Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Radical Vision of St. Luke

“Whereas Providence…has…adorned our lives with the highest good: Augustus….and has in her beneficence granted us and those who will come after us [a Savior] who has made war to cease and who shall put everything in [peaceful] order…with the result that the birthday of our God signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him…herefore the Greeks in Asia Decreed that the New Year begin for all the cities on September 23…and the first month shall…be observed as the Month of Caesar, beginning with 23 September, the birthday of Caesar.”

-Decree of calendrical change on marble steles in the Asian temples of Rome and Augustus, quoted in John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, HarperSanFrancisco, 1991

October 18 is the feast day of St. Luke the Evangelist. Eusebius, in his fourth-century Ecclesiastical History, writes, “Luke, who was born in Antioch, and was by profession a physician, being for the most part connected with Paul and familiarly acquainted with the rest of the apostles, left us in the two inspired books the institutes of that spiritual healing art which he obtained from them. One of these was his gospel in which he testified that he recorded ‘as those who were from the beginning eyewitnesses, and ministers of the word,’ delivered to him, whom also, he said, and he had in all things followed. The other was his Acts of the Apostles, which he composed, not from what he had heard from others but what he had seen himself.”

Eusebius, writing at a time when Christianity had become Rome’s official religion, does not hint at the radical vision of Luke’s writings—a direct challenge to the mightiest empire the world had seen. The calendrical decree, which would have been familiar to anyone in the ancient Near East, bears a striking resemblance to a familiar passage in Luke, announcing the birth of a different kind of Savior: “But the angel said to [the shepherds], ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord (Luke 2:10-11, NRSV). While Matthew draws parallels with the story of Moses in his infancy narrative, Luke is purposely declaring that his Savior is greater than the "god" Augustus.

Luke's Christmas story, beautiful as it is, is not literally true. There was a census when Quirinius was governor of Syria, but it took place several years after Jesus's birth--that is, assuming Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. But Luke isn't writing history as we know it today. He shows Jesus as the child of a poor family. Dominic Crossan points out that in the first century, artisans like Joseph were people who had lost their land, and thus were lower in status than the land-owning peasantry. Mary and Joseph can't find anyplace to stay in Bethlehem, so Jesus is born in a stable and laid in a feeding trough. And the angels don't proclaim the good news to kings or princes, but to shepherds.

The adult Jesus is a radical defender of the poorest. Take the Sermon on the Plain. Unlike Matthew's Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, Luke's Jesus does not add the ressuring "in spirit" to :

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom
of God.

(Luke 17:20)

While it's hard if not impossible to live the kind of life Jesus preaches in the Sermon on the Plain, Luke's Jesus is forgiving to sinners who admit they are sinners--the classic example being the unnamed woman from the city, who is most likely a prostitute. (Even the Catholic Church has admitted that this woman was not Mary Magdalene.) He even promises the man (probably a Jewish rebel) crucified next to him that he would be with him in paradise.

In Acts, we have a Christian community which is, in fact, a socialist commune. We see the conflicts in that community between the Aramaic speakers and the Greek speakers and the ordination of the first deacons. The deacon Stephen, after giving a fiery oration against the Jewish hierarchy, becomes the first Christian martyr.

We meet Saul of Tarsus, who may have participated in the stoning of Stephen. He hears the voice of Jesus after being struck blind on the road to Damascus and becomes Paul, apostle to the Gentiles. Luke tells the story of the division between the Jerusalem Christians, who continue to worship at the Temple, and Paul's followers, who are both Jewish and Gentile. And when Paul begins his journeys, Luke switches to a first-person plural narative, and gives us some of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament.

Christianity has been an established or pseudo-established religion for so long that its radical challenge to the status quo is hard to imagine. Kierkegaard famously said that "when all are Christians, ipso facto, none are." But in the first century, its message was revolutionary. If we take Luke seriously, it still is.


Charles Gramlich said...

Well, all are not Christians. I was raised Catholic myself but have struggled with my religious beliefs in recent years. As many have, I suppose.

steve said...

Charles--I was actually raised agnostic and converted to Anglicanism as an adult. I've also struggled with my beliefs. I don't have the solid faith of my wife or my children. And I certainly don't believe non-Christians are condemned to hell (nor do they).

I think Kierkegaard was looking at Denmark and countries where there Christianity was an established religion when he made that statement.

Stacey said...

As a member of St. Luke's Episcopal church in Philadelphia- I appreciate the tribute!

Sustenance Scout said...

Fascinating insights, Steve. Thanks! K.