A Brief Exploration into the Gospel of Luke

Essay by Deshna Ubeda on 12 April 2018 2 Comments

I would like to take a moment to explore the Gospel of Luke. When I read Biblical passages these days, I am looking for the deeper meaning behind the words. Meaning, I am not just looking for the dates, context, and scribes, though these are important pieces to the puzzle. I am looking for what the crisis might have been that caused the author to write it and how does the scripture speak to that crisis. I am seeking the wisdom that the passages hold for me in the moment as I read them. The wisdom found in sacred texts can shift as the reader shifts…that is one of the reasons why they are still valuable to modern seekers. My journey with the Bible has taken many turns through the course of my life. Growing up in a progressive Christian church, I was initiated into the Bible from a historical, informed, and liberal viewpoint. I never had to unlearn certain mis-translations or rescue the baby from the bath water. And yet, the Bible seemed outdated and irrelevant and I yearned for a break from it during spiritual community time. It felt forced. I stepped away from Christianity when I went to college… and then found myself back in its arms with the work I do today. Through my work with ProgressiveChristianity.org and studies in Interfaith Chaplaincy, I was called to look deeper into these sacred texts… to explore them like a treasure found in a time vault… to seek the magic in the words… to envision the ancient voices orally sharing the tales, the lessons, the songs, and the poetry around a bright fire, with an unblemished star-filled sky above them. Ancient wisdom holds much for us today, when we can see below the temporary concerns being addressed.

According to biblical scholars, the Gospel of Luke was written between 89-93AD, though there are, of course, debates about the exact time. During this time period, the Christian movement was largely concerned with legitimizing itself in the Roman Empire. This gospel also reflects the transition of Christianity out of Judaism toward the Gentile world. Bishop John Shelby Spong argues that the community Luke was writing for “appears to have been made up primarily of dispersed Jews, who no longer followed their traditions in a rigid pattern and, as a consequence, are beginning to attract a rising tide of converts from the Gentile world. These Gentile proselytes, as they came to be called, had little dedication to or interest in the cultic practices of circumcision, kosher dietary rules and unfamiliar liturgical practices such as a 24-hour vigil around Shavuot or Pentecost and the eight-day celebrations of the Harvest Festival known as Sukkoth. They were not intent on discarding or losing the meaning of these holy days, but they clearly were eager to reduce their place of importance and the hold they had once had on their lives.”[1] This is backed by many writings on Luke, including the “Parting of Ways,” by Anne Amos, who suggests that for early Christians, the 1st century was a time period focused on who was a Christian and who was not. This was also a time period when Jewish Rabbis were excommunicating those who used to be Jewish but then identified as Christians. Jewish Christians were heretics in the eyes of the Rabbi’s.  Clearly this was a time period of great division as to Christians, Jews became “the others.”

The author of Luke is unknown, like many of the Bible’s authors, but tradition has always identified the book of Luke with the physician who accompanied Paul and is mentioned in both Colossians and II Timothy. Scholars also propose that the same author wrote Acts as Volume II of his gospel and “in all probability he was born a Gentile and had been drawn first into the ethical monotheism that marked Judaism. He appears to have actually converted to Judaism and to have joined the synagogue through which he moved into Christianity. He may well have been a convert of Paul’s, at least he has clearly identified himself with Paul’s point of view and he champions it in both the gospel and the book of Acts.” [2]

Much of Luke (at least half) was quoted from Mark and he makes no claim to have been an eye witness but honestly acknowledges the research he has done. He says in his first chapters that “many have taken in hand to set forth in order a declaration of the things which are surely believed among us, even as they delivered them to us, which from the beginning were eye witnesses and servants of the word (Luke 1:1-5).” However, one thing that is quite obvious is that Luke’s purpose was to interpret Jesus in light of the Hebrew scriptures, not to recreate him as separate from it. As it was written during a time period of great division and accusations on both sides of the Judeo-Christian religious map- this would have been a crucial argument.

As always, these Biblical stories need to be seen as narratives, not historical fact. When viewed through the lens of Jewish mythology and prophecy, one can see how important it was to align Jesus with stories from the Old Testament as well as those from age old oral traditions so that words and deeds were inserted or deleted to fit the agenda of the time period. Luke, along with the other Synoptic Gospel writers, would have needed to somewhat fabricate a narrative about Jesus that could be threaded into the collection of sayings, miracles, and passion narratives that arose out of the Jewish history, theology, and storytelling and it needs to be understood that much of these writings are “the creative invention of the authors and assorted intrusive scribes” [3] This was likely done to not only continue to legitimize Jesus as the son of God and Messiah but also to legitimize Christianity in a time of great internal and external chaos. By all accounts the early years of the Christian movement were rife with conflict and rivalries. [4] As the Gospel accounts were based on data “transmitted…by those who were eyewitnesses,” (Luke 1: 1-3) we are dealing with thirdhand information at best.

In order to situate Jesus and his deeds in alignment with the Old Testament and the Jewish religion, while at the same time set him apart, Luke and other early Christian writers would have been organized to align with the annual Jewish liturgical cycle of the synagogue where Christianity lived in its first generations as a movement within Judaism. Just as the Jewish holidays of that time period were focused on cleansing of sins (Yom Kippur), Jesus is shown to not only not be corrupted by other’s sins and uncleanliness, but he also transforms and purifies the evil. He banishes demons, heals the unclean, and forgives the sins. Set against the Jewish liturgical cycle, Luke’s Jesus fits quite nicely.  Luke, along with his fellow Gospel writers, were aiming to align Jesus with ancient prophesy and legitimize his birthright. And at the same time, Luke works toward creating a religion that can spread and exist outside of the ethnic group of the Jews. Brilliant, in my opinion.

These early Christian gospels must be read through the lens of Judaism. “The later Greek thinking period, which shaped the creeds in the 4th century and informs Christian doctrine to this day, has actually distorted the gospel message in a radical way.” [5] However, early on, the Christian community was made up of dispersed Jews living far from home and increasingly interacting with their Gentile neighbors. As Deborah Broome writes in Who’s at the Table?Inclusiveness in the Gospel of Luke,

Luke was clearly universally-minded. He wrote of a Jesus that welcomed everyone at his table. This Jesus taught that faith was the most important characteristic, not wealth or status. During Jesus’ time, the synagogue rejected this message, but Luke’s Jesus persisted in this teaching, widening the door to allow all flesh, beyond Israel.

The Gospel of Luke is unique in its theology of inclusiveness. Only Luke tells us the parable of the Good Samaritan. This is another indication that the community he lived and existed in had moved beyond the Jewish mythology of a chosen people. Luke emphasizes a universal point of view, likely influenced by Paul, and this theology has a lot to do with why Christianity spread in the exponential way it did. In Luke’s gospel, it is emphasized that Jesus heals, teaches, and even often shares a meal with the sinners, the tax collectors, the unclean, the sick, the marginalized, the excluded, and the women, etc. Luke’s Jesus is a radically inclusive teacher who impresses people with his ability to heal and his lack of social boundaries. Luke emphasizes that the Spirit fell not only on the Jews but on the peoples of the world, who then proclaimed the Gospel in whatever language those hearing spoke. (Acts 2) Clearly Luke was aiming to move Christianity away from the exclusive ethnic Jewish group to a universal faith, which also meant all people were held accountable to their choice to be Christian or not and could be persecuted if considered a non-believer or heretic. For the next thousand or so years, this inclusiveness would shift from a compassionate stance to a justification of immense destruction and violence against non-believers. Whether or not Luke was considering that when he wrote about Jesus will remain unknown.

~ Deshna Ubeda

————————————-
[1]   Bishop John Shelby Spong, The Origins of the New Testament XXIV – Introducting Luke http://progressingspirit.com/2010/05/27/the-origins-of-the-new-testamentpart-xxiv-introducing-luke/
[2]   Bishop John Shelby Spong, The Origins of the New Testament XXIV – Introducting Luke
http://progressingspirit.com/2010/05/27/the-origins-of-the-new-testamentpart-xxiv-introducing-luke/
[3]   The Joy of Sects, A Spirited Guide to The World’s Religious Traditions, Peter Occhiogrosso, page 285
[4]   The Joy of Sects, A Spirited Guide to The World’s Religious Traditions, Peter Occhiogrosso, page 296
[5]   Bishop John Shelby Spong, The Origins of the New Testament XXV – Concluding Luke and the Synoptic Gospels
 http://progressingspirit.com/2010/06/03/the-origins-of-the-new-testament-part-xxv-concluding-luke-and-the-synoptic-gospels/

 

Question

As someone who considers “God” to be primordial Being, through whom and in whom I have my own being, I find it impossible to understand prayer. Do you have any suggestion as to how prayer should be embraced? I come from a Roman Catholic background, but am no longer an adherent. I have pursued the theology of Bultmann, Tillich and the wonderful Scottish Theologian, John MacQuarrie, whose existentialist/ontological approach to the mystery of Being has led me to, what I believe to be, a more wholesome and logical interpretation of God. 
My difficulty now, however, is understanding where/how prayer fits. Any advice you can give would be deeply appreciated.


Answer

Dear Michael,

I appreciate how your evolving understanding of God as Being inevitably calls into question fundamental and practical understandings of your spirituality, such as prayer. In my most recent column I began an exploration of Christianity as a non-dual spiritual practice. The implications of a non-dual Christianity for the conventional practice of prayer are transformational. For starters, within a non-dual Christianity there is no separate entity we call “God,” for the mystery often called “God” is most accurately perceived as being the Being of all. This means each of us is a unique manifestation of Being – distinct but never separate, and that there is not a separate entity to entreat or petition or implore. Being is not some thing out there or in here. Being simply is (and as the East recognizes, Being also implies the emptiness of non-Being – which is a topic for another time).

Within a non-dual Christianity, integral to our spiritual practice is the dedication or entrusting of our lives to the truth of who we are and the life of our unfoldment, as well as to Being that lives and moves and expresses as us. We live lives of gratefulness, because Being is essentially gracious – Being is always already Boundless Love and is our own true nature. The spiritual path thus becomes one of realizing our true nature to such a degree that it transfuses and radiates our entire being without hindrance or veil. When we sit in meditation. When we serve others. When we are sick. When we are at play. Whatever we do, our spiritual practice invites us to realize that we do it as Being expressing itself graciously and freely. The surprisingly spontaneous creative arising of Being, moment-to-moment, captivates our hearts with awe and gratefulness. Our response is song, dance, silence, painting, parenting, sculpting, gardening, etc. All creative expression is sacramental, as it embodies and manifests in sensual ways the undeniable ebullience of Being.

As a teacher, and as a priest in the Episcopal tradition, I lead communities in worship. I endeavor, through education, meditation, conversation, to invite these individuals and groups to inquire into and come to understand the deeper truth of their experiences. I continually reform the language of liturgy – to the degree I judge possible relative to the community’s capacity and within the latitude granted by my polity – so that it more fully embodies the non-dual Christianity of which I speak; wherein “God” is appreciated as symbolic speech – poetry – for gracious Being.

~ Kevin Thew Forrester, Ph.D.

 

Comments

 

2 thoughts on “A Brief Exploration into the Gospel of Luke

  1. I too, a former Catholic, think Macquarie is great and I also discovered John Hick (shortly before his death), who was also a very insightful theologian.

    I agree with Kevin, there is no ‘separate’ entity, no object to consider: “God” is Being or, simply, Being IS, and all are unique manifestations/expressions of Being: distinct but never separate. However, language is a tricky thing: even as I acknowledge ‘never separate,’ I also recognize that I/we are not ‘the Being of All’ and that Being lives and moves and expresses in and through us but perhaps not as us – or not yet. If there is some freedom to us, it is we who have the choice to do (or not) Boundless Love and in the doing, we express, we become, we ARE (such choice also speaks to the risk of creation and the reality of Love).

    Are we the unfolding of Being, presenting what is already there (like the unfolding of a map) or are we yet to be (not a map waiting to unfold but one yet to be created) if we use the tools offered to create and to be (not sure I love this analogy but it’s what I have right now). The human experience seems to be the recognition of giftedness and need. John Macquarie liked panentheism but preferred to call it Dialectical Theism and there is dialectic here (and we can’t swing too far in either direction): there is no separation in Being, yet I stand in need of – perhaps not Other but – More (different in degree not kind). It is the More that must be expressed (incarnate?) for us to Be (come).

    Circling back to prayer: Being enables us to manifest I AM. Being invites or calls us to be and, as Gregory Baum (Man Becoming) said this Call (Word) echoes in creation, specifically in humanity, calling, cajoling, judging and challenging us to Become. Prayer then is listening; it is attentiveness to the Call which can be heard: when your Mother said “don’t fight with your brother” or “hold your sister’s hand” or ‘we don’t use that language in this house;” in the books we read, the songs we listen to and sing; in everyday conversations; in classes; in liturgies; in contemplation on what we hear; and, in the silence of meditation. Prayer begins with Eckhart’s “thank you” but it continues when we ‘listen and respond’ and thereby ‘manifest’ and make Being conspicuous.

    At least I think so as of this writing.

  2. Dear Deshna: I like what you have collected and written about the Gospel of Luke as a preliminary. And I agree with everything you’ve said. I’d like to refer to Jack Spong’s newer book (2016) Chapter 4, pp.43-53.There Jack told how he happened to discover Michael Gould during a cup of tea with Reverend Dr. Jeffrey John at Oxford University many years ago. Jeffrey John asked Jack if he had ever read Gould’s books, which had led him to go to an Oxford bookstore. There Jack found the only available two-volume book entitled: “Luke: A New Paradigm”(It was a very difficult book to read because Gould had written notes in both Hebrew and in Greek.) that cost him about $160 at that time. Later Jack met Professor Gould, who was teaching New Testament at the University of Birmingham. Professor Gould had spent many years in Hong Kong. But while he was teaching at the University of Birmingham in UK, he lost faith by 1981. Professor Goulder said at the time: “You feel rather awful after you’ve kept people’s belief going, week after week, and then say to yourself as you go home: ‘I’m not sure I really believe this myself.’ He remained a good friend with Jack Spong although they went separate ways in the end. He would later debate his spiritual journey with John Hick in “Why Believe in God?” (1983).
    Eugene, from Suzhou, China

Leave a Reply

Cancel