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Portraits of Christ: Luke’s Gospel, part 2

Imagine living as a Jewish person in the province of Judea around the time of Jesus. Not only do you live under Roman oppression and taxation, but the Romans have carved out the province from the rest of Palestine so that it has few economic centers or resources, making the area fairly poor. On top of that, the corrupt provincial governor “King” Herod (and sons) has also oppressed the land as a cruel dictator, and has imposed his own additional taxes to support his life of luxury and his grand building projects. While the Romans venerated their Emperor Augustus as a god-like hero, empire-builder, and peace-maker, the Jewish people would view him less favorably.

Luke 2 sets up an implicit contrast between Augustus, in all his power to make life difficult (say, with an inconvenient census), and the Son of God, who is born to a peasant woman and lives among the common people. Furthermore, his birth is announced to shepherds, who were one of the lowest social classes in that time. This passage sets up a sort of irony. God again rejects the high and mighty, and comes into the world among peasants. Instead of appearing to the high and mighty, he shows his favor to the poor masses. Such is God’s heart.

Even lower social classes than shepherds receive God’s favor in Jesus’ ministry. He extends God’s love to the handicapped, the chronically ill, beggars, “sinners,” and others who were “unclean,” even to lepers (who were probably the lowest, the very bottom of society), and he ministers to their needs. Jesus also values children in his ministry (Lk. 18:15-17), and affirms God’s love for them. At that time, children were not valued or respected as persons, and (especially in Roman culture) abuse or exploitation of children was commonplace , Jesus tells us that in God’s eyes they are to be respected and valued, and God’s justice burns against those who would harm children.

In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, his surprise ending (Lk. 16) shows that God prefers the poor and humble, rather than the elite, who back then were often heartless and corrupt. God’s compassion rests with the victims of injustice, and Jesus’ ministry demonstrates this at a time when many people lived under a great deal of injustice. Throughout history, people have seen wealth as a sign of God’s favor, but this parable teaches us that the opposite is true. Wealth is not necessarily a sign of God’s favor, and if the wealthy simply use it for themselves, it becomes a curse. Those who have money are to use it to help others and contribute to God’s kingdom.

Another twist comes at the end of Luke and the other the gospel accounts, where it is the women who are the first witnesses to the resurrection. This is quite unexpected, because in Jewish culture, women were really second-class citizens, whose testimony was not considered valid, for example, in courts or legal matters. Yet Jesus appears first to the women, and Luke and the others cite them as the first eyewitnesses.

In the gospels, especially in Luke, we see a savior who is compassionate and humble. We also see a God of justice, as the whole gospel is full of contrasts between what the world values and what God values. All people matter to God. The infirm and sick matter to him. Victims of injustice and oppression matter to him. The poor matter to him. Women and children matter. Even lepers matter. God’s compassion goes out to them, and God’s will is for them to experience healing and justice.
Our purpose as Christians on earth is not about seeking our own comfort or prosperity. It is not about seeking our own spiritual gratification while others suffer. Our calling is to use our resources and talents to minister to a world of suffering. In our middle class environments, and within our stained-glass windows on Sunday, we are often oblivious to the suffering that most of the world endure. There is suffering in the world right around us, and there is much suffering outside of our own nation. If we are disciples of Jesus, followers of Jesus, then we ought to be thinking more about others and their needs. In different ways we can step out of our comfort zones and serve others, be it others that we cross paths with every day, or seeking outside opportunities to serve others in Jesus’ name and to minister to them. It may mean compassion and justice ministry for some, but for all of us it means at least learning about what the real world goes through, and praying about all those areas of suffering, poverty, hurting, injustice, and brokenness. Our prayer lives should not center around ourselves, but should center around God’s kingdom on earth (“Your will be done on earth as in heaven”).

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