Are you the one who is to come?: Luke 7.11-30

The story of Jesus raising the widow’s son at Nain is unique to Luke among the gospels. I will comment further on why I think Luke may have placed this particular story here in a future reflection, but for the moment let’s just notice a few things that link it with the healing of the Centurion’s servant. In reflecting on that passage in my previous post, I drew attention to that healing as, unusually, a healing at a distance. The raising of the widow’s son does not occur at a distance, but it does occur, as it were, against the odds.

We are told that Jesus arrived at Nain with a large crowd, and that another large crowd was with the widow and the funeral group. These two large crowds converged at the gate of the town, going in opposite directions. We can imagine a fair amount of pushing, shoving and noise. In spite of this, Jesus notices the widow and has compassion on her. The Greek word used here for seeing, where we read that the Lord “saw” her, has a connotation of mentally understanding what he saw; discernment rather than simple visual perception. This is in keeping, of course, with Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ concern for the poor and vulnerable: Jesus understands the plight of a widow who has lost her only son.

Jesus then says to the dead man, “rise”, and the man sits up and speaks. Note here that Jesus “says” rise: in other words, the healing occurs as a response to God’s word. And notice also that what the man does immediately on being raised is that he “speaks.” Again, then, as with the healing at a distance in the story of the Centurion’s servant, to coin a phrase from a beer advert, the Word reaches the parts that other words cannot reach!

The story of the widow at Nain is followed by an enquiry sent by John the Baptist via two of his own disciples. On behalf of John, they ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”. Jesus’ reply is well known:

Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.

When John’s messengers have gone, Jesus speaks to the crowds and asks them, when they went out into the wilderness to see John, what did they go to see? The answer is that he who prepared the way for the gospel message (v. 27; see reflection on Luke 3.1 onwards) was not one dressed in fine robes but, rather, a prophet.

Jesus then says, “I tell you, among those born of women no-one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he”. On hearing this the people, who had been baptised by John, praised God, in contrast to the Pharisees and the lawyers who, Luke comments, had rejected God’s purposes by refusing to be baptised by John.

I am struck by the circularity of the reasoning that is implicit in this passage about John’s enquiry and Jesus’ response. In reply to the question, are you the one who is to come?, Jesus does not simply answer “yes”. Rather, he points to the practical results of what he has been doing – curing the blind, restoring the lame, etc. One must assume that John is expected to take this indirect response as a “yes,” and therefore that what Jesus has been doing in the way of healings, etc., must have fitted with what John expected from the one whose way he was preparing.

So Jesus’ claim to be the one who was to come is authenticated by the fact that the nature and effects of his mission cohere with what John the Baptist’s prophetic life and words prepared the way for. But then how do we know that John’s preparation was an authentic anticipation of the one who was to come? Because, Luke says, it is those whom John baptised who affirm the fulfilment of John’s prophesies in Jesus: “On hearing this the people, who had been baptised by John, praised God.”

In short, Jesus’ mission is confirmed by its coherence with John’s anticipation and preparation for it; and John’s anticipation and preparation is affirmed by its coherence with the fruits of Jesus’ mission.

The key word here is coherence. In the previous reflection I contrasted foundationalist views of knowledge, which depend on building upwards from an allegedly secure foundation, with non-foundationalist views, which see knowledge more in terms of an integrated network or system. On the non-foundationalist view, knowledge (scientific, religious or otherwise) holds together by its own coherence. One might say that this coherence needs to be both internal, in the way the elements of a particular knowledge-set relate to one another, and external, in the way the structure is able to incorporate new elements from ‘outside’.

Foundationalist knowledge has to accumulate new insights by adding another brick to the top of the tower, or another card to the house of cards (inevitably with eventual catastrophic consequences). Non-foundationalist knowledge, in contrast, grows by increasing in scope and coherence. We know something is true because it ‘makes sense’, it ‘resonates’ with what we already know. And of course, sometimes that coherence, that resonance, can only be maintained in the face of new knowledge by making adjustments to the existing structure. That is the point of the analogy of rebuilding a ship, plank by plank, while it is still afloat (see previous reflection).

I have been suggesting in these reflections that Luke has a particular interest in the importance of listening. If we are listening carefully to someone and want to be sure that we are not misunderstanding what they are saying, then we sometimes have to check back with them whether we heard right: “I think what I heard you say was …”; “Can I just check, what you mean is …”. When John sends his messengers to ask whether Jesus is the one who is to come, he is, in effect, asking the Word, “Did I hear this right?”. And the Word answers: indeed, that is what you heard.

But there is something else about this kind of hearing that Luke alludes to. Just now I described the nature of true knowledge in terms of coherence, or ‘resonance’. Now, there is a kind of resonance that can be ‘catastrophic’, where the harmonies behind the coherence resonate to such an extent that the system itself can be endangered. The classic example is the film of the Tacoma Narrows suspension bridge collapse in 1940 (check out YouTube!). Initially a small resonance caused by the wind makes the bridge oscillate a bit. But because the timing of these oscillations fit exactly with the ‘resonant frequency’ of the bridge, the roadway begins to undulate and alarmingly, then wildly, and in the end to the point of destruction.

Just such a ‘resonating coherence’ is implied, I think, in Jesus’ remark, in the context of John’s “checking out” of what he heard, that, “I tell you, among those born of women no-one is greater than John; yet the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

John spoke and caused a small disturbance; the power of this disturbance lay not in its volume or intrinsic force, but in that it resonated with God’s purposes (v. 30). Jesus followed through on John’s preparation, and thereby followed through on God’s purposes as they had resonated through the Hebrew prophets before John.

In speaking (and being) the Word, Jesus set the world resonating at God’s ‘frequency’, on God’s ‘wavelength’. Nothing can be ‘greater’ than the initial little disturbance that set this coherent resonance going, in the sense that nothing resonates more strongly with God’s purposes than John’s proclamation of, and Jesus’ embodiment of, God’s kingdom. But God’s kingdom, once it gets going, is self-sustaining and self-reinforcing, such that it is true to say that, “The least in the kingdom of God is greater than he.”

This does not mean that God’s kingdom runs under its own steam: it is God’s kingdom, so it always and everywhere depends on God’s grace. But it does mean that if we were truly to ‘tune in’ to the resonant frequency of God’s Word, the resulting kingdom would give the appearance of being propelled by a momentum of its own.

Healing at a distance: Luke 6.43-7.10

The story of Jesus healing the centurion’s servant is unusual among the gospel healings in that it occurs at a distance. More commonly, Jesus heals by direct encounter with people, usually involving a personal exchange of words and often involving direct touch. In this instance, in contrast, the person who is healed, the servant, does not meet Jesus, and indeed we don’t even know that the servant was aware that Jesus’s help was being sought on his behalf. Even the centurion who asks for Jesus’ help does so at one remove, via some Jewish elders whom he sent to Jesus, and then through friends sent to meet Jesus.

I’m not concerned particularly here to determine whether and if so how this healing at a distance actually happened. It is obvious that whether or not there is any historical substance to the story, it is included in Luke’s text here in order to emphasize the long reach of the Word. As the message relayed to Jesus by the centurion’s friends affirms, Jesus has only to “say the word” and the centurion knows that his servant will be healed. Even at a distance. And even via this third-hand kind of connection with the Word.

The Word heals at a distance. When I read the passages that precede this healing story I can’t help reflecting on the distance that potentially separates us, 21st century readers, from the intended meaning of the gospel texts; how our own habits of thought and interpretation can so easily distort our hearing of the Word. First there is the analogy of the good tree and the worthless tree, distinguished between the good and the worthless fruit. Likewise, a good person produces good from “within” themselves, and an evil person produces evil from within. The words that the mouth utters come from the overflowing of the heart.

In our highly individualistic age it would be very easy to read these verses about good and bad things coming from the ‘treasure of the heart’ in a ‘psychological’ sense that was not available to, or intended, by Jesus. Many of us have been brought up on a version of Christianity that emphasizes the importance of inner thoughts and intentions, over outward actions and appearances. We have been told that since faith, not works, is what really matters, it is the inward inclinations of the heart that really matter. The story presented (and attributed, wrongly, to Paul) is that Judaism had gone wrong by becoming a religion that aimed to please God by external appearances, when what really matters is what’s going on on the inside. ‘It’s the thought that counts’. (Recent scholarship suggests that what Paul was actually targeting in his emphasis on justification by faith was the use of certain ‘markers’ of faith as a means of circumscribing the recipients of God’s love; making belonging to a certain religious group / nation the definition of who could receive God’s favour.)

As an aside, as I am writing this in the aftermath of the horrendous loss of life in the Grenfell Tower fire, I’m put in mind of a related saying of Jesus: “Woe to you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23.27). The cosmetic cladding added to the outside of the tower block (to make it less of an eye-sore for the mostly rich neighbours?) seems to have been a factor in the rapid spread of the fire.

Anyway, setting aside the polemics, my point here is that we could easily (mis)-read the saying about good and evil coming from within the heart, and others like it, as being primarily to do with a distinction between inner and outer states, a distinction that would not have had the same resonance with the original hearers of the gospel as it does with us. Rather, the point is more to do with a certain wholeness or integrity of being, as is perhaps less problematically (for us with our filters) expressed in the image of the good and bad trees that bear correspondingly (and by definition) good and bad fruit. Moreover, this wholeness comes from hearing and acting on the Word (vv. 46-47). Listening to the Word is what, by implication, determines the difference between trees that produce good or worthless fruit; or the difference between a man who builds his house on good foundations and the one who doesn’t.

But again, here we are hearing the Word at a distance. We are likely to hear the reference to ‘foundations’ through a distorting filter that would not have been relevant to the original hearers. For about the last four hundred years or so, following the Enlightenment, our idea of the nature of knowledge has become greatly different to that of the preceding centuries and millennia. Specifically, we live in an age in which all knowledge is open to doubt. Authorities can be questioned; traditions can be criticised. As a result, anyone wishing to argue that a particular view is reliable has had to produce grounds for holding it to be so.

The most obvious response to this tendency to doubt is to look for some secure base on which the knowledge in question can be argued to have been built. Descartes’ famous foundation was, “I think, therefore I am.” Religious foundations are nowadays often sought in the Bible, or the authority of the Church / Pope, or the authority of individual experience. However, philosophers point out that although such apparently secure foundations are attractive in that they appear to offer some sort of certainty, such certainty is fragile. If a flaw in the foundations is discovered then the whole house of cards comes tumbling down. Rather than indubitable foundations, therefore, really secure knowledge turns out to depend on a sound but flexible structure, together with a method of identifying and rectifying weaknesses and gaps in our knowledge. Philosophers call this approach ‘non-foundationalism’.

An analogy commonly used is that the advance of knowledge is not so much like building a tower-block on firm foundations, but more like a continual process of rebuilding a ship while the ship is at sea. You can’t dismantle the ship all at once and start again from a single secure point, because the ship has to stay more or less seaworthy while the repairs are made. But that doesn’t mean that wholesale rebuilding cannot occur in the long run. In principle, a very different ship could gradually emerge by a process of plank-by-plank replacement. In practice, that is not actually an economical way of going about ship-building, but it is the only option available to us if we want to construct a system of knowledge that won’t be vulnerable to collapse like a house of cards if a weak point has been overlooked.

Am I saying that Jesus was philosophically wrong when he likened hearing and acting on his words to building on a firm foundation? Absolutely not! I’m simply saying that we are likely to hear the reference to firm foundations through a distorting filter. Jesus and his hearers had no inkling of, and no need for, the modern debate between foundationalism and non-foundationalism, or any sense of the different kind of ‘foundations’ that we moderns might one day seek to build our spiritual security upon (Bible, Church, Pope, Experience, etc).

Jesus’ point, rather, is that our wholeness and integrity (being ‘well built’ – v. 48) depend on listening to his words. And in listening to his words in order to hear the Word, we must remember that we are hearing his words at a distance. Fortunately, just as the Word was able to heal the centurion’s servant in spite of the physical and social distance between them, so we are able to receive the Word at our great distance of time and culture.

The Measure You Give: Luke 6.27-42

One of our eldest grandson’s favourite things when he comes to our house is to  bounce on the trampoline in the garden. It cost £25 second-hand, and it was one of the best £25 ever spent. He loves it … bounce, bounce, bounce!

Erecting the trampoline wasn’t easy, though, because the bouncy surface had to be put under a lot of tension by attaching it via metal springs to the frame. It needed a special tool and a lot of pulling. Funny, that: that to get the upward bounciness that our grandson so enjoys depends on maintaining a constant horizontal tension in the fabric of the trampoline.

The created order is a bit like a trampoline! It is in the nature of being human within this creation of God’s that we experience both the bounciness and the tensions without which the bounciness would not be possible. I think there are three key tensions that we humans find ourselves suspended in, created as we are “a little lower than angels” (Psalm 8).

The first of these tensions is the central paradox of being human: namely, that while we are entirely rooted in and dependent on the finite order of things, we nevertheless are able to see “beyond” our finite existence. Unlike other animals, we are able to imagine alternative futures and pursue purposes that are of our own making. We are both fully within the fabric of the created order, yet also able to “bounce” in accordance with our own God-given creativity. We are, to use a philosophical term, capable of “self-transcendence.”

In the Sermon on the Mount / plain, the paradox of being human is alluded to in the juxtaposition of two contrasting sayings of Jesus. On the one hand, we are like the blind leading the blind (v. 39). As finite creatures, we are bound by all the constraints and limitations of created beings. Finite creatures cannot, in the normal run of things, see beyond the demands and confines of their own finite world. But humans are distinctive among finite creatures in being able to imagine and choose values that go beyond our finite needs.

In contrast to the picture of the blind leading the blind we therefore have the saying about whatever measure you give being the measure you will receive. Jesus’ saying could mean that the “amount” you give will be the “amount” you receive. But it could also mean the “standard” by which you measure things will be the “standard” that determines how you relate to the world (and how the world relates to you). The word translated as “measure” here is the Greek metro, the same word that lies behind our “metre”. This standard for measuring lengths was originally defined by the length of a platinum-iridium rod made in 1889 and kept at the Bureau International des Poids et Mesures near Paris. On the one hand, then, we are like the blind leading the blind. On the other hand, we have a distinctive capacity for imagining, choosing, and working for values beyond those that purely finite creatures are driven by. Just as we have invented our own measure of length, we also invent (develop, construct, imagine, experiment with) our own measures of value and morality. Yet those values may, with discernment and openness, come to approximate the very values that are God’s values. Hence the saying about the pupil not being above their teacher, but being able to reach the same level as the teacher, i.e., God (a saying that otherwise would appear to offer a rather inadequate view of teacher-pupil relationships). Such a capacity to see beyond the confines of our finite condition is not bad for a creature whose default mode would otherwise be to lead each other around blindly until we fall into a ditch!

The second kind of tension we have to live with, alongside the paradox of human finitude and self-transcendence, is what I would call the mystery of providence. The mystery is this: The Judaeo-Christian tradition holds that God acts in the world, influencing the course of history and guiding our personal lives. Yet the actual operation of God’s providential action in the world seems impossible to detect, and much happens in the world that we cannot understand why a God of providence would not act to prevent. We are left with having to live with the tension between believing in a God who cares infinitely for us, yet whose love for us is exercised in a way that does not interrupt or intervene in the fabric of the created order, at least not in ay way that we can objectively detect.

The mystery of providence is touched on when Jesus explains the reason for his instruction that his hearers must love their enemies and do good to them. The explanation involves Jesus referring to the fact that God is kind even to the wicked and ungrateful. A conventional wisdom, a view of providence that was willing to collapse the mystery, might expect God to act in our interests at the expense of our enemies. This would be the God of our nation, a God who is pitted against the God’s of other nations; a God who would fight our corner and intervene on our side in our battles. The trajectory of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures involves a progressive realisation that this is not how God works.

It is easy to overlook the significance of the simple observation that God is kind to the wicked. The word translated as “kind” here is xrestos (chrestos), which means something along the lines of “useful in a kindly sort of way” (hence Chrestus was apparently a common slave-name in the Graeco-Roman world). The observation that God is kind to the wicked is therefore not an assertion that God forgives the wicked, as we might be inclined to assume from the context, but rather an observation that, as the equivalent verse in Matthew (5.45) makes somewhat clearer, that, “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

The sermon touches, then, on the mystery of providence: that God’s care for us largely operates (perhaps only operates!) within (and not in addition to) the natural created order. Consequently, God’s providence does not always conform to our own assumptions about how providence should work and for whose benefit. Alongside the paradox of being human – the paradox of human finitude and self-transcendence – the mystery of providence is the second tension that holds the fabric of creation taut.

The third source of tension in the created order is not expicitly referred to in the Sermon on the Mount / plain, though it is present throughout the New Testament, and we will meet it explicitly later in Luke’s gospel. It is the tension between the “now” and the “not yet” of God’s Kingdom. The paradox is that on the one hand the Kingdom is always at hand, always breaking in, ever being made actual in our midst. Yet, on the other hand, the Kingdom is never fully realised in the present. The Kingdom is hoped for, longed for, always ahead of us, in the future, even somehow beyond and outside time.

I am suggesting then, that just as our grandson’s trampoline was erected by putting its fabric under tension in all directions, so the fabric of creation is held under tension by the paradox of the human condition, the mystery of providence, and the now but not yet of the coming Kingdom. Of course tensions, mysteries, and paradoxes can be frustrating, so it is always tempting to try to dismantle one or more of these tensions by denying the pull of one or other side of them. But while reducing frustration in the short term, such moves would destroy creation’s ‘bounciness’. The reader can work out for themselves the various ways in which one or other side of each of the three tensions can be unhooked from the frame, and why in each case the effect would be disastrous for real creaturely relation to the transcendent.

I should of course warn of the usual dangers of pressing any metaphor too far. For example, I am well aware that behind the mystery of providence lie unfathomable questions about why God allows evil and suffering. When I use the metaphor of creation’s “bounciness” I would not want to be thought to be trivialising such suffering, or implying that the “bounce” of self-transcendence takes off directly from other peoples’ pain (it does not). The point I am trying to make is that to place ourselves honestly in God’s presence requires some kind of awareness of the tensions and paradoxes that are intrinsic to the way that we humans have been created, the way in which we are ‘suspended’ within the fabric of the created order.

So, a prayer:

Praise be to you for the paradox of being human –
Held fast by time while reaching for eternity;
By your grace, grant me vision and purpose.

Praise be to you for the mystery of providence –
The working of your love through the fabric of creation;
In your mercy, guide me, shield me, and renew me.

Praise be to you for the now and not yet of your coming Kingdom;
Through your power and promise, keep me faithful in hope and trust.

You who are listening: Luke 6.12-6.27

Chapter 6 contains Luke’s version of what in Matthew’s gospel is known as the Sermon on the Mount, which is rightly regarded as a key piece of Jesus’ teaching. Luke’s version is shorter than Matthew’s and is different in several respects. The differences begin with the beatitudes, which precede the sermon in both Matthew and Luke. It is often noted, for example, that where Matthew quotes Jesus as saying, “blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke simply has “blessed are the poor.” Luke, it is suggested, may be wishing to guard against a tendency to ‘spiritualize’ the gospel. He wants to make clear that Jesus had a particular concern for the economically impoverished, not just the spiritually needy – an emphasis that comes though in other parts of Luke’s gospel too.

The same emphasis continues in the rest of Luke’s version of the beatitudes, not least in the way they are followed (in Luke but not in Matthew) by the ‘Woes’. These are quoted from (or at least influenced by) Amos, the first of the great Hebrew prophets whose thoughts were set down in writing. Amos’s special emphasis was on the hypocrisy and injustice into which he saw the Northern Kingdom of Israel descending in his time, which was the eighth century (700s) BCE. Where Matthew’s version of the beatitudes offers the assurance of blessedness to the poor, the sorrowful and the hungry, Luke goes further.  Luke’s ‘woes’ allude to the causes of the oppression as well as the blessedness of the oppressed. The cause of the oppression is the human cost of maintaining the comfortableness of the rich and well-fed (Luke 6.24-25). These oppressors are able to maintain their cheery complacency because they are happy to listen to those who speak well of them but fail to hear the truths spoken by the true prophets (v. 26).

Perhaps the significance of Luke’s addition of the woes has a modern parallel in the famous remark of Brazilian Archbishop Hélder Câmara (1909-1999): “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” The Woes are not there to suggest that God dislikes the rich as much as he likes the poor, but to point out that the poverty of the poor is due to their oppression by the rich. If Luke doesn’t spell out the connection explicitly, his choice of Amos as the inspiration for his supplement to the beatitudes makes it hard not to conclude that this is what he is getting at. Don’t sentimentalize the blessedness of the poor, Luke seems to be implying, without asking yourself whether you are responsible (perhaps indirectly) for their poverty.

Beyond the beatitudes themselves, another difference between Luke and Matthew is that immediately before the sermon Luke inserts the account of Jesus calling the twelve apostles. Apostles are those who are ‘sent’ whereas ‘disciples’ are those who follow (or, more precisely, who learn by following). The apostles were chosen from among a larger group of disciples (though sometimes the twelve themselves are referred to simply as disciples). In Matthew (10.1-4) Jesus gathers the apostles later in the narrative, immediately before sending them out, whereas in Luke their presence at the great Sermon implies a period of listening and following before they were ready to be sent. (Mark’s chronology is perhaps more similar to Luke’s, in that the apostles are gathered as Jesus’s companions before they are sent: 3.13-19; cf 6.7-13.)

I wonder whether this difference between Luke and Matthew may have implications for whom we understand the target audience to have been. It is often noted that in Matthew there is an ambiguity – was the sermon addressed primarily to the disciples, the specific followers of Jesus (Matthew 5.1), or was it addressed, at least in part, to the crowd in general (Matthew 7.28-29)? In Luke, the ambiguity is extended: the audience might be understood primarily to be the newly chosen apostles (Luke 6.13-17), the wider group of disciples (Luke 6.20), or the people at large (Luke 7.1).

Perhaps this is all related to the different setting that is reported in Luke. Whereas Matthew has Jesus delivering the sermon from a hill, Luke says that Jesus came down from the mountain and spoke on a plain. Is there something here about the leveling out of any differences in status between different kinds of hearers of the gospel?

I think this might fit with the fact that Luke has Jesus indicate that the intended audience of the sermon (and implicitly for the gospel generally) is comprised of anyone who will listen. Luke’s version of the sermon-proper (following the Woes) starts with Jesus saying, “But to you who are listening I say . . .” (6.27, REB). Matthew’s version has no equivalent saying at this point. As we have seen, in Luke Jesus has called the disciples / apostles (Luke 5.13), without yet any mention of sending them. Now he speaks to apostles, disciples, and crowd in general, on equal terms – on the level. One’s relation to Jesus is determined, in other words, not by one’s status (social, economic, religious, or spiritual) but by one’s willingness to listen to the Word.

The original condition of the early church was of a minority community sent to spread the message of the gospel throughout the world. Later, from the fourth century onwards, the church became, at least in Europe, a majority community that did not have to try too hard to make itself heard. In the last 50 years or so this situation has changed rapidly. The Christian community has become a minority, one that can no longer assume its right to be taken any more seriously than other minority interest group. This change is sometimes referred to as a transition from ‘Christendom’ to ‘post-Christendom’.

Those who recognize the momentousness of this situation often advocate a shift in ethos of the church from ‘maintenance’ to ‘mission’ (and mission, of course, means ‘sending’). They are, I think, entirely right in this. The church will not survive if it continues to rely on the general sympathy of the culture in which it is embedded to continue to supply it with members. But if that mission is to be true to the gospel, the post-Christendom church needs to remember that the gospel begins with listening. Only gospel-hearing disciples can become gospel-speaking apostles.

And the church can’t assume that it did all the necessary ‘listening’ in its pre-Christendom and Christendom days. The post-Christendom church needs to return to the task of listening.

“To you who are listening I say . . .”

New Wine: Luke 4.38-6.11

So far each of these reflections has focussed on fairly short passages from Chapters 3 and 4 of Luke’s gospel. We’re going to change pace now and look at a sequence of passages from the end of Chapter 4 through the beginning of Chapter 6. This isn’t because I’m getting bored of writing the reflections and feel a need to crack on, but rather because I think the overall meaning of this sequence may be understood best by seeing it as a whole.

Let’s get an overview, then, of the passages in question. They begin with the statement that, “Jesus left the synagogue.” This is a signal that what follows is going to be concerned with the world beyond the synagogue (though not beyond the context of Jesus’ relation to his faith as a devout Jew). When Jesus leaves the synagogue the first thing he does is heal Simon’s mother-in-law in her own home. Luke’s narrative thus moves from the synagogue to the world, and from the abstract and general (as we saw in Jesus’ sweeping Nazareth manifesto in Luke 4.14-21) to the contingent and particular (and there is surely nothing as contingent and particular as a mother-in-law!).

After healing Simon’s mother-in-law he heals many people of diseases “of one kind or another” by laying hands on them “one by one” (the importance of the particular again), and announces his intention to bring the good news to other towns of Judaea (a further outward movement). Having spoken to the crowds from Simon’s boat he encourages the fishermen to “put out into deep water” and then to work with him to cast their (metaphorical) nets outwards.

Next, Jesus heals a man with a skin disease and, perhaps surprisingly in view of the momentum of the narrative from inside to outside the religious structures of Judaism, he instructs the man to show himself to the priest and make the appropriate offering to certify the cure. He then heals a paralysed man who has been lowered through the roof, first declaring his sins forgiven and, in the face of criticism from the scribes and Pharisees, defends his right to do so. This is followed by the calling of Levi, the tax collector, following which Jesus faces criticism for eating with tax collectors and sinners. We then have what I take to be the key to the whole sequence, the passage in which he points out that one does not put new wine into old skins, because the wine will burst the skins and both the skins and the wine will be lost.

There follow two stories relating to incidents occurring on sabbath days. In the first, he defends the disciples for plucking ears of corn on the sabbath, citing an Old Testament precedent and asserting that, “the Son of Man is Master of the sabbath.” Finally, balancing the statement with which we started (when he left the synagogue), we read that Jesus “entered the synagogue” and was teaching. There he dares to heal a man with a withered arm, in spite of it being the sabbath, and asks the scribes and the Pharisees whether it is permitted to good or evil on the sabbath, to “save life or to destroy it?”. However, they were “filled with fury” or, as the REB translates it, “they totally failed to understand,” and began discussing what they could do with him (Luke 6.11).

There is much that could be said about the details of these passages, but can we see anything in the sequence as a whole? I suggest that we can, and that it fits with the sense I have been pointing to in Chapters 3-5 overall, namely that they constitute an introductory preface to the body of the Gospel. (The prefatory nature of these passages is, as I suggested earlier, somewhat obscured by the fact that Luke has subsequently added some ‘prequel’ stories, making up Chapters 1-2).

In the passages in question in the present reflection, Luke fleshes out the introductory material with these various stories of Jesus’ initial ministry. I want to suggest that in doing so, Luke has taken care that the themes that run through these stories give important pointers to the nature of the Gospel as a whole. The Gospel is good news, and Luke’s emphasis here is that the Good News is new! Moreover, I think the key point that holds these passages together is that the new is related to the old in a particular way.
First, the Good News is outward looking. Jesus leaves the synagogue and enters an ordinary home; and he then leaves Nazareth and Capernaum to head for other towns, places beyond his home territory. In Luke’s sequel, Acts, this outward movement will be taken beyond Judaism to the gentile world. The Good News is news that is heading out. This outward movement is qualified, however, by being described in terms of a to-and-fro dynamic. The man healed of a skin disease is sent back to present himself to the priest. Jesus himself ends up, in the last passage of the sequence, returning to a synagogue to teach. No sense here, then, that Jesus has done with Judaism. Rather, he wants to re-shape and renew the Judaism of his day, and this involves a two-step dance: one step (or perhaps two steps) outwards and another one back inwards.

Second, there is no sense, contrary to the convictions of much Christian piety, that Jesus is about criticizing outward religiosity in favour of inward purity. He does not criticize observance of the sabbath as such, but he does criticize misuse of sabbath observance. The criterion he suggests for judging the appropriateness of religious observance is not whether it is private or public, whether it concerns intentions or actions, faith or works, but whether it is life-giving (does it save life or destroy it?).

Jesus’ explanation of his own relation to the sabbath is the second time in Luke’s gospel that he uses the term ‘son of man’ (the first being Jesus’ justification of his authority to forgive the paralysed man his sins). It is notable, then, that he calls himself ‘lord of the sabbath’, not on the grounds that he is the ‘Son of God’ but because (to use an alternative translation of ‘son of man’) he is ‘the human one’. The implied meaning is more explicit in Mark’s version of the story of the disciples in the cornfield, in which Jesus says, “the sabbath was made for man [humankind], and not man [humankind] for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2: 27-28).

In other words, the sabbath has a purpose, but when its use becomes life-destroying rather than life-giving then someone is misusing it (in the name of religion) for the purpose of social control. In fact, as a general rule, when Jesus is criticizing the Judaism of his day it is arguable that his target is not, as much Christian thinking would have it, a difference between a religion based on works and a religion based on ‘faith’. Rather, Jesus is pointing to corruptions of Jewish thought that make religious activities (observances, works) into boundary markers (who’s in and who’s out) rather than sources of life. Hence his criterion  for appropriate application of the law in terms of whether it is being used to save life or destroy it.

What can we, the Church, learn from this sequence of passages? I suggested above that the theme that runs through them is the relation of the new to the old.  I also suggested that the key to the sequence is the saying about new wine not being put into old skins. If Jesus had wanted to make a simple point about the need for the old to give way to the new he would surely have chosen a different metaphor, for wine making assuredly depends on a great deal of respect for and understanding of a certain kind of tradition. His point is not that the new is good and the old bad. Luke 5.39 makes this explicit, even if this verse may not derive directly from Jesus’ own words (it is not included in either Mark’s or Matthew’s versions of the saying).

Rather, the analogy is about a certain kind of dynamic. It is a dynamic in which the tradition itself generates newness. It is not that this newness should be unconstrained – it needs to be contained or shaped (the metaphorical point of the skins). But the tradition is playing the wrong kind of role if it tries to shape the new by applying the wrong kind of (perhaps outdated) constraint. If that happens, what is good about the new will be spoiled, and the tradition will itself be destroyed because of misunderstanding its own role as tradition. The new wine will burst the skins and both wine and skins will be lost.

At the present crucial juncture in the history of Christianity we must ask ourselves, as the church, whether Luke’s words in 6.11 may apply to us as much as they did to the scribes and the Pharisees: “they totally failed to understand.”

Thrown into their midst: Luke 4.31-37

As we saw in the previous reflection, the account of the reception of Jesus’ Nazareth manifesto is concerned with listening. That is, it is concerned with what happens when we are confronted by something unexpected, unwelcome, but true. For the hearers of the manifesto, at least once they recognised its full implications, the message was unexpected, unwelcome, and therefore, they hoped, false. If we are honest, that’s surely the case with much of our listening. We want to listen to “gracious” words (Luke 4. 22) which strengthen our existing position. We are likely to meet anything that challenges our ingrained habits of thought and action with hostility, or maybe just ignore it. In this respect, those gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth proved not to be good listeners.

The next scene in Luke’s gospel is set in another synagogue, this time Capernaum. In contrast with the Nazarene hearers of the Word, the evil spirit who possessed the man in the synagogue at Capernaum proved to be an excellent listener! According to Luke, then, it was the forces of evil, not the forces of good, who first properly heard, understood, and responded to the Gospel. The evil spirit recognised Jesus for who he was: “I know who you are, the Holy One of God.”

It is significant, I suspect, that when the evil spirit hears and responds to the Word it “throws” the man, though it does not harm him. This speaks to me of the reality of evil. Evil doesn’t simply melt away when confronted by the Word. In physics, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. By analogy, if we allow our hearing of the truth of the Word really to do its work in us then the difference it makes will affect our whole being, and there will be consequences in the world. If evil is to be ‘silenced’ (note the contrast with the Word, which is to be heard), then we will be ‘thrown’ and the world will be changed.

Drilling down into these verses a bit deeper, two words stand out to me. The first is central to the explanation that the people of Capernaum give themselves for the effectiveness of the Word. When he was teaching on the Sabbath, Luke tells us that, “they were astonished at his teaching because he spoke with authority”. A few verses later, after the incident in the synagogue, we read that they said to each other “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and they come out.”

The English word ‘authority’, which derives from a Latin word, rather misses the strength of the Greek word that it translates here. The Greek is exousia (pronounced ex-ooze-ee-ya), which means a delegated right or unhindered power to do something. It differs in meaning from the word translated as power (dunamis, as in dynamite, dynamism) which means something more like ‘force’. Dunamis can be any kind of force, as long as it has some kind of effectiveness. Exousia carries the additional connotation of a power exercised by moral right, especially a right derived from a divine, or at least royal, source.

If we split the word exousia into its constituent parts, we have ex, which means ‘from’, and ousia, which means ‘being’. As far as I can tell, experts on New Testament Greek are reticent or downright critical of suggestions that exousia might be read as anything like ‘from-being’ or ‘from-what-is’, but I can’t help thinking that that’s a useful way of thinking about what it means.

The prologue to John’s Gospel says that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1.1). The Nicene Creed says that the Son is of “one being” with the Father, and the Greek word for one being in the creed is homoousion: homo (= same), ousion (= being). Part of the argument of those who fought against the Nicene creed in the fourth century was that homoousion is not a biblical word; it does not occur in Scripture. I would want to say, though, that the homoousion concept is nevertheless implied in the New Testament. The reason John is able to affirm that, “the Word was with God and the Word was God” is that the effects of the Word in the world are such that it makes sense to say that the Word is spoken ‘from the being of’ (exousia) the Father.

The point is underscored by the fact that the original Greek of the phrases in question in our Luke passage link the same word that John uses (Logos = Word) with exousia. So we hear from Luke that, “They were amazed at the teaching of him, because with authority (exousia) was the word (logos) of him” (Luke 4: 32). Furthermore, where Mark’s (earlier) version of the same story refers to Jesus’ “teaching” (didache; Mark 1.27), Luke changes didache to logos.  So Luke ‘s version continues, “What is this word (logos) for with authority (exousia) and power he commands the unclean spirits” (Luke 4: 36). By changing ‘teaching’ to ‘word’, Luke perhaps wished to emphasize that we should listen to the Word because, as John’s prologue states more explicitly, it comes from the very being of the Father.

The second thing that strikes me in these verses is the fact that when the evil spirit leaves the man it throws him into their ‘midst’. I admit that before I looked at this carefully, I had always read this simply as the spirit throwing the man down. Indeed, the NRSV and other translations give, “When the demon had thrown him [the man] down before them.” But in the Greek, as far as I can tell, the word used for ‘thrown’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘thrown down’. The more important word, now I look at it again, is meson, meaning ‘midst’. The demon threw the man into the midst of them, among them. (Again, Luke has altered Mark’s version of the story to convey his particular perspective: Mark says that the man was ‘convulsed’ or ‘thrown into convulsions’, but doesn’t mention him being thrown into their midst.)

Remember that this incident occurred in the synagogue, and the evil spirit that Jesus exorcises (the word comes from exousia, by the way) was a talkative little devil. We can imagine that the man was perhaps known for the disruption that his uncontrolled utterances would have caused to the synagogue meetings, and perhaps the strategies that might have been adopted to keep him away from the centre of things. But now the effect of the Word being heard and listened to is that the unexpected happens. Someone who is known as a nuisance and a liability is thrown into the middle of things, and his restored self becomes the very sign that God’s Word is at work.

Note, also, that the authority of the Word, the utterance from God’s own being, does not work on its hearers in a private, individual way. The first full recognition of the significance of the Word in Luke’s gospel, which occurs in this account of the man with the evil spirit, occurs when the healed man is thrown into the “midst” of them. This is a collective event, a matter for the whole community, not a spiritual insight that is granted privately to individuals one by one.

There is surely a deliberate contrast between the episodes in the two synagogues. In the previous passage, where the one whose words were initially thought to be amazing and gracious ends up being thrown out of the synagogue at Nazareth, and indeed thrown out of town and almost over the cliff. In the present passage, set in Capernaum, a distinctly unprepossessing man is thrown into the centre of things. The difference is in the hearing of the Word. The one circumstance arises from a failure to respond properly to the Word, which amounts to a misinterpretation of it. The second circumstance arises from a fully appropriate understanding and response to the Word, albeit by an unclean spirit.  The first response leaves the community (the Nazareth synagogue) where it was, namely stuck; the second potentially brings new life to the community, though in an unexpected way.

Let us hope it is not true: Luke 4.22-30

My favorite response to Darwin’s theory of evolution is that of a Victorian lady, the wife of an Anglican bishop, who wrote to a friend: “My dear, let us hope that it is not true. But if it is, then let us hope it does not become widely known.”

Jesus’ listeners in the synagogue at Nazareth were initially delighted with what they heard: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But something seems to have happened which made them realise that what Jesus was saying had unwelcome implications. They began to hope that his message was not true or if it was, that it would not become widely known. To the latter end, they took him to the top of the hill on which the town was built with the intention of throwing him over a cliff. However, he slipped untouched through the crowd and “went on his way.”

It isn’t immediately clear from Luke’s account what led the people to realise that Jesus’ words constituted an unwelcome challenge to, rather than a comfortable reinforcement of, their existing views. The articulation of their growing hostility to him comes as something of a non-sequitur after their initial approval. “Physician, heal thyself”, they taunt him, which is followed by the somewhat tenuously related aphorism that a prophet is never recognised in their own town. The source of the people’s hostility becomes implicitly clear, though, when Jesus defends applying the Isaiah passage (see previous reflection) to those outside the immediate religious community to whom he was speaking.

Somewhere between his listener’s acceptance and their subsequent rejection of his message we must suppose that it had become apparent that Jesus’ manifesto to “bring good news to the poor , etc.” was intended to apply to outsiders as well as insiders.
For Luke, even more than any of the other gospel writers, the Good News is for all the world. The whole narrative trajectory of Luke-Acts is that of God’s message being taken out from its place of origin and extended far and wide. Acts finishes with Paul’s proclamation of the Word in Rome, the capital of the Roman empire and symbolically the centre of the known world. I suspect, therefore, that Luke’s account of the reception of Jesus’ declaration of intent in Nazareth is not intended as a purely historical report, but as a summary of both Jesus’ original intentions and, implicitly, of their ultimate scope.

From a narrative point of view, Luke allows the sudden hostility to the manifesto to appear rather abruptly and out of the blue because he wants to emphasise that opposition to Jesus’ message arose (later) as hostility to the inclusiveness of the good news. Luke would have especially had in mind the reservations held by sections of the early church (which was initially a Jewish sect) to the preaching of the Gospel to the gentiles. Some of the earliest hearers of the Word, then, like the Victorian lady who was shocked to hear that humans are descended from apes, found what they were hearing to be in conflict with what they held to be indisputable presuppositions. When the good, respectable members of the synagogue eventually understood the Word they evidently did not like what they heard. They drove Jesus out of the town and led him to the top of the hill, presumably pushing and jostling him against his will, until they were on the brink of throwing him over the cliff. They hoped what they had heard was not true or, if it was, they hoped it would not become widely known.

The lesson for subsequent hearers of the Word, including us, is not just that it was right that the gospel be preached to the gentiles. More generally, it is that we are often not good at hearing the truth. The particular aspect of the truth that we ourselves would like to throw over a cliff may be different for different times and different people. If we find ourselves in a crowd (literal or virtual) who are collectively certain that a certain idea or approach ought to be chucked over a cliff, we should perhaps be especially alert to possibility of an unwelcome truth in our midst. This kind of discernment is not easy. Perhaps the crowd is right! I imagine a lot of raised voices and heated debates as the mob ascends towards the location of the planned lynching. If we had been in that mob, what would we have been saying and doing?

Of course, what makes the Victorian lady’s comment so comical is the idea that something of as far-reaching importance as evolutionary theory, if true, might not become known. The scene that unfolds after the synagogue service perhaps contains elements of both the here-and-now struggle for truth over the forces of darkness, and of the ultimate eschatological victory of that truth, the truth of the Word. That Jesus, the incarnate Word, so easily slips through the crowd at the last moment and goes on his way has a whiff of the eschatological inevitability of the ultimate victory of the truth, as opposed to the messy, jostling reality of the struggle with the evil forces in the world that we are called to engage in.

‘Ultimate’ is the operative word here because, in the created world of time, space and finite creatures, the Word can be obstructed. Jesus slipped through the crowd on this occasion, but the nature of the Word is such that its medium-term fate in the world is the Cross. God’s non-violent love is not completely victorious in a simple historical sense. From the point of view of ordinary history, love is defeated. At the moment of Jesus’ death the forces of evil have reason to think that the Word is not true or, if it is, that it will not become widely known. It is the resurrection and ascension, which are both in time and in a sense beyond time, that signals that God underwrites the truth of love, and that this truth will be ultimately, eschatologically, vindicated.

That is the significance, I think, of Jesus slipping unharmed through the crowd when there were surely enough people there to ensure that he went over the cliff, never to be heard of again. The powers that be may have good reason to hope that the Gospel is not true. But something as far-reachingly important as the good news of God’s love for the world, and especially of the poor, the oppressed and the outsider, is not, if true, going to be so easily wished away into oblivion.