Jerome H. Neyrey, S.J.
University of Notre Dame
1st Baptism - C (Luke 3:15-16, 21-22)
According to Luke, John the Baptizer functions as an evangelist because his remarks about Jesus can be considered a form of “preaching the good news” (3:17). This puts him in company with previous figures in the gospel who had the same message. Looking back, we can now see how Luke has described the progress of God’s gospel in the world, first to Mary by Gabriel, then to the shepherds by angels, to Mary and Joseph by Simeon and Anna, and now to the crowds by John, who is both prophet and herald. John’s good news is about the presence at the Jordan river of a peasant artisan from Nazareth, namely, Jesus. Some onlookers who examine John’s powerful preaching and his purification rites think of him as the Messiah, a figure who in Israel’s writings could just as well be a prophet, priest or king according to contemporary literature. No, John does not have that role; he is, however, the herald of the One to Come. His entire career, he tells us, has been to witness to this. John declares that the Coming One is “mightier” than himself, which suggests that he will do mighty deeds requiring God’s power, such as the casting out of demons. Moreover, as noble as John is in terms of status and role, the Coming One is infinitely superior, so much so that John is unworthy to be his slave, that is, to bend down and loose his sandal. Finally, whereas John employed water for his purification rites, the Coming One will cleanse with two opposite substances, water and fire. John, then, uses the language of prestige to describe Jesus as one who wields God’s exclusive power in his cleansing from evil and sin.
In Luke’s story we often find incidents stitched together by a literary technique called “prophecy - fulfilment.” Something predicted, either in the Old Testament or more recently by a prophet, is eventually fulfilled. This point of view underscores God’s reliability in the events of salvation history. Things both ancient and modern occur which dramatize God’s ongoing providence. Here, the prophecy of John is immediately fulfilled. But it happens quite differently than the crowds would expect. Innocently enough, Jesus steps into the water and is baptized along with other penitents seeking purification. But in contrast with them, he comes up from the river and is “praying” when a great theophany of God occurs. A “theophany” is the term used to describe the appearance of God to figures like Moses at the bush and on Sinai, or to prophets such as Isaiah. Luke, of all the evangelists, constantly presents Jesus as “praying.” By this he suggests that Jesus always seeks the face of God and constantly strives to learn God’s word and will. Here, we are told, God gave him a most dramatic and surprising response to his prayer. First, God split the heavens open to signal that God’s world was communicating with our earthly one. From this heavenly world descended the Holy Spirit “in bodily form, as a dove” upon Jesus -- a singular gift of empowerment. Finally God’s voice spoke, honoring Jesus and commissioning him. The content of the heavenly voice resembles the commissioning given the Israelite kings according to Ps 2 and also the authorization of the Servant in Isa 42. The point is clear: God commissions Jesus by virtue of this ritual. God validates and authorizes Jesus with power for the career of a prophet.
When we look back in the Scriptures to other times that God has appeared to people, most of them function as the official commission or authorization for special roles and tasks. Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, for example, begin their new roles and take up their new tasks only after God appears to them to authorize them. Thus, temporally, the baptism of Jesus should be seen as the beginning of Jesus’ career; no wonder the Church has made it the head of ordinary time. The Church understands this theophany of Jesus as his commissioning and the inauguration of his new role and status. Turning his back to Nazareth, he turns his face to the world.
2nd - (John 2:1-12)
John labels this as the “first sign” that Jesus performed. Usually the “first” of any series contains motifs, themes and phrases which continually arise as the narrative unfolds. It is, then, programmatic for reading the rest of the narrative. First, then, we note that the miracle at Cana is the “first sign” by Jesus which manifests his power and glory. It will be followed by other signs such as the healing of the royal official’s son (4:46-54), the healing of the paralytic at the pool (5:1-9), the multiplication of loaves (6:1-14), the healing of the man born blind (9:1-12) the raising of Lazarus (11:28-44) and so forth (see 20:30-31). Here is important evidence why Jesus’ disciples who observe Jesus’ power should bond themselves in loyalty to Jesus; here are his credentials and a sample of what his career is about. Although prophets also multiplied food and even raised the dead, Jesus as “Christ, Son of God” proves his identity by these signs and convincingly demonstrates that “I have come that you may have life, and have it to the full.” This miracle, like all of the other “signs,” serves as credentials for Jesus; it is evidence and proof of his role and status.
Two other programmatic features are contained here. First, we observe a contrast between people “not in the know” (steward and groom) and those “in the know” (the servants). Throughout the gospel, we will see characters considered “not in the know” (Nicodemus, the man at the pool, Simon Peter) and praised for being “in the know” (the man born blind; Mary Magdalene, the Beloved Disciple). This criterion serves to indicate characters who are insiders (“in the know”) or ones who are outsiders or weak members (“not in the know). Second, a long conversation takes place between the steward and the groom, neither of whom know “whence” this fine wine comes. This programs readers to notice how time and again people struggle to know “whence” Jesus comes and “whither” he goes. Most see him only as the illiterate peasant artisan from Nazareth (he “comes” from Joseph of Nazareth); but Jesus himself schools his disciples to know that he comes from God and returns to God. Thus both “knowing” and knowing “whence” Jesus comes or draws his power are two major themes introduced in the story at Cana.
Imagine trying to stage this little drama! The interchange between Jesus and his mother is anything by cordial; the request is noble, that is, to save the groom and his family from great shame should the wine run out. It would seem that Mary, and therefore Jesus, are related to the groom’s family, possibly as cousins. But Jesus reacts in a most un-Jesus manner; he effectively tells Mary to desist, because he knows something that she does not know, namely, “his hour.” As curt as this sounds, it may mean that Jesus demands that the rationale for a sign such as this be exclusively in terms of his initiative and at his orchestration. After all, he does finally do as requested. The second scene describes Jesus ordering the water jars filled and their contents taken to the steward. We note that these jars are for Jewish “purification” rituals; this suggests a broader meaning of Jesus’ action than mere humanitarian concern. Jesus signals that the “fluids” he provides are superior to those used in traditional rites. Just as Jesus will replace the entrance ritual of circumcision with baptism, the Passover ceremony with the true bread and drink, the various feasts of Israel with their perfect counterpart, so too the daily rituals of washing and purification are superceded here by Jesus’ “purity rites.” Finally, the third scene describes the conversation between the steward of the servants and the groom. Unlike the servants, the steward does not know whence the wine came; in this story such ignorance is not fatal, but it does program us to the ongoing distinction between being “in the know” and “not in the know.” But the climax of the drama comes with the steward’s comment that something most unusual is occurring: traditionally the first is best, but here the best comes last. We all know Jesus remarks about last being first and least becoming greatest. Thus something is being said about the legitimacy of Jesus himself, the last of Israel’s prophets, now becoming the leader and first in the new covenant.
The gospel here suggests several themes for development. 1. Seeing
is believing, maybe. Only spiritual openness will allow seers to grasp the source
of goodness, namely, God and God’s Anointed One. 2. Although all of us
begin life “not in the know,” God provides for us a host
of clues to the divine presence in our lives; the best way to become sympathetic
to this is a life of openness to grace and especially thanksgiving for what
is found. 3. Replacement is a livelong theme: we move from childhood to adolescence
to maturity, and each step requires us to grow and be shaped by God’s
grace. Thus we leave the comfort of what is known and stretch out to what is
unknown. Yet grace assures us that “the last is best.”. 4. And Jesus?
Whence does he come? wither does he go? From God, of course, and to God. All
that he says and does serves to enrich his disciples and let them see that he
is a pulley raising them up to God. Today’s gospel talks mostly about
whence both the wine and Jesus come; but if we grasp the sign before us, it
will point to God’s own wedding feast at which we are invited as honored
guests. God’s wine will not run out
3rd - C (Luke1:1-14; 4:14-21)
Our gospel reading begins with the preface which Luke wrote to his narrative. Like most histories in antiquity, it is dedicated to Luke’s patron, who supported him as he wrote this gospel. The patron is called “Theophilus,” or “One who loves God.” Although Luke admits that “many have undertaken to compile a narrative” of the Jesus movement, his effort claims to be superior in that it will be “orderly” and will provide “the truth” of things which have been reported. This tells us two things: unity of topic but diversity of the accounts. The Church uses this preface as the beginning of our continuous reading of Luke during the Sundays of ordinary time.
Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ public life begins with the simple note that Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, a clear reference to his baptismal commissioning and his victorious temptations. Immediately he is famous, for Luke says that a report about him spread throughout the region; this gives Jesus the most precious commodity in antiquity: fame, reputation, and honor. He taught, moreover, in the synagogues, as a person with public authority to speak, another high honor. His teaching, moreover, caused him to be “glorified.” Thus, as we begin, we note Jesus’ basic piety of attending synagogue and speaking a bold word about God. And all approve of him, considering him observant and zealous for the things of God. Shortly we will see that in another synagogue where he speaks of God’s plan, he is not respected or honored; on the contrary, the members of that synagogue will try to kill him. This juxtaposition of Jesus’ success and failure is a common feature of this gospel. Simeon, the prophet who blessed the infant Jesus said: “This child is set for the rise and fall of many in Israel.” And in today’s and next Sunday’s gospels, we have the first instance of this. The life of God’s Christ contains both rejection and vindication, shame and honor, death and life.
When Jesus enters the synagogue at Nazareth, Luke remarks that it was Jesus’ custom to observe the Sabbath; Jesus moreover knows the scroll of Isaiah. These clues tell us that, even if Jesus later violates Israelite customs, he was raised in the observant tradition. He is not some ignorant peasant who does not know better. And as noted earlier, he is entrusted by the synagogue group to read and speak to them, surely a very great honor. The fact that Jesus searches for a specific passage from Isaiah further implies that he is learned in the Scripture. Only Luke of all the gospels credits Jesus with literacy. He finds a special place which in his interpretation describes his baptismal commissioning.
We recall Jesus’ empowerment by God’s spirit, which is echoed in Isaiah “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me...anointed me.” His commission is “to preach good news (i.e., “gospel”) to the poor.” He is further authorized to “proclaim release to captives. . .sight to the blind. . .liberty of the oppressed.” Jesus’ baptism commissioned him for special tasks, which were not specified then. But now we have a clear and sharp description of Jesus’ ministry. First, it contains both speaking good news and working liberating wonders. He is, then, “a prophet mighty in word and deed.” His deeds, moreover, have the character of emancipation or liberation from all human and spirit powers. Surely this refers to his healings, raisings of the dead, and restorations to good social standing. We ought to savor Jesus’ selection from Isaiah because it is a miniature of his whole public career. We rejoice, moreover, in the utter gratuitousness of Jesus’ work: it is purely and simply a gift from God, an “acceptable year of the Lord.”
Yet as we read this, let us keep in mind the typical form of most
of Jesus’ public events: controversy or challenge and riposte. Jesus here
claims God’s authorization at his baptism; he claims moreover that Isaiah
spoke a prophecy, which is “today” fulfilled in the hearing of the
synagogue. He claims, then, a special role and status which authorize him to
speak and act with power. But claims often are not accepted, which is where
next Sunday’s gospel begins. Soon to follow is the group’s challenge
to Jesus, his powerful response, and their attempt to kill him. So, the inaugural
event in Jesus’ life ends in failure. But that does not cancel out the
gospel about Jesus which is proclaimed here; after, he did escape death here
by the power of God, just as he will be vindicated after his death on the cross.
4th - C (Luke 4:21-30)
Luke tells us that Jesus began his career in a most conventional
manner: he attended a synagogue “as was his custom.” Recognized
as an elder, he is asked to perform a significant public action, namely, to
read from the Scripture to those assembled and to comment on it. Only Luke tells
us that Jesus could read, which seems like most a remarkable thing for a peasant
village artisan. Jesus opens Isaiah, reads a description of healing and delivers
the briefest of commentaries: “Today this is fulfilled in your midst.”
Luke often tells us of prophecies and Scripture that are fulfilled, meaning
by this to argue that Jesus is not outside of Israel’s mainstream, but
its aim and completion. Thus, Jesus’ legitimacy is asserted and the bonds
with Israel’s mainstream are drawn tighter. God’s providence, moreover,
is affirmed, which guides Israel’s history in its thirst for freedom,
healing and salvation. Jesus’ commentary on Israel is summed up in one
word, “Today. . .”
“Today” the Scripture is fulfilled, just as we petition God for “today’s” bread and as the thief on the cross is promised paradise “today.” This represents a persistent value orientation in Jesus’ world, maybe one of the most important. God alone knows and orchestrates the future; the past contains the record of covenant dealings with God and is predictive of what they should look like today. But Jesus and his audiences live in the here-and-now. Salvation belongs to “today.”
But Jesus’ claim that Isaiah’s words refer to him and to his mission finds no home with the hearers. They become sarcastic and enraged at him. It helps us to understand the conflict here if we recognize a common form of social conflict. The ancients, both Greek and Judean, regularly describe scenes of conflict according to a simple pattern: (a) claims are made to special worth or status, (b) which cause envy and are contested or challenged, (c) which result in the claimant taking action to defend himself and his claims, (d) the outcome of which is judged by an observing public who declares the winner, either claimant or challenger. Here Jesus makes a claim (“Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing”). This enrages the synagogue of his hometown, but why? The ancients thought that all goods in life existed in finite amounts, whether gold, land, beauty, respect, and so forth. Should someone increase in any of these, the rest were put on notice that they are thus losing in the game of life as someone else gains. A “zero-sum game,” then, where another’s success is invariably interpreted as my loss. This way of perceiving means that claimants will surely be envied and so challenged; they must be taken down a peg or cut down to size, and so the prior balance will be restored. This is what the synagogue says to him: Jesus is merely “Joseph’s son,” the offspring of a landless artisan, a person of no social stature, and an arrogant claimant. Jesus in turn responds to the challenge, and in such a way as to outrage the challengers with even greater claims.
Jesus cites as precedent for his actions the deeds two of Israel’s greatest prophets, Elijah and Elisha. He notes that both performed great signs, Elijah miraculously feeding a woman and Elisha presiding over the cleansing of a leper. Moreover, and this is the explosive part, Elijah and Elisha both brought their powerful blessings to non-Judeans. The widow who was fed lived in “Zarephtha in the land of Sidon, while Namaan a Syrian was cleansed. How is this a fitting riposte to the synagogue’s challenge? How does this support and explain Jesus’ initial claims? First, both Elijah and Elisha were prophets rejected by Israel, such that the mark of a true prophet is to be rejected. Second, they are prophets, the very same role and status claimed by Jesus when he read the scroll of Isaiah and to which he was authorized in his baptism: he is a man of God filled with Spirit to be mighty in word and deed. Third, as Elijah and Elisha brought God’s covenant blessings to non-Judeans, so too Jesus will bring God’s gospel to people outside of the tribes of Israel, who were previously excluded. This summary, moreover, indicates that non-Judeans will share in the blessing thought to be the exclusive property of Israel; and, as we noted about the perception of “limited good,” Jesus’ audience now is doubly outraged and envious. They see their own special place in God’s history as diminished by the admission of non-Judeans. No wonder they want to kill Jesus!
The gospel message here points first of all to Jesus and the description of his role as healer and savior. Like Isaiah, he is appointed by God’s spirit, which is the source of his authorization and power. The scene of envy and outrage is hardly good news to us, but it does indicate that from its beginning Jesus’ entire career created such hostile reactions and will end with his enemies thinking they have finally cut him down to size. Such is the fate of Israel’s prophets! Yet here as well as there, we read that God’s providence protects him and rescues him from death. So, this inaugural episode forms a bookend with Jesus’ passion: both reveal envy so strong as to kill, and God’s faithfulness which rescues. This narrative, then, truly is a gospel in miniature.
5th - C (Luke 5:15-26)
Today’s gospel begins by describing a scene which is the fear of every public speaker: the audience is filled with Pharisees and teachers of the law who have come from every village of “Galilee, Judea, and even Jerusalem.” These are Jesus’ mortal enemies and critics, who have come not to hear the good news he speaks, but to spy on him and catch him in his speech. And they will not have long to wait. We note that Jesus is “teaching” and the power of the Lord was with him to heal. As Clopas later said of Jesus, he is a prophet “mighty in word and deed.” With the arrival of the paralyzed man, the characters of the drama are assembled.
A paralyzed man arrives and is immediately disappointed. He and the relatives who carried him cannot get Jesus’ eye because the room where he teaches is filled. They find a way by opening the roof over Jesus and lowering the paralytic down before him. Jesus is impressed, and gives the paralyzed man a great blessing: “Your sins are forgiven.” Now the spies have what they want, a provocation that should discredit Jesus and perhaps cause his death: “Who can forgive sins but God only?” For Jesus to claim a share in a power reserved exclusively for God is to shame God by encroaching on God’s sovereignty. But Jesus is never speechless before his critics, and poses a piece of logic by way of response. We say “talk is cheap,” which applies here. If Jesus says “your sins are forgiven,” what proof do we have that his word is effective and true? None, frankly. There is no way to verify that. But if Jesus says “arise, take up your bed, walk,” then this word can be verified. The paralytic will be healed, proof of which is his immediate standing and walking. Jesus, then, chooses to say the hard word, the word of healing. He does this, we are told, to declare a seemingly incredible truth: “the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.” The word of healing argues that he has also the word of forgiveness too, in the sense that if one can do the harder task, one is able to do the lesser one also. Thus, this prophet mighty in word and deed has added another arrow to his quiver. God as authorized him to forgive sins, with the result that all previous rites, sacrifices, etc. for forgiving sin are relativized. One needs only contact Jesus.
If we attend to the pattern in which the drama unfolds, we can learn a clue to reading all of the conflicts of Jesus. The ancient world has been described as a most agonistic world, a place of push and shove, challenge and riposte. A person, like Jesus, makes a claim to some power or honor (“Your sins are forgiven”), which threatens and infuriates others, who challenge the claim (“Only God can forgive sins”). Once challenged, the only honorable thing is to respond, which Jesus does by the game of the provable/unprovable word. Such confrontations are always before some public, who watch the contest and award victory to one and shame to the other. The crowds applaud Jesus’s convincing victory by “glorifying God” and by praising Jesus’ actions to the skies.
A gospel like this can be seen in many lights. Jesus “teaches,” but he is also passionately sensitive to the physical needs of people. After all, he is a prophet mighty in word and deed. This story reminds us that Jesus was given many mighty powers at his baptism; he is the one who purifies with water and fire. Hence the forgiveness of sins here has been predicted back at his commissioning. Recall that in 4:18 Jesus read from Isaiah a passage about his anointing with Spirit for the purpose of liberating and healing. All such materials come into full bloom here. Moreover, the Paschal future of Jesus is never lost sight of; although Jesus gains the victory here, we all know that his envious enemies will rise up finally to crush him.
6th - C (Luke 6:17, 20-26)
When we take up Luke’s version of the great Sermon of Jesus, we should carefully compare it with the version recorded in Matt 5:1-12. Whereas Matthew states that Jesus ascended a mountain, while Luke locates him on a level place; Matthew indicates that only disciples came to hear Jesus, but Luke tells us that two groups gathered: 1. a great crowd of disciples and 2. a great multitude for Judeans as well as Gentiles from Tyre and Sidon. For Matthew, the occasion is for instruction only, whereas Luke says that the audience came to hear and be healed. These small differences suggest that Luke sees the event as accessible to all peoples, which is not the case with climbing a mountain to hear Jesus in Matthew. Luke’s observation that Judeans and Gentiles gather continues his great theme of the inclusivity of Jesus’ ministry. Moreover, Luke presents Jesus here as a great prophet, mighty in word (speech) and deeds (healing). This is altogether a most rich introduction to the Sermon.
Immediately we notice that Luke records only four beatitudes, not ten as Matthew does. These four are identical with four in Matthew (poor, hungry, weeping, ostracized), which leads scholars to say that the earliest sources of the Gospel contain a sermon with only these four. What are these sayings? It is better not to call them “beatitudes,” because this obscures their meaning. Literally the Greek says that people covered by these four statements are makarioi, which means “honorable” or “worthy.” The people labeled here are certainly not “happy,” nor are the “blessed.” The choice of “honorable” reflects the pivotal value system of Jesus’ world, in which only the Lamb is declared “Worthy” to take the scroll (Rev 5:9) and where God is celebrated by the heavenly court as “Worthy” (Rev 4:11). At stake here is a conflict between what the world honors and what God and Jesus value. Remember that Mary sang about God’s reversing the values of the world when the mighty are cast down and the lowly exalted. “Worth” is at stake. Thus we translate makarios as “how honorable” or “how worthy.”
In regard to the four makarisms, do we have four distinct individuals or do all four refer to one person? When scholars describe the four in terms of the general human condition which is filled with evils and disasters, they emphasize four different scenarios. Yet it seems likely that as we read them, they describe the composite fate of one person who is a disciple. Let us test this idea. Is there any rhetorical order to the four makarisms? Usually lists of similar things are put together in some order or pattern, with emphasis either on the first of a series or the last. The first would be programmatic, whereas the last would be climactic and conclusive. In Luke, the fourth makarism would seem to be the key or climatic one because it is last and longest. It is at least the length of all the other three together; and as we will see, it provides the reason for the situation of “poor,” “hungry,” and “weeping.” What then does it say?
The fourth makarism describes a disciple who has been banned, ostracize and excommunicated (“hate,” “exclude,” “cast out your name”). We know that this person suffers “on account of the Son of man,” so he is a disciple and presumably suffers because of his discipleship. But why is this happening to him? Historical arguments say that this is not the quasi-formal persecution mounted against the disciples either by the synagogue or Rome. Rather, the crisis arises within the family of the disciple. We seem to have a scenario where a son is declared rebellious for failing to submit to parental authority which views Jesus as a maverick. And so, the son has become a gross embarrassment to his family for following Jesus. When the son persists in disobeying his father, the family “hates” him, “excludes him”casts out his name.” He is then banned, shunned and ostracized. A crushing sanction is laid upon him for the shame he has brought upon his family. The results are easy to see: he will lose all economic support from his family, and all social contracts with fellow-villagers will collapse, such as marriage contracts and cooperative sharing of labor at plowing and harvesting time.
Let us now read the other three makarisms in the light of the climatic fourth one. A son who is cast out will leave with few or no assets. After all, we are reading about a subsistence peasant world; whatever wealth peasants might acquire (all wealth was in land) is swallowed up in taxes and finds its way to palace and temple. A typical peasant son simply has no personal assets or wealth. He will, then, be “poor” when expelled. But we must be careful here. Jesus’ world distinguished between two types of poor persons: 1. the working poor and 2. the begging poor. Two different Greek words described these two and the distinction between them is ancient and constant. Roughly 90% of the population consisted of artisans and farmers who had very little wealth; they were the working poor who lived a subsistence existence; yet every culture also has people utterly ruined by catastrophe, disease, etc., who resorted to begging, such as blind and crippled people or orphans and widows. Workers had some dignity or honor, whereas beggars simply fell off the bottom of the scale. Jesus is talking about just such folk: begging poor. If they have been banned from the family farm and set adrift with no resources, such as the fourth makarism describes, they will certainly be “poor,” that is, “begging poor.”
The banned son will also immediately experience “hunger.” He cannot go to his father’s fields and gather fruit and grain; the milk goat no longer provides yoghurt for him. And having no resources, he will assuredly be hungry and desperately so. He must beg or starve. Moreover, he will surely “weep” for the loss of his family. It is as though they have died to him; he can no longer rely on them for all of the support and sustenance which families provide. No more food, no more clothing, no more shelter, no more care when sick, no more comfort in old age. This is cause for weeping. But why no family? The fourth makarism tells us that they have banned him for his rebellion in becoming Jesus’ disciple. Thus the terrible catastrophe set in motion by the family’s sanction which produces a harvest of shame: begging, hunger and weeping. And “shame” is the right word, as this person loses all worth in the eyes of neighbors and kin. Yet Jesus values this person highly, calling him “honorable” and “worthy.”
The gospel does not urge people to engage in conflict with their families. Nor should we romanticize the expulsion of the disciple from his family. Yet we do learn that discipleship can have consequence, even crushing ones. Yet Jesus pronounces the rebellious son and all like him as “worthy” of his company and God’s kingdom. Here is the gospel, just as it was for Jesus: “Ought not the Christ suffer and so enter into his glory?” Honor in this world is what Jesus and his Father say about us, not what family and friends think. For Jesus came to turn this world on its head: shameful becomes honorable; last becomes first, and least becomes greatest.
7th - C (Luke 6:27-38)
Whereas Matthew shapes this teaching of Jesus into a series of five “Antitheses,” Luke represents an earlier form of this material which is bracketed at its beginning (6:27) and ending (6:35) with the command to love one’s enemies. Readers will do well to recall the fourth makarism (6:22-23) which spoke of banning and ostracism. Jesus’ command here surely has that in mind here as the meaning of one’s “enemies.” These are people who have caused great personal suffering to disciples; they reside in their villages and even their families. Disciples must face them daily. Jesus tells the disciple injured by this social conflict to do the impossible, namely to “love them,” “do good to them,” “bless them,” and “pray for them” – all shocking actions in that culture. The norm of justice for Judean and Greek alike was vengeance and retribution for hurt received; this was virtue in their eyes. But Jesus shatters that value system when he forbids the disciple to seek satisfaction – itself a shameful thing to do – but rather to do good to one’s enemy; if foregoing revenge was dishonorable, kindness to one’s enemy is more so.
Jesus cites three actions which greatly affect one’s status in the village. A slap on the cheek is an affront because it to the front of the face, the most honorable part of the body and because it is a violent, public insult which is observed by all. One’s head and face are the repositories of one’s honor and status, hence we anoint and crown heads and kiss the cheeks of respected people. This treatment of the face, however, means that one’s total self-esteem is negated. But Jesus says to turn the cheek, not to seek revenge. Similarly with clothing, clothes really do make the man, even peasants. Hence the taking of a man’s outer garment, while financially ruinous, also signals a man who cannot defend himself and so who judged. To make matters worse, Jesus requires a disciple to surrender even the under garment, which will leave the man literally naked before his enemies. Far from seeking to recover what is his own, the disciple makes himself even more shameful in the eyes of others. In the third instance, Jesus tells the disciple to give to everyone who begs and to hold lightly one’s goods. It was and is true that “charity begins at home,” and so it is shameful to give to others what belongs to one’s family. To give universally to all, moreover, upsets the patronage patterns of the ancient world. One might give an alms to this or that person, with the expectation that they in turn will do something to benefit the giver, such as help at harvest time. But to give with no strings attached was both rare and remarkable. But worse, this disciple appears to be a person put upon by others. He has no “self-respect” in his cultural world, and so he is a nobody who is worth nothing. Surely Jesus cannot mean what he says? But he does, as he summarizes this point with what we have come to call “the golden rule.” Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Not only will the disciple accept insults and reproaches without seeking vengeance, he will act positively toward others, “loving,” “doing good,” “blessing” and “praying” for them, just as he would have them treat himself.
Next Jesus takes up the topic of “credit” for one’s behavior. Given the fact that everyone in Jesus’ world vigorously pursued a good reputation laced with respect and honor, Jesus undercuts this. People normally seek the approval of their allies and kinsmen, which rested in part on the generosity shown to loved ones and friends. But Jesus says that there is no “merit” in this; for, he defines virtue as the opposite, namely, the benefaction of those who are our enemies. Since all practiced an economic shrewdness then, careful of what they lent and to whom, it was good sense to lend only to those who could repay. But Jesus declares that this practice has no “merit,” that is, respect or worth in God’s eyes. True “merit,” then, comes from doing the opposite of the way of the world. The truly worthy man will let himself be imposed upon and taken advantage of. How can Jesus justify this perverted teaching? He appeals to God.
We all understand the expression “a chip off the old block.” If the parent, who is God, “is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish,” then true children will inevitably resemble their parent by thinking and acting like God. The norm of value and worth is no longer defined by the world, but by God. In the eyes and ears of the village, Jesus’ God may sound “shameless” here; but by the same token Jesus is judging his culture and critiquing it according to a different value system and a different understanding of God.
Rarely do we see Jesus in such a reforming mode. His instruction of his disciples requires them to reverse all that they have held sacred. Behavior which gains others a good reputation and respect is denied to the disciples. Moreover, even when they are caught up in events to which they would normally respond with aggressive action, Jesus demands that they refuse to play the game. On the contrary, he requires them to act in even more shameless ways by benevolence toward their enemies.
8th - C (Luke 6:39-45)
Today’s gospel selection presents still another part of Luke’s Sermon on the Plain. Coming as it does after Jesus’ proclamation of his own value system in the Makarisms and his critique of the Law of Moses, it shifts the focus squarely on the disciple who has heard all thing and looks to see what kind of response is appropriate. This selection of the Sermon contains two blocks of material, each with a different focus and tone. The first part begins with a parable about eyes, blindness to be more specific, and the focus remains on the human “eye.” The second part keeps the “mouth” in view. What, then, is Jesus saying?
Jesus’ parable about the blind leading the blind seems perfectly intelligible: if the leader or teacher of the group is flawed, disaster inevitably overtakes both leader and follower. Next a disciple is reminded that he can never surpass his teacher; at best he might equal him. These general truisms need to be contextualized in the ministry of Jesus. Surely he is no blind leader, but one of clearest insight; disciples who follow the light of his teaching do not all into a ditch. Jesus, moreover, is our master teacher; what disciple could ever equal him, much less surpass him? All of these remarks are intended to confirm our adherence to Jesus the Teacher, especially in regard to this Sermon. Continuing his remark about eyes, Jesus addresses a common phenomenon among people in school: they learn to be very critical and can spot the tiniest flaw in another. Such people may then assume the role of teacher over others and so engage in critical behavior which is also conflict producing. Hence Jesus cautions would-be teachers not to be so critical because such folk generally have similar or worse impediments in their own eyes. Better that disciples remove the significant blocks to clear sight in their own eyes before turning upon another. Clearly the intent of all of this is to underscore the paramount need for disciples to apply to themselves the teaching of Jesus before they bring it to others. Parents know this very well: unless parental values are evident in parental behavior, instruction of children will be flawed. It is not enough to “talk the talk,” but we must also “walk the walk.”
Jesus’ next statement is cast in a kind of thinking which many of us finds very flawed. and try to avoid. Good trees bear good fruit; bad trees, bad fruit. We call this “all or nothing” thinking -- all black and white, with no grey. The “fruit” mentioned here would seem to be the behavior of the disciples, that is, the moral consequences of faith in Jesus. It is a very old saying that good theology leads to good morals and conversely, bad theology leads to corrupt behavior. In this Sermon, Jesus has told us good theology, that is, the inclusive and impartial kindness of God (6:36) and God’s revolutionary value system (6:20-23). Hence, this good root should produce in Jesus’ disciples acts of impartial mercy and caring for the lowly and needy. The power of Jesus’ remark lies in its insistence on a wholehearted adoption of this Sermon. Lives without such focus, dedication and loyalty are half lives.
Jesus then shifts to matters of speech and the “mouth.” He draws conclusions from the material on good trees and good fruit by citing a singular instance. When persons speak, we hope that they speak from the heart so that their speech is true and reflects just what they think and feel. But we all know people whose speech does not reflect their heart; they speak to deceive us or to cover up their own behavior. Jesus must surely be speaking about the kind of speech that disciples would speak, especially they confessions of total and permanent loyalty to Jesus and his God. Talk is cheap, however; some say “Lord, Lord,” but their heart has no commitment in it nor is there any intention of living Jesus’ way. In effect, Jesus says that he can read such hearts, and that he knows whether speech matches thoughts and will. “Out of the abundance of the heart people’s mouths speak.”
Today’s gospel, then, confronts us with the challenge of appropriating the Sermon of Jesus. It concerns our “eyes,” whether they are blind and whether we are blind who lead the blind. It concerns a critical eye, which revels in spotting defects in others, but does not look to remove its own blindness first. It concerns our “mouth,” whether what we publicly say about Jesus and his gospel matches our behavior. It considers the integrity of our person in loyalty to Jesus and his God: eye and heart and mouth. No one, of course, will get a perfect grade in this examination; but we all can build up Christ’ body, both church and family, by seeking clarity of gospel sight and steadfastness of faith and commitment.
9th - C (Luke 7:1-10)
Luke tells this story as the first event after Jesus’ Sermon, and it is intended to show Jesus as a prophet mighty in deeds as well as word (24:19). We are expected to remember several sundays ago the incident in Jesus’ home synagogue in which he told about Elijah and Elisha bringing the benefactions of the God of Israel to Gentiles, a story which caused them to try and kill him. Here is Jesus’ own dramatization of the same. A centurion with a dying slave sends to Jesus for help.
Putting this in perspective, we note that “centurion” means the commander of many soldiers in the Roman army. It is this army which has conquered Israel and incorporated it into its great tax factory. As much as 35% of a farmer’s crop was taken in taxes for these very occupying soldiers. We must reason that they were hated for their brutality and extortion, as well as for the fact that they were non-Israelites from whom all upright Judeans would separate themselves (Acts 10:28). What a surprise, then, that this centurion asks the help of one of Israel’s prophets.
The story has a definite social structure to it, for it describes the common form of patron-client relationships. People like the centurion have power and other resources at their disposal, which they will bestow when they see that it will benefit them. Most sick people come to Jesus as their patron to tap into his heavenly resources. Here the centurion has already played the patron to a Judean village by “building us our synagogue.” But in a crisis in his own household, the centurion must play the client and beg the help of a Judean prophet. Certain Judeans of that town and synagogue change roles from that of client to the centurion-patron to that of mediator on his behalf with another patron, namely, Jesus. They say the magic word: “He is worthy.” Jesus should help him because he has helped other Judeans. The mediation works and Jesus goes with the elders to their village and to the centurion. While Jesus is on the way, the centurion employs another set of mediators, “friends” who contradict the first set of mediator. These bring the centurion’s confession that he is “not worthy” to have Jesus enter his house. The confession of unworthiness by one who has conquered and subjugated Israel represents a gesture of remarkable reverence. Instead of Jesus’ presence in his house, he appeals to the power of Jesus’ word. Soldiers know what it is to command (“go,” “come,” “do this”); a commander’s simple word makes things happen. The centurion implies that Jesus also speaks a powerful “word” of blessing, which can have its effect at a great distance. We probably should read encoded in the centurion’s remarks a confession of Jesus as a great prophet, mighty in word and deed. Jesus agrees to be his patron, the elders and “friends” have done their job as mediators, and the centurion – conqueror though he be – is now Jesus’ client.
At the end of the story Jesus draw some startling conclusions. This Gentile officer in an occupying army has a faith greater than that found in Israel. He is a Gentile, and so his prayer and his reverence indicate that non-Judeans may be joined to God’s blessed people. The fact that the person healed is a slave is also of significance. In God’s kingdom there is no Judean or Gentile, no slave or free. This is confirmed in the very next story about a woman’s grief over her dead son. So we have Jesus’ mercy extended to both male (centurion) and female (widow of Nain). Status markers such as gender, ethnic identity and hierarchy do not count in God’s eyes. Deeply encoded here is a belief in God’s impartiality and inclusivity. The centurion’s “faith” here would seem to be a blend of right knowledge about Jesus (a prophet) and public acknowledgment of him. A simple story like this contains many items for our prayer and imitation. “Mediators” have a place in our lives; Catholics traditionally pray to Mary and the Saints to mediate for them. Jesus, too, is the great mediator between us and God.
10th - C (Luke 7:11-17)
Most scholars urge us to read today’s gospel alongside that of last Sunday (Luke 7:1-10) because Luke often does things by “two’s”: two annunciations (John and Jesus), two canticles (Magnificat and Benedictus), two prophets blessing the infant Jesus (Simeon, Anna), and so forth. Both contain a strong emphasis on the “word” of Jesus which alone is sufficient to heal. Here we find Luke attending to parallel gender healings: first a male (the centurion, and then a female (widow); for similar gender parallel stories, see Luke 15:3-10. Previously when the centurion met Jesus he declared that he is “not worthy for you to enter under my roof.” Still petitioning for a healing, he tells Jesus that his “word” alone is sufficient; he does this by calling attention to the power of his own word as a military commander: “Go!” “Come!” “Do this!” and it is by his word that Jesus heals the sick from afar. Similarly, confronting the bier of a dead man, Jesus exercises power by his word alone.
The scene is ambiguous for we do not know the ages of the widow and her son. We might imagine her as a mother in her twenties or thirties with an infant sun. But she might be much older, which would make the son an adult, the sole support of his aged mother. We know that life expectancy at this time was pitifully low: one third of all babies died before age six; another third would have died before time for marriage and new children. The husband/father in the story is himself dead, not a surprising thing. Let us arbitrarily make mother and son older, for this might bring out the significance of this healing. Since in Israel all wives left their father’s house and came to live in the households of the husbands, they were in one sense cut off from the close, caring network of their families, but also treated as outsiders in the new household. What a catastrophe if the husband, his father and then brothers all died. The widow and her offspring were painfully at the mercy of the males in the extended family who would labor to take over the dead man’s inheritance, even if it were a modest land holding. This was “family” inheritance, and she was not family. One hears echoes here of the mantra in the Scriptures to care for the widow and the orphan – the most vulnerable in the village. And how the only son of an aged widow has died, which means that she too is terribly wounded. Who will take her part? Who will defend her interests? Who will feed and clothe her? Both son and mother, then, have suffered a great misfortune.
At the most dramatic moment of the burial service, Jesus appears at the gate of the village. First he speaks a word “Do not weep?” which seems foolish in this context. What else is the widow to do in such desperate circumstances? He then touches the litter on which the body lays. Israelites thought of corpses as “fathers of uncleanness” with the result that anyone who touched a human corpse or even an animal one was defiled and must wait a period of time, then take a ritual washing. God is the “living” God; nothing corruptible comes into God’s presence, and certainly nothing dead. Hence, to imitate this aspect of God’s cleanness, humans strove as best they could to avoid contact with corpses. Hence, Jesus’ action in touching the litter on which the dead son lay might in some eyes be risking uncleanness, something observant Israelites strove to avoid. After stopping the cortege, Jesus then gives an incredible command to the dead man: “Young man, I say to you arise!” Here again is the powerful word of Jesus affecting a most wondrous healing. The man is back in the land of the living. The widowed mother is likewise healed of the misfortune which had destroyed her social status and role. Once more, then, the healing of an individual also means the restoration of the family and the healing of its social relations.
The story ends with a detailed record of the crowd’s reaction, which is very much worth our study. Luke says that “Fear seized them all.” This “fear,” we know, is best translated as “awe” or “reverence.” It expresses a positive reaction to the actions of God in his earthly word. It would be equivalent, I think, to breaking out in applause in the presence of some joyful wonderful thing. And extending this sense of awe and thanksgiving, Luke states that “they glorified God” for the heavenly benefit bestowed. Since no one else in the cosmos has power over death, the crowd declares “God has visited his people.” Thus praise, glory, thanks, and honor are all good ways to express the crowd’s reaction. God, who is the Father and Patron of Israel, has blessed his people through Jesus, “a great prophet. . .arisen among us. This small section of the story is a miniature of ancient prayer: someone experiences a benefaction from God, and acknowledges the gift, both singing God’s praises and offering thanks.
As we begin, we need to know about “widows” in Jesus’
world. Marriages were made between families; they were not the romantic joining
of two people in love. Brides generally left their fathers’ homes and
took up residence within the husband’s extended family. This was generally
a difficult position, for the bride was a stranger here and it was never clear
if she would support her husband’s family’s interests over her own
father’s. Her security and worth came with the birth of a son; here was
another farmer to help with the crops, another stout fellow to defend the family’s
possessions. But should that widow lose both husband and then son, she became
a liability to his family. Her investment in the family by means of her dowry
and her participation in its food, shelter and clothing was in genuine doubt.
Therefore, at Nain we find not only the death of the last son, but the prospect
of social death for the widowed mother.
11th - C (Luke 7:36-8:3)
Immediately after we learn that Jesus has been slandered as a “glutton and a drunkard” (7:34), we observe him at table with a Pharisee. The force of the slander rests in the implication that Jesus eats with sinners and so shares their manners; what a contrast, then, to see him at table with a Pharisee, who professed strict observance of the law, especially in regard to the production and preparation of kosher foods. This may seem like an irenic setting to the uninitiated, but it is a theater where controversy and criticism will emerge.
The story quickly describes another person at the meal, an uninvited female who was a “sinner.” This charge may simply mean that she was nonobservant; yet it probably implies that she embodies the sin that is most shameful to females in antiquity, namely, lack of sexual exclusivity. Nevertheless, she is known to all and she cleans Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. What is she doing? The Pharisee host sees only that Jesus has allowed himself to be touched by an unclean woman, and this discredits him as a prophet charged with maintaining purity: “Is this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is.” A wrong perception and a false conclusion. But the Pharisees sparks the controversy; and in defense of himself (and the female) Jesus tells a parable.
Because so much of Jesus’ world was crushed under the debt of taxation for Rome and for the Temple, Jesus’ remark about creditor and debtors makes emotional sense. A creditor in the story does an absolutely unthinkable thing. He forgives debts, both very great and small. Who will “love”him the most? Even the Pharisee can follow the logic here: the person with the greater debt that is forgiven! Jesus then applies this, equating the controversial female with the person with the greater debt forgiven. And at this point Jesus brings the Pharisee himself into the parable. Jesus notes that the Pharisee is not without sin. Although he invited Jesus to a meal, he insulted Jesus by refusing him the customary marks of hospitality: no washing of Jesus’ feet, no anointing of Jesus’ head, and no welcome kiss. As perfectly observant as the Pharisee claims to be, he has failed in a significant element of life: he refused customary hospitality to Jesus, thus insulting him in public. For all of her sins, the woman showed a type of respect and courtesy to Jesus: she washed his feet, kissed them, anointed Jesus with oil. She has honored Jesus whereas the Pharisee has shamed him.
Thus, the criticism of Jesus by the Pharisee has been effectively
answered. The woman has been shown to love Jesus more than the Pharisee; the
debt of her sins which are forgiven is great, but greater is the resulting loyalty
she has for Jesus. But it is when Jesus declares that her sins are forgiven
than another controversy erupts among other guests at the meal. She was cleansed
Jesus’ feet and he has cleansed her of her sins. She is, then, “clean”
but not in the way that Pharisees understand purity. Jesus’ forgiveness
of her debt of sin puts her in the category of one who is pure and clean, which
is bound to be offensive to the Pharisees there. To be sure, other Pharisees
at this meal rise in criticism of Jesus for claiming power to forgive sins.
Clearly, this never was a cordial event at which friends of like mind and stamp
gather. Jesus has enemies on all sides. Here he does not stoop to respond to
this criticism. He simply tells the woman that her “faith” has saved
her. In a fundamental way she has acknowledged Jesus as a prophet, an agent
with God’s power to forgive and heal. This is just what the Pharisee denied.
Moreover, she responds to the kingdom which Jesus preaches and illustrates in
his healings: purity is found not in observance of many laws but in grasping
Jesus and seeking his power to make whole. Thus we learn that holiness is being
redefined: faith in Jesus replaces purification ritual; “sinners,”
moreover, are those who reject Jesus. It is probably not an accident that we
have here a woman praised and a man criticized.
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