On the Level- Luke 6:6-36

4 Jul

The controversy narratives in St. Luke’s Gospel (cf. Luke 5:12-6:11) show another side of the life of Christ, one that would potentially be discouraging to the reader were they not placed after Luke’s treatment of the triumphs early in Jesus’ ministry. Not long ago in his Gospel, St. Luke was relating Jesus’ great popularity, especially among His fellow Galileans. The Lord had returned from fasting in the desert, and was invited “to teach in (the) synagogues” where He was “praised by everyone.” (Luke 4:15) While Christ had raised the ire of worshippers in Nazareth, Luke still had characterized the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as largely successful. Reports about Jesus spread rapidly (cf. Luke 4:14, 4:37) as He cast out demons, preached, and cured the sick. From the great crowds that allowed Him little rest, Jesus chose the fishermen Simon, James, and John to be His closest friends, and they followed Him without reserve. (cf. Luke 5:11)

However, Luke’s Gospel departs briefly from the stories of Jesus’ successes just as all seems well. In the controversy vignettes that follow, Pharisees are said to be watching Jesus closely for any deviation from strict religious tradition that can be used against Him. Jesus begins by cleansing a leper, breaking a long-standing taboo against physical contact with those afflicted by disfiguring diseases. The Lord then heals a paralytic, not only curing the paralysis, but claiming authority to forgive the man’s sins. Some authorities respond with anger, others with confusion or “amazement” over the “strange things” they see. (Luke 5:26) The tax collector Levi is then called to follow Jesus, and he leaves his belongings more readily than many of the Pharisees would have. Thus the Pharisees and their scribes are humiliated as they are put on the same level as the despised Levi. Like the publican, the Pharisees and indeed all of us are broken by sin. However, Christ the Divine Physician offers His salvation to all those who recognize their need for repentance, Pharisees and tax collectors alike. The questions about fasting and about the Sabbath soon arise as the religious leaders cite Jesus for breaches of the law. But Jesus rightly claims Lordship over the law because the Law is the gift of the Son of Man to humankind, not vice-versa. (cf. Luke 6:5)

In the first Sabbath story told by St. Luke, Jesus defends the actions of His disciples, who pluck heads of grain from the fields through which they are traveling. The Pharisees aren’t angered because the disciples are stealing, as is a possible misconception on the reader’s part. Eating from fields while traveling was a long-standing custom, as shown in Deuteronomy: “If you go into your neighbour’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbour’s standing grain.” (Deuteronomy 23:25; cf. Craddock, Luke- Interpretation, a Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, p.82) The Pharisees were upset that the disciples were rubbing the grain in their hands (cf. Luke 6:1), thus separating the edible grain from the chaff, which was work that ought not to be done on the Sabbath. In the disciples’ defense, Jesus cites King David, who during a crisis had fed himself and his companions with the bread of the Presence, which was prohibited. (cf. 1 Samuel 21:1-6) In both David’s case and that of Jesus’ disciples, though, relieving hunger was more important than the letter of the law.

The focus again is on attending to basic human need when a man approaches Jesus while he is teaching in a synagogue. Luke places this episode “on another Sabbath” (Luke 6:6), once again conveying that the incident could have happened at any time. The chronology is unimportant. Even amid the trouble between Jesus and the Pharisees, who were “watching Him to see whether He would cure on the Sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against Him”, Jesus is still shown to command the respect of a large number of people, as He is asked to teach in another synagogue. Therefore Luke’s controversy stories do not stand alone; the ranks of Jesus’ followers are growing rapidly, along with those of His enemies.

Jesus knows the intentions of the religious leaders, yet He chooses to cure the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath anyway. Jesus tells the man: “Come and stand here”. (Luke 6:8 ) Then He asks whether “it is lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to destroy it”. (Luke 6:9) Jesus questions the man with the withered hand, not the Pharisees directly, in this case. Of course, the man, like anyone, would choose to be cured, whether or not it was the Sabbath. Our Lord thus teaches us two important lessons- firstly, that compassion and the defense of human life and well-being are always timely, and secondly, that our actions are always the product of a free choice. If a person in need comes to one of us, we are also compelled to choose to satisfy or not to satisfy the other’s requirement. Free will doesn’t take a break on the Sabbath. Jesus freely takes on the suffering of the man with the withered hand. He commands the man to “stretch out (his) hand”, and then heals it. (Luke 6:10) That act renews the fury of the authorities, who “(discuss) with one another what they might do to Jesus”. (Luke 6:13)

Unlike Mark, who writes of the developing conspiracy between the Pharisees and the Herodians to kill Jesus (cf. Mark 3:6), or Matthew, who also clearly writes about a death plot, Luke doesn’t suggest yet that the religious leaders wanted Jesus dead. Instead, St. Luke portrays Jesus’ ministry in greater detail than do the other synoptic Gospels. Jesus’ hour comes only when He completes His journey to Jerusalem and enters triumphantly into the city only to be crucified and to die shortly thereafter. (cf. Luke 19:28-40, 23:44-49, John 2:4) Luke waits until the beginning of chapter 22 to plainly reveal a plan to kill Jesus, though he foreshadows Christ’s Passion in the second Sabbath controversy, particularly when Jesus asks the man with the withered hand to stretch out his hand. Later, Jesus would cure the withered condition of our souls by stretching His hands out on the Cross. He would freely accept even death to redeem us. God had already accepted our human nature, humbling Himself to be able to suffer with and for us. He expects us to do the same for each other, independent of constraints posed strictly by religious observance. Rituals are important, but are necessarily outshone by charity toward one another. Charity involves empathy toward one another: putting ourselves in another’s situation as Jesus did so intimately by becoming a human being like us.

One cannot escape the inevitability or the responsibility that come with the freedom to choose. Decisions are made from when we awake each morning. Some decisions, for example what to wear or what to eat for breakfast, are simple. Other choices are more significant and require more deliberation. Jesus had previously chosen freely to heal the man’s hand on the Sabbath, to heal and forgive the Paralytic, and to call Simon, James, and John, as well as the tax collector Levi. Prior to this, He went to John and was baptized, and as a child Jesus was obedient toward His parents, Mary and Joseph. (cf. Luke 2:51) From the beginning, St. Luke also shows Jesus to be compliant with the Jewish law. All these actions on the part of Our Saviour involve His free choice. Jesus, though, unlike us always chose the path consistent with the will of Our Father. Thus the Father and the Son are completely one, and out of this freely exercised love and obedience is begotten the Holy Spirit, who is in perfect unity with the Father and the Son.

Following the story of the man with the withered hand, St. Luke recounts Jesus’ selection of the twelve Apostles: “Simon, whom He named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.” (Luke 6:14-16) Sometimes, even for Jesus, making the right choice is difficult. When faced with a challenging decision, Jesus turns toward Heaven, “(spending) the night in prayer to God”. (Luke 6:12) As I’ve said in previous articles, prayer is vital to Christian living. However, one must be careful to pray attentively as well as frequently, otherwise prayer can be used as a mere justification for rash or otherwise wrongful judgment.

A few pertinent details stand out in Luke’s accounts of the naming of the Apostles and of the cures and teaching that Jesus effects thereafter. For example, Luke’s Gospel is the only synoptic Gospel to include a second Judas among the twelve. Mark and Matthew both include Thaddeus, whom St. Luke omits. (cf. Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18 ) Luke is also the only synoptic Gospel writer to characterize Judas Iscariot so strongly as the eventual “traitor”. (Luke 6:16) More importantly, in Luke’s Gospel Jesus ascends a mountain to pray. (cf. Luke 6:12) Luke’s mention of mountains here and during other events where Jesus is in closer contact with the Father (for instance, during the Transfiguration, cf. Luke 9:28-36) contrasts with that of St. Matthew, who writes of Jesus preaching from the heights. (cf. Matthew 5:1) According to St. Luke, Jesus’ sermons are delivered from among the crowds. After the Lord chooses His Apostles, Luke places Him amid the people, some of whom come from nearby, and some of whom arrive from as far away as Tyre and Sidon. Jesus heals those with diseases and evil spirits from “a level place”. (Luke 6:17, cf. Luke 6:18 )

God’s ways and thoughts transcend those of humankind (Isaiah 55:8 ), therefore Jesus’ closest contact with the Father in Luke’s Gospel occurs on mountains. Just as the Lord is greater than us, He nonetheless accommodates our human simplicity; (cf. Proverbs 9:4) He comes down to meet us on the level place so we can understand and imitate Him. Contemporarily, we speak of being “on the level” with someone when we’re telling another the truth plainly. Jesus is shown by St. Luke to be teaching the multitudes in the same way. People can then touch the Incarnate Jesus, and Christ contacts the people both physically and spiritually. The people He teaches and heals receive His power and then are able to go forth and to pass Christ’s strength, truth, and love on to others. (cf. Luke 6:19)

After meeting with the great crowd, Jesus turns to His disciples. (cf. Luke 6:20) This mirrors the event on Lake Gennesaret, where, with the crowds “pressing in on Him” (Luke 5:1), Our Lord retreats into a boat near the shore. From the boat, Jesus turns His attention to Simon the fisherman, and then to James and to John. (cf. Luke 5:4, 10) Likewise, He teaches the disciples, presumably a smaller and more knowledgeable group, about the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven after having attended to the masses. Along with four blessings, in contrast with the eight found in Matthew’s Gospel (cf. Matthew 5:3-11) Luke’s Beatitudes also include four opposite woes. Luke is mindful of the blessings and woes assured to the Israelites (cf. Deuteronomy 11:26-28 ) However, unlike the blessings and woes found in Deuteronomy, those written by St. Luke are not directly contingent upon the people’s obedience or disobedience of God’s commandments, although the state of one’s soul is accurately conveyed by one’s words and deeds. Jesus blesses those who are poor, hungry, weeping, and persecuted because of their belief in Him. On the contrary, woe is to come upon those who are rich, full, laughing, and praised by all. Jesus is not saying, though, that possessing worldly goods in moderation or being well nourished are wrong, nor that we ought to weep constantly or that those who aren’t reviled have no place in Heaven. Rather, He means that we must identify with those who are in these unfavourable situations. We must be prepared to give completely of ourselves to God and to anyone who asks, especially to the most in need. In Jesus’ sermon, He speaks of the promises that are to come, either blessings or woes, as well as of the urgency of His message, particularly in the second and third blessings and in the corresponding woes:

“Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh…Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.” (Luke 6:21, 25)

God’s gifts extend beyond the righteous; Jesus teaches that “He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.” (Luke 6:35) St. Matthew writes similarly that Our Father “makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.” (Matthew 5:45) The justice of God therefore seems profoundly unjust to human minds. But justice should never be solely concerned with retribution. We are summoned to rise above this tit-for-tat mentality. Justice involves unselfishly being concerned for those both offending and offended by malevolent actions. Good can only arise from evil in this way. The Lord tells us directly how to love our enemies:

“Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” (Luke 6:27-31)

Jesus continues after pronouncing the famous “golden rule”, teaching that one who is kind and loving only to the righteous and to those who will return one’s goods and one’s kindness has been repaid already. (cf. Luke 6:32-33) A great reward waits in Heaven for the merciful. Our mercy, though, must transcend the ordinary, as Christ and His redemption transcend us in our fallen state. We are called to “be merciful, just as (Our) Father is merciful.” (Luke 6:36) Those who love even their enemies are to be called “children of the Most High”. (Luke 6:35) This title given to the great Saints is humbling still. Those who are God-like will be like children in Heaven before Him. The more we become more like God in His mercy and love, the more God overtakes us like a child in its parent’s embrace. Heaven is the divinization of humankind to which we are called but do not deserve. Our path toward becoming like little children in spirit passes through Christ. Through Him, with Him, and in Him, to paraphrase St. John the Baptist, we become less important as Our Lord’s importance increases. (cf. John 3:30)

You show us the path to Heaven, dear Jesus. May we humble ourselves to be like little children and come unto You. May you teach us the way of compassion for the poor, for the suffering, and for our enemies. You, O Lord, came to us to teach us on the level place. You redeemed us by your death and by your Resurrection. May we, Your unworthy servants, ascend to You when our labours on earth come to an end. Amen.

WRS

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