Summary Luke Chapter 17

Doing a review of the text in preparation for writing this, I noted that it was difficult to find any sort of common theme running between the various episodes. These include an admonition about not corrupting the little ones, telling a mulberry tree to throw itself into the sea, the cleansing of ten lepers, all ending with sort of a trailer for the coming prediction of the apocalypse. It would be possible to suggest that the common thread is faith, and it would not be difficult to argue against such a conclusion; however, the theme of faith is so generic, and so common to so much of the NT that claiming this as the central theme is almost meaningless. It’s simply too broad of a concept. So let’s return to the metaphor of the thread; perhaps we should thing of it as a string, as in the connecting thread used to create a string of pearls. I’ve used this analogy before in describing the text of the various gospels. They are only loosely connected around the theme of Jesus preaching and then taking the fatal trip to Jerusalem. As such, they do not form a coherent whole; rather, they are more reminiscent of a string of beads, each distinct and possibly unique, only connected to the other beads by the string.

This tells us something about how the stories of Jesus came about, how they came into existence. There was no unifying narrative at first. What happened was that individual stories popped up here and there, sort of like mushrooms: each one is unique, each one is separate, and the sole unifying common denominator is that they are all mushrooms. They might not even be the same species: some could be button mushrooms, others porcini, others portobello. And so it is, I truly believe, with stories about Jesus. They popped here and there. Some were about his healing powers. Some were about the kingdom. Some were about faith. Different stories featured, or emphasized different aspects of Jesus’ life and career. But note the difference: was he a teacher? A wonder worker? A preacher of repentance? Or of salvation? The answer, of course is “yes”, he was each of these things; at least, that’s what the stories tell us. And this, I think, is the key to the eventual “success” of Christianity as a religion: Jesus was– or could be made to be– all things to all people. We discussed how Mark seemed to be a concerted effort to converge the two primary traditions, the two main threads of the Jesus cult in his gospel. These are stories of Jesus the Wonder-Worker, and Jesus the Christ.

In addition, recalling that Luke adds a lot of rich detail to the tapestry, one could argue that he represents another tradition: What it means to be a Christian*. And it is wholly appropriate to describe the people Luke was writing for as Christians*. These are the stories of The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, and Dives and Lazarus. Here we get the story of the Ten Lepers, which, while novel, doesn’t quite fit the category I’m describing.

As far as the stories in this chapter, given the lack of thematic connexion, it seems difficult to summarize the chapter as a whole. We get a little of this and a little of that. The apocalypse will recur later, so perhaps the two most salient features of the chapter are the returning leper was a Samaritan, and the idea that just doing your duty is not enough. The former fits in with the Good Samaritan parable in two ways. It does demonstrate how we should behave as Christians. In addition, it is a not-so-subtle disparagement of the Jews. Who was the neighbor? The Samaritan. Which of the lepers returned? The Samaritan. We are now at the point when Christians start doing the doublespeak on their Jewish heritage. On the one hand, writers like Hippolytus Romanus (circa 200 CE) stress the connexion, even while disparaging certain leaders of “heretical” sects as introducing “novel” ideas and doctrines. I have said this repeatedly, but it bears repeating even more: to the mind of someone in the Roman world of Jesus, novelty was not a good thing. One respected ideas that were old, that had withstood the test of time. Egypt is the premiere example of this. Even half a millennium before Jesus, the Greeks were in awe of the civilisation of Egypt. Many teachings, Pythagoras being an outstanding example, were said to trace back to Egypt. So in order to fit into this, Christians needed– almost desperately– to claim the centuries-old heritage of the Jews. At the same time, however, they had to explain why the Jews had rejected Jesus. This was a bit of an awkward, or inconvenient fact. Stories like the Good Samaritan and the Ten Lepers do not, in fact, explain why the Jews rejected Jesus, but they do emphasize that the Jews did reject Jesus. And the way they rejected him leads us into the story of the lepers.

The first section we discussed ended with Jesus using the metaphor of the slave. He has returned from working all day in the fields, but the master does not wait on the slave. Rather, the slave is then expected to wait on the master while the latter is at his meat. This leads Jesus to ask if we are not grateful for such slaves, but adds the admonition that doing what we are told is not enough. We must go, in modern parlance, over and above mere duty. When read, this seems a bit of a non-sequitur. Jesus makes a logical jump, and the landing on the other side is a bit jarring. The slave was told to wait on the master; how was this going the extra mile? I’m not sure. This admonition to do more is what leads us into the Ten Lepers. These lepers approached Jesus as a group. Jesus healed all ten, and then gave them instructions to go show themselves to the priests, to show that they were now ritually cleansed, and then they were to make the sacrifices as prescribed by Moses. Again as a body, the ten trundle off to do what they were told. At least, ten of them started to do this; nine of them continued, but the tenth returned, groveled before Jesus, and gave thanks. In other words, he did more than just what he was told to do. He took the extra step, went the extra mile, went over and above mere duty.  This is how the Christian is expected to act. And, as a personal note, I’ve always felt this way. Think about situations when you’ve done something for someone and they are thankful, and say “you didn’t need to do this”. Well, of course not; that is exactly the point. Doing only what is expected is good, but it’s expected. Not doing this, of course is bad; but the point is, what is expected is necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

 

*The term “Christian” came into existence sometime in the period of Matthew, so by the time of Luke it was probably not uncommon. In particular, Tacitus uses the term writing in or around 112 CE.

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About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on August 12, 2019, in Chapter 17, gospel commentary, gospels, Luke's Gospel, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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