Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Complaints & Challenges

The complaint about Jesus’ table companions is voiced on a regular basis.  It is an attempt to discredit Him as He went about discrediting those connected to the Temple, and it is a relatively prominent feature of the Gospel portraits of Jesus.  Considering the importance of the meal table in that day and time, this fact should go a long, long way towards informing us about a major thrust of Jesus’ ministry, along with informing us as to a major focal point of the early church and the oral traditions about Jesus, given their weight by His crucifixion and Resurrection, that would eventually be codified as Gospels. 

We can find some of this criticism taking place in the seventh chapter of Luke.  We read that “the Pharisees and the experts in religious law rejected God’s purpose for themselves” (7:30a).  Immediately thereafter, Jesus launches into a monologue that will conclude with Jesus reciting a regular accusation against Him (which also points out the inseparable connection of His ministry and that of John the Baptist), saying “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine,” and thus making no overt references, by his actions, to the messianic feast (which should ideally accompany a pronouncement that the  kingdom of God is at hand), “and you say, ‘He has a demon!’  The Son of Man has come eating and drinking,” messianic-ly proclaiming the kingdom along with engaging in regular feasting, “and you say, ‘Look at Him, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’” (7:33-34)  We hear this in the context of the perceived threat to power, prestige, and position that came with the sense that Jesus was presenting Himself as an adequate stand-in for the Temple.  

Considering this and looking to the fifteenth chapter of Luke, we consider the regular complaint against Jesus, bearing in mind that the hearers of Luke’s compilation of the life of Jesus have now heard this complaint on several occasions.  As they would expect, Jesus once again ignores the complaint, which is a veiled accusation that He cannot possibly be the messiah, and launches into a series of parables (the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the compassionate father---sometimes referred to as the parable of the prodigal son, though this gets the focus of the parable wrong).  In doing this (ignoring the complaint and the accusation), Jesus maintains and builds upon the now well-aserted role of rabbinic superiority over His challengers, which has been demonstrated, by Luke’s telling (reflecting the stories about Jesus that would have been circulating in a self-correcting oral tradition), through their repeated inability to respond to Him. 

In this honor and shame culture, Jesus has been repeatedly shaming His challengers, and this would have been well understood by one and all.  With this in mind, we, along with Luke’s hearers and readers (primarily hearers in the first century), can fully understand the hostility that is rising against Jesus.  Not only is He de-valuing the institution that they support and from which they receive their support, which was the Temple, but He is also bringing them into disrepute, diminishing them in the eyes of the populace and severing them from any semblance of power and God-ordained authority (which stemmed from the Temple).  As a brief aside, it must be said that through shaming His opponents, Jesus has been gaining honor for Himself, but He will ultimately divest Himself of all of that honor by going to the most shameful place, which would be the cross.  Thereby, He lives out His insistence (heard in the fourteenth chapter) that one should take the lowest place, so as to receive true exaltation.    

Looking ahead to the nineteenth chapter, we find the forty-seventh verse, in which Luke writes that “Jesus was teaching daily in the Temple courts,” and that “The chief priests and the experts in the law and the prominent leaders among the people were seeking to assassinate Him.”  This will be followed up at the beginning of the twentieth chapter with “as Jesus was teaching the people in the Temple courts and proclaiming the Gospel, the chief priests and the experts in the law with the elders came up and said to Him, ‘Tell us, By what authority are you doing these things?  Or who is it who gave you this authority?’” (20:1-2)  Thus, the Temple cannot be far from our minds or those of Luke’s hearers, just as it would not have been far from the mind of Jesus’ audience.  Predictably, maintaining the rabbinic challenge motif that Luke seeks to build through his narrative, and yielding no ground in the perpetual contest of honor and shame, Jesus answers the questions with a question of His own, related to John the Baptist (obviously, Luke intends to demonstrate the explicit connection between Jesus’ ministry and that of John), eventually eliciting an embarrassing “we don’t know” from His interrogators. 

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