A Lukan Meditation

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Luke 4:21-30

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Frontispiece

We come to the Lord’s Table today, of glad heart and open mind, ready to receive Christ Jesus, even as He receives us, by grace, in grace, through grace.   Walking the sawdust trail toward the Sacrament of Holy Communion, we pause, as have others for two millennia, to listen for a good word, a God word, God’s word, read in Holy Scripture and interpreted in the community, for the community, with the community.

Upon this Lord’s Day, Jesus meets us, today, in the pages of St. Luke, as He will for the next several months.   This year, 2019, with a preparation in Advent in 2018, we turn from Mark to Luke, and see the gospel and the gospel’s world, from a Lukan horizon.  We have shifted our perspective, our angle of vision from the first Gospel, Mark, to the third Gospel, Luke.

In Spain’s wonderful museum, The Prado, now turning 200 years old, you can stand mesmerized by the paintings of El Greco.  One in particular, secured in the pages of St. Luke, carries our gaze into the moment of Jesus’ birth, in this Gospel. Not here before all time, with God, as in John.  Not here, with the wise and powerful, the Magi, as in Matthew. But here, among the poor. Here, among the Shepherds. So El Greco’s majestic painting of the shepherds in awe and wonder, with their long hands and long beards and long faces and long, light reflecting countenances.  God born among the poor.

Overture to Luke

What meets you in St. Luke this year?

Luke was written nearly a generation later than Mark, by most estimates, Mark in or near 70, Luke in or near 90 of the common era.  Traditionally ascribed to Luke the physician, its author and that of its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles, is finally unknown to us.  We know him only through the writing itself.

What do we find?  Or what shall we find in prayerful conversation with Luke across the next year?

Luke is made up of a mixture of ingredients.  First, Luke uses most of Mark. An example is our passage today, the depiction of Jesus rejection by his own home town.  Like Matthew, Luke knew and repeated most of the earlier gospel of Mark. But he made changes along the way, or construed the gospel according to his own desires and emphases.  This is hopeful for us, in that it is an encouragement for us to take the gospel in hand, and interpret it according to our time, location, understanding, and need. Second, Luke uses a collection of teachings, called Q, as does Matthew.  An example is our Lord’s Prayer, later in the service. Luke’s version is slightly different from that in Matthew, as is his version of the beatitudes and other teachings, found in the ‘sermon on the plain’, rather than the ‘sermon on the mount’.  Third, Luke makes ample use of material that is all his own, not found in Mark or elsewhere. The long chapters from Luke 8 or so through Luke 18 or so, are all his. Examples include some of your favorite parables, like the Good Samaritan, and like the lost sheep, and like the Prodigal Son, and like the Dishonest Steward.  We have Luke to thank for the remembrance of these great stories. Luke brings us a unique mixture of materials, and makes his own particular use of them.

What does Luke say, and how does he say it?

This will take us the year and more to unravel.  We shall do so, on step at a time, one Sunday at a time, one parable, teaching, exhortation, miracle, or, as today, one narrative at a time.  Still, there are some outstanding features of the Lukan horizon, which we may simply name as we set forth. First, Luke displays a commitment to and interest in history, and orderly history at that.  Both Luke and Acts are cast in a distinctive historical mode. In fact Luke has his one schemata for sacred history, in three parts: Israel, Jesus, Church: the time of Israel, concluding with John the Baptist; the time of Jesus, concluding with the Ascension; the time of the church, concluding with the parousia, the coming of the Lord on the clouds of heaven, at the end of time.  Second, Luke employs and deploys his own theology, or theological perspective, including this emphasis upon history and the divine purpose in history.   Third, Luke highlights the humanity and compassion of Jesus in a remarkable way. The Christ of St. Luke is the Christ of magnificent compassion, embodied in the humility of a birth among shepherds.  The poor, women, the stranger, the injured, those in dire need all stand out in Luke, as the recipients and subjects of Jesus’ love, mercy, grace and compassion. Fourth, Luke carries an abiding interest in the church.  Ephesians says that ‘through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principles and powers’. That catches the spirit of the author or the third gospel and of the Acts to follow.

Hold most closely the compassion in Luke.  At every turn, there is a return to the least, the last, the lost; those at the dawn of life, those at the twilight of life, those in the shadows of life.

Notice, record, the way Luke puts it, beginning, middle and end:   He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree, he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away…The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor…Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?…Sell your possessions and give alms; provide yourselves with purses that do not grow old…When you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind…You will be repaid at the resurrection of the just…Said Zacchaeus, ‘behold Lord the half of my goods I give to the poor’…They contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty…

Luke’s Hebrew Scripture Inheritance

In all this, and more, Luke draws on the well-springs of inheritance from the Older Testament, the Hebrew Scripture.

Let us read together the books of the Law, like Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger; you know the heart of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt….For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat.”

The Hebrew Scripture, our Older Testament, was largely composed in the dark days of a later slavery, the bondage of Babylon.  In that moment of memory, the community of faith recalled keenly their earliest history of God’s love and power, the God who brought them up out of the land of slavery to the land of milk and honey.   We know what it means to be poor, to be oppressed, to be outcast, to be downtrodden. Once we were ourselves. THEREFORE, there will be justice in our land for the poor. You and you all may need to search your extended family histories and memories for what happened to your people in the Great Depression.   We learned something, or were reminded of something, then, as were the Israelites dragged again in chains to Babylon. Luke writes in earshot of Babylon.

Let us read together the books of the Prophets, the very heart of the Old Testament.  In all of religious literature, in all human history, there is nothing quite as sobering, as piercingly and stingingly direct, with regard to justice, as these 16 voices, four the louder and twelve the lesser.   Malachi teaches tithing. Isaiah affirms holiness. Hosea preaches love. Micah shouts, ‘do justice, love mercy, walk humbly’. Together the prophets consistently rail against human greed, human selfishness, human covetousness, human apathy.  The harvest here for our theme is so plentiful it is difficult to select an exemplar, there are so many.

Perhaps Amos will do best. In the eighth century BCE, a shepherd boy from Tekoa went down to the gates of the big city, Jerusalem, and cried out against it.  He pilloried the shallow religion of his day. He assaulted the reliance, the naïve overreliance of his government on weapons of war, he bitterly chastised the amoral, post moral practices of human sexuality of his day.  But he saved his real anger for justice. The Bible trumpets justice, economic justice, justice for the poor, and for all! If all we had were the poetry of that shepherd boy from Tekoa, Amos would be sufficient:

“I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of shoes—they that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and turn aside the way of the afflicted” (Amos 2:6-7).  “Hear this you cows of Bashan…who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to their husbands, ‘bring that we may drink’, the Lord God has sworn by his holiness that behold the days are coming upon you, when they will take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks” (Amos 4:1-3).  “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5: 21-24). Remember Martin Luther King reciting these verses, down in the sweltering little jail house of Birmingham Alabama.

Let us read together the books of wisdom, especially, as we do each Sunday, the book of the Psalms. Let us read together the books of Wisdom.  Love is for the wise, and justice is the skeleton of love.

“When the just are in authority, the people rejoice, but when the wicked rule, the people groan…The just man knows the rights of the poor; a wicked man does not understand such knowledge…If a King judges the poor with equity his throne will be established forever” (Proverbs 29)

‘Because the poor are despoiled, because the needy groan, I will now arise’, says the Lord; “I will place him in the safety for which he longs’ (Psalm 11: 5).    “You would confound the plans of the poor, but the Lord is his refuge’ (Psalm 14:6).

In an odd way, the most sobering judgment about justice is offered by Ecclesiastes, who speaks least directly to the theme.  But his philosophy is clear.  I look at all the toil of the sons of men, and I see—vanity.  That for which you strive will not last, that for which you suffer will not endure.  “What has a man for all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun?  For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a vexation; even in the night his mind does not rest’ (Ecc 2;23).  As an Indian proverb puts it:  ‘In his lifetime the goose lords it over the mushroom.   But in the end, they are both served up on the same platter’.   I have officiated at 800 or so funerals or memorials, in 40 years of ministry.  Each a reminder:  Justice lasts, not acquisition.

Luke Later

Our New Testament came together a century or so after the writing of Luke.   Luke had an afterglow role in this, too. The books of the NT were written between the year 50ad (1 Thessalonians) and the year 160ad (2 Peter).   But they were not put together until (at earliest record) the year 175, as recorded in the Canon Muratori. And their collection, their canonization, happened in a curious way.  Marcion, the most popular preacher in Rome in 150, the son of an eastern ship builder, was a Christian Gnostic who put together the first proto-New Testament. As a Gnostic, he believed that the God of creation was not God of redemption, the Father of the Lord Jesus Christ; he separated the God of creation from the God of redemption.  To solidify his position, he put together a canon, of sorts, heavily weighted with redemption, which included the Gospel of Luke and the letters of Paul. Notice all that is missing from that shorter Bible—no OT, neither Law or Prophets or Writings; no other Gospels, Matthew or Mark or John; no other letters, Peter or John or Jude. It would have made teaching the Bible much simpler!  And he chose Luke, it might be said, for Luke’s passion for compassion, his regard for redemption. Well, the emerging church came along and said no, and excommunicated Marcion, and reconnected creation and redemption, and added Law, Prophets and Writings, Matthew, Mark and John, the Letters of Peter, John and Jude (and let’s not forget the Revelation) to make of the Bible not a short collection of 10 books, but 66 books in two testaments.  That makes teaching the Bible less simple! You see, the Bible has a story, too. The Gospel of Luke was playing in the pre-season games, but also made it to the Super Bowl (couldn’t resist)!

Luke in Communion at Marsh Chapel

Boston University was born in 1839, and incorporated in 1869, by Methodist ministers, John Dempster and William Fairfield Warren.  It was led,from 1926 until 1951, by its fourth President, also a Methodist preacher, Daniel Marsh. (Marsh’s daughter was with us for worship at Christmas, a month ago, our own dear Nancy Hartman).  Marsh and his wife are interred right here, right below the pulpit, right behind the communion rail at which we gather in a moment. From birth, our school has been in service of the working poor, people of color, former slaves, women, those of other and varied religious traditions. Of all the Gospels, it is St. Luke that best guides us, here at Marsh Chapel, and prepares us, here at Marsh Chapel, to realign ourselves with our own founding principles, to re-clothe us in our own rightful mind.  Luke will faithfully guide us this year, as we strive to live as a heart in the heart of the city, and a service in the service of the city.

Ye that do truly and earnestly repent of your sin, and are in love and charity with your neighbor, and intend to lead a new life, following after the commandments of God, draw near in faith, and take this Holy Sacrament to your comfort.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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