Monthly Archives: January 2019
Once again we got a chapter that is largely to be seen as a single unit. Until Verse 25, all of the action takes place while Jesus is having dinner with some Pharisees. It’s odd, but much has been made about how Jesus consorted with the undesirable element of society, the poor, tax collectors, women, etc., and he certainly did. But it’s not often pointed out, or commented upon, that Jesus also spent a fair bit of time being entertained by the upright members of society as is happening here. This aspect of Jesus’ ministry has certainly escaped my notice up to this point by hiding in plain sight. The question then must be asked if this consorting with the establishment was accurate, or if it merely served as a setting whereby the audience served as foil for Jesus’ teaching. For example, in this chapter Jesus provides two lessons that are particularly apt for such an audience. The first is on the virtue of humility which comes in the admonition not to take the best seats at a dinner party, but the worst. This ends in the admonition that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, which helps establish humility as an ideal virtue. This was novel understanding of social behaviour, for pagans as well as for Jews. The setting of the story drives this latter home very effectively. In fact, it may be a little too effective.
By this I am implying that Jesus likely did not spend much time hanging out with Pharisees. Mark has a version of the last/first dichotomy, but his is set very differently. The first expression is after being questioned by a rich young man in Chapter 10:31, the second a dozen verses later when he admonishes the sons of Zebedee for asking to be seated at the right & left hand when Jesus comes into his kingdom. The wording there is not identical to the wording here. In Mark, Jesus says the first shall be last; in Matthew & Luke the wording is that those exalting themselves will be humbled. Different words, but the thought behind them is identical. The latter two turn it into self-exaltation, but that is what James & John attempted to do. And yet, despite the overwhelming similarity of the sentiment, this is considered to be part of Q because Matthew & Luke use the humbled/exalted language where Mark did not. However, fascinating as that is, the topic here is the authenticity. Since Mark does not include any instances of Jesus eating with the establishment while Matthew and Luke does, I believe it is safe to infer from this that the setting we find here is completely fictional. It runs against the grain of pretty much all of Mark, where Jesus is truly an itinerant preacher who encounters those listening to him as he moves from place to place. We have to ask where this all transpired, what the circumstances were that led to Jesus dining with Pharisees? Where is he? In Caphernaum? We were told in Chapter 7 that he had entered that town, but later we are told he went from town to town. At one point, he was at the house of Mary and Martha, which was in Bethany, hard under the walls of Jerusalem, but there is also reason to suspect he was still traveling. This is important for the question of who– or what– Jesus was, how he was seen by the various groups he encountered, or what his reputation was. In Mark, the itinerant nature of Jesus career is very consistent with that of a wonder-worker. They would travel about since staying in one place too long would probably result is an accumulation of failures; this would help explain why the prophet was not honored in his home town.
Just as a bit of a side note. Matthew places the humbled/exalted injunction in the speech when he casts woes onto the various social groups. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees, he says, love the place of honour at banquets and the best seats in the synagogue. Luke places the scene in the house of a Pharisee, where the guests are all angling for the places of honor. Coincidence? Do you still think that Luke hadn’t read Matthew?
While at the house, Jesus also cures a man of dropsy on the Sabbath. This gives him the opportunity to override the Jewish idea of what was allowed and not allowed to be done on the Sabbath. In theory, one was supposed to do little or nothing that wasn’t devoted to God. Hence the Puritan custom of spending a big chunk of time in church, and devoting the rest to scripture reading and psalm-singing. Jesus sort of says that this isn’t the way it needs to be. And this sentiment is found very early in Mark, where he cures a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, which causes some consternation. This reaction rather makes me suspect that this story did not trace back to Jesus; as with the supersession of the Jews– a parable about which we also get in this chapter– this seems more suited to a time after Paul. Recall that Paul tells us of his dispute with James, brother of the lord, concerned Jewish customs, or laws, such as dietary practice and circumcision; James thought their retention necessary, Paul did not. Exerting oneself on the Sabbath, or the extent to which this was permissible was another such custom. Bear in mind that the idea of a week, with a weekend, did not exist in the pagan world. The Roman calendar just numbered the days in a month without breaking them into weeks. This practice was an innovation of the Christin Empire, when celebrating the sabbath on a recurring basis became a priority. As such, early pagan followers of Jesus probably found it difficult not to work on one day out of seven. This would be particularly true of a follower of Jesus who was the slave of a pagan master. In fact, this habit of wanting one day in seven off was a major criticism of Christians by their pagan contemporaries, who found the Christians lazy. So not needing to be overly concerned about Jewish custom regarding the Sabbath would have been a real concern to pagan converts.
In addition, it is significant that the sentiment traces back to Mark. For something to be traceable back to Jesus, its presence in Mark is probably a necessary, but not sufficient condition to be considered as authentic. That this appears already in Mark indicates that the transition to pagan converts occurred much earlier than is generally assumed. At the very latest, my suspicion is that the destruction of Jerusalem was a major impetus to this transition; therefore, the inclusion of the story in Mark probably points to a date post-destruction for the writing of that gospel. It must be noted, however, that this is not conclusive; if the transition was underway already in the 50s, as a result of Paul’s evangelizing, then it would not be necessary for this to have come about after 70. So again, put all of this on a scale and weigh all the pieces as units to determine the date of Mark. As mentioned, the anachronistic nature of this story ties in with the parable of the man giving a banquet. This was clearly meant as an explanation of why the Jews hadn’t converted en masse; as such, it’s completely out of place in the 30s.
There is one aspect of the story of the banquet that was not discussed in the commentary section because the connexion had not occurred to me. So much ink has been spilled on the distinction between “blessed are the poor” and “blessed are the poor in spirit” that the topic has become cliché; normally, that would give me pause about discussing it further. The problem is that the focus of the topic has been, IMO, misplaced. The debate almost always centers on which of the two is “more primitive”, and this idea of “primitivity” is a core tenet of the Q debate. Since Luke’s version has two fewer words, this is taken as conclusive proof that Luke’s version is “more primitive”. Well, okay, that’s a bit harsh on my part. “Poor in spirit” is rather more of a subtle concept than “poor”; but then, that is really my point. The one is not necessarily more primitive; it’s just different. Luke’s version has a different emphasis than Matthew’s version. Matthew is talking about humility; Luke is talking about actual poverty. Being humble is a behaviour, or a tenet, of Christianity as we understand it, and Matthew speaks to this. Luke, OTOH, is talking about social justice. More, he underscores this message twice in this chapter. In the first, he admonishes his well-to-do audience that they should invite the downtrodden to the banquets they give; of this class of people, Jesus singled out the poor. He does not instruct the Pharisees to invite the poor in spirit. The second instance comes in the discussion of the wedding banquet. When the invited guests, which would have included the sort of people gathered at the actual dinner Jesus attended, demur their invitations, Jesus once again instructs the slave to invite those same downtrodden, and again among them are the poor.
I wanted to blow this into a big demonstration that Luke shows much more concern for the actual poor than Matthew; one avenue I pursued was to check the number of instances when the word “poor” (ptōchoi, and variants) occur in each gospel. This is a standard analysis. Luke shows an increase of usage of the word of 33% over Matthew; and that goes up to a 40% increase if we eliminate the “poor in spirit” cite in Matthew. Now, if you have any sense of statistics, you immediately realized that the elimination of a single occurrence resulting in such a large increase indicates that we are working from very low numbers. If I have a dollar and get another, my wealth has doubled, it has increased 100%. If I have a million dollars and have a 1% increase in my wealth, I’ve picked up a whole lot more money* than I did when I doubled from a single dollar. So it is here. Matthew uses the word six times; Luke uses it eight times. 8 – 6 = 2, and 2 is 33% of 6.
The results were less conclusive than I’d hoped, but still, I believe, significant. Despite the low numbers, it can be argued that the message in Luke is qualitatively– if not so much quantitively– different from the message in Matthew. There is nothing in the first gospel such as we have here. In fact, Matthew, in his version of what The Q Reader calls “the Great Supper”, does not specify whom his slaves should invite. In Matthew, the lord simply tells his slaves to go out to the roads & highways and invite whomever they might find. Luke, in contrast, specifies that the poor and others are to be those invited– or compelled. And then Matthew simply has no correlation to the passage about inviting the poor to one’s banquets as we find in Luke 14:12. In Matthew, the poor are more theoretical; sell your goods, or the expensive perfume and give to the poor; the poor will always be with you; the poor have the gospel preached to them. For those of you keeping score at home, you only counted four, not five uses of “the poor”. That is because the six cites of “the poor” in Matthew includes its use twice in the same passage. In the tale of the expensive perfume, the disciples say it could have been sold and the proceeds given to the, to which Jesus says “the poor will always be with you”. The contrast to Luke is sharp. Luke not only has the two passages in this chapter, he also has the searing tale of Dives and Lazarus. So the poor in Luke are real to a degree, or they have a presence, that does not appear in Matthew.
*$10,000, to be exact.