Luke’s Gospel: The Radical Challenge of Jesus Christ
As I mentioned in treating Matthew and Mark, it is difficult to say something truly original in a commentary on the Gospels. Consequently, I have tried simply to highlight an overall theme for each one: For Matthew, Jesus as the Messiah; for Mark, Christ as Son of God; and now, for Luke, the radical challenge Jesus Christ presented, and continues to present to all of us. A significant goal of Luke’s account is to use a continuing series of comparisons and contrasts to impress upon his readers just how different Christ and His message are, in comparison to all that we have formerly considered significant in our lives.
To illustrate the constantly rising crescendo of this challenge, I have divided my essay under six subheads.
1. The comparison with John the Baptist
Luke famously (and delightfully) opens his Gospel with a close account of the births of both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ, an account shaped by a direct comparison. John’s birth is foretold and celebrated with what we might call minor local miracles, but it is clearly a human conception. But John himself testifies to Mary’s child while still in the womb, and when John’s father, Zechariah, offers a prophetic utterance, it is a witness to the Christ. Moreover, while the angel Gabriel is the messenger in both instances, he tells Mary that she will conceive a savior by the Holy Spirit—and the universality of this conception and birth is stressed in the action of persons and events far beyond the local community: angels; shepherds; the Roman census which takes Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem; the child’s Davidic heritage; and Simeon’s proclamation of Christ as savior, as light to the Gentiles, as a sign of contradiction. Shortly after we find the boy Jesus already a master of the Old Law, discoursing with the elders in the Temple at the age of 12.
The comparison and contrast continues as John and Jesus begin their missions. John’s message of repentance is powerful, but he makes it clear that it is nothing but a preparation for Jesus. In fact, when people begin to think John might be the Christ—the anointed one of God—the Baptist immediately points to Jesus (3:15-17). Indeed, not long after baptizing Jesus, on the occasion when Our Lord is identified as the beloved Son of God, John is imprisoned, bringing his own ministry to an end. But Jesus immediately comes into his own. He undergoes the preparation of prayer, fasting, and temptation by the Devil, and then in Nazareth he reads the words Isaiah spoke about him in the synagogue, quickly posing a problem to his listeners that prompts either acceptance or rejection of his special claims. Undaunted by the anger he provokes, Jesus begins immediately to cast out demons (4:31ff) and heal the sick (4:38ff).
2. Christ’s mission
With these initial comparisons behind him, Luke shifts in chapter 5 to the introduction of Our Lord’s mission. Preaching from Peter’s boat, Jesus tells his first followers he will make them fishers of men. He cleanses a leper and heals a paralytic largely to demonstrate his power to forgive sins. Discussing the question of fasting, he uses an analogy in which he casts himself as the bridegroom, and stresses that new wine must be put into new skins. Then, in chapter 6, Our Lord begins to teach with authority: The Son of man is Lord of the Sabbath, and he infuriates the Pharisees by healing on that day. He chooses his disciples and begins a new “movement”, teaching and healing: “And the crowd sought to touch him, for power came forth from him and healed them all” (6:19).
One way Luke illustrates the unique challenge of Christ’s authority is to recount not only his blessings (as in the Beatitudes given by other evangelists) but his woes: “But woe to you that are rich…that are full now…that laugh now…when men speak well of you, for so their fathers did to the false prophets” (6:24-26). In contrast, Christ’s message is utterly beyond human expectations: “But I say to you that hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (6:27-28). He talks about trees and their fruit, hearers and doers of the word, understanding the human heart, making great demands.
Finally as we move through chapters 7 and 8, we have remarkable manifestations of Divine power, including the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, the calming of a storm at sea, the Gerasene demoniac, and the raising of Jairus’ daughter when all knew that she was dead. We also find the followers of John the Baptist inquiring whether Jesus is the One, but Jesus says simply that they should report what they see—and what they see fulfills a prophecy. He also manifests his Divine insight in the parable of the sower (and of the soil) and his teachings on true kindred. He insists on the priority of spiritual ties over natural ones, and demands that a lamp must not be hidden.
3. Intensification of the message
Just when the reader thinks St. Luke has reached a kind of climax at the end of chapter 8, the evangelist accelerates and intensifies the point he is making, ratcheting up our awareness of who Christ is and what he is demanding. In chapters 9, 10 and 11, we learn of the mission of the Twelve, confirmed by the feeding of 5,000 and Peter’s confession of Faith. Immediately, then, Our Lord begins to challenge their faith still more, allowing those who want to leave him to depart, and insisting that he himself must be rejected, killed…and raised from the dead—which, of course, they all find incomprehensible.
Yet he makes the sublimity of his teaching ever more apparent—his doctrine of the cross, his emphasis that the soul is more important than the whole world, his insistence that they must not be ashamed of him, and his astonishing demonstration of who he is at the Transfiguration. He teaches that the least are the greatest, and that the one who receives others receives him. In chapter 10, he sends out the seventy to proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near” (10:11) and they find that even the demons obey them. He uses a lawyer to teach about love of neighbor, and uses Martha and Mary to set our priorities on God. He insists on repentance, and pronounces woe for unrepentant cities. All things, he says, have been delivered to him by his Father, but the realities of the kingdom of God are understood only by those who can become little.
In chapter 11, Luke ratchets things up again. Christ teaches them not only to pray but to persevere in prayer, and to both expect and place the highest value on good gifts—that is, the Holy Spirit himself—from a good Father. And so he is accused of acting by the power of Beelzebul. Undeterred, for he insists that true blessedness is hearing and keeping God’s will. Moreover, he insists point blank that in former ages people repented because of Jonah, but there is something greater than Jonah here. Again and again Christ demonstrates a Divine understanding, and condemns the Pharisees and lawyers for their lack of it, their pride and their lust for gain. All of this is, as I have said, a serious intensification of his message. Because it is understood in exactly this way, the opposition to him hardens and becomes murderous.
In chapters 12 through 18, Luke unceasingly demonstrates just how radical Christ and his gospel are. He portrays Our Lord as essentially goading all who listen into making a decision for or against him as the voice of God. There can be no dumbing down, no explaining away. The kingdom of God is new and entirely different from mere human goods. There can be no hypocrisy; we must trust God totally, fear only him, and avoid blaspheming against the Holy Spirit by calling good evil. We live under a judgment (e.g., the rich fool), but we must not be anxious. Rather, we must trust God unreservedly, remaining watchful and awake. He insists that he wants to be a cause of division: “I came to cast fire upon the earth; and would that it were already kindled!” (12:49-50). As a result even families will be divided for and against him (12:51-53).
In chapter 13, the message is exceedingly stark: Repent or perish. Our Lord drives this home by insisting that the Galileans who had their blood mixed with Pilate’s sacrifices were by no means the worst of sinners. Rather, he warns that salvation comes through a narrow door, and he laments over the faithlessness of Jerusalem. In chapter 14, he insists that those who reject the invitation of the one who gives the banquet will “never taste my banquet”, teaching that his disciples must hate father and mother for his sake, and that they must take up their cross, being sure to count the cost before they commit. In chapters 15 and 16, he introduces his great parables to stress the importance of his mission to those the world regards as lost—the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, the prodigal son and his brother.
He also praises the cleverness of the dishonest steward in order to teach a lesson: “Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations” (16:9). In other words, we must use our wealth in ways that please God, not ourselves. For we cannot serve two masters, a point driven home by the story of the rich man and Lazarus. He utterly condemns every form of worldliness: “You are those who justify yourselves before man, but God knows your hearts; for what is exalted among men is an abomination in the sight of God” (16:14-15). Here I should remind readers that he is not speaking only to those of his own time! We too witness this radical challenge.
And I could go on and on: We learn the wildness of the millstone, unworthy servants, forgiveness, and faith the size of a mustard seed in chapter 17. We see Our Lord’s disgust that only one of ten lepers returning to thank him for his cure, and find that we are all lepers. We are told the importance of not following false prophets when the Kingdom of God is in our midst, and discover that when the end comes only one of two seemingly identical people will be saved (because God, unlike the world, does not judge by external similarities). In chapter 18, an unrepentant Pharisee is contrasted unfavorably with a repentant tax collector; Our Lord blesses children for their simplicity and undivided hearts; the rich young ruler goes away sad because he has many possessions; and the disciples—wondering what they will get for their fidelity—prompt Christ to mention the sacrifice of house, wife, brother, parents and children for the Kingdom of God.
All of this is radical. All of this turns our world, our judgments, and our expectations on their collective heads. All of this invites either total commitment or total rejection. Accordingly, Jesus continues to insist that he must suffer, predicting his own death, and speaking of a resurrection which his hearers cannot yet understand. But notice this: At just this time, he also heals a blind beggar—whom we must take to be an image of ourselves.
5. Total authority
Having progressively demonstrated the sheer demanding newness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, Luke next portrays Our Lord’s dramatic assumption of total authority, in the next three chapters. In chapter 19, he gives what appears to be the authoritarian parable of the ten “pounds” or “talents” (to him who has much, more will be given; to him who has little, even the little he has will be taken away). He also warns that a king will slay those who reject his rule—and next we see his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, where he is acclaimed as king (19:38). He weeps over Jerusalem, the symbol of the city of God, because it would not to take refuge in him. He cleanses the temple in order to purify his Father’s house.
In chapter 20, Luke tells of those who question Jesus’ authority. In response, Jesus tells the parable of the wicked tenants, who killed the heir, and cites Psalm 118 to the effect that the stone that was rejected will become the cornerstone. Moreover, two very difficult questions are put to him—one about taxation and one about resurrection from the dead, questions deliberately designed to trip him up—and he answers at once with an insight so remarkable that it must come from God. In turn he himself asks a question about the relationship between David and the Messiah, a question which reduces the religious scholars to silence while they still refuse to recognize that the one who asks is the answer. Finally, in chapter 21 he says things only God can know, commenting on the “widow’s mite”, on the destruction of the temple, and even on the destruction of Jerusalem itself, which will be “trodden down by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (21:24).
And he offers a consolation which only God can guarantee: “But not a hair of or your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (21:19). Yes, and there is this: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (21:33). We see and hear Our Lord—and we must decide.
The rest is human outcome, the rest is history. As with the other gospels, Luke’s ends with the central act of redemption, Christ’s betrayal, suffering, death and resurrection. Our Lord’s celebration of the Passover is of course the institution of the great sacrament of his body and blood, given up for us. He sadly foretells Peter’s denial, which comes quickly enough to astonish even Peter’s himself. Before the Sanhedrin, Jesus proclaims: “But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (22:69).
When he is brought before Herod and Pilate only to be mocked and sentenced to death, this Son of Man says nothing in his defense. On his way to Golgotha he tells the women who seek to comfort him that things will get worse before they get better: In the future, many will say: “ Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed” (23:29). And yet to the repentant thief, crucified at his side, he promises: “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43). There follows, in other words, the death and burial, but also the resurrection.
In the final chapter we find angels attesting to his rising as they had attested to his conception and birth. On the road to Emmaus, the Risen One reveals himself in the breaking of the bread, and rebukes his disciples for their obtuseness in understanding the Scriptures: “O foolish men, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken” (24:25). And so he later invites them to see his hands and his feet, “for a spirit has not flesh and bones as you see that I have” (24:39), and in his love “he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (24:45), so that they would understand the central drama of human history at last:
That the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high. [24:46-49]
Luke’s point is clear. His gospel has swept through the life of Christ like a rising wave, recounting claims and demands that stretch us to the breaking point. It is no wonder that, as Our Lord was lifted up to heaven, Luke states categorically that “they worshipped him” (24:51-52). So must we, “with great joy” (52) and “blessing God” (53), trusting always in that Holy Spirit of God whom Christ called “the promise of my Father”—and recognizing our Lord and Savior, whole and entire and fully alive, in the breaking of the bread.
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