I’ve been waiting for you, Luke. I’m sure you can help us fix things.
Ever since the day after the 2016 election here in the USA, I’ve been looking to the Synoptic Gospels for guidance. I’ve been hoping that through the lectionary’s rotation they would give me fresh lenses for interpreting our current circumstances and discovering what preachers might say to preach good news in this divided and dismal cultural environment.
As someone who teaches seminarians and assists preachers, I feel a responsibility for America right now. I’m alarmed by statistics about how white Protestants vote. I’ve had former students ask me for advice on preaching to congregations that simply won’t listen if a sermon mentions aiding refugees, curbing gun violence, trusting voices of the #MeToo movement, and pursuing racial reconciliation. A regional leader in a mainline denomination scolded me when I asked what resources they could offer pastors who needed help countering the appeal of white-supremacist ideologies in those pastors’ communities; I was told that pastors need to preach the gospel and not worry themselves with people’s political views.
If the Gospels can’t help us call out this madness and make it clear that followers of Jesus will stand for justice and human dignity, then we fed-up preachers should probably pack it in.
So, through two years I’ve been eager to get to Year C and welcome Luke again. Surely this Gospel is our best chance for giving the church a shot in the arm and equipping believers to testify effectively in the public square. After all, Luke is the Gospel of liberation. Jesus’ ministry in Luke is, according to G. B. Caird, “nothing less than the restoration of men and women to their proper dignity as children of God.”1 Luke describes a Jesus who reaches out to forgotten people and ushers his followers into a new way of living, right?
Well, yes and no.
Yes, Luke promises a whole new world in which “the dawn from on high will break upon” the people of Israel and by extension all of us (1:78). But when the Gospel and Acts have ended, despots still hold power and Jesus’ followers are still trying to live into what it means to act justly with one another and their neighbors. Transformation occurs in Luke-Acts, but it comes about in ways that appear less earth-shattering than what Mary envisions in her effusive praise in 1:46-55.2
The rhetoric of cosmic transformation and massive social upheaval in Luke’s early chapters sounds great to preachers who are tired and overwhelmed. It sounds even better to preachers who don’t want to work for justice themselves or who are unwilling to acknowledge their privilege in the everyday decisions they make. But Luke has other rhetoric, too, and it calls us to participate in a drawn-out, more hands-on transformation project. When we dig deeper into the Gospel, salvation manifests itself through Jesus in local ways, one scene at a time, one meal at a time, one interaction at a time. Preaching effectively in 2019 requires us to pay attention to Luke’s depiction of God’s salvation emerging in Jesus’ ministry. Ponder the implications of these dimensions of Luke as you preach in Year C:
Through scriptural memories, Luke roots salvation in old, longstanding hopes. The infancy narratives (Luke 1-2) underscore God’s ongoing faithfulness.3 Luke’s depiction of Jesus as a prophet reiterates the ancient prophets’ criticisms and amplifies their dreams of justice and renewal. Post-Easter references to the scriptures’ fulfillment suggest that we learn about the Gospel’s vision of peace, security, and belonging by scrutinizing promises made in the Old Testament. Luke refuses to let readers be cynical about trusting in God’s commitment to accomplishing what God has pledged to do. According to Luke, Jesus’ insights are familiar; he reasserts longstanding Jewish wisdom.
Through parables, Luke trains us to see salvation in terms of an inverted world. Parables describe the alien character of the reign of God, and they unmask our hypocrisies. But they also call us to action by equipping us with a different set of values. Don’t let the parables only fuel contemplation; let them spark courage. In January 2017, contemporary Renaissance man Henry Rollins said, concerning the political powerlessness so many Americans feel:
“This is not a time to be dismayed, this is punk rock time. This is what Joe Strummer trained you for.”4
Let me adapt Rollins’s wisdom for this context, hoping that neither he nor Jesus will mind:
“This is not a time to be dismayed, this is parable time. This is what Jesus’ ministry in Luke trained you for.”
In his parables, Jesus teaches us to detect callousness and greed. He knows the tricks that bullies and tyrants employ. He calls out the dangers of passivity and self-protection. Let everyone beware the power of a sermon that lets a parable speak for itself! Preach sermons that refuse to allow a congregation to muzzle the parables with our usual defenses of sappy moralizing or protective self-justification. The parables confront us with a different reality, formed by the good news that God’s reign simply must shatter the assumptions that sustain our status quo.
Through meal scenes, Luke manifests salvation as a reality experienced through new relationships and the creation of community. Not only does Jesus enjoy a good dinner party in Luke, he loves using meals to reorient people’s perspectives on who is included. Whether he is declaring a sinner’s new identity to the shock of others in the room (7:36-50) or proclaiming the restoration of a loathed tax collector’s public honor (19:1-10), Jesus rearranges the conventional social order with a radical dose of -- and dependence on -- hospitality (14:7-14). In Luke, salvation means belonging. You cannot pronounce that other people are “saved” without pronouncing them entirely welcome. Better make room at your table.
Through assurances of both judgment and mercy, Luke emphasizes an urgent need to recognize the arrival of salvation. Luke’s stories of extravagant grace can draw attention away from the jarring threats we encounter, starting with Mary’s and John’s declarations (Luke 1 and 3) and continuing in Jesus’ (11:37-54; 12:35-13:9; 13:31-35; 19:41-44). But those stern passages also include or sit alongside offers of mercy. A fruitless tree receives an additional year of grace and nurture (13:6-9). Jesus longs to shelter Jerusalem’s children like a strong-winged mother hen (13:34). Now is the time to seize God’s mercy and repent -- aligning oneself with the values of God’s reign. Judgment is coming and has already shown its hand in Jesus’ ministry, for God will not allow old cycles of oppression and exploitation to continue forever, not now that the customary social scripts are being rewritten. Their grammar of forgiveness, hospitality, and compassion proves so compelling that it makes even a Samaritan stop to help a wounded Judean.
Through the diversity of its stories, Luke conditions us to expect surprises because salvation breaks into unlikely places. Not all the tax collectors in Luke are exemplary, and not all of them are vile. Not all of the wealthy and powerful characters are scoundrels, and not everyone who receives Jesus’ help is noticeably virtuous. The ones who show concern for others and a willingness to surrender power find themselves praised or included. This Gospel should frustrate anyone who wants it to be a predictable narrative to prop up respectable or cautious religion. It should terrify Christians who will not give up their comforts and advantages.
Like all the Gospels, Luke was written to equip ancient believers with the vision, convictions, and tools they needed to navigate their way in an imperial society -- in a system that was not about to go away on its own. Luke did not urge those believers to overthrow the system, but the Gospel did tell them that they were participants in a seismic, divinely-directed shift toward renewal. Those participants were not spectators, but agents endowed “with power from on high” (24:49). They were empowered to love, sacrifice their prerogatives, and enact the gospel through generous hospitality.
Today’s Christian communities in the USA certainly possess more cultural influence and political power than did Luke’s earliest audiences, and our relationship to imperializing apparatuses is different. We find ourselves more complicit and perhaps less naïve. In any case, the courage, trust, and commitment to solidarity that Luke seeks to instill remain essential elements of a transformative Christian witness right now. Start where you are.
1 The Gospel of Saint Luke (Baltimore: Penguin, 1963), 36; quoted in Greg Carey, Luke: All Flesh Shall See God’s Salvation (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2017), 85.
2 I’ve recently written more extensively about Luke’s big promises of salvation and the intimate settings of Jesus’ ministry here: http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/147/170.
3 I’ve written more extensively about the power of Luke 1-2 here: http://www.enterthebible.org/blog.aspx?m=3783&post=3626.
4 Joe Rogan Experience #906; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruN9DY6Oaw4 (1:39:03). Later in that same interview Rollins said, “You can be thunderous in your own life in being cool to the eight people around you.... You don’t have to change the world. You can just change your street” (1:39:21). That, too, is good advice to Christian preachers who are aching to see the church regain a distinctive and liberative theological reputation in our time.