a figure of sacrifice, service and strength. The ox signifies that Christians should be prepared to sacrifice themselves in following Christ.
LIVING WITH LUKE (1)
Luke 1:1-4 - Introduction
1 Many people have already applied themselves to the task of compiling an account of the events that have been fulfilled among us. 2 They used what the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed down to us. 3 Now, after having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, I have also decided to write a carefully ordered account for you, most honorable Theophilus. 4 I want you to have confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received.
This is Year C in the lectionary and the gospel for this year is Luke. I will produce a weekly series throughout Year C on this gospel. My conversation partner for this series is Luke Timothy Johnson’s excellent recent book on Luke-Acts, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church.
We don’t really know where or when the gospel was written and for our purposes it’s not necessary to make a decision about either.
“Luke” (whoever he was) is the author of the third gospel as well as the book of Acts in the Christian Bible. He was a Gentile, writing to a Gentile Christian (“Theophilus,” v.3) doubtless with an eye on the larger Gentile Christian community.
Luke is a self-confessed “Johnny-Come-Lately” to the task of writing up Jesus’ story for others to read (v.1). He had numerous predecessors and access to their work. That work was based on first-hand testimony (v.2). Luke writes to “Theophilus” that he has assessed his sources with care and integrity that he may have “confidence in the soundness of the instruction you have received” (v.4).
Frequently interpreters read Luke’s prologue as a claim to its historical veracity. And indeed, in terms of first century Greco-Roman history writing, Luke comes off pretty well on this score. It’s only when we require him to meet the standards of modern history writing that he comes off deficient (along with the rest of ancient history). So Luke tended to be assessed historically (whether positively or negatively) and we thought we had done justice to his reasons for writing.
Luke Timothy Johnson argues otherwise. He claims that Luke is a work of ancient “apologetic history.” It aims to write history to highlight moral exemplars or commend certain of it characters (16). Its concern for sequence, which Luke exhibits as well, serves this larger concern of promoting or defending these exemplars and characters. I will say more about what this means for reading Luke after we look the content of his prologue.
They key word is “confidence” (v.4) not “truth” (as in the NRSV). What did Theophilus (and the Gentile Christian community along with him) need to gain confidence in about what had happened in and through Jesus of Nazareth? Or another way to ask this is to ask who is the subject of Luke’s apologetic history? Johnson answers God. Theophilus needed “confidence” about and in God, in Luke’s mind, and he wrote to defend God’s ways and provide that confidence for Theophilus.
Well, the Gentiles had come into the people of God (as Luke is at pains to stress with his use and imitation of Old Testament language from the Septuagint) through faith even though many Jews rejected Jesus as God’s authorized agent of redemption (Messiah). God, so it could be plausibly argued, had failed in his promise to his own people. Has he now turned to the Gentiles with the same promises and hope? How can he then be trusted? Johnson puts it this way:
“Such a turn of events (the Jewish rejection of Jesus) was bound to cause a certain amount of uncertainty among Gentile believers, for this reason: the God of Israel made his promises to the people of Israel, the Jews. The promise (of the land, of progeny, of success and security) was for them and their children. If the Jews have missed out on the promise revealed through Jesus the Messiah, and if by the rejection of Jesus they have been replaced by the Gentiles, then the most serious sort of question arises concerning the truthfulness and fidelity of God. It will not do to say that someone else now has the promise. A promise is meaningless if it can be so arbitrarily shifted. The question of God’s truthfulness is a question of theodicy. It matters not only to Jews but especially to Gentiles: if they are now the clients of the God of Israel, what confidence can they have in that God, if he has proven capable of such fickleness?” (19)
So, Luke is writing about God has done in Jesus and the early church to fulfill his promises to his people. This is more than simply a mental assessment of the past. The participle Luke uses “have been fulfilled” is in the perfect tense. This tense looks back to past event which has continuing significance into the present. So Luke is writing about the present life of his Gentile Christian communities. His concern to defend God’s ways, then, has considerable existential import. Questions raised about God’s reliability and faithfulness are finally about the viability of the Christian faith and the people of God.
The perfect tense of the participle noted above means that this concern embraces us today as well. The church in North America today is overwhelmingly Gentile. So Luke is writing about something that could, and perhaps should, rattle our cages a bit. That how and in what way God has been faithful to his promises to Israel does not even register on most of our radars is a serious concern for us to ponder. I can’t go into all that here, but I at least want to flag the issue for us. Perhaps Luke can stir us up to greater vigilance about our Jewish forebears in the faith, especially given the horrendous history the church in the west has had with them!
Luke writes, then, to justify the ways of God in Jesus Christ and the early church. This is his chief interest and drives his narrative. He crafts his story of Jesus to this end. This is, as we have seen, history told in a first century apologetic vein. It won’t look like history as we know it. And that raises the question for us of how best to think about and approach the Bible to read it with insight.
I want to suggest three images of what the Bible is for your consideration. Two are prevalent among us. They are the Bible as a window and the Bible as a mirror. The first image promotes a historical reading of the Bible. We look through a window to see what is beyond or behind it. We want to learn as much as we can about the languages, background, culture, philosophy, geography, etc. as we can. However, if we find the course of events described by the Bible significantly different from what our historical analysis reveals, we must resist taking our historical reconstruction (see the various portraits of “the historical Jesus” published in recent years) as the basis on which we build our understanding of the faith. It is not the historical Jesus, however near or far he may seem from his biblical portrait, that is Luke’s focal concern or should be ours. This has been the dominant image for reading the Bible for last several centuries, especially among the scholarly community. Only recently have we begun to really grasp this inherent weakness or limitation for this image.
The other image is that of a mirror. In this way of reading the Bible, the reader focuses primarily on his or her life in front of the text, and seeks to discover how the Bible provides insight or meaning into their lives. This way of reading has both sophisticated and popular forms. Some claim that the reader actually creates the meaning of a text, though so do not go that far. But still the emphasis is on finding relevance for “my” life in the Bible. More popular versions are using the Bible as a source for inspirational stories and sayings, nuggets that get us going and guide us as we live through our day.
Now there is, of course, nothing amiss about desiring to have the Bible “speak to us” in a way that shapes and directs our lives. But how we seek to find and hear that word makes all the difference. If we begin with where and who we are and expect the Bible to speak to us as those people, we can do little else but read it as a mirror. However, I suspect we can pretty readily see the limitations of this approach. For one, how come so much of the Bible – all that historical narrative, those laws, much of the prophets, many of the epistles or sections of epistles in the New Testament - seems irrelevant or resists this kind of reading?
Let’s leave that there and move on to a third image: a piece of stained glass art. Here the is interest is not in what lies behind the story (historical) or in what reflects on our lives today from the story, but rather in the story itself. We look at the story as we have it in the stained glass. It’s that story, created out of all different kinds of literature and put together, in Luke’s case, to present a defense of God’s way with the Jews and Gentiles, that claims our interest. That story, as we have already seen, is also our story. From that story we derive our identity and vocation. From it we receive direction for living our lives in light of that story. From it we learn as well our hope and our destiny. In these ways the Bible, and Luke’s gospel, shape and guide us into the people God wants us to be. The Bible is best understood, I suggest, as a piece of stained glass art which much claim our attention for this is the way our God has chosen to speak to us!