Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Gospel of Luke: Claiming authority and the consequences

The following two posts are short essays for the online Luke seminar that I am currently taking through Luther Seminary.  

No specific location is given for the Sermon on the Plain described in Luke six, but Luke is careful to emphasize that Jesus descended from the mountain to speak to the crowd of people gathered there. To get a better understanding of Luke 6:17, I read both the NRSV and KJV translations. Both versions indicate that the people there were from all of Judea, the city of Jerusalem and the coastal cities of Tyre and Sidon. Geographically, this is a significantly large area, particularly for people who were traveling by foot. The KJV 6:17 includes the phrase, “which came to hear him, and to be healed of their diseases.” In the NRSV, this phrase is a part of verse 18. The verse that follows in the NRSV is “they had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.” An examination of the Greek translation of these verses can draw our attention to what Jesus is up to in this sermon and illustrate why he might draw the attention of the authorities. 

In 6:17, the word “heal” in the original Greek is actually iavomai , which means to make whole or free from sin. The word “cure” in 6:18 is qerapeuvw , which means to heal. Prior to this sermon Jesus had drawn the attention of the temple authorities and accused of blasphemy for forgiving the sins of the paralytic, because only God was able to forgive sin. This nuance is lost in the English translation, but it important in understanding that the authorities now were closely watching Jesus. 

While not a lot of information is given about who this particular audience was, only that some had “unclean spirits,” we can theorize that they were probably people who were marginalized and oppressed, suffering from leprosy and other diseases that branded them as socially untouchable.  The sermon itself would have just been further evidence to be used by the authorities against Jesus. The culture of the time maintained order by strict social standards of honor, shame, and privilege. The beatitudes described in Luke would have upended this order, and Jesus’ clear exhortation to care for the poor would have created unease for those who are in the top social strata. They attained and maintained power with possessions, social standing, and favor with influential people. Jesus’ words would have been threatening to them. 

This sermon agrees with the meaning of Luke 1:46-55. In this chapter, Mary sings the magnificat, a song foretelling the upending of the social order that is coming with the birth of Jesus Christ. Mary’s words directly parallel those of the sermon on the plain, with blessings and corresponding woes. Mary speaks of a new era that is being ushered in, and Jesus expounds upon it with his message. This message is controversial, and along with other actions such as the healing on the Sabbath and the forgiving of sins, means the authorities are watching Jesus, waiting for him to misstep.  

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