A Cosmic Mission
Much like Matthew, Luke too emphasizes that the non-Jewish nations are now being invited to participate in the re-established reign of God. Luke places Jesus’ genealogy at the transition from the infancy narrative to the account of Jesus’ adult career. So it is significant that Luke traces the Messiah’s ancestry all the way back to Adam. At the outset of his mission we are reminded that Jesus represents all of humanity, not just the people of Israel.
Still, in the midst of Luke’s emphasis on God’s invitation to the gentiles, we also find a surprisingly positive evaluation of Judaism and of the faith expressed by individual Jews. This respect for Judaism often surprises modern readers because the other synoptic gospels (and especially Matthew) paint such a bleak picture of most Jews’ response to their Messiah. Luke balances this prophetic condemnation of the people with a more nuanced portrait of the Jews around Jesus.
Matthew’s account opened with Herod and the priestly elites plotting to slaughter the infant Jesus. The holy family has to flee Jewish territory in order to survive. The only ones who welcome Jesus’ birth in Matthew are the magi, Gentiles from beyond Judea’s borders. The picture is very different in Luke’s infancy narrative. Here we find faithful Jews like Anna and Simeon and Zechariah waiting for the Messiah to arrive. When Jesus enters the temple courts they do not try to kill him. Neither do they have to be told who Jesus is. They recognize him immediately as Israel’s rescuer, the long-awaited answer to the people’s prayers and the prophets’ promises. Why can they recognize this child as the Messiah? Because God reveals to them the infant’s identity. This reinforces the idea from the outset that some Jews still listen for the divine voice and are still faithful enough to hear.
The Jews’ faithful welcome of Jesus in the infancy story sets the later suspicion and hostility in a new context. Some Pharisees and scribes might be blind to God’s presence and power in Jesus, but we know from the start that they do not speak for all Jews. They do not even speak for all Jewish leaders, or for the devout. We have already seen, in Luke’s account, that the temple itself is home to priests and holy women who do have “ears to hear.”
At the other end of Luke’s biography we are reminded again of the many Jews who recognized Jesus and embraced his message. One might get the impression from the final chapters of Matthew and Mark that all of Jerusalem was shouting for Jesus’ blood. In Luke, by contrast, the calls to “crucify him” come from agitators seeded in the crowd. They clearly do not represent the majority of Jews. On the walk to Golgotha, Luke says that Jesus is followed by a mass of mourners weeping over his coming death: “A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him” (23:27). Jesus finally turns to this crowd with compassion and says “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children” (23:28). This is no prophetic rebuke, but comfort and warning to people Jesus knows will face the Romans’ brutal reprisals after the rebellion of AD 66-70.
When Jesus is finally nailed to the beams of the cross and lifted into place, it is Luke who tells us that one of the “thieves” dying beside Jesus showed profound faith. Most have given up and simply mourn Jesus as a dead man. As he hangs on his own cross, though, this one thief still keeps a firm hold on his trust that Jesus is the one to restore Israel. “Remember me,” he says, “when you come into your kingdom” (23:42). To be sure, Luke agrees with the other evangelists that the second thief used his last breath to curse Jesus. Luke still shows us the same parade of mockers whose taunts form a part of the shaming, the social death, that made crucifixion so horrific to the first-century mind. Set beside Matthew and Mark, though, we are struck in Luke’s passion story by the division that runs through the Jewish people right to the end of Jesus’ life. Some are glad to be rid of him, but many other Jews greet his cross with grief, tears, and even the deepest kind of faith.
Even some of the Jewish leaders remain followers of Jesus right through the passion. Joseph of Arimathea, we are told, is a member of the Sanhedrin, the ruling council of Jerusalem and Judea. His family’s freshly cut cave-tomb in the Kidron valley is a sign of his wealth as a member of the city’s elite (23:50-53). Yet even after Jesus has been subjected to the cross, this Joseph is willing to identify himself as a follower of Jesus. He risks his reputation, his social and political position, to use his influence and ask for Jesus’ body. His burial of Jesus may seem to us like too little too late, but to the ancient mind this was the most profound act of faithfulness to Joseph’s master. Where Jesus’ opponents tried to rob him of personhood through the degradation of the cross, Joseph of Arimathea ensures that Jesus is buried as an honoured member of the Jewish community.
For Luke, Jesus’ coming is the natural culmination of Israel’s tradition, an act of God that many faithful Jews recognize and embrace. Which reflects the truth about Jewish responses, this positive portrait or Matthew’s picture of a people blinded by hostility? Probably both. In many ways Jesus’ social class, his disgraceful friends, his authoritative mode of teaching, and his coy allusions to his own unique status were all shocking departures from the Messiah of their imagination. And yet, we know that all of Jesus first followers were Jewish. We know that many Jews did respond, did come to see in Jesus the fulfilment of Israel’s traditions.
So we see here an example of the early church’s wisdom in holding the four gospels together, insisting that it is in their combined witness that we find a balanced interpretation of Jesus. By holding Matthew and Luke together, we are able to avoid some of the mistaken extremes in our understanding of Jesus’ relationship to his fellow Jews.
Israel’s Good Law
It is in keeping with this positive portrayal of Judaism that Luke also depicts the Old Testament law purely as a good gift to Israel, one to which Jesus and those around him remain faithful. Luke tells us that Jesus’ parents took him up to the temple as an infant “to do for him what the custom of the Law required” (Luke 2:27). What is interesting here is that Luke does not even tell us what the required custom was. Nor can he assume that his Gentile patron will know already. It seems that the specific observance is not important for Luke’s purposes. What he wants to underline is simply that Jesus’ family kept the law faithfully.
Throughout Luke’s gospel we see that faithful Jews, those who recognize and embrace Jesus, are also careful to keep the ritual details of torah. Luke tells us that the women who helped to bury Jesus rested on the sabbath before they went back with cloths and spices for embalming (23:56). In between it is easy for modern readers to assume that Jesus is being critical of the law, or downplaying its ritual details. If we look closely, though, we notice that (as in the other gospels) Jesus never sets aside even one of the law’s positive demands in Luke. His mission and message are not about liberating people from torah. If there is any corrective it is simply about re-emphasizing the spirit of the law, without giving up its letter. Obedience to the law is, in Luke’s gospel, at the centre of what it means to be faithful to Israel’s God. He wants to emphasize that movement did not start out as a rejection of Israel’s tradition. This is not an anti-law movement. It is not an anti-Moses movement. On the contrary, the Jesus-followers of Luke’s day are the faithful outgrowth of Israel’s past.
This emphasis on faithful obedience is different from what we see in Mark’s gospel. In Mark 7 we are told that Jesus declares all food clean. Actually that declaration is Mark’s editorial comment. Jesus’ actual saying in Mark 7 is focused on a different issue. But Mark sees in Jesus’ earthly teaching at least the implication that food laws are no longer binding. For Luke, that move away from food laws does happen, but it does not come in Jesus’ life. There is no repeal of the legislation in Exodus or Leviticus during the period covered by Luke’s gospel. It will come, instead, after the resurrection of Jesus, in the book of Acts. So Luke and Mark agree in the end on how followers of Jesus ought to live in this post-resurrection era. It is the timing that is depicted differently. For Luke, it is only after the resurrection (and ascension) that God will makes it clear that he is changing the rules.
All of this is part of what people mean when they talk about Luke emphasizing “salvation history.” People usually mean by that expression that Luke sees a smooth, progressive transition from the story of Israel into the story of the church through Jesus as pinnacle of the Jewish tradition. Jesus isn’t starting a new story, for Luke. He is not a rejection of the old story, but its fulfillment, its climactic chapter, the pivot of its plot. The church of Luke’s own day stands in continuity with Israel and with the Jewish nation, even though by the time Luke is writing they are no longer all ethnically Jewish.