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FOUNDATIONS - 4 - Luke: Liberation or Opiate?

Posted on: March 22, 2017

The Gospel of Luke has two amazing things about it.
1. One is that the writer Luke, whoever he or she was, was a universalist: someone who believes that all living beings are included in God.
2. The second is that due to this conviction the writer also believed that Christianity is about service to the poor. The heart of God reaches fulfillment starting with the poor.

The writer Luke 3: 5-6 takes a selection of Isaiah found in Mark and adds a further verse, “all flesh will see the salvation of God” (3:6). The word flesh in the Greek is sarx, and is used as a metaphor for all living creatures. The reference is not just to human beings. The original Hebrew is kal-bashar. The word kal is placed before a noun and means all. Bashar is flesh (every living creature). Accordingly, like the Greek in Luke the Hebrew in Isaiah says that “all living creatures will see the salvation of God.”

For Luke God is full of merciful and the principle of equality. Such images are scattered throughout the gospel. When Jesus is ready to go to Jerusalem, his disciples discover that he is not welcome to pass through Samaria. They ask Jesus if they should send fire from heaven to consume them. But Jesus rebukes (Gk. epi-plesso) the disciples, that is, he tells them to shut up (9:55). The disciples are to be ashamed of themselves for turning the good news into an evil act. This incident is only in Luke.

At Luke 7:38 a woman wipes her tears from the feet of Jesus with her hair. Then she kisses and anoints them. Everyone is outraged, and the woman is called a sinner, but Jesus says she is perfectly whole (that is, fully forgiven). Then Jesus - but really Luke - poignantly states, “those who forgive little, love little.”

The second theme is that Luke’s vision of universal salvation is fulfilled from the bottom up. The poor and the outcasts are first in line because, unlike aristocrats, they bear witness to the power of God for salvation. The wealthy are already satisfied. They cannot be a sign. What would be the point of God’s salvation if it were extended to those who already have it made. In Luke, salvation is not going to heaven but going out of poverty. It is portrayed with every valley being filled and every mountain being made level (3:5).

Here are some specific examples of of Luke and the focus on poverty:
1. Only Luke has the Magnificat (Mary’s song of praise), “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the wealthy away empty” (1:52-53).
2. In Luke alone Jesus declare that his mission is “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim the release of captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the captives go free” (4:18-19).
3. In Luke alone Jesus has compassion on an impoverished, widowed woman whose only son had died. And Jesus raises her son from the dead to save her from life in poverty (7:11ff).
4. In Luke alone is the Parable of the Good Samaritan where the Samaritan, who is supposed to be the bad guy, turns out to be the good guy (10:30ff).

I confess a deep admiration for the Gospel of Luke. The compassion of the writer is evident in many places and given in an overwhelmingly inclusive spirit.
Yet there is one minor problem with Luke that should not be left without comment. This gospel is about poverty and caring for the poor. It is, therefore, addressed to the wealthy, It is a gospel about how the wealthy should care for the poor. The writer and the audience are above poverty and look upon it as an object. To be sure Luke is about liberation and the end of poverty. Yet, the keys remain in the hands of the privileged who must be encourage to care for the poor. Is this then a a gospel of justice or one of charity?

The great medieval Jewish philosopher Maimonides reportedly said, “anticipate charity by preventing poverty.” Maimonides put structural social change ahead of charity in order to eliminate the possibility of poverty. In his simple aphorism he challenged human societies to be embarrassed by poverty. In his wit he says that however admirable, acts of charity do not change the social structures that make such acts necessary. Philosophers in the 19th century like Ludwig Feuerbach and Karl Marx understood this point. Marx famously stated that religion is the opiate of the masses. Its regard of poverty is formed in the spirit of charity. It does not change the circumstances but simply promises a special reward at death.

To change the world such that poverty became a structural impossibility would indeed be the “salvation of all flesh.” Did Luke see it this way, or did Luke merely call for more charity?

Notes for Discussion
1. Luke is a Gospel rising out of Roman times when wealth and poverty were tied up in status and condescension - just like today. But Luke urged his wealthier audience not to disdain the poor but to hold compassion with them. In effect, Luke has a political theology, and we might ask, if alive today, what his or her opinion of our society might be?

2. One problem with charity can be that it perpetuates rather than changes the problem of poverty. Charity is very important and does help many people survive otherwise devastating circumstances. Yet, charity does not change the political system in which poverty happens. Discuss if this observation has merit, and ask whether or not Luke’s admirable care for the poor still does not address poverty?

3. Luke’s Gospel shows that even though Christianity started among the impoverished, it still had wealthy backers. Sometimes the relationship between the wealthy and the poor is ambiguously symbiotic. The poor need charity to survive, and the wealthy use charity to express status. Does Luke suggest early Christianity broke (or attempted to break) this cycle, or does this Gospel show that Christianity too, even in its youth, got caught up in the cycle?

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