Chapter 4: Some Characteristic Material From Luke

The Modern Reader's Guide to the Gospels
by William Hamilton

Chapter 4: Some Characteristic Material From Luke

Luke's special source contains some of the most beautiful and familiar material in the New Testament. His personal interests shine through, his parables are skillfully and forcefully told, and his trustworthiness as an historian is in evidence.

1. The woman with the ointment, Luke 7.36-50

Luke uses this story to elaborate the saying in 7:34 that Jesus is a glutton, and consorts with sinners. Jesus is invited to supper by a Pharisee. A woman, probably a prostitute, breaks in and, weeping over him in remorse, bathes his feet with ointment. Simon had apparently first assumed that Jesus was a prophet with special powers of insight, and then concludes that he could not be so, since he did not discern the true character of the woman. Luke apparently suggests, however, that Jesus read Simon's thoughts (verse 40).

The little parable in Luke 7:41-42 does not really make the same point as the story makes. The story says that the woman, who loves much (her act of anointing is an act of love) is therefore forgiven, but that Simon is loveless and correct and therefore is not forgiven because he does not think he needs to be. But the parable says that one who is forgiven much, loves much. The first part of verse 47 summarizes the story; the second part summarizes the point of the parable. This story may be Luke's reworking of the anointing at Bethany in Mark 14:3-9. The main point of the story is, in spite of the parable, still clear. Jesus contrasts the ecstatic and spontaneous act of love of the broken woman with the formal and loveless correctness of the Pharisee; she will be forgiven, he will not.

2. The Good Samaritan, Luke 10:29-37

This is a special kind of parable, found only in Luke, in which we are given an example to imitate. Unlike Mark, where the parables mainly pointed to the meaning of the kingdom of God, here the story is told in answer to the question: "Who is the neighbor that I am supposed to love?" Notice how neatly Jesus turns the question around. The neighbor is not someone "out there," "any one in need," as we might say. You are the neighbor, and to act as a neighbor is to act as the Samaritan did. The Samaritan was a layman, of mixed racial origin, outside the Jewish law, and hated and suspected by the pious Jew.

3. Mary and Martha, Luke 10:38-42

Martha complains that Mary neglects the duties of a hostess. Jesus defends Mary, setting her response before the merely technical and formal busyness of Martha. The true hostess of the Lord, we might say, is to attend carefully to his words. This need not be pressed to mean that going to church is more important than housework. The real contrast is between formal, proper (and in this case slightly petulant) correctness and reverent attention to the meaning of Jesus.

4. Teaching on prayer, Luke 11:1-13

As we have already seen, Matthew (6:9-13) puts the Lord's Prayer in the Sermon on the Mount, as a contrast to the Pharisees ostentatious praying. Here it is a response to a request for instruction. Luke's version of the text is shorter, and probably the original one. Matthew writes "as we also have forgiven our debtors"; Luke makes this more clear by "for we ourselves forgive everyone is indebted to us."

The little parable in verses 5-8 is found only in Luke. Compare Luke 18:1-8. Only one point is intended in both parables; God is not to be compared to the lazy friend or the unjust judge. The lesson is this: if persistence works on the human level, how much more will it work in your prayer.

5. The parable of the rich fool, Luke 12:13-21

Rabbis often heard legal disputes, and the brother bringing the case to Jesus expected a favorable decision. But Jesus refuses take the burden of decision from the men, and tells them in effect to make their own decision, avoiding covetousness. The parable points the true lesson. The man is a fool not because of his love of pleasure, but because he thinks that his accumulation of wealth

will enable him to control the future. The true foolishness is the illusion of absolute security through property which death destroys. True security, true treasure, is one's present relation to God, and this is absolute because death cannot destroy it.

6. Interpreting the times, Luke 12:49-56

What is this "fire"? Is it judgment, the fire of God's love, the fire of the emerging kingdom of God that calls men to repent and perhaps even divides up old loyalties? All these are suggested. "Baptism" here, as in Mark 10:38-39, suggests that the "fire" cannot fully do its work until the suffering and death of the Messiah. There is little reason to be sure that this prediction of the death is a later addition. Jesus by this time has enough evidence to see what the outcome of his message is likely to be.

7. Sin, disaster, and repentance, Luke 13:1-5

The problem behind this story is whether or not calamities are caused by sin. Generally, the Jew believed that they were. Some people refer to an incident in which Pilate killed some Jews while they were making their sacrifices. In verse 4 Jesus offers another example of a disaster, and cuts across the traditional explanation. Calamity, he seems to say, cannot be traced directly to sin; but is tragically serious, and men must repent, for disaster of perhaps deeper kind will be their lot if they do not.

8. On discipleship 14:25-35

Luke 14:25-26 suggests that following Jesus must have actually caused the breaking up of family ties. Verse 27 makes the main point of this section, that the life of discipleship is a costly and demanding effort. The two little parables that follow do not quite make the same point. Count the cost, is the meaning of the first; estimate your foe realistically, is the meaning of the second. Verse 33 explains verse 27 well enough, but the parables stand: vivid, clear, but a little irrelevant to the point. The disciples in verses 34-35 are compared to salt, the means of preserving food. Compare this with the comment on Matthew 5:1 3, page 29 above.

9. Lazarus and the rich man, Luke 16:19-31

There are a number of themes in this story. It points, in Luke 16:19-26 to the future life as a reversal of the values of this (see comment on Luke 13:30, above, and also 16:15). It is expansion of the idea in 16:9 of using money unselfishly (to make friends for yourself). The rich man is condemned not because is evil or because he is wealthy, but because he ignored Lazarus need. Verses 27-31 suggest a contrast between Jesus and the (as in 13:20-30); some have thought that this reflects an early church struggle with orthodox Judaism, but it can be more easily understood as Jesus' own criticism of the wealth and worldliness of the Sadducees of his own day.

The word Hades in Luke 16:23 refers to the Hebrew idea Sheol. In early Jewish thought, this was a place of abode for the dead where only a bare and shadowy existence went on. When the idea of the final resurrection and judgment came into Jewish thought, Sheol was the waiting place for the disembodied spirits before the last day. In Sheol, some distinctions were worked out so that even before the final judgment, part of Sheol was Paradise, and part was like Gehenna, the place of ultimate judgment. Such is the background of this story, and it is an interesting insight into the state of Jewish thought at this time concerning eternal life and final judgment.

10. The coming of the Son of man, Luke 17:22-37

There are two points of interest in the early part of this chapter, prior to the discourse on the Son of man. In 17:7-10, Jesus strikes out against a religious life that is based on rewards given for services performed. God does not reward our virtue; he is gracious to sinners, for we are unworthy even when we have done our best (verse 10). Verses 20-21 are a kind of preface to the discourse to follow: popular guesses about the coming of the kingdom are futile, Jesus argues, for the kingdom is now in the midst of men (verse 21). The saying suggests the present reality of the kingdom, here and now. The astonishing thing is that Jesus seems to say that it is even in the midst of the Pharisees.

In the discourse itself (Luke 17:22-37), Jesus anticipates the early church's perplexity over the nonappearance of the supernatural Son of man, the divine being who will come and usher in the final days at the end of history. This coming, Jesus says, will be sudden and unexpected. In verse 25, Jesus points to his own death, and comes close to identifying himself with the Son of man to whom he refers. The point of the references to Noah and to Lot is not only that the "coming" will be in the midst of normal human activities, but also that there will be a disaster connected with it, like the flood and the fire in the Old Testament stories. This disaster is doubtless intended by Luke to be the death of Christ itself. From verses 31 on, advice is given on how to respond to this catastrophic event: one must be prepared to respond immediately and look back (for the story of Lot's wife, see Genesis 19:26). Verses 34-37 portray the judgment of the Son of man, a judgment involving destruction. The little proverb in verse 37 should doubtless refer to vultures (this is the reading in the RSV footnote), to make clearer the image of a bird preparing to devour a dead body.

This discourse as a whole reflects the belief of the early church, surely of Jesus as well, that the end of the world, with the judgment of the Son of man, would speedily come. This did not in fact happen, and this chronological error must be noted. Yet the terrible reality of God's judgment is not thereby made irrelevant. Perhaps the church should have interpreted the resurrection or the gift of the Holy Spirit as the "coming" here referred to; in any case, Christ today "comes" to both the church and the world, as a judge as well as a comforter. The fact that the church expected a coming that did not visibly take place should not blind us to the true meaning of the Gospel as containing the picture of God, always "coming" to us in Christ.

11. some of Luke's characteristic parables

a. The great slipper, Luke 14:15-24

Matthew 22:1-10 has a version of this, but it is much more allegorical than Luke's version. Verse 15 gives the excuse for the parable: perhaps Jesus is suggesting that an emotional love for the kingdom of God, as suggested in the exclamation, may not be adequate. A man plans a banquet and invites his friends. They excuse themselves, more or less plausibly. Verses 21-22 may be an allegory, suggesting that if the Jews refuse the kingdom of God, then the others will be invited. There is still room, and so another invitation is offered, this time to those outside the city, that is, to the non-Jew. In verse 24, the banquet is identified with the messianic banquet in the completed kingdom of God. The point of the parable is the contrast between the pious Jew who excused himself, the lowly Jew outside the law, and the Gentile.


b. The three parables of chapter 15: the lost sheep and the lost coin (verses 1-10), and the lost son (11-32)

This magnificent chapter must be seen as a whole. First, the question to which the three parables are an answer: Why, the Pharisees murmur, does Jesus consort with sinners? (See Jesus answer to the same question in Luke 5:29-32.) It is a question of procedure, of ethics. The "answer," however, in the parable is not a piece of self-defense, but a pointer to the character of God. And

the meaning of all three parables can be simply put: God takes the initiative and seeks the lost and the sinful, and rejoices when the sinner returns to him. So Jesus' "answer" to the Pharisees is this: Why do I seek the sinner? Because my Father's nature is to seek out those who are lost, and to rejoice in their return. As my Father acts, so do I.

In Luke 15:1-10, then, the two points are made: the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to seek out the lost one, and rejoices when it is found; the woman drops everything else to seek out the one lost coin (the coin mentioned is probably a Greek drachma, literally worth sixteen cents, but in actual purchasing power many times more than that), and rejoices with her friends when it is found.

The more elaborate details of verses 11-24 should not obscure the fact that the same double point is being made. Note verse 17: "when he came to himself." This does not mean that man has a prior or central role in salvation; but that God's gift of forgiveness tan be received only by one who is in need, who knows how to ask the question for which it is the answer. In verses 18-19 the son rehearses the confession he will make to his father. But the father did not simply wait at home for the son, he came down road to meet him. Before the son can complete his confession, asking for justice and a chance for a fresh beginning, the father greets him with compassion and love. And they rejoice together.

The parallel between the three stories is over, but there is still the curious story of the elder brother (Luke 15:25-32). Now on human level, we should probably want to feel a good deal of sympathy with him. He'd had extra work to do since his younger brother left, and there is a suggestion that his father had not been hateful. But this parable is not a study in proper family discipline, as such, it is rather poor advice. We must take the story of the elder brother as a kind of epilogue, tying the central message the chapter to the setting of verses 1-2. This is a parable spoken in response to a taunt from the Pharisees, and the elder brother (particularly in the rather unlovely protest: "I never disobeyed your command") is probably intended to stand for the Pharisee. The father's response to the brother is in part a rebuke for his unforgiving self-righteousness, just as Jesus' rebuke to the Pharisee tended to be. The father expects even the elder son to rejoice at the prodigal's return; God expects all men (even the Pharisees) to rejoice at Jesus' mission to the lost.

There is a good deal of the central message of the Gospel here; God's gracious and forgiving love is powerfully described. But the whole Gospel is not here, and we must not expect any one parable to contain that; what is not here is what no parable can portray what only the cross can show -- the cost of this love as shown the death of the Son.

c. The unjust steward, Luke 16:1-13

This is a fascinating example of a parable which is not to be taken as an example by the Christian. The manager of an estate had been careless and was called to account by his master. He became afraid and persuaded some of those who owed produce to his master falsify (to their own benefit) their records, so that if the steward should be fired, he would have some who were obligated to him. "The master" in Luke 16:8 has been taken by the RSV translator to mean the master in the parable. He is commending not the dishonesty but the prudence of the man; and verse 9 follows as Jesus interpretation: in your use of money, he says, be prudent and selfish ("make friends for yourselves," that is, by giving generously to others, verse 9); for you cannot take it with you, and God is your final treasure in any case. But "master" in verse 8 mean Jesus; in this case we have the possibility of an added interpretation, for he is then saying something like this: take a lesson from the calculating shrewdness of the men of the world. Be as clever in dealing with the things of God as they are in dealing with the things of this world. He might then be pointing to the very modern contrast which exists in the clever businessman who is very naive or foolish in religious matters.

In verses 10-12 Luke contributes a series of sayings about money so that the parable cannot be misunderstood. Be careful and honest m money matters; and remember, only God -- not possessions -- can be served.

d. The Pharisee and the publican, Luke 18:9-14

Here is another parable as an example. Not all Pharisees were like this one, but there is evidence that his attitude was not uncommon. The setting is in the temple in Jerusalem. The Pharisee first describes what he does not do; he then mentions what he does do beyond what is required. Fasts were not required by the law; nor were tithes of personal income (which is what is referred to here). The tax collector isolates himself from the rest of the worshipers and confesses his unworthiness. This is a story both about true and false prayer, and about true and false character. Two elements in Phariseeism are underlined here: proud criticism of others and proud congratulation of self. Jesus' teaching as a whole strikes out heavily against these traits in religious man.