Salvation For The Least: Reading Luke’s Two-Volume Work

by Reta Halteman Finger

Celtic symbol of St. Luke
Celtic symbol of St. Luke

If you were a well-educated, socially sophisticated man of letters at the height of the Roman Empire’s power in the first century CE, why would you be interested in a tiny sect of Jews who were developing a novel interpretation of their own religion? What motivated the person we now call Luke — with his excellent command of the Greek language and financial backing from his patron Theophilus — to research the life and influence of a Palestinian Jew who never wrote anything, seemed to avoid major cities, and was executed as a criminal?

Perhaps even more amazing is that people today still read what this first-century historian recorded so long ago. I’m writing this article because of a conversation with our editor Letha Scanzoni, who reminded me that she does a “three-generation” Bible study by phone each week with two other EEWC members, Linda Bieze and Alena Ruggerio. Presently they are working through Luke’s Gospel, to be followed by Acts. I could not resist sketching out for Letha some of the structural organization of these two volumes, whereupon she could not resist asking me to write up some basic suggestions for reading Luke and Acts. (If I don’t want to write, I should never open my mouth around Letha!) So on the assumption that other Christian feminists have an interest in Bible study, here are a few pegs on which to hang your insights. So pull out your (preferably NRSV) Bibles to verify that I am not making this up!

Purpose

Let’s start with Luke’s purpose, as stated in the prologues of both the Gospel (1:1-4) and Acts (1:1-5). He is obviously a believer in Jesus as Messiah, but was not an eyewitness, since the story was evidently handed on to him and his generation by eyewitnesses and other “servants of the word” (Lk 1:2). Though many others have recorded their own perspectives, Luke thinks he can do one better through careful investigation and orderly recording of facts (1:3).

Though Lukan scholars today argue about many issues, there is near-universal agreement that Luke-Acts is a two-volume work. The prologue at the beginning of the Gospel is written for both volumes, since Luke says he is recording “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (v 1), which includes the story of Acts. Then, when he starts Volume Two, he refers back to “the first book,” in which he wrote about “all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning, until the day he was taken up…” (Acts 1:1-2).

Luke’s more comprehensive purpose for writing pervades his narratives. Though a Gentile himself, he intends to show that the minority sect of Jesus-believers — and not the mainstream Jews — are actually the true heirs of all the traditions and promises belonging to the Hebrew people of God from the beginning. All the scriptures point to this Person and this moment in time. Luke has Jesus announce to his shocked followers after his resurrection: “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.”

Think for a moment about the incredible boldness of this double narrative. Jesus’ story interpreted in this way was not inevitable. There are other ways to explain the Hebrew scriptures and Jesus’ life; indeed, Jews have done so for centuries. If Luke is wrong, it’s a better con job than Karl Rove selling Bush to the Religious Right. If Luke is right . . .well, that’s what we Christian feminists have staked our lives on.

Structure

Now to structure. How “orderly” is Luke, anyhow? In some ways, when we compare his Gospel to that of Matthew, it looks like he is less organized. But we need to keep in mind that this is a two-volume work, and thus Luke and Acts are proleptic. This means that each narrative is shaped by its sequel. The story of the church in Acts is patterned after the story of Jesus in the Gospel, and the story of Jesus is shaped to conform to the story of the church. A clear example of this is the agenda-setting event in each book. The Spirit comes on Jesus at his baptism while he is praying (3:21-22), and then he makes his inaugural speech in Nazareth, quoting the prophet Isaiah and announcing his platform (4:16-22). In Acts, the Spirit comes on the disciples while they are praying (1:14; 2:1-13), followed by Peter’s inaugural speech at the birth of the church, quoting the prophet Joel and announcing the agenda of witnessing to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (2:14-36).

This is not simply “the way things happened.” In Mark and Matthew, Jesus’ visit to Nazareth does not occur until nearly half way through their narratives, and only involves his rejection there. Luke has moved that visit to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and poured new meaning into it for purposes of organization and structure.

Luke also uses what we might call “theological geography.” Jerusalem and the Temple are a major focus, since they represent the heart of Jewish faith, the place where God dwells and where priests mediate God to the people and vice versa. Yet Jerusalem also represents religion-turned-evil. It is the place where prophets are rejected and killed. “I must be on my way [there],” says Jesus, “because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (13:33).

So, to organize his two-volume work, Luke uses a journey motif, with Jerusalem at the center. The climax of Jesus’ life occurs there at the end of the Gospel, and the birth of the church takes place there, at the beginning of Acts. (Note that in Mark [16:7] and Matthew [28:16], Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee after his resurrection, so these Gospels imply that the church began in Galilee rather than Jerusalem.)

Thus we can divide Luke’s Gospel into three parts: “Before the Journey” (1:5-9:50), “On the Journey” (9:51-19:28), and “In Jerusalem after the Journey” (19:29-24:52). While in the journey section, underline all the times Luke reminds the reader that Jesus is “on the road” or “on the way” or “going up to Jerusalem.”

Acts can also be divided into three parts: “In Jerusalem before the Journey” (1:1-12:19), “On Many Missionary Journeys” (13:1-21:16), and “Paul Goes to Rome” (21:17-28:31). Rome represents the capital of the world in Luke’s day and is a fitting finale to the efforts to bring the gospel of Jesus to the whole world. Even though Luke’s geography of Palestine is sometimes mixed up, that is hardly the point. This is geography used in the interests of theology, to drive home the significance of Jesus’ life and post-resurrection influence.

Themes

But we’ve barely scratched the surface of this masterpiece! Like a rope twisted with threads of many colors, Lukan themes weave in and out of every paragraph of these books. His emphasis on prayer and the Holy Spirit is unmistakable; few important decisions are made by Jesus or the apostles without prayer, and the Holy Spirit dominates Acts. Salvation is another critical theme, beginning with Mary’s song. Many other themes fall into one larger category, that of reversals. This elite Gentile is on the side of the underdog! Jesus’ agenda in Luke 4:18-19 is to preach the gospel to the poor, to heal the disabled, to free the captives, to usher in the day when God would deal favorably with the powerless. And he proceeds to do just that throughout the Gospel.

To me, the most striking theme is wealth and poverty. Read through Luke’s Gospel and make a list of all economic references. From John the Baptist’s proclamation that repentance must be accompanied by sharing coats and not cheating or extorting, to Zaccheus receiving salvation for giving back money he stole, to the rich man landing in hell for not helping the beggar Lazarus at his gate — the theme of salvation is usually linked to economic issues and good news for the poor.

Other underdogs on Luke’s shortlist for salvation are religious and political outcasts — such as Gentiles and Samaritans — and the disabled, who were not permitted into the temple as full children of Israel. Jesus’ acts of healing were not only medical but also political. The priests were the doctors of the age; they decided who was sick and who was well, who could remain in the community and who was outcast. Jesus usurped their role.

And of course there are the women. Most of us know that women are prominent in Luke’s Gospel and we know of strong women in the book of Acts. Note also women and female imagery in stories and parables. Often Jesus will tell parables in doublets, one male and one female. Watch also for ways in which Jesus behaves more like a stereotypical female than a Middle Eastern male.

When I teach the entire New Testament in one semester, I can budget only two class periods for Luke and one for Acts. For Luke, I ask students to do two exercises. First, make a list of at least 30 references to rich/poor or economics (there are 50-60), then write a short essay describing what you think is Luke’s theology of money. Second, make a list of all the references to women or female issues. Then write an essay on whether you think Luke intends to lift up women or whether he is still keeping them in a secondary role vis-à-vis men. Try it sometime. You might rethink your own economic values. And you might reflect more deeply on why Luke includes so many women in his narrative, yet does not carry over that important apostle, Mary Magdalene, into his sequel.

The last major theme of Luke’s Gospel concerns Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection. Despite Mel Gibson’s violent “Passion” movie, there is no substitutionary atonement in Luke. Rather, Jesus is the good, noble, self-giving, innocent martyr who challenges the powers of evil and is killed by them. God’s act of raising him from the dead vindicates the way he has lived his life, which is why Luke has such an extended section on the Resurrection and ascension, and why this provides the hinge that holds his two volumes together. Read through the passion account in Luke 22-24 and note each time Jesus’ innocence is mentioned, as well as how Luke emphasizes the satanic behavior of his opponents. Finally, make lists of both similarities and discrepancies in the overlapping accounts of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension at the end of the Gospel and the beginning of Acts. Why the repetition? Why the discrepancies?

There is so much more! I have barely touched Acts, yet it is unparalleled in the New Testament. However, building on this sketch of Lukan purpose, structure, and themes may help you discover many hidden treasures in these elegant narratives with their persuasive, inspiring theology.

 

© 2004 by Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. Originally published in the Summer (July-September) 2004 issue of EEWC Update, Volume 28, number 2.

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Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.

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