Monday, March 15, 2010

The New Testament in a Year: Luke 7-11

For my own personal study, I am using a combination of tools. These include listening to an audio version of the Bible (TNIV) and a series of commentaries in addition to the text itself. I recognize that not everyone will have access to these materials. I can at least provide a link to the Biblical text itself. For this purpose, I've found that is a very useful tool. Not only does it include the TNIV, which enables me to link to the same text as what I'm listening to with the audio version, but one can easily switch to another translation (if one so desires) simply by using the drop-down menus. I hope that this is helpful.

This week, I am working through Luke, chapters 7-11.

Chapter 7

  • Verses 4-6a - This passage particularly troubles me.  If we were to see this kind of thing being written today, it would as if the people were telling Jesus that he should help someone because he's patriotic and has contributed a lot to the church.  And Jesus seems to be persuaded by this argument!  More often than not, we try to argue against this kind of thing in our churches (we'll get back to this idea fairly explicitly when we start getting into the epistles).  This interpretation of "favor for the wealthy" is diminished somewhat when we add in the fact that the centurion is an outsider... a non-Jew.  Both Matthew and Mark made it fairly clear that Jesus limited the bulk of his ministry to the people of Israel, and even told his disciples not to go to the Gentiles.  Luke, a Gentile himself, not only doesn't retain the same focus on this reality that the others do (he doesn't explicitly contradict it), but goes out of his way to demonstrate when Jesus did help non-Jews.  That's what's happening here.
  • Verses 11-17 - I'm a little surprised that we don't hear this particular story of Jesus raising a dead man more often (I hear about Lazarus all the time).  I suppose it's because only Luke records it.1
  • Verse 16 - I should probably spend some time sometime working through what a "prophet" was understood to be.  Here, people affirm Jesus as a "prophet" not because of anything he's said, but because of the miracle of raising a dead person.
  • Verse 18-35 - We've read another account of this basic story already, whereby John the Baptizer sends followers to ask if Jesus really is the expected Messiah.  I kind of feel sorry for John.  Whatever else is true, it seems that Jesus is not what John was expecting, and now that John is in prison (as Matthew tells us), he no doubt knows his own ability to bring the Jewish people the word of God is nearing an end.  He could have used a bit of affirmation.  But although Jesus does send John's disciples with reassurance that Jesus is indeed "the one who was to come," he waits until after John's disciples had left to tell the assembled people how important John was.  Why couldn't Jesus have said this while John's disciples were still present, so they could pass that word of affirmation on, as well?
  • Verse 39 - On the surface, Simon the Pharisee seems to think Jesus isn't a prophet because Jesus doesn't know something about the woman (a prophet apparently being someone who knows things via supernatural knowledge, another reason I should get into the definitions of "prophet" more someday).  Perhaps.  But, leaving aside Jesus' rebuke in the following verses, I wonder why Simon doesn't dispute Jesus as a prophet on the basis of his allowing her to approach him in this intimate way, all by itself.  I mean, don't the actions speak for themselves (that is, to suggest that she is a "sinner")?  Of course, given Jesus' rebuke, perhaps they don't, or at least shouldn't.
Chapter 8
  • Verses 1-4 - Luke goes to special lengths to highlight a few women who followed Jesus.  Surely, these were not merely traditional women of the time, since at least some of them had resources with which to support Jesus all on their own.  Geldenhuys further notes that "nowhere in the four Gospels is mention made of any women who were hostile to Jesus."2
  • Much of the rest of this chapter is told in other gospels (and much of that, I've already commented on, in fact).  Some of the ways in which Luke tells the same stories differently are noteworthy, but rather than go into detail here, I'll leave this as an invitation to discuss such variations in the comments.
Chapter 9
  • Verses 7-9 - When both Matthew and Mark reported about Herod (Antipas') opinion about Jesus re: John the Baptist, both suggested that Herod thought that Jesus was John raised from the dead (I'm not sure how this would work, given that both Jesus and John lived concurrently).  Luke doesn't suggest this, but rather has the idea of Jesus as a resuscitated John come strictly out of the mouths of others.
  • Verses 37-42 - This is another story that both Matthew and Mark have covered already, and which I have commented on. What intrigues me about Luke's account is that, while Matthew and Mark both give (different!) reasons why the disciples were unable to cast out the demon, Luke doesn't address this issue at all.  He merely has Jesus express frustration before taking care of the problem, and then the story moves on.
  • Verse 55 - I'm not surprised that Jesus rebuked disciples for suggesting that they should "call fire down from heaven to destroy (the Samaritans)"--even granting that Jews and Samaritans didn't get along at all--but I'd like to have seen a few more details of this story.  What did Jesus actually tell them?
Chapter 10
  • Verse 1 - There is some dispute as to whether Jesus appointed 70 or 72 people to go on this enterprise.  Since this story isn't related in one of the other gospels, they can't help us here.  It seems clear that the number (whatever it is) is important, or else Luke wouldn't have shared it with us.  Geldenhuys suggests that the number probably refers to Numbers chapter 11, wherein Moses appoints a number of elders... but even there, either 70 or 72 is a possible reading.3
  • Verses 25-37 - Most Christians know this story: the Parable of the Good Samaritan.  If someone talks about a "Samaritan" today, a lot of people immediately think about this story, and thus reason that a "Samaritan" is a person who does good deeds.  This isn't what "Samaritan" means, and it's really important that this misconception be cleared up.  A "Samaritan" was a member of an ethnic group (cousins to the Jews) that lived in their own territory north of Jerusalem.  I mentioned already that Jews and Samaritans didn't get along.  Geldenhuys goes so far as to say that they were "arch-enemies."4  Perhaps it wouldn't be too far off base if we were to tell a story about a person who was mugged, and who was passed by a pastor and a businessman, and only a Muslim cleric stopped to help the person.  Who was a neighbor to that person?
  • Verses 38-42 - Once again, we see an example of a woman praised for doing something non-traditional.

Chapter 11
  • Verse 5-13 - I find it intriguing that Jesus would encourage people to pray using illustrations such as these.  For example, who would suggest that God is like a tired friend who only reluctantly responds to a request so he can go back to sleep?  The point, of course, is that Jesus is encouraging people not only to pray, but to do so persistently.  I wonder how many people, even today--even people who know better--fail to pray for their own needs....  I know that many Christians have a mind-set that suggests that it is "selfish" to pray for one's self, and therefore only pray for the needs of others.  Whatever Jesus might teach about prayers for others, I'd certainly suggest that the teachings of these verses indicate that it is more than permissible to pray for one's own needs.
  • Verses 24-26 - Geldenhuys suggests that these verses teach that it is impossible to be spiritually neutral.  A person will either have evil spirits, or the Spirit of God.5  This may well be the case, but I would submit I don't see it as explicit in this passage.  (On the other hand, I certainly have no better interpretation, and so would lean toward agreement, except perhaps to suggest that I don't know anyone who seems to be wholly "evil" or wholly "Spirit-led."  Most people seem to demonstrate signs of both states at one point or another.)
  • Verses 39-41 - Matthew shared a similar teaching about cleaning only the outside of a cup, but I'm intrigued that Luke specifies a particular way to "clean the inside," specifically, giving to the poor.
  • Verse 42: "without leaving the former undone" - Jesus isn't telling the Pharisees to abandon the Old Testament laws (in this case, regarding tithing), but he's clearly saying that other things are just as (if not more!--as in Matthew) important.
  • Verse 46: "And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them." - I just think this verse should be emphasized more.

1In Norval Geldenhuys, The Gospel of Luke (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), Eerdmans, 1951, p. 222, the author remarks that the fact that only Luke records this tale has caused some scholars to doubt its historicity. I'm not entirely clear on why the singular mention in the gospels should be cited as a reason. Rather than simply defending the tale's historicity, I'd have liked to see some engagement with what the "other" scholars think is wrong, since I'm just not seeing the problem, as it stands.
2Geldenhuys, p. 239.
3Geldenhuys, p. 303.  Geldenhuys suggests that Eldad and Medad may be counted in addition to the "seventy" mentioned in Numbers, thus making a reading of 72, possible.
4Geldenhuys, p. 311.
5Geldenhuys, pp. 330-331.

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