Gospel of Luke: Liberation, Forgiveness and the Promise of A Kingdom Building Work

Reading through Luke, I was immediately struck by the presence of this massive cliff hanger that comes at the very end (spoiler alert). After brilliantly establishing the tension for the story (of what is hidden being revealed amidst the Israel and Gentile conflict, the Heavenly and Earthly Powers in contest, the precarious work of forgiveness in the midst of rejection, the tearing down of the old Kingdom for the sake of building the new, the liberation of the oppressed set against the humbling of the oppressors), and bringing it to a climax in the Passion Narrative, we ultimately come to this grand proclamation of the Powers of God having defeated the Powers of Darkness. Christ is revealed “while they still disbelieved” 24:11, and breaks through their hopelessness with this grand statement of hope, the invading “Kingdom” that comes precisely when they aren’t looking for it, indicating that what has been torn down is being built in our midst. So go and wait in the same way that we found them “waiting” in 2:38 for the coming Kingdom (for the redemption of Jerusalem), because the Promise of this Kingdom is coming. Stay in the city until you are clothed with “Power” from on high, because this is how this Kingdom is being built in our midst.

Set in the midst of all these interconnected and interwoven narrative lines that form Luke’s concern (the tension), this cliffhanger arrives as a powerful picture of the gift of faith as a “waiting” process, a waiting process that is shaped by the same repentance and forgiveness that this Power proclaims for us today, a waiting that sees the already given and established Promise as this continued movement (which we see in the movement of this Power given to Jesus, to the Disciples, to the 72, and then to the world) from Jew to Gentile to all the nations of the world.

The Gospel of Luke as a “Waiting” Conversation
Luke addresses his writing to Theophilus (1:3), a rich, righteous Jewish man. This forms Luke’s words as a personal address, a desire to carefully weigh the movement of the Gospel in the light of it’s Jewish-Gentile-World progression firstly for the sake of the Jewish context. Luke’s Gospel is a Gospel for all, but it comes with a very particular focus on the Gospel’s (and Theophilus’) Jewish context (and more specifically the Sadducee context to which Theophilus likely belonged). A traveller with Paul, Luke himself is either a gentile, or at the very least a Hellenized Jew whose own receiving of the Gospel arrives from and is located within this Gospel movement. In this sense, the best way to read Luke is as a conversation between two individuals wrestling with the witness of the Gospel Power as a world building exercise.

Hopelessness and Hopefulness- The Prayers of the People and the Power of God 
As Luke’s Gospel opens, we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, both whom are said to have been “walking blameless” (both righteous), but are also set within a tension- they have “no child”. This is reminiscent of the story of Abraham, with the lack of a child carrying much symbolism and significance in Israelite belief and tradition (especially with the Sadducees who did not set their hope in the Resurrection of the dead). To have a child was the ultimate sign of God’s promise.

In the midst of this tension, we find Zechariah called by the people to enter the temple so that (as a Priest) he can burn incense and carry the prayers of the people to God. These prayers, those carried from the outside and Zechariah’s prayer on the inside, prayers that would have arrived with the hope of a coming Kingdom and hopeful liberation, are then answered in two unexpected ways- against the hopelessness of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s situation (being old and without a child) and against the oppression of the people in the form of the prophetic hope (in the call to then use the hope offered to Zechariah to “prepare the people”). These two lines, the general liberation of the oppressed (collective) and the interest of the Gospel in the particular stories of the oppressed (individual), form the special interest of Luke’s very personal Gospel, which he will now set within the Power of the Spirit, which is able to turn the hopelessness (the doubts, the resistance, the struggle, the oppression) into hopefulness.

Two Births and One Spirit- A Gospel for All
The way Luke structures the opening chapters of his Gospel is according to two birth stories, that of Zechariah and that of Mary, the two persons to whom the Spirit proclaims this message of hope to. It arrives with the promise of accomplishing something seemingly impossible (Elizabeth and Zechariah in old age, Mary as a virgin both to be pregnant). Present in both of these stories is a proclamation of the Spirit’s work set against a failure to believe what this proclamation is announcing. In Zechariah’s story, his failure to believe leads to the removal of his voice as the “judgment” for his unbelief. In Mary’s story (1:26-38), a curiously similar response (of unbelief) leads not to a judgment, but the Spirit of the Lord speaking into Mary’s doubts and declaring “blessed is she who believed (1:45).” The Spirit here turns their doubt into faith, and Zechariah’s silence into an opportunity for the Spirit to speak into our midst (through the faith afforded to Mary).

It is in this Spirit that Luke then works these two birth narratives as the beginning of a grander movement of God’s saving and Kingdom building work. We hear that Zechariah and Elizabeth name their child John rather than according to their family name, and Mary names her child Jesus (which means to rescue or deliver) according to the declaration of her faith (the work of the Spirit), indicating a Gospel for all (1:57), a “light to those who sit in darkness (1:79), good news for all the people (2:10).

It is to this declaration of faith then that we encounter the Baptism of repentance in the ministry of the grown up John as “a turning away from” and a “looking towards”. This redirects both the form and direction of our waiting (the wilderness motif), and unites it with an emphasis on “looking” (making the paths straight), a theme that recurs in Luke’s Gospel a few times over as it connects the work of the Spirit with the “building” of this new Kingdom (of light and good news). In this waiting and looking, Luke insists, the work of the Spirit will be revealed (“all shall see”).

The foundation for this is that the Kingdom is God’s project. This is the point of John’s metaphor of the tree in 3:7-9. The axe laid to the root is God’s work. So what is our work then? John applies this to the “crowd” who is asking this question, calling them to share, to give to those who don’t have, and to consider others. This is the nature of God’s Kingdom and our participation in it, and the purpose for which it is being built. The good news? Is that the one who is coming, the one in which we are waiting for and looking for (Jesus) is coming to do the work of tearing down, laying down, building up and gathering his people (the Baptism of Fire and Spirit… the refining work 3:16-17). It is in this that Luke connects the declaration of John and Jesus as a new Kingdom “for the world” and “in the world” with the Father’s (God) declaration that this is my “beloved son”. The Baptism which declares this to us flows to us in a lineage that finds Jesus coming after Adam, thus placing all of us in a new family lineage (3:38). This is the power of those names placing these two children outside of their birth lineage. This is a Gospel for all.

The Righteous and the Lowly: A Working Tension 
I found it really striking that before this Baptism, the Spirit first reveals Christ in the character of Simeon (2:25-32), a Righteous Jew, which acts as a sort of bookend with the fact that it is a Righteous Jew (Joseph) who is the one who first goes looking for the kingdom and who takes down Christ’s body in the end of Luke’s Gospel (23:51). When seen in the light of this conversation between Jew and Gentile (Luke and Theophilus), this building up and tearing down which appears to set Jew and Gentile in tension becomes a part of God’s grand movement of a Gospel for all. The rise and fall of Israel, which Luke locates within their story of their continued rejection of the Prophets is so that the “thoughts from many hearts” may be revealed as the work of the Spirit (2:3-35). This is a hopeful proclamation, one that works its way into this duality of waiting and looking that we find again in 2:38, with Jesus parents finding Jesus in “his Father’s house”. Did you not know that this is where I must be? This informs our own waiting and looking as we long for the liberation of this world from the bondage that we find it in.

The Temptation and the Grand Story of the Powers (of Light and Dark): The Form of Our Bondage and the Message of Our LIberation
The “temptation” provides the setting for this bondage that has delineated between the righteous and the lowly, the oppressor and the oppressed, which is the Powers that hold contest over this world. This is where we get this emphasis on the two “Kingdoms” opposed, establishing that both are at work in the world, but that the Power of God (in Christ) is a more Powerful force. In this immensely rich and wonderful narrative, we see Christ (in the Power of the Spirit) and Devil (the Power of Sin and Death) set alongside one another, representing both Kingdom and Life against Kingdom and Death. Here we are given hints that although the Devil tempts Jesus to raise up the Kingdom according to the life and bread he can command, the Way of Jesus is towards sacrifice and death, a bread broken for the sake of the world. Jesus is actually setting Himself under the Devil (the Powers) in order to defeat it according to the kingdom way (the Power of the Spirit). In its most dramatic section, we encounter this lingering line in which it says the Devil disappears until a more opportune time. This informs the beginning of Christ’s ministry, but Luke sets this up in a grand moment of tension as we wait curiously and anxiously for the Devil to remerge. The question that hangs in the balance is will Jesus liberate? Is Jesus the one they (and we) have been looking and waiting for? In Luke’s grand narrative, the answer has already been declared, and yet we wait as the contest between the Powers unfolds before us.

All of this happens in the Power of the (shared) Spirit 4:1-13, a spirit of “liberty” (reaching back into Isaiah). It is this shared Spirit that is then set in the light of the rejection of the prophets. The result of this rejection? The blind, the oppressed, the captives did not find healing (participation in the spirit) 4:20-29. This leads to a story about the Powers as that which is holding the people oppressed, which is where we begin to see the Spirit’s healing work taking shape in their midst as a cosmic battle with earthly form.

The Power of the Spirit and the Forgiveness of Sins- Building a New Kingdom
The calling of the Disciples from the “lowly” places at the start of Jesus’ ministry establishes The Power of God to forgive sins, a key dynamic and feature of God’s Kingdom and the Spirits work. As we see the healing of the Spirit defeat the Powers of Darkness in these stories (the cosmic, earthly reality), we begin to see that at the heart of God’s work is the forgiveness of sins (who can forgive sins but God alone). As Jesus declares, “I have not come to call the righteous”, but the sick, the sinners, to repentance (5:32). Something new is happening here, something astonishing (5:3-39). New wine is being poured into new wineskins, and those on the outside are being given positions on the inside.

And yet, it is here that we see the shape of the resistance, the same resistance that Luke sees in the story of Israel and the rejection of the prophets. It is difficult for some to give up the old, which leads to a tendency to set God’s liberating (saving) work into the letter of the law rather than in the freedom of Christ (6:1-11). This is where the Devil (the Darkness) gains its foothold, leading Jesus to make a grand distinction between the Kingdom of this earth and the Kingdom of God. As Jesus moves up the mountain to pray and comes back down to a level field, he gives these contrasting words of Beatitudes and Woes, creating this picture of an upside down Kingdom where the oppressed become liberated (through the Gospel of forgiveness) and the liberated are oppressed (through the Letter of the Law), which leads to a call not to judge, but rather to live in mercy (in this rather shocking assertion to love and forgive one’s enemies). The call to not judge is how we infact discover mercy, in others and for ourselves. This is how Christ is revealed to the world as light and life, as that which lays judgments to the division that The Powers of Sin and Death has implemented in this world. This mercy is a Light for the world.

The Light For the World In God and In Us
There are a LOT of Parables in Luke’s Gospel, and it shows that Jesus loved (and  loves) to reveal the secrets of this Kingdom through these mysterious stories. In Chapter 8 we get a series of Parables that are all about the revealing of this light and life for the world. The reigning image is one of a lamp that is set on a stand in order to reveal this mystery to all. The secret? The light is in you, in them, in us (11:33-36). The even greater secret? With God as the builder, nothing is covered that won’t be revealed (12:2). God’s Power is able to be revealed in the storm (8:22-25), and the healings (8:26-56), despite the Darkness that appears to hold us bondage.

The even greater secret yet?? This Power is given to the disciples (Chapter 9), which is then given to the 72 (10:1-12), and ultimately to the world (the great cliffhanger), all of which is anchored by the Transfiguration story, which becomes the full revealing of this Power “in” Christ that stands over and against Herod’s perplexity about who this Jesus is (9:7-9). The cosmic-earthly reality. This then becomes the Pattern of Witness in the shared Spirit.

The Light For the World as the True Gospel Call
And yet this Power comes with a call. This is why Peter’s confession is paired with Jesus profession of his death, the way (in which we wait and look) in which we are called to follow Jesus and “take up our Cross. This is the cost of following in the Way in which we are now looking (repentance). It is a the way, for Luke, that sets the righteous and the lowly in tension (9:57-62; 12:49-53; 14:25-33), revealing God’s Kingdom as one “for the world”. This is what Luke describes as “the fear of God”. This is why the fear of a world set under the judgment of the Spirit (the making right of what is wrong) is set in the light of forgiveness, with the fear of God carrying a positive force (fear the one who can throw into Hell, which carries this forceful idea of God as the Power that overthrows the Darkness and which without we would be left in the Darkness, for not one will be forgotten).

This talk of fear gives way to a call to not be anxious (Parable of the rich fool- 12:12-21), and ultimately to this contrasting notion of earthly fear (the Fear of the Darkness) as a negative force (the Power of the Devil) paired with the call to then “fear not” (12:32). All of this has to do with the Day of the Lord and the idea of waiting and being ready, a call that comes in 12:22-34, 36-48, 49-53, 54-56, 57-58. This waiting that Luke has underscored is given a qualifying measure of “anticipation”, but one that is set against this grand vision of the weak becoming strong, the last first, the least the greatest, the grand vision of the New Building Project. This is the end towards which God’s building and Christ’s refining is looking. This lends itself to these unfolding pictures of the Kingdom where 13:22-30 becomes a picture of the religious elite sitting on the outside and all those who are last and least arriving at the table (of communion, the great wedding feast and the great banquet 13:22-30; 14:7-11; 14:12-24).

Is this kingdom coming? It is in fact already here, staring them in the face. Yet it is still rejected, just as it was in Noah and Lot and the Prophets. And just like Lot’s wife, whoever wants to preserve their life will lose it (turning to salt), and whoever loses it will keep it. This is because under the Power of Darkness all we have is death.

This is the forceful image then of the cost of following Jesus (17:29-37). And yet it all comes for the greater good of this grand building project we are asked to participate in and where we are caught up in ourselves. Here God hears and sees the injustice and brings justice and liberation to this world under bondage (18:1-8). This is a Kingdom where this distinction between righteous and sinner, Pharisee and tax collector is abolished. This is why forgiveness, then, is the foundation on which this Kingdom is built. This is why we encounter the call to continually give to those with great debts (oppression, struggle) (16:1-13), for it is “easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one dot of the law to become valid (16:17). We cannot arrive at this Gospel declaration on our own strength. It comes only by the Power of the Spirit in this great cosmic-earthly context.

This great vision that we find in the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, where the poor have a seat in Heaven and the rich are left outside with the gnashing of teeth (16:19-31) points us further in this Direction. Without God’s great Building Project this is all we would have left. And yet God is at work liberating the bondage, the oppression despite our decision to ignore it. This was the same call of the Prophets (see the Exodus story and beyond) that was continually rejected. The same rejection we find in the whole of the Torah. Set into this conversation between Luke and Theophilus, this is where “the stone that the builder rejected” (the stumbling block Paul talks about) has become the foundation for a new, just kingdom. These pictures of the destruction of the temple in 21:5-9, and the Gentiles trampling Jerusalem 21:20-24, are a tearing down in the midst of their oppression for the sake of rebuilding (towards liberation). It is in fact what they were looking for and expecting, but it arrives in an unexpected way, a refining so that the Gentile, as the fruit of the fig tree (21:29-32) can declare a Gospel (built on forgiveness and repentance, a moving from Light to Dark, Death to Life) for the world. This grand movement from Heaven to Earth, of the New Heavens and the New Earth with the Jewish witness as the firstfruits of Christs’ declarative and restorative work.

Apocalyptic Visions, Hopeful and Liberating Voices
Luke is covered in the heaviness of its apocalyptic language and tradition, which can be difficult to read through and gain a perspective on. But at its core, at its root, this vision of justice being declared for all is hopeful. This is liberating. And it is far reaching.

This is why the vision that emerges in Luke a few times over of the “fig tree” is important. In 13:6-9 they come to find this fruit (of their lives in God’s Kingdom) seemingly not growing. According to the letter of the law they ask for more time. This is followed by the demonstrative vision of the mustard seed and the leaven as the Kingdom growth that works without, and over and against, our doing (the increase of faith in 17:5-6). This is why the emphasis of the Parables of “The Rich Ruler” and the “The Good Samaritan” (18:18-30) is on the question “what must I do to inherit” this eternal life (this Kingdom). What kind of fruit must I bear to take a seat at the table. The message of these parables arrives in full force as a great reversal- not only is God’s Kingdom liberating the oppressed, including our enemies (the Samaritans in the story), it is effectively placing us in the road as the ones in need of this same liberation. The first shall become last and the last shall become first, with God as the one who is doing the building. We do not build this Kingdom on our own efforts, we enter it by way of Christ, by becoming the least.  Who is the greatest is the question the disciples later ask (22:24-30). The least, the youngest, those who serve, those who travel and hold in the way of Christ (in the sacrificial death that makes room for all at the table and the feast). That is how we all find a seat at the table. 

The Victory of the Spirit, the Devil’s Reemergence, and the Temptation To Resist It
This justice work is God’s work. This Kingdom building is the Power of the Spirit proclaimed. This taking up our Cross is the death that Jesus carries by setting himself under the Power of Sin and Death in the way that we encounter in the Temptation Story is the way we take part in the Kingdom work.

This is why this narrative of the Powers, which unites Heaven and Earth, is so necessary for Luke. Jesus must finish his course (13:31-35), and Herod’s claims to want to kill Jesus won’t hinder that anymore than the Devil’s Temptations will. Here we see the heavenly and earthly Powers coming together in the proclamation, “this is your hour and the (hour of the) Power of Darkness (22:53), with this sudden inference to the Devil finding his opportune time and re-emerging. Only the Power revealed in this is the nature of Christ’ self giving work. This is the form of the New Kingdom that the Devil tried to twist in his tempting attempts, and it is the work that we can trust God is bringing to fruition.

The irony the Luke posits in which “a prophet cannot perish away from Jerusalem” forms the lament for Jerusalem (19:41-44), Jesus’ weeping over their insistence on still standing in this Darkness, bearing witness to the Power of Sin and Death that holds this world in bondage to oppression and injustice and suffering.  The cleansing of the Temple then (19:45-48) points to the grand proclamation of God’s Kingdom that we find in the Triumphant entry to Jerusalem. Scripture must be fulfilled (22:36-38, talking about the prophets), and the Power of the Spirit must (and will) move forward for the sake of the world. It is interesting to note that when it comes to this fulfillment in Jesus’ death, two times Pilate tries to release Jesus, but the Powers persist. The Triumphal Entry then (19:20-48) acts as a response to Herod wanting to kill Jesus, and Jesus saying that His Kingdom will be built under this, through this and over and against the Powers of Sin and Death. Even the rocks it says would cry out in this witness if they could speak. This is the great revealing. 

The Faith of Children and the Promise of the Faithful Father
Here is the most hopeful undercurrent in Luke though. The revealing to little children (9:48-49; 18:15-17) means that this faith stands over and against our need to control  it, understand it, and direct it. It comes to those whose basic understanding is one of need, acceptance and one of dependence. How much more then will the Father give to those who ask (10:21; 11:13), those who need liberation in our doubts, our questions, our struggles and our bondage. Blessed are those who hear the word of  God and keep it (hold it and cherish it 11:26), because in that word comes the declaration of forgiveness and liberation, the declaration that this world no longer stands under the Power of Sin and Death. A declaration that precedes us.

How much more will God attend to the persistent widow (18:1-8) in her oppression. 15:1 And how much joy can we find in the Parables of the Lost Sheep and the The Lost Coin (15:1 where the question is, what would you do, and the declaration is, how much more will the Father do). All of this ultimately culminates in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (15:11), a picture of what the Father is doing in this great Kingdom Building Project. Speaking to the older son in a way that I imagine Luke speaking to Theophilus, “you” are always with me (the Righteous), but your brother was dead and is now alive. This is the point of this forgiveness. This is the Power of the Spirit made alive in us. The great Temptation narrative between Jesus and the Devil has to do with the witness of the Spirit “for’ the sake of the world (17:1-2). Forgiveness reigns in the Power of the Spirit and in the coming Kingdom (17:20-37) because this is the way that liberation happens.

The Way of the Cross and the Way of Forgiveness
As the narrative pushes forward in this great, tension filled contest between the Powers of Light and Darkness, we come to the Mount of Olives where Jesus once more goes to pray. Before leaving he challenges his Disciples to not be led into temptation, a call that he makes twice, once before he leaves and once after he returns and finds them sleeping. This call to not fall into temptation connects us to the great force of Christ’s liberating time in the Wilderness, because the way of Christ is setting himself under the Powers of Sin and Death for the sake of the world. The temptation for the Disciples will be to want to defeat the Powers of the Sin and Death (those coming to kill Jesus) for their sake by avoiding this Death and instead simply conquering the Powers. And yet death is the only way to defeat the Powers, because it is only way that the Kingdom can extend to all. This is the nature of the upside down Kingdom.

The 3 Foretellings of Jesus death are set alongside the 3 Denials of Peter, which becomes a glorious display of the Kingdom as “forgiveness” as Jesus prays for Peter that his faith would not fail despite his denying (22:32). This is the building work of the Spirit, which becomes equally represented in Christ’s words in saying “forgive them, for they know not what they do,” words that embody the image of Christ hanging between two criminals and extending the great hand of grace for the sake of this Kingdom building.  

Grace as a Cosmic-Earthly Movement- the Jews, the Gentiles, the World
This picture of two Righteous, upstanding, Jewish men of the law being the ones to first acknowledge Jesus and find Jesus Kingdom on the Cross remains hugely intriguing to me. In some way, with all of the judgment that we find in Luke’s Gospel of the the Jewish Religious elite and the Israelite nation (Pharisees, Sadducees), it implies that God is still working in their midst through the story of God’s persistent witness that has been bringing about this new Kingdom all along- a Kingdom for the oppressed, a Gospel for the World, a liberation for all. Repentance and forgiveness is to be proclaimed from Jerusalem, beginning in Jerusalem, to all nations (in the Power of the Spirit). So go and wait, the Promise is coming… stay in the city until you are clothed with “Power” from on high. For this Power has defeated the Power of Sin and Death and declared us to be under the Light and Life. This is the good news towards which luke invites us to turn towards. 

 

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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