It has sometimes been commented that the Gospel of Luke places a strong emphasis on what is today meant by social justice. Perhaps these notes can provide a more in-depth look at that.
In many ways, Luke is the most theologically rich and multi-layered of the Gospels. As always with the Gospel writers, the details of the narrative are significant. Luke’s story begins in the sanctuary of the temple – symbolically, in the center of Judaism! In many ways, Luke goes further than anyone else in carefully interweaving every aspect of Jesus’ story with the entire rich history of the People of Israel. Luke wants to make the point that Jesus’ person, life, and ministry are solidly rooted in that history, that history of what God has been doing all along. But Luke’s vision is even broader than that: Jesus is rooted not only in Israel’s history, but in the history of the entire world! Luke’s genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage back to Adam, the forebear of the entire human race. Luke is careful to “locate” the events of Jesus’ life within the timeframe of well-known concrete world events.
Luke wants us to get the sense that all of world history is leading up to that moment when the angel speaks to Zechariah in the sanctuary, thereby unleashing the chain of events that will lead to Jesus’ coming. But then, all subsequent history begins its unfolding as a result of Jesus’ coming. Jesus is the turning point in God’s UNIVERSAL plan that has been unfolding since the creation of the world! But that plan CONTINUES to unfold – this point is so important for Luke that he has provided a second part to his narrative – the Acts of the Apostles (what I humorously call “Luke: The Sequel”). In this second part, he shows that it is now the role of the community of Christ (the church) to continue Jesus’ mission of carrying the good news of salvation to “all nations,” even to “the ends of the earth.” In Acts, the disciples carry out this mission and the book ends with the Kingdom of God being proclaimed in ROME, the center of the Empire! God’s plan truly is universal and salvation truly is being offered to all peoples! This is Luke’s grand and beautiful vision.
And even the smaller “pieces” reveal the beauty of this vision of God’s universal, inclusive love, particularly through their focus on how God singles out the marginalized. This can be traced through several patterns:
REVERSAL OF SOCIAL RELATIONS
This note is sounded early in this Gospel. The barren Elizabeth, who was pitied and looked down upon because of her condition, is suddenly favored by God – and gives birth, to a son, no less! The angel visits a young girl – a social nobody – in Galilee of all places, the “other side of the tracks” of Palestine! Mary’s canticle praises God for “raising up the lowly”! These are all signals that big and surprising things are in store.
We want to be careful to understand this business of social relations in Luke accurately. I wish I had a dollar for every time I have had a student write that Jesus said that “all men [sic] are created equal.” Note that Jesus did not say this! As we know, it was stated in a famous 18th century document. It would not have made sense to anyone in the first century. People at that time did not have to look far to know that there were vast social inequalities, and it never occurred to them to question this: it was just the way things were. Jesus was not concerned to bring about the kind of social revolution that would change the political order of society and give equal rights to everyone. And to say that Jesus himself was advocating for social equality in the sense that we understand it cheapens the meaning of his message. Equality implies that something is being measured and evaluated in comparison with something else. Jesus’ message, rather, was that God’s way of evaluating utterly transcends human ways. God’s love was unconditional and did not measure or compare – nor could it be measured or compared. It was overflowing and abundant, and favored those who were weak, lowly, outcast – and had no way of earning it or of making themselves worthy of it! It favored those who longed for God and longed for righteousness. It favored those who were humble before God and humbly open to God’s own goodness and righteousness. God’s lifting up the lowliest was not for the sake of making them socially equal, but for the sake of making them included in God’s Kingdom, where all human standards that think they are adequate for measuring a person’s worth are transcended in God’s all-inclusive love. It is all about manifesting God’s graciousness. And it is closely linked with God’s compassion.
But this favoring did not mean that this love excluded those not so favored. Rather, it meant that God’s love was so all-inclusive that it reached down to even the lowliest and raised them up, and included them in the inner circle.
BUT, God also “casts down the mighty from their thrones and sends the rich away empty.” Here we see more of Luke’s justice concerns. The rich and mighty in Luke’s Gospel are those who enjoy their privileges through unjust means, at the expense of others, and in callous disregard for the plight of others. Their hearts are hard and closed. Luke sounds a warning that those who enjoy the good things of life or protect their own interests in the face of the suffering of others will experience a drastic reversal when it comes to rendering an account of what they have done with their gifts.
INCLUSION OF THE OUTCAST
This is another variation on Luke’s theme of God’s justice. The socially excluded are among Luke’s favorite candidates for being specially singled out for God’s favor and concern. This is a special theme in Luke. God’s tender, boundless compassion has a special place for those who have been brushed aside, forgotten, and dismissed. Jesus announces at the very beginning of his ministry that he has been sent to proclaim good news to the poor and to set free the oppressed. And Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, believed by many scholars to reflect the more original form in which Jesus uttered them, unequivocally declare that it is precisely the poor that are specially favored by God.
God sometimes makes surprising choices in singling out certain persons for a special mark of favor. The shepherds are a classic example. Shepherds were considered social outcasts, perpetually “unclean” because of their occupation. Yet these are the very ones who receive the first announcement of the birth of the Savior. The “sinful” woman, doubly outcast because of her gender and her lifestyle, is scorned by the Pharisee in whose house Jesus is dining, but is treated tenderly and graciously by Jesus – and is permitted to touch him! Then there is Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, whose life is turned around by Jesus’ surprising, gracious offer of friendship and table-sharing! (Recall that table fellowship was a powerful sign of inclusiveness that Jesus was known for engaging in – all the Synoptics emphasize this – and Luke, particularly, underlines its importance in Jesus’ ministry. It seems as if Jesus is always at someone’s house for a meal in Luke!)
A particularly pointed example, that would have totally turned his listeners’ thinking upside down, is Jesus’ tale of the Good Samaritan. Too often, people conclude that the point of the story is the good deed that the Samaritan does: they conclude that Jesus is teaching a moralistic story intended to encourage everyone to help those in need. Well, that’s nice and all, but it misses the really important point of the story. Note that the reason Jesus tells the story is to answer a question: “Who is my neighbor?” He is asked that question by the lawyer who “wished to justify himself,” and in order to answer it, tells this dramatic tale. At the conclusion, he asks his listeners, “Who . . . was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” It is the same question that Jesus was asked, now posed back to the one who asked. And the answer to the question is – the Samaritan! The Samaritan was the neighbor to the victim, which means the Samaritan is the one who is to be loved as oneself (“love your neighbor as yourself”). Jesus’ listeners would have been cringing at this point. They hated Samaritans. The Samaritans were the “bad” guys, the ones who were living in the land that had once belonged to Israel but were now considered outcasts from authentic Judaism. “We’re supposed to love THEM? You’ve GOT to be kidding!” And to cap that, Jesus concludes by saying, “Go and do likewise.” Not only is a scummy, unworthy heretic the HERO of the story, Jesus then says that he is the MODEL that his listeners should be FOLLOWING. HE is the one who turned out to be the “good” guy, while the priest and Levite, who represented worthy, law-abiding religious authorities are discredited. (And note that Luke places this story in the section that follows the account of Jesus and his disciples encountering inhospitality at a Samaritan village!) Jesus’ listeners would have had their assumptions totally subverted by this story. It so emphasizes, in an extremely powerful, subtle, and skillful way, that NO ONE, particularly the least likely, is a priori excluded from God’s mercy and favor.
WOMEN IN LUKE’S GOSPEL
The theme of the surprising divine inclusiveness finds yet another expression in Luke’s presentation of women. More than any other Gospel, Luke integrates women fully into the narrative by giving them significant roles. In the patriarchal society of Jesus’ time, women were not considered as having any socially significant role to play, beyond bearing children, preferably male children. Their place was hidden, inside the home, not impacting the important matters of the world outside their doors. Luke reverses that. Some of the most significant roles in this Gospel are played by women. This begins, obviously with Elizabeth and Mary, but does not end there. However, let’s stop there for a moment. Elizabeth has been the pitied, dismissed, barren one, but is singled out by the gracious plan and intervention of God in a stunning reversal and becomes pregnant. When Mary comes to visit her, her baby leaps for joy in her womb at the sound of Mary’s greeting, and Elizabeth herself is filled with the Holy Spirit, enabling her to acknowledge the astounding blessing that has been bestowed upon them both.
Mary herself is the central character in Luke’s infancy narrative (unlike in Matthew’s!). She is presented early in this Gospel as the paradigmatic example of God’s lifting up the lowliest and doing great things – fulfilling God’s most important plans – precisely through such a one. She is also the paradigm of discipleship for Luke. She responds with total dedication to the announcement of those plans: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” In her beautiful canticle, the first of several in this Gospel, she names the surprising, great, gracious things that God is doing. In the episodes surrounding the birth, infancy, and childhood of Jesus, she and Joseph do everything righteous, fulfilling “all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord.” Mary herself is the spokesperson in these episodes, and the one most often spoken to. And she keeps everything that happens “in her heart.” This is the model of prayer, praise, obedience, total openness to God, coupled with compassion and reaching out to others, that Luke presents as the model of the ideal disciple.
Then there are Martha and Mary. Luke (as well as John, later) lets us know straightforwardly that they are particular friends of Jesus, who is accustomed to spending time with them in their home. In Luke’s rendition of this, their brother is not even mentioned. It was so counter to the culture of that time for a man to share friendship with women or to engage in meaningful conversation and exchange with them. (But, if you notice, Luke mentions a significant number of women by name who accompany Jesus all the way from Galilee!) In Luke’s scene, Mary is sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him, and Jesus insists that this shall not be taken from her. The point here is not really to elevate the value of “spiritual” over “material” duties or pursuits, as has so often been claimed. The point is about discipleship and about who qualifies for discipleship. In Jesus’ time, important rabbis would have schools of disciples who would sit at their feet to be taught. That is what Mary is doing. But it was unheard of for a rabbi to have women disciples – they would have been a priori excluded from such a role. Luke’s scene, then, is highly symbolic. Jesus is making the point that Mary has every right to sit there, because she is as fully a disciple as anyone else, “and it shall not be taken from her.”
INCLUSIVENESS TOWARD OPPONENTS
Another noteworthy element in Luke is Jesus’ attitude of inclusiveness toward his opponents. Not only does he preach emphatically the love of enemies and treating them with a kindness and mercy that mirror the Father’s. He goes further, by modeling what this entails in real life. It has been stressed that Jesus’ table fellowship with sinners and the outcast is a significant enactment of God’s reign, demonstrating in concrete terms the inclusiveness of God’s love extended even to the seemingly most unworthy. But in Luke Jesus also frequently dines with other kinds of people, as well. Specifically, Luke depicts him dining on several occasions with those who are among his most severe critics, such as the Pharisees – even dining in the houses of such people. (Early on, Luke presents two such scenes, that provide interesting contrasts: in the first, Jesus is a guest of a notorious tax collector turned disciple at a banquet that includes a large crowd of such “disreputable” types; in the second, he is a guest of a proper, law-abiding, self-righteous Pharisee.) The point here is that Jesus excludes no one. He is willing to “hang out” with sinners – and with those who are harshly critical of his actions and oppose his ministry. Especially with the latter, he willing to meet them on their own turf, so to speak, to engage them on their own terms, to “hang out” with them and interact with them.
In sum, in Luke, Jesus proclaims and enacts the truly “good news” that God’s saving action is extended toward EVERYONE!
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