LUKE: A Gospel for Progressives?

If I had to select one of the four Gospels to recommend to Christian Progressives, I would choose the Gospel According to Luke. To explain this I need to define “progressive,” and then to discuss how I think Luke was a Progressive in his own time.

Contents of this Article

What Does Christian Progressive Mean?
Luke in the Christian Tradition
      The Era of Historical Criticism
      The Sources of Luke’s Gospel
      Luke as a Theologian
      Luke as a Narrator
Luke, a Progressive in his Own Time
      On Jesus’ Return in Glory
      On the Challenge of the Meantime
      On the Church: churches not the Church
Stumbling Blocks in Luke for a Progressive
      A Progressive’s Canon
      Ascension
      The Martha Putdown
      The Treatment of Wealth
      The Portrayal of the Jews
A Selected List of Commentaries on Luke

What Does Christian Progressive Mean?

In the course of writing Lectionary studies for ten years, I constantly questioned what made a Biblical interpretation “progressive.” I became clear early on that a progressive Bible reader would encounter things that could not be seriously credited to God — actual God, not just ancient Israelite ideas about God (Yahweh). It cannot be part of the fabric of the universe that Israelites were required to slaughter their neighbors for chauvinistic reasons, though as a historical phenomenon this was comprehensible if regrettable (Joshua, passages in Deuteronomy). New perspectives came to deeply religious people in the course of the centuries (many prophets, the suffering servant, and ultimately the love-your-enemy texts). As the United Church of Christ’s recent motto has it, Do not put a period where God has (may have) put only a comma!

For a more systematic view of what is “Christian Progressive,” I found assistance in an article by John B. Cobb, “The Christian Reason for Being Progressive.” The whole article covers several topics, but here are the key paragraphs for present purposes.

Conservatives understand faith to mean holding steadfast to received Christian teaching and practice. This is often desirable when the alternative is to be swept up in currents of nationalism, superstition, self-indulgence, and idolatry. But for a progressive, holding steadfast is not an expression of faith when we are confronted with new insights that have some element of truth and righteousness. Holding steadfast when this means the outright rejection of insights and wisdom is not faith but clinging. It is a protective and defensive response that does not express trust in the Spirit of Truth. Faith is expressed instead through letting go and by openness to truth however it comes to us.

This faith is not abandonment of tradition. It is the tradition, and especially Christ, that calls for trust and openness, a humble attitude, the willingness to learn. The task in each new situation is both to bring the wisdom of our tradition to bear and also to rethink elements in the tradition in light of what we can learn from others. The result is not the diminishment of the tradition but its repeated transformation.

“The Christian Reason for Being Progressive,” John B. Cobb, Jr., Theology Today, Vol. 51, No. 4 — January 1995, pages 548-562 (the above on p. 554).

Luke in the Christian Tradition

For eighteen hundred years, the Gospel According to Luke was something of a step-daughter within the Christian Scriptures. Of the four Gospels, the going-away favorites through the ages were Matthew and John. Luke was valued alongside the others because of a number of outstanding gems found only in that Gospel, such as,

  • the peaceful Christmas stories (to balance Matthew’s fearful nativity cycle),
  • some magnificent parables (such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son),
  • Jesus’ saying on the cross, “Father, forgive them…,” and
  • Jesus’ walk to Emmaus with two disciples on Easter day.

Otherwise, Luke was used to supplement (harmonize) the total Gospel story presented mainly in Matthew, or to provide a little compassion for the poor to balance the super-high Christ doctrine of the Gospel of John.

The Era of Historical criticism.

Broadly speaking, the long history of harmonizing Luke with the other Gospels lasted until the nineteenth century. After the humanists had taught Europe to use methods of historical criticism (e.g., Lorenzo Valla, 1450 CE) and political philosophers had fought off civic intolerance based on the scriptures (Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza in the 17th century), serious historical study of the scriptures began in European universities, especially in Germany (late 18th century). As far as Luke’s writings (Gospel and Acts) were concerned, the issue was, How reliable is Luke as a historian?

The answer, particularly concerning the book of Acts, was pretty negative at first. By the mid-nineteenth century, the famous Tübingen school had come to view Acts as a late tendentious writing designed to smooth things over in the second-century church, and thus not at all reliable history. By the beginning of the twentieth century, William Ramsey of Britain and Adolf von Harnack of Germany had gone far to rehabilitate Acts’ reputation as good ancient history writing, but that didn’t settle things for the Gospel and historical interest in the life of Jesus.

(For the following, see, for example, L. Michael White, Scripting Jesus: the Gospels in Rewrite, HarperOne, 2010, chapter 13, “The Martyred Sage: The Gospel of Luke,” pp. 318-344.)

By the beginning of the twentieth century, the first three Gospels had been sorted out into two early documents — the Gospel of Mark and the Sayings Source Q — and other materials contained only in either Matthew (M) or Luke (L). Matthew and Luke themselves were composite documents, of historical value only for the later development of the Jesus tradition and of the early church. This later development included, of course, everything about Jesus’ birth and the more graphic post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.

The Sources of Luke’s Gospel.

The consensus of critical scholars about how Luke was composed is as follows:

  1. The overall narrative structure is based on Mark’s Gospel.
  2. Luke prefixed, from sources of his own, the Birth and Childhood stories of John the Baptist and Jesus, Luke 1-2.
  3. Mark’s ministry of Jesus in Galilee was expanded by additions from the Sayings Source Q and a few items of Luke’s own, Luke 3-9:50. (Luke also omitted a big hunk of Mark [Mark 6:45-8:26] between Luke 9:17 and 18, skipping straight from the feeding of the 5,000 to Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah.)
  4. Luke created a large section, often called the “Travel Narrative,” which sits between the Galilean ministry and the Jerusalem ministry, Luke 9:51-19:44. These ten chapters contain rather miscellaneous materials from Q and L, the latter especially rich in parables. Near the end, Mark is drawn on again for his journey to Jerusalem, Luke 18:15-43. While theoretically this is a “travel” narrative, the journey never makes any progress (except in the section taken from Mark). The “journey” is a device for depositing a great conglomeration of teachings of Jesus not included in the Galilean ministry.
  5. Luke follows Mark’s account of Jesus’ debates in the Temple, though with small variations (e.g., no cursed fig tree; the apocalyptic discourse is in the temple, not on the Mount of Olives), Luke 19:45-21:38.
  6. The Passion narrative follows Mark, but with major distinctive touches (omitting the anointing in Bethany; a symposium of speeches at the last supper; Jesus sweating in Gethsemane; Herod Antipas included in the Trial of Jesus; the Father forgive them saying; the penitent thief on the cross), Luke 22-23.
  7. The Empty Tomb is taken from Mark, though Luke (as often) needs two angels where one is sufficient for Mark and Matthew, Luke 24:1-11.
  8. In post-resurrection appearances there is no Mark to follow, and Luke goes his own way (the walk to Emmaus, the appearance in the locked room, and especially the ascension), Luke 24:13-53. (The Gospel of John also knows the locked room episode, John 20:19-29.)
Luke as Theologian.

By the middle of the twentieth century Luke as a Gospel was no longer of interest for seeking the historical Jesus. While his sources might be of historical value, Luke himself worked in the second generation after the death of Jesus and was one among many who had begun to collect and write traditions about Jesus (Luke 1:1-4).

But Luke had worked with those traditions. He (and his community of reference) had not just collected those traditions; he had sorted them, put them in sequences, and created an overall presentation of Jesus and his followers. Suddenly scholars awakened to the fact that such “work” was actually rather theological. It definitely involved communicating to others what was the meaning of Jesus’ coming and of the movement that was spreading across the Roman empire.

The work that made Luke famous as a theologian was Hans Conzelmann’s Die Mitte der Zeit (“the middle of time”), which appeared in German in 1953, but was translated into English under the title, The Theology of St. Luke (tr. G. Buswell, Harper, 1960). Conzelmann argued that Luke’s extensive redaction (compiling and revising) of Mark, Q, and L created a specific theological viewpoint. This theology was addressed to a later generation of Christians who were settling in for the long haul rather than waiting for the momentary return of Jesus, which the first generation had expected. These believers were fitting themselves into the larger “sacred history” that included the Israel of the Jewish scriptures (see Luke 16:16). That history had now come to include a whole generation of Jesus followers, who had received the same Holy Spirit known to Israel and now sent to those followers by God after Jesus’ exaltation to heaven.

A wave of writings about Luke’s theology (covering both the Gospel and Acts) occupied many scholars for the rest of the twentieth century. A balanced review and summary of its early results is given in Joseph Fitzmyer’s commentary in the Anchor (Yale) Bible, The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Doubleday, 1981, pp. 1-34, and “A Sketch of Lucan Theology,” pp. 143-270. A more (!) compendious treatment has also just appeared, Darrell L. Bock, A Theology of Luke and Acts, Zondervan, 2012 (495 pages).

Luke as Narrator.

Beginning in the 1970s and escalating to the end of the century, a new type of literary critical approach to Luke’s Gospel and Acts appeared. This approach applied such concepts as “implied author,” “implied reader,” character development, and plotting to the Gospel and Acts. These critics focused especially on literary patterns, such as parallels between the actions of Peter and of Paul in Acts, or even between the martyrdom of Jesus in Jerusalem (Gospel) and the near-martyrdom of Paul in Jerusalem (Acts). A favorite analytic device of these critics is to identify “chiastic structures,” clusters of repeated themes or actions in “envelope” patterns of A-B-C-C’-B’-A’, with variable numbers of units included in the structure.

One of the clearer explanations of this approach was William S. Kurz, Reading Luke-Acts, Westminster/John Knox, 1993. Some prominent studies that emphasized Luke-Acts as a narrative were Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke, Crossroad, 1982 (Reading Acts came later), and Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, 2 vols., Fortress Press, 1986-1990.

This literary approach has led in popular writings to strong emphasis on “stories” and Luke as “storyteller.” For example, Mikeal C. Parsons, Luke: Storyteller, Interpreter, Evangelist, Hendrickson, 2007 (actually a collection of studies in Luke-Acts rather than an exposition of it); Paul Borgman, The Way according to Luke: Hearing the Whole Story of Luke-Acts, Eerdmans, 2006 (an English professor’s use of the “literary” approach to Luke, also not a straightforward read-through of Luke-Acts). L. Michael White’s Scripting Jesus approaches all the Gospels in terms of techniques of storytelling. His book is organized entirely around dramatic-narrative categories:

Act I, Casting Characters
[Messiah, Logos, Divine Man, Savior], pp. 19-83.
Act II, Crafting Scenes
[passion, exorcisms, parables, births], pp. 85-256.
Act III, Staging Gospels
[Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, others], pp. 257-404.

It turns out that many “literary” or “narrative” studies of Luke do not in reality present a close reading of the text of the Gospel (for example, Talbert’s Reading Luke and Tannehill’s Narrative Unity… [the volume on the Gospel], each of which treat the text in selected clusters rather than in narrative sequence). For a strict sequential reading of Luke, one needs more standard commentaries, of which there have been many in recent times. (A selection of commentaries with annotations is given at the end of this essay.)

Before turning to Luke as a progressive, I would like to recommend two works. One is a commentary, Fred B. Craddock, Luke, in the Interpretation series, John Knox Press, 1990. Craddock knows the scholarship but is not swallowed by it. His assessments are very sensible and cogent. He is a renowned preacher and views Luke as a preacher, which makes for some effective communication. A very good read for a non-specialist.

The second recommendation is Graham H. Twelftree, People of the Spirit: Exploring Luke’s View of the Church, Baker Academic, 2009. Twelftree is a British scholar now teaching in Virginia. His theological leanings are conservative, but this challenging work, focused heavily on Acts, is a rigorous study of the meaning of church/Church in Luke’s writings. The topic is important because Luke’s major overall achievement (Gospel and Acts) is presenting the evolution of the kingdom of God into the churches.

Luke, a Progressive in his own Time.

Luke compiled his two-volume work after the developing Jesus tradition had passed a significant landmark: the deaths of the first generation of prominent Jesus followers.

All three major leaders mentioned by Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-8 — Peter, James the Brother, and Paul — had been martyred in the early 60’s of the Christian Era. James the disciple, elder brother of John son of Zebedee, had already gone the same route around the year 41 (Acts 12:1-2). Of the early group, the only known survivor was John the younger Zebedee brother, who migrated from Palestine to the Roman province of Asia (Ephesus), probably sometime after James the Brother was executed in Jerusalem in 62 CE.

None of the deaths in the 60’s are recorded by Luke in Acts — not because he did not know of them but because he is a disciplined writer and the scope of his work was to get Paul to Rome, still freely proclaiming the Gospel (Acts 28; see 1:8). The persecution of the Christians in Rome by Nero in 64 had come and gone, but carrying the narrative through that dark episode did not fit Luke’s objectives as shaped in the 80’s or 90’s.

On Jesus’ Return in Glory

Attributed (roughly) to Alfred Loisy around 1906: “Jesus announced the coming of the Kingdom of God, and what showed up was the Church.”

Luke retained the apocalyptic tradition… When Luke wrote, one whole generation was gone and another was well along. Yet in his Gospel, Luke preserved those passages from Mark which predicted that the Son of Man (the risen Jesus) would return in glory before that first generation had died.

Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:26-27.)

Luke has modified the last sentence of Mark’s version. In Mark, that generation would not taste death “until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power” (Mark 9:1). Mark preserved more thoroughly the truly apocalyptic orientation of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom, which would culminate (after Jesus’ death) in the spectacular coming of the Son of Man on the clouds (Mark 13:24-27), an event Mark also asserted would happen before “this generation” passed away (Mark 13:30).

but Luke varied that tradition. Luke modified Mark’s saying by dropping out the phrase “with power” from the coming of the kingdom. This creates an important ambiguity. The “kingdom” may not necessarily be the apocalyptic climax with the Son of Man on the clouds; the kingdom might be something less spectacular, like a charismatic movement that advanced steadily and impressively across the Roman empire.

Luke also adapted other traditional sayings about the coming kingdom.

Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you [alternative translation, “within you”].” (Luke 17:20-21.)

Luke has Jesus go from this statement to the Pharisees to a long disquisition to the disciples about the suddenness of the Day of the Son of Man (17:22-37). This discourse (mostly from the Sayings Source Q) says that Day will be like Noah’s flood or Sodom and Gomorrah — like lightning across the heavens. There will be no time for preparation; two women grinding, one gone, one left.

Thus Luke and his community still expect the sudden time of judgment, but it cannot be predicted. In the MEANTIME — “the kingdom of God is among you.” As Luke reads the apocalyptic tradition of Jesus, the great judgment — first announced by John the Baptist (or Malachi) and declared more emphatically by Jesus – is sure. Sure – but still in the future. Given that certainty, Luke in both the Gospel and Acts tells how Jesus prepared for and the apostles’ worked within that great MEANTIME, a time during which many vigorous and faithful assemblies came into being.

How the kingdom was announced. Luke’s different take on Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom is seen in the contrast between Mark’s introduction of Jesus and Luke’s. Here is Jesus’ first proclamation according to Mark:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near [or “is at hand’]; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15.)

Though he follows Mark for most of the actions in the Galilee period, Luke omits this opening proclamation. Instead, Luke has Jesus go to Nazareth and preach his first sermon to the home folks (Luke 4:16-30). Instead of announcing that the kingdom of God is at hand, Jesus announces that HE is at hand. And who he is is given in the prophet Isaiah: he is the one Anointed by the Spirit of God, not to execute a great judgment, but to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed.

This is a new definition — at least a new formulation — of the kingdom of God. This is the kind of activity the disciples (later apostles) will be engaged in. It is the kind of activity the chains of assemblies (“churches”) will be engaged in. This is the coming of the kingdom of God — as Jesus first announced it, according to Luke.

On the Challenge of the “Meantime.”

John the Baptist’s reform program. Luke and his referent communities knew they lived in the “meantime.” The character and importance of that time between Jesus and the end is very much a concern of Luke’s writings. Mark and Matthew present John the Baptist as a preacher of repentance and conversion before the judgment. Only Luke has John present a program of social reform to guide conduct in that waiting time.

And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even the tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-15, NRSV.)

When Luke is moved to expand on the inherited tradition, he does so in the direction of the poor and the oppressed. Here is a program for a social safety net, for an honest internal revenue service, and for a non-corrupt police and military establishment. When Luke focused on the MEANTIME, these are the needs he saw.

Wealth. On the same lines, the era of waiting — between the times — must inevitably raise the problem of the have-mores and have-nots. Wealth is a major preoccupation in Luke’s Gospel: In contrast to Matthew, Luke’s beatitudes for the poor, the hungry, the mourning, and the persecuted are balanced by woes on the rich, the satisfied, the joyful, and the well-esteemed (Luke 6:20-26). The parable of the “Rich Fool” condemns an exemplar of capitalism (Luke 12:13-21), and a whole chapter is given to miscellaneous (and ambiguous) parables and sayings, generally devoted to condemning wealth (Luke 16). (What was actually going on with wealth in the churches Luke was writing for?)

More than the other Gospels, Luke shows us Jesus paying attention to the poor, the sick, women, the despised, and in general the marginalized. No imminence of the great judgment is an excuse for ignoring suffering, injustice, and neglect. Jesus is constantly finding and ministering to such folks around him — whether Luke takes the reports from Mark, Q, or his own informants (L). Luke conveys to his circuit of assemblies (churches) that those things are what the Meantime — the waiting for Jesus time — is about.

Into the World. What particularly shows the nature of the MEANTIME is the book of Acts. Pentecost, the great irruption into the world of God’s Spirit, does not cause the disciples to simply cultivate their spiritual community in Jerusalem. Pentecost sends them out — thus the great emphasis on all the foreigners who hear the gospel proclaimed. Acts portrays how the waiting time allowed believers to be sought in Samaria, Caesarea, Syria, the provinces of Galatia, Asia, Macedonia, and Achaia as well as finally reaching Rome. The world of the kingdom in Luke is not only the Galilee and Judea of the Gospel but the extended world of the apostles Peter and Paul.

On the Church: Luke thinks of churches — not the Church.

Allowing for some exaggeration, the following is roughly true of the church in the Gospels:

  • Mark has no church; only discipleship, those following Jesus toward martyrdom or his return in power.
  • John has no church; only a mystic communion of disciples, exemplified in the Disciple that Jesus Loved. (The appendix in John 21 does have a church, fed by Peter.)
  • Matthew has a Church — with Authority. Only Matthew has the word “church,” ekklesia, assembly (Matthew 16:18; 18:17). “…you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19, NRSV).
  • Luke has no “church” in the Gospel, but in Acts Luke presents the Courage to be the churches.

In Acts 1-5 Luke presents an idealized picture of the “original” church of Jerusalem. That church had ceased to exist around 66 and was no longer, if ever, relevant to Luke’s situation in Asia Minor and Greece. The churches of Luke’s world are reflected in the many people of the churches Paul founds in Galatia, Asia, and Greece. The names of many of these local believers are included in Acts (chapters 16-20): Timothy and his mother in Lystra of Galatia, Lydia in Philippi, Jason in Thessalonica, Sopater in Beroea, Dionysius and Damaris in Athens, Titius Justus and Crispus in Corinth, Eutychus in Troas, and the elders of Ephesus to whom Paul made his farewell speech (Acts 20:17-38).

The church for Luke was all these local assemblies, particularly those who traced an origin to the missionary work of Paul. The book of Acts preserves the founding story of those assemblies for the next generation. Luke knew these assemblies over a period of time, as well as others not mentioned in Acts. As a young man he had accompanied Paul on some of his trips — especially the one to Jerusalem and Rome (Acts 21-28). As a more mature leader of the movement, Luke knew these churches more as they appear in the book of Revelation than as they were in Paul’s missionary days. In Revelation, chapters 2-3, the visionary receives letters from the heavenly Lord to seven of the churches of the province of Asia. These churches are a mixed bag, hot, cold, and luke-warm, but they almost certainly represent the state that the Jesus movement had reached at the time Luke wrote his two-scroll work, Luke-Acts.

In the perspective of Luke’s Gospel, these churches were that “kingdom” that Jesus’ generation would see before it died. These were the congregations caught up by the Spirit and directed to the work of that kingdom that, Jesus said, was “among you.”

Stumbling Blocks in Luke for a Progressive

Given all that, there are aspects of Luke’s work that have seemed to me rather non-progressive.

A progressive’s canon.

I put this section in personal terms because I have come to believe that part of being a Christian progressive is having one’s own covert or overt canon. I think progressives who retain the Bible as a core of that “tradition” they support but occasionally must revise, almost have to select certain texts or themes that represent the truth and power of that part of their heritage. Correspondingly, they will also encounter Biblical passages that they cannot accept — perhaps as OK for others, or perhaps as unworthy or unacceptable altogether (passages about holy war, psalms that damn one’s enemies to hell, or passages that condemn some sexual orientations).

I think it is pretty common for progressives to affirm a God of Love, and find Biblical passages one can recite to support and enhance that perspective. The same folks, however, are often uncomfortable with more Calvinistic passages about the sovereignty and judgment of God. Similarly, finding passages that resound with mottos for social justice and compassion for the downtrodden is common and fitting — even when some troublesome sayings can be found in the same scriptural neighborhood.

Thus a Christian progressive is almost certain, by design or by default, to have a personal canon — to have scriptures that ring true and are returned to over and over. And by the same token the progressive will encounter passages that are troublesome and irritating.

Here are some items I would mark as stumbling blocks in Luke’s work for my personal canon.

The Ascension.

Luke is the only Biblical writer who gives an account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The account of the ascension is given vaguely at the end of the Gospel (Luke 24:50-51) and in more detail at the beginning of Acts (Acts 1:9-12). As a supposedly historical event, this is probably the most outlandish element of the Jesus tradition preserved in the four Gospels.

Historical explanations can be given for why an ascension story was needed, but they involve assessments of the post-crucifixion Jesus stories about which Christians are likely to differ a lot. Suffice it to say, the ascension was necessary to get the physical Jesus off the scene. Especially for Luke’s work, the future was directed by the Holy Spirit. Luke has Jesus state the master plan for the second volume (Acts 1:6-8), then retire to the right hand of God so the Holy Spirit can actively take over the work (Pentecost).

Still, the Ascension is an irritating reinforcement of the ancient world-view that I could live without.

The Martha Putdown.

I am always annoyed by the conclusion of the Martha and Mary episode (Luke 10:38-42). The story can be read so that Martha is a bit of a nag: she interrupts a Jesus seminar to complain to the teacher (!) about her sister. When things get that public, you have to think there has been a major domestic breakdown. The punch-line of the story, however — “Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42) — is a putdown of the needs of the host woman (its her house), no matter how marvelous the spiritual uplift Mary is receiving from Jesus’ holding forth. The only appropriate response by Jesus would be to let Martha and Mary work it out between them. After all, when one of two brothers asked Jesus to settle an inheritance dispute, Jesus’ reply was, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:13-14).

The proper context for Jesus’ comment about Mary — “Mary has chosen the better part” — is the apocalyptic urgency of the coming kingdom. When the man finds the ultimate treasure in a field, he goes and sells everything to get that field — or the pearl of great price (Matthew 13:44-46). There are some points at which everything is at stake. That’s when you forget about preparing snacks for the seminar and flee for the hills or head for Jerusalem. As the story reads, Martha gets an unfair putdown!

The Treatment of Wealth.

As indicated, Luke includes lots of things about wealth, but some of them get pretty out of hand. The blanket instruction to the disciples, “Sell your possessions, and give alms” (12:33) is only credible in the eschatological context of, “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32). Equally uncompromising is 14:33: “…none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” The most radical sayings about wealth require the original apocalyptic framework to be credible. You can be very bold in casting away assets — if there is no tomorrow! (The alternative — later followed in the church — is to confine the radical wealth sayings to only select groups, such as clergy or monks.)

On another aspect of wealth, the “Parable of the Dishonest Manager (Steward)” certainly fails as a useful instruction (Luke 16:1-8). The manager is definitely dishonest, and is “commended” for his conduct (verse 8a). Clearly something has gone astray in the retelling or adaptation of this parable, and none of the usual explanations or excuses has any substance. Once again, the only application of the original story that could be credible would be the radical apocalyptic one: In a time of cataclysm (Noah’s flood; Sodom and Gomorrah), take drastic measures (sell all and go buy the field). Even fine points about forged IOUs (16:5-7) can be overlooked when the kingdom is actually at hand! Unfortunately, the sayings strung out after the “parable” (16:8b-13), supposedly to elaborate its meaning, are about wealth management, not about the apocalyptic crisis. When added to the parable, they simply make the issue of wealth in Luke more confused. In general, I would drop chapter 16 from Luke in my progressive canon — if it weren’t for losing the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31).

Wealth is also an issue in Acts. The famous “communism” attributed to the earliest church (2:44-46 and 4:32) was an ideal that, as Luke presents it, faded away as numbers increased and the communities divided between “Hellenists” and “Hebrews” (6:1). That pooled economy is the occasion for the notorious Ananias and Sapphira story (5:1-11). Presumably it was necessary to keep telling this unedifying story in order to scare people into being honest about committing their liquidated assets to the common treasury. While the purposes of the book of Acts may require this episode, I would drop it from my canon.

The Portrayal of the Jews.

Luke portrays an increasing but relentless rejection by the Jewish people of Jesus and the message about Jesus. The birth stories about John and Jesus (Luke 1-2) are very positive about faithful Israelites who were waiting for the Messiah. Jesus’ first public appearance, however, is a rejection story (Luke 4:16-30), and the many encounters with opponents, first the Pharisees in Galilee, then the authorities in Jerusalem, lead to the trials in Jerusalem and the crucifixion.

In Acts the early church is entirely Jewish, even when it is divided into Hellenists and Hebrews (the difference being language, not religion). Turning points come when Peter is led very directly by God to preach to and baptize non-Jewish Romans in Caesarea (Acts 10), and when the gospel preached by Barnabas and Paul is rejected by the Jewish people in Galatia while the non-Jewish people respond and become the Christian assemblies in that province (Acts 13-14). In the rest of Acts, Paul’s message is consistently rejected by Jews of the synagogues but responded to by non-Jewish people, and assemblies are founded in city after city of the Roman provinces.

The climax is the final rejection of the gospel by Jews in Rome, against whom Paul repeats the dark prophecy from Isaiah, “You will indeed listen, but never understand…” (Acts 28:26, quoting Isaiah 6:9), to which Paul adds, “Let it be known to you then that this salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles [that is, the Nations]; they will listen” (Acts 28:29).

This is not something I would omit from my progressive canon. In broad terms it was historical; mainline Jewish groups did reject the message about Jesus as the Messiah. Acts accurately shows the Jesus movement steadily becoming more and more non-Jewish, more and more a movement of the peoples of the nations. That development was clearly well along when Luke wrote his two-volume work. (Tradition, of course, has mostly thought Luke himself was a non-Jewish person.)

It is not something I would omit; it is something about which I would feel troubled. It is a strong warning for admirers of Luke to keep some aspects of his work firmly in the past. That portrayal of the surging charismatic movement sweeping the Roman provinces — leaving synagogues of scripture-disputing Jews along the way — was much later displaced by a triumphant and oppressing dominion of orthodox Christian rulers and populations. Allegiance to our Tradition does not require us to affirm all that development as God’s work.

Better to reaffirm the original statement of Jesus’ mission, as Luke gave it, and be grateful for the courage of those who became the churches!

A Selected List of Commentaries on Luke

The challenge here is what to mention from a large field. The following are the English language commentaries — on Luke only — I think noteworthy, for the reasons given.

Two oldies but goodies:

John M. Creed, The Gospel According to St. Luke, Macmillan, original in 1930. A master treatment of the sources and composition of Luke. Greek text.

William Manson, The Gospel of Luke, Moffatt Commentaries, Hodder & Stoughton, 1930. A sensible and uncomplicated (but not simple) treatment.

Large-scale works from the late twentieth century:

I. Howard Marshall, Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary, Eerdmans, 1978. A Greek-text commentary by a prominent Evangelical scholar with well-presented conservative positions.

Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke (I-IX), Anchor [Yale] Bible, 1981, and The Gospel According to Luke (X-XXIV), Anchor Bible, 1985. Probably the most balanced comprehensive treatment of Luke available. Helpful in assessing one-sided fads that have been applied to Luke-Acts.

John Nolland, Luke 1-9:20 (1989), Luke 9:21-18:34 (1993), Luke 18:35-24:53 (1993), 3 volumes in the Word Biblical Commentary series (Word Books, Dallas, TX). As in all the volumes of this series, it has massive treatment of past scholarship. The format almost achieves the ideal two-panel view of Luke: what Luke was made out of (“form/structure/setting”) and what Luke was made into (“Explanation”).

Francois Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 1:1-9:50, tr. Christine M. Thomas, Hermeneia Series, Fortress Press, 2002; Luke 3: A Commentary on the Gospel of Luke 19:28-24:53, tr. James Crouch, Hermeneia Series, Fortress Press, 2012. [Volume 2 is about to appear in English.] A life-time work by an esteemed Swiss scholar who taught at the University of Geneva for 26 years and at Harvard Divinity School since 1993. This work was published in German between 1989 and 2007 as part of a huge ecumenical collaboration on New Testament commentary.

Robert T. Carroll, Luke: A Commentary, The New Testament Library series, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012. A major commentary, just off the press; a big seller at the national meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature in Chicago in November. Carroll has long taught at Union Presbyterian Seminary (its current name) in Richmond, Virginia, and this work completes a life engagement with Luke. It is tightly written — one might even say its style is a little crabbed. Carroll takes a rigorous narrative approach to the Gospel. Luke wrote a narrative with an implied author and implied audiences. Carroll’s technique, however, allows him to enter into Luke’s narrative and discuss Jesus’ intentions and motives — the Jesus that Luke had mind, presumably. It often sounds as if Carroll has succeeded in getting back to the historical Jesus — but that’s just a trick of the various narrative perspectives. Carroll has a few Excurses on complicated subjects, like “The Reign of God and the Roman Empire…” (the recent anti-imperial clichés are critiqued but basically sustained), and “Poverty and Wealth in Luke’s Gospel.” A massive work with enormous depths of detail and scholarship, but to this reader, at least, a little tired and somewhat disappointing.

Mid-sized Current Commentaries

Fred B. Craddock’s Interpretation volume, mentioned in the text above, belongs here.

Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Sacra Pagina Series, Liturgical Press, 1991. Johnson’s writing is clear and forceful. He emphasizes greatly — perhaps too greatly — that Luke presents Jesus as a Prophet. The titles of six of the seven major parts into which the book is divided contain the word “Prophet.” Treats the Gospel very much as a narrative.

R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, Abingdon Press, 1995, pp. 1-490. This is a balanced and reliable presentation of scholarship on the book into the 90’s, with reflections relating the texts to concerns of the present.

Robert C. Tannehill, Luke, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries, Abingdon Press, 1996. A mature commentary by a scholar who had worked on Luke over 30 years. (See “Luke as Narrator,” in the text above.) Comparable to Fred Craddock’s commentary, but with more academic than preaching flavor.

F. Scott Spencer, The Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles, Interpreting Biblical Texts series, Abingdon Press, 2008. This is not actually a commentary, but Part Two (pp. 95-238) proceeds through Luke in sequence followed by one chapter on Acts. The work is aimed at seminary students preparing for internship engagements. It is written in a somewhat catchy mode: “Newsflash—Luke and Acts are works of literature!” (p. 19). It has a generous use of charts and lists, as if the original presentations were accompanied by Powerpoint screens.

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