Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Luke's Ironic Jesus

Within a setting that is informed by a messianic banquet reference, a challenge to the experts in the law and the Pharisees, and a rather instructive parable, Jesus offers instructions in regards about engagement in table fellowship “to the man who had invited him” (14:12a), saying “when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (14:13).  Jesus then offers up a parable of a banquet (while at a banquet) in which the man who made invitations ends up inviting “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (14:21b).  The man in the parable even takes it one step further, as he sends his representatives “out to the highways and country roads” to “urge people to come in” (14:23b). 

This not only amplifies the words that an audience listening to the story on offer in Luke, and designed to be heard in a single sitting, would have heard from the thirteenth chapter, while also reinforcing the personal instruction that had been on offer by Jesus to the one who invited Him, but the punctuation of the parable, in which the subject of the parable exclaims “For I tell you, not one of those individuals who were invited will taste my banquet” (14:24), also dramatically illustrates the last to first, first to last, exaltation to humility, and humility to exaltation motif that frames this multi-chapter section of Luke.  In addition, it brings an interesting clarity to what had also been heard in the thirteenth chapter, which was a statement about those left out of the messianic banquet, in which they say “We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets” (13:26), to which God (presumably) replies “I don’t know where you come from!  Go away from me, all you evildoers!” (13:27) 

The ongoing and escalating conflict between Jesus and the experts in the law and the Pharisees, along with Jesus overt challenge to them just a few verses later, makes it quite clear who it is that is the point of reference in such statements.  A delicious irony is to be found in the fifteenth chapter, because after Jesus, who is living, working, and speaking in such a way that indicates that He is the Messiah (while Luke’s audience has already heard the confession of Jesus as Messiah), makes His points about the people that were participating in meals.  While remembering that the setting has not changed and Jesus appears to still be at the same meal mentioned in the first verse of the fourteenth chapter, the “Pharisees and the experts in the law” complained that Jesus was welcoming sinners and eating with them (15:2). 

In light of all that has been said and done in the moments leading up to this statement on the lips of these people, we cannot help but imagine that those hearing the telling of this Gospel would find themselves laughing.  It is almost as if this statement demands to be read as a punch-line, in which the Pharisees and the experts in the law are presented as dupes.  Indeed, it seems as if Luke wants his audience to reach the conclusion that there is a group that is not quite getting it, even though Jesus is attempting to make things as obvious as He possibly can.  This most definitely serves to de-legitimate the role of these men.  Not only could they not answer Jesus’ simple questions, but now, even though Jesus has made things as simple as possible---offering a parable about a banquet, a directive about banquets, and then another parable about a banquet, Luke shows us that the point has been completely missed, as they go right back to one of their earliest accusatory attempts at discrediting Jesus. 

Looking to the fifth chapter, we find Luke using the phrase “experts in the law” (5:30), which was accompanied by their complaint that Jesus was eating with tax collectors and sinners (5:30).  That, of course, was at a banquet given for Jesus (5:29).  As we are carefully attuned to the fact that this is an ongoing narrative, and that there is a certain structure and flow to Luke’s presentation (which makes sense in light of the fact that it is a dramatic presentation designed to be consumed in a single sitting, as mentioned above), we would probably not be mistaken if we surmised that Luke’s words of the fifteenth chapter are intended to cause a recall of scene of chapter five. 

Considering this, we can find that the fourteenth chapter began with a mention of experts in the law and Pharisees (Temple representatives), moved to a question posed by Jesus, and resulted in a healing.  The movement of the fourteenth chapter concludes with the fifteenth chapter’s opening complaint that “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  In chapter five, Jesus forgives sins (a Temple function), we hear about hostile thoughts and questioning on the part of the experts in the law and the Pharisees (a question), and then see a healing by Jesus.  From there, Luke moves to the complaint about with whom Jesus is eating.  Within a culture that is accustomed to listening to stories, holding ideas together over extended tellings, and processing information accordingly, this bracketing structure would not be lost on his audience.              

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