Sunday, November 23, 2014

Luke: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary. For this report, I have decided to include artwork by one of my favorite painters--the folk artist Howard FInster.

Luke begins by addressing his friend Theophilus, telling him that he has composed his story from eyewitness accounts, though he himself is not an eyewitness.  The story begins in the days of King Herod, in Judea, with the miraculous birth of John the Baptist.  The beginning of Luke’s gospel almost exactly mirrors the birth of the prophet Samuel in the Old Testament.  John’s father and mother are too old for childbirth, but an angel appears and says they will have a baby nonetheless.  The baby John is said to be a kind of herald, or forerunner, of Jesus, sort of like how the Silver Surfer is a herald of Galactus.  However, instead of destroying the world like Galactus, Jesus will save it.

Then the story jumps to the tiny town of Nazareth, where another angel appears to a peasant named Mary, saying she will give birth to a great king of Israel.  Just as Samuel in the Old Testament came before and annointed King David, so John the Baptist will come before and baptize king Jesus.  Mary then visits John’s mother Elizabeth (who is her relative).  The fetus of John “jumps” in Elizabeth’s womb,  because he is near Jesus.  Even as unborn babies, there is a special connection between John and Jesus.

"Jesus Saves" by Howard Finster

Then Mary bursts into a song of ecstatic poetry, which is called “The Magnificat,” which is about the power of God and how He has heard the cry of the poor and his chosen people Israel, and will do mighty things.  Then John is born, and his father bursts into more ecstatic poetry, about how the salvation of God is about to come to Israel.  I like how, in Luke, people suddenly burst into song and poetry, sort of like a modern musical.  Actually, sort of like the musical Jesus Christ Superstar.

Then the story moves from the ecstatic spiritual realm back to the real world of first century Palestine, which was part of the Roman empire, and kind of a shitty place to live, especially if you were poor, like Jesus and his family.  Caesar Augustus, the emperor of Rome, calls for a census of his empire, probably just to boost his ego about how many people he rules (and for tax purposes).  Joseph and Mary must travel to Bethlehem, the home of Joseph’s ancestors for the census.  Significantly, this was also David’s home town.

Jesus is born in a lowly animal shelter because there is no room in the inn in Bethlehem (I guess there’s only one inn).  This is significant because the future king of Israel comes from humble and lowly origins, also like David.  After Jesus is born, more angels appear and (surprise surprise) burst into more ecstatic song before an audience of random shepherds.  The shepherds go visit the baby king Jesus to pay their respects.

Jesus and his parents are Jewish, so they follow Jewish birth rituals, which involve circumcising the baby Jesus’ penis, and then presenting him at the temple in Jerusalem, along with a sacrifice of two birds.  When they arrive in Jerusalem, two prophets (Simeon and Anna) see Jesus and burst into ecstatic poetry.  Jesus has this effect on people.

Then Jesus and his family settle back into grueling peasant life in Nazareth.  Every year, however, they return to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.  One year, when Jesus is 12, the family loses him in Jerusalem, and eventually find him in the temple, having discussions with religious scholars.  Jesus is a child prodigy.

Then the story jumps forward about 18 years, and we encounter John the Baptist, now a grown man and a full-on prophet, preaching in the wilderness, baptizing people in the Jordan river, and occasionally bursting into ecstatic poetry.  John’s message is basically, “Don’t exploit each other.”  Guess who shows up at one of John’s wilderness revivals?  You guessed it—his old baby buddy Jesus!  John baptizes Jesus, and fulfills his main mission in life.  Shortly thereafter, John is arrested and executed by King Herod, who isn’t too keen on John’s whole “Don’t exploit people” message.  Herod is a king.  His business is exploitation.  Jesus, whom John baptizes, is going to be a different kind of king.  But what kind?

Then Luke gives a genealogy of Jesus, which differs from Matthew’s genealogy, but that’s not really the point.  This is a theological, as opposed to literal, genealogy, which shows how Jesus’ spiritual ancestors include such important Jewish figures as David, Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Noah, all the way back to Adam, the first human, whose father was God, like Jesus.

After his baptism, Jesus goes into the wilderness for forty days, where he is tempted by the devil.  

"American Devils Are Friendly" by Howard Finster

Then he emerges from the wilderness, and begins his public ministry.  Is he now a king?  If so, he is very different from other kings.  Instead of exploiting people, he heals them.  He is interested in those who are marginalized, poor, and oppressed.  His teachings reinforce the idea that his “kingdom” is unlike the current kingdoms of the world.  He says some pretty radical things, like this:

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger, for you shall be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and cast insults at you, and spurn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man.
Be glad in that day, and leap for joy, for behold your reward is great in heaven;
for in the same way their fathers used to treat the prophets.

But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full.
Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall weep…

Unlike the political powers of his day (Rome and their puppet kings in Palestine), who were rich and derived their power from the blood, sweat, and tears of the powerless, Jesus preaches a message of radical love and compassion for everyone…

But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,
bless those who curse you,
pray for those who mistreat you.
Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other side also;
and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.

Give to everyone who asks of you, 
and whoever takes away what is yours, do not demand it back.
And just as you want people to treat you, treat them in the same way.
Be merciful, just as your father is merciful.
And do not judge and you will not be judged;
and do not condemn, and you will not be condemned;
pardon, and you will be pardoned.

"Words of Jesus Only" by Howard Finster

Jesus’s miracles also demonstrate the kind of king he is.  Instead of exploiting people, he serves and provides for them.  This is shown in the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand.  Jesus “kingdom” is so radical that his disciples are often confused.  One time, they start arguing among themselves about who is the “greatest” in Jesus’ kingdom.  Jesus silences them with this stunner: “he who is least among you, this is the one who is great.”  In other words, Jesus’ idea of greatness involves service and humility, not traditional power.

Because his teachings are so subversive of current political and social realities, people often have questions for Jesus.  One time, a lawyer asks Jesus, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus’ response may shock some evangelical Christians today, who would expect Jesus to say, “Pray this prayer, confess your sins, accept me into your heart, and believe in my death and resurrection.”  Jesus does not say this.  What he says is that the man must follow the spirit of the law of Moses, which is basically to love God and love his neighbor.  The lawyer responds with, “Who is my neighbor?”  Jesus then tells the parable of the good Samaritan, whose message is basically, “Everyone is your neighbor, even your supposed enemies.  Love everyone.”  Active love, according to Jesus, is how people are saved.

Jesus spends a lot of time arguing with various religious leaders, mainly criticizing their hypocrisy, and how they emphasize traditions and laws over basic human charity and compassion.  Jesus gets most pissed at religious leaders.  He also gets pissed at political leaders, calling King Herod a “fox” (meant as an insult, not a compliment).

Jesus is anti-materialistic.  He tells his disciples, “Sell your possessions and give to charity.”  He says that people should trust in the basic provisions of nature for survival, like every other living thing (birds, plants, etc.).  As in the other gospels, Jesus teaches in parables, which are little allegorical stories meant to reveal some spiritual truth.  Luke’s gospel contains the parable of “The Prodigal Son,” which is about grace and forgiveness.

"Things Must Be Better Just Over Jordan" by Howard Finster

Because Jesus often speaks of “The Kingdom of God,” people sometimes ask him what he means by this.  Is it some future kingdom?  Does it exist here and now?  And how is that possible, since Jesus is a poor peasant?  Jesus speaks of the “kingdom” as both a present and future reality, collapsing temporal distinctions.  This kingdom exists right alongside, above, or within the current corrupt kingdoms of this world.  Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is in your midst.”

Luke repeats the story of the “Rich Young Ruler” from Mark.  This ruler, like the aforementioned lawyer, asks Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”  Jesus does NOT respond, “Believe these certain things.”  Jesus DOES respond, “Do these certain things.”  Specifically, Jesus  tells him to follow Jewish law, and to “Sell all that you possess, and distribute it to the poor.”  When the man walks away sad, Jesus says that it’s nearly impossible for rich people to be saved.  This is not a message that is emphasized in the affluent churches of Orange County, where I live.

Continuing his subversion of traditional ideas of kingship, Jesus enters Jerusalem, the capitol of Judea, riding on a donkey, a lowly beast of burden.  His followers welcome him with palm branches.  It’s as if he is mocking the pretentious of other kings, who like to enter cities with big fanfare.  Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, the first thing Jesus does is enter the temple and violently overturn the tables of people who are selling things.  Jesus is against material wealth, and especially against people using religion as their source of income.  This is one of the worst things a person can do.

Once in Jerusalem, Jesus tells more parables, argues more with religious leaders, and continues to stir up controversy.  He celebrates Passover with his disciples, prays, and then is betrayed by his disciple Judas, who sells him out to the authorities.  While under arrest for blasphemy and spreading subversive ideas, Jesus the “king” is mocked and beaten.  Soldiers dress him in mock royal robes.  The Roman governor asks him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus says he is.  It is a moment of tragic irony and poignancy.  How can this poor, bleeding peasant, dressed in mock robes, be a king?  And what sort of king is he?

"Last Supper" by Howard Finster

Jesus is crucified by Roman soldiers, and a mocking sign is placed atop the cross, which reads, “This is the King of the Jews.”  Its a cruel joke.  How can a dying criminal be a king?  Even to the moment of his death, Jesus subverts ideas of kingship and power.  As he is dying, Jesus says to his killers, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.”  His final gesture is one of compassion, even for his supposed “enemies.”

In Jesus’ day, people expected kings to have political, military, and economic power.  With “king” Jesus, the dying peasant, all that is turned on its head and (in a poetic way) defeated.  In Luke’s story, Jesus’ death is not the end.  Jesus rises from the dead, symbolically emphasizing the idea that the most powerful empire in the world cannot kill the truth of what Jesus represented, the idea that would live on long after his death—the idea that the road to truth lies not in power but in humility, that there is another way to live in this world of violence and injustice—the way of active love, compassion, and creative resistance to the exploitive powers of this world.

This is Howard Finster, the artist.

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