rest of the people. Their homes contained a large manger in the main room in which would be kept the newborn livestock in order to keep them safe from predators and the elements. Bailey made the argument that Luke’s telling of the birth story mirrored Paul’s depiction of Christ turning the social order upside down. The compelling of lowly shepherds to attend the birth of the Savior of humankind, I would have to agree, is consistent with that analysis. In 4:17-19, reading from Isaiah 61:1, it was proclaimed that Jesus had been sent to minister to the poor, imprisoned, blind and oppressed.
The theme of the elevation of the poor was repeated in Luke’s telling of the banquet parable (14:12-24), in which the poor and indigent became the guests instead of the elite, albeit with an added message to the ‘worthy’ who rejected the invitation. Luke’s Jesus stated, in 6:20-35, that the poor, hungry, miserable and rejected would be rewarded in the time to come, but the wealthy, comfortable and respected would become impoverished, since they would have already received their reward. I don’t understand Luke’s references to wealth as necessarily indicative of monetary riches alone, but rather as a reference to those who were favored in Jewish society. When considered in that light, the preceding story, and the conversations with the rich young man and Zacchaeus (18:18-27 and 19:1-10 respectively), continued this theme of social justice. The roadblock to salvation is the manner in which the love, respect, and misuse of worldly signs of success – namely wealth, position and power – oppress, and maintain the plight of, the poor.
Adding to the consistency of Luke’s message, Jesus was also described as being somewhat combative in attempts to have the Jews, especially the religious hierarchy, hear the message. Beginning with Jesus’ words in the temple (4:24-27) and continuing through chapters 5, 6 & 7, Luke put Jesus at odds with the legalistic views of the Jewish hierarchy. Christ, while not being here to abolish God’s law (Matthew 5:17), certainly had been sent to challenge the laws devised by religious authorities, and subscribed to by many Jews, that place ritual observances above heartfelt expressions of faith and acts of kindness. Perhaps the most telling of these stories was the healing on the Sabbath, which prompted Jesus to ask the Pharisees, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” (6:9), and lead to the confrontation over the anointing of Christ’s feet by a woman “who was a sinner” (7:36-50).
Understanding the historical context within which the parable was told, the Good Samaritan story (10:25-37) was as ‘in your face’ as one could get. After the discourse with a Jewish attorney, in which the lawyer answered his own question about attaining eternal life through the Law, the question was asked “And who is my neighbor?” Luke, through Jesus, depicted the priest and the Levite as crossing to the other side of the road to avoid confronting the carnage of the assault, thereby refusing to help the victim. A Samaritan was portrayed as the person who gave aid and comfort to the victim. The lawyer was forced to acknowledge that this last person, a citizen of a country of half-breeds purportedly practicing a heretical form of Judaism, was the most righteous. “Go and do likewise”, Jesus then told the attorney. This would surely have rubbed salt into the wounds the religious elite believed Jesus had inflicted on them.
Many more of Luke’s passages reaffirmed the theme of the importance of intent – the admonition of the Pharisees (11:40-48), the crippled woman (13:10-17), the parable regarding the seat of honor (14:7-11), and the rich man in hell (16:19-31), being the most notable. But, in 18:9-14, Luke struck at the very issue of righteousness without ambiguity. The righteous man expressed his appreciation to God for not being one of the un-virtuous sinners, since he did all the ‘right’ things. The tax collector ascribed to himself the label of sinner and, without even being able to look toward God, simply asked for God’s forgiveness. Luke, using Jesus’ speech, clearly stated the tax collector was justified by his own humility, while the other was damned by his own righteousness. Jesus, in his admonitions, may even be considered harsh. As Jesus was describing virtuous actions, precipitated by an abundant heart, he severely criticized the judging of others as the act of hypocrites and evil persons (6:35-49).
Luke didn’t portray a truly gentle Jesus in his Gospel. Within this book I perceive a Christ who was intent on revolution – not against the rule of civil powers, but in opposition to the religious hierarchy’s misapplication of God’s message. Here was someone, the Divine Child of God, repeating some themes of Old Testament prophets – it’s not the letter of your law that’s important, but your heartfelt acceptance of God’s intent. While I don’t know enough to determine the audience to which Luke was writing, it seems clear that it wasn’t Palestinian Jews. It also seems understandable that religious authorities, or adherents of any strict rule-based sect of any age, wouldn’t be particularly comfortable with the confrontational message of Luke’s Jesus. Several stories of the faith and works of non-Jewish people were held up as exemplary as opposed to those of the Jews, indicating that Luke perceived Jesus’ role as a harsh judge of the ‘chosen people’.
It would also seem plausible that Luke was writing to someone sympathetic to the plight of the impoverished and oppressed, if not the victims themselves. It seems as if Jesus the Messiah was not on Earth to vanquish Israel’s enemies, but to liberate Judaism’s disenfranchised from the abuse and rejection of their own righteous culture. In modern terms, Luke’s Jesus could be seen as an advocate of reverse missions, where the inhabitants of the mission field are the teachers and the missionaries are those in need of elucidation. Additionally, Luke’s Jesus seemed to try to bring the Jews to an understanding of their complicity in the predicament of the poor and rejected. Failure to grasp these concepts would result in yet more harsh consequences.
 Luke’s real identity and gender are unknown, but tradition assumes a masculine character wrote the Gospel. For consistency, and no other reason, I ascribe male pronouns to Luke.