Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Year of Luke - Talk Two

In Luke's  gospel Jesus' gaze is attracted by the poor and the vulnerable, by those who do not count and those likely to be mocked. Jesus is not, however, a ‘softy’ in Luke's gospel. It is not simply a question of 'gentle Jesus meek and mild' as if he were some effete and pious holy picture. There is a sting in the gospel, there is salt, and there is fire. What Jesus says in Luke 12:49 is proper to this gospel: 'I have come to cast fire on the earth and would that it were already enkindled'. So do not think that he has come to bring peace, he has come rather to bring fire. There is a radical edge to Jesus' teaching as we find it in Luke. Once again this coincides for the most part with what we find in the other gospels but with some distinctive emphases.

Luke tells us that Jesus notices those who do not count in the eyes of others The prodigal son is seen by his father and Zaccheus on his sycamore tree is noticed by Jesus. The poor man lying at his gate was invisible to Dives. The publican cannot even raise his eyes in prayer. But the invisible and overlooked are taken into account by Jesus. 'He has looked on his servant in her lowliness', Mary says in the Magnificat. It is a prayer found only in Luke and a radical statement of the ways in which Jesus has come to subvert the world's way of seeing things: 'he has filled the poor with good things and sent the rich away empty'.


In Luke's gospel Jesus is at his most radical in his teaching about riches and poverty. The simple fact of having riches is an obstacle to understanding the mission of Jesus and being part of the Kingdom of God. Where Matthew's beatitude speaks of 'the poor in spirit' Luke's simply says 'the poor'. And he adds a 'woe to you who are rich' to complement it. Jesus's teaching here is that is not just a question of the attitude we might have towards them or the use we might make of them: riches as such are a danger. For Luke's gospel, the poor are in a safer position than the rich.

There are parables about the danger of wealth that we find only in Luke. One such is the parable of the rich fool who begins to think that his life consists in his possessions, and that what he has defines what he is (Luke 12). Jesus encourages his listeners not to be like this rich fool but instead to be 'rich towards God'. There are parables about relating to the poor and how we ought not to seek places of honour at banquets or the trappings of influence and importance (Luke 14). Luke 16:19-31 tells the parable of Dives and Lazarus and Luke 16:1-13 tells of an astute but dishonest steward.

In spite of his warnings about the dangers of riches, Jesus often uses situations involving money, business, commerce, etc. to teach people about what the kingdom of God is like. At the end of his parable about the astute but dishonest steward Jesus makes this enigmatic statement:

'the master commended the dishonest steward for his shrewdness; for the sons of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own generation than the sons of light. And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations' (16:8-9) ...  'you cannot serve God and mammon' (16:13).

What are we to make of such comments?

'Riches' refers to wealth but also to power and influence, to things like intelligence and counting for something, any of the things which we can 'have' and which by having begin to give us our identity and our meaning. Each of these ways of being rich can prevent us from following Christ. Jesus is tender towards the poor and lowly, and harsh towards the rich and proud (Luke 1:51-53; 6:20-26; 12:13-21; 14:7-11; 16:15, 19-31; 18:9-14). Without being detached, especially from riches, it is impossible to follow him: Luke 5:11, 28; 6:34f; 12:33; 14:12-14; 16:9-13; 18:22, 29.

The only power worth thinking about, Jesus says, the only real power, the Holy Spirit. This is the heavenly treasure, the gift that the Father cannot refuse to those who ask him. In the first three chapters of Luke's gospel we meet representatives of the poor of the Lord, the anawim Yahweh, who have little wealth, power or influence, but who are at the disposal of the Holy Spirit: Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon, Anna, and the shepherds. They are not destitute but people of simplicity and humility who place their trust in God rather than in worldly power or politics or money. They look forward simply to the fulfillment of God's promises and the coming of his kingdom. The powerlessness of women in the society of his time is another reason why so many of them figure so significantly in the gospel of Luke.

In the temptations Jesus refuses the ways of wealth, power and manipulation. He is instead 'filled with the Holy Spirit'. In fact he is not just anointed with the Holy Spirit, he is filled with it. Luke changes the order of the temptations so that the final one takes place in Jerusalem, in the parapet of the Temple. This is in accord with his interest in Jerusalem but also with his teaching that the new Temple, the place of the presence of God and of worship, is Jesus Himself. It leads us to the consider another distinctive concern of Saint Luke, the place and meaning of the Temple in the mission of Jesus.


It is often pointed out that Luke-Acts is centred on Jerusalem. Even more specifically, it is centred on the Temple in Jerusalem, with all that the Temple represents for Israel. The gospel begins in the Temple with the appearance of the angel Gabriel to Zechariah who is there to take his turn offering incense. The gospel ends in the Temple with the disciples, after the Ascension of Christ, praying in the Temple. Key events in the infancy narrative take place in the Temple, not just the annunciation to Zechariah but also the circumcision of Jesus with the prophecy of Simeon as well as the finding of Jesus in the Temple, with the doctors, listening to them and asking them questions.  As Luke recounts them, the temptations of Jesus culminate in the Temple (4:1-13).

So there are many indications of the centrality of the Temple for Luke's account. Luke alone tells us what Moses and Elijah are discussing with Jesus at the Transfiguration, they were speaking together about his passing, his exodus, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem (9:31). When the time comes for him to be 'taken up', Jesus 'set his face towards Jerusalem' (Luke 9:51-53). He is making his way there (13:22), towards the 'narrow door' through which life is to be found, because it would not be right for a prophet to die outside Jerusalem (13:33). He goes to Jerusalem so that everything written by the prophets would come true (18:31). 'Because he was near Jerusalem' he told the parable of the pounds, about a man who was so afraid of his master that he refused to act (19:11). We find him in the Temple teaching just before his passion and death and in Luke's gospel the apocalyptic discourse is set in the Temple (Luke 21).

As in the other gospels, at the moment of Jesus' death the veil of the Temple is torn in two. Jesus becomes the Temple, the place of worship and prayer. The glory of the divine presence is in him and salvation is to be found in him. He has been our teacher in prayer, giving an example and encouragement to the disciples, and his own prayer culminates in the words of the psalm, 'Father, into your hands I commend my spirit'. His ministry ends, as it began, in prayer.

After the resurrection he tells the disciples that they are to preach repentance to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem (24:47) after which they return to Jerusalem, full of joy, and were continually in the Temple praising God (24:52-53). Luke's second work then opens with the announcement by Jesus that his disciples would be his witnesses 'in Jerusalem, in Judaea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).

Already in the infancy narratives we are taught that the presence of God is now to be sought in the body of Jesus, conceived in the womb of Mary. She is the new ark of the covenant, the one in whose midst the Lord is to be found. After his resurrection and ascension, the witness to Jesus is carried into the world by the church, the community on which the Spirit has now descended to make it the body of Christ in history. The religion he founds is about the presence of God in Him, Jesus who is Lord and Saviour, the Word that is read, pondered and taught, dwelling among us. The breaking of bread, the sacrament of the Eucharist, is another way in which he continues to be present. Wherever people gather in prayer he is in the midst of them. He is present particularly in the poor and afflicted who call out to our compassion. He calls all to himself, the new Temple of God, to share in this life of prayer and compassion.

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