This entry has been modified to fit the audience of this blog from an essay written for the upper religion course, Gospel of Luke, at Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In ancient Roman society, it was common practise to exalt the mighty and bring down the humble to even lower positions. This worldview has not changed much in modern western society. In American pop culture we praise celebrities, the favoured politicians in accordance to each biased political affiliation, the rich like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who’ve founded enormous corporations, and the list goes on. We lift them up in our praises for their fame, political viewpoints, and riches that satisfy our consumeristic behaviour. When we pass a homeless man on the street, however, we look down upon him and execute judgements of indolence and insanity—even when one is actually mentally ill we execute harsher judgements and leave him in his misery. We become sickened at the sight of physically deformed and mentally ill people. It is man’s natural inclination to execute immediate judgements on people who are different than they are even on issues of nationality and ethnicity. When we look at Jesus Christ, however, we see someone entirely different than we are, who calls us to be like Him rather than the world. Jesus socialised and dined with thieves, prostitutes, the mentally ill (and demon possessed), the physically deformed, and the destitute. In the person and work of Jesus we see that salvation is for the lowly, not the mighty.
Salvation is certainly offered to all people, even the mighty, but in Scripture we see it is only in the position of humility in which one is able to receive salvation, for it is the Holy Spirit who works such lowering in one’s spirit. One of the central themes of the Lucan gospel is the universal appeal of the Gospel of Jesus Christ—that His invitation into Himself is meant for all people. To understand what “Gospel” means, we need to look at the Greek. The Greek word is εὐαγγέλιον (euangélion), which can be translated in two ways: either Gospel or Good News. We find the definition of this Good News/Gospel at the beginning of Luke in the words of an angel’s message to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” (2:10-11).
The angel defines this good news in his next words, “a Saviour who is Christ the Lord,” which is precisely why he tells the shepherds not to fear. To understand why this is significant, we need to understand the meaning of “Christ.” Christ is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “anointed” or “anointed one.” Some people, even Christians, misunderstand “Christ” as being Jesus’ last name, but it is His title—the anointed one. Last names are specific to our culture; in biblical times they didn’t identify themselves with last names like we do. They identified themselves with their bloodline and place of birth. This is why we read names such as “James the son of Zebedee” or “Jesus of Nazareth” in Scripture. Kings in the Old Testament were also given the title of “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10; Psalm 2:2; Lamentations 4:2, just to name a few). In the same way, Jesus is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Yeshua, or Joshua, which means “God is salvation.” There are numerous prophecies of this Messiah who is to bring salvation, some of which include Him being a descendant of David, that He would be born of a virgin, and that He would be God (Isaiah 7:13-14). The angel reveals the fulfilment of all this in the aforementioned Luke passage. The good news is, “God is salvation, the anointed one” (Jesus Christ) has ben born—or, in a word, Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14b; Matthew 1:23).
The Good News/Gospel of Jesus Christ is, therefore, the salvation He brings. It is in Him because He is God, the Anointed One—the King of Israel. People are used to kings who exalt the mighty and ignore the lowly; that’s how our world has always functioned. We exalt our celebrities and politicians higher than they need to be who are already exalted just for the position they’re in while we ignore the humble while claiming we care about their needs and example. Thus, when Jesus came, the Jews did not believe He was the Messiah because He was not the king they had imagined—they expected Him to immediately establish God’s kingdom (Luke 19:11). Instead of conquering, Jesus socialised and dined with ragamuffins. He even had the audacity to forgive sins, which made the Pharisees furious (5:20-21). The work and person of Christ continually shows salvation is for the lowly, not for the mighty.
The Lucan theme of exalting the lowly and lowering the mighty begins in Mary’s Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for He has looked on the humble estate of His servant… He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He has sent away empty” (1:46-48, 52-53). Darrell Bock, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, comments, “Mary generalizes her praise: God’s mercy extends to those who fear him… Those who stand in opposition will face God’s power and authority to bring down” (Bock, 46). God’s mercy is precisely the foundation for which He manifested Himself in Christ to die for our sins. In His mercy, Jesus took the wrath of God upon Himself that we justly deserve.
To fear God is to fear the punishment for our sins, which we get the picture of His wrath from Jesus on the cross. We must not be left to fear Him, however. In Luther’s Small Catechism, he explains the Ten Commandments with the same beginning, “We should fear and love God.” Fear moves into love. We must fear our just punishment, but “the Gospel comes to liberate us from Fear because it offers us a God with whom we can entrust our lives” (Mattes). How does the Gospel liberate us from this fear and from sin? It was manifested in the person and work of Jesus. To fear God, therefore, is “to honor God for his own sake… To fear God is to acknowledge that he is the Lord, and not we ourselves” (Mattes). To fear the Lord and thus honour Him and acknowledge He is Lord, therefore, is possible only by the lowering of oneself from self-righteousness to humility because it is only in this state of humility in which we are able to acknowledge Christ as Lord rather than ourselves as lord. Without this humility, it is impossible to fear and love the Lord. [For more on the fear of the Lord, my senior thesis for my undergrad is about the fear of the Lord, so stay tuned for me to publish it on this blog some time in May 2017.]
Faith in Jesus is an arduous thing because it requires humbling oneself by acknowledging we are not all-powerful and all-knowing; faith is to acknowledge God alone is all-powerful and all-knowing. Jesus cleansed a leper because he had faith Jesus could do so (5:12-13). Jesus also heals the man with the withered hand, a man with a demon, Jairus’ daughter (6:6-11; 8:26-39, 40-56 respectively), and numerous others who were ill or demon possessed. When He sees such faith, sins are immediately forgiven (5:20) and detriments are reversed.
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, when a lawyer asked Jesus to define whom one’s neighbour is, He gives him the example of a lowly Samaritan—a Gentile, whom the Jews despised (they were, in essence, racists). It was not the priest in the parable who helped the injured man; it was the lowly Gentile who took it upon himself to help the man. Not only did Jesus use one of a lowly position as an example, “but Jesus also causes the lawyer to draw the lesson himself, by asking who had become the neighbor of him who had fallen among the robbers. For this will show that we are not to trouble ourselves about the question as to who is our neighbor, but we are to earn the name of neighbor by our treatment of others” (Weiss, 93). Jesus calls the lawyer to bring himself to a lowly position to make himself neighbourly to all people rather than trying to discern what constitutes a person as a neighbour. Do we know if the lawyer takes heed of Jesus’ words? We don’t, but we can reasonably conclude he most likely did not by examining the action of the rich ruler.
This particular man was concerned about inheriting eternal life. He doesn’t realise the contradiction, however. This rich ruler seems to have everything: wealth, social status, and a perfect religious record. Yet his pursuit of being one who was perfectly good was incomplete, and he felt this. Jesus does not praise him for his obedience to the Law. Instead, He tells him out of all the things he possesses, he lacks one thing. He tells the man to sell all his possessions and then follow Him. The point was not to live in poverty for true Christian piety, as early thinkers such as Peter Waldo, Francis of Assisi, and Augustine would argue. The point was what this rich man lacked. This man sought to inherit eternal life, but inheritance is not something one can seek or take; it is given to a person. The man thought he had to do something to inherit eternal life, but inheriting is something done to you. This man supposedly had everything, but what was missing? Jesus Christ was the missing link; He gives us the inheritance. So He called the rich ruler to drastic faith, which required lowering himself. Instead of obeying Jesus’ call, the man walks away sad because he did not want to get rid of his possessions—his mighty standing, or self-righteousness (i.e. self-justification).
It is impossible for one in such self-righteousness to enter the kingdom of God. It is so impossible that Jesus says, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (18:24-25). Not just material wealth, but wealth in knowledge and wealth in oneself as well, which is pride. Jesus’ hyperbole is interesting, which such hyperboles are indicative of His pedagogical method. How can a camel pass through the eye of a sewing needle? Exactly, it cannot. It is physically impossible. It is so impossible for a camel to pass through such a small opening that it is even more impossible for one who is swollen up with pride to enter the kingdom of God. “Wealth and the false sense of security that comes with it can prevent one from meeting God” (Bock, 301). So, as the disciples themselves asked, who can be saved? Only when one lowers their pride can they, in this lowliness, receive faith in Christ. As Bock contends, “The hyperbole here makes it clear that a rich man on his own will never make a choice for the kingdom. It is impossible. The priorities it requires demand a new heart… Jesus notes that God can do the impossible. He can change hearts and priorities… People do not save themselves or earn God’s blessing; God provides it” (Bock, 301-302).
Jesus bringing salvation to the lowly is ostensible. He brought salvation to the sick, the demon possessed, those of low social status such as women and Gentiles and prostitutes, and even to those wealthy in material possessions and knowledge. (The testimony and social status of women in biblical times were considered to be no better than a criminal’s, which attests to Jesus’ resurrection because if His resurrection were a giant farce, the first witnesses would not have been women.) Yet we see that only those who are lowly receive salvation because God works in lowly hearts, not hardened, prideful hearts. So the universal appeal of the Gospel is true—that salvation in Christ is meant for all men and women, no matter their social status, nationality or ethnicity, or whatever disability; it is simply not received by all. As Christ lowers Himself for the sins of the world, a thief lowers himself by confessing faith in Christ while the other, in his pride, demands that Jesus exert His supposed power and control as the Son of God. Because Jesus does not exert such control, this thief does not believe. To the one who believed in his humility, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (23:43).
What does the universal appeal mean for us today? As Jesus socialised with, dined with, and saved ragamuffins, we learn we are all ragamuffins. Jesus still calls all people to Him. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). The God of the Old and New Testament is the same God today. The Christ of the New Testament is the same Christ today. He calls the politicians and celebrities and self-righteous of today to Himself, and He calls today’s poor people, the ill, the depressed, the destitute—every person of every nationality to Him no matter the shame of our past. Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:31). Since none are righteous on their own merit, Jesus has come for all people. Jesus’ death, therefore, is the culmination of Mary’s Magnificat—in His death and resurrection He exalts the humble, and the mighty are forced to lower themselves to receive His salvation, for such lowering is required to acknowledge Christ as Lord, enabled by the Holy Spirit. Whatever you may tell yourself in any shame or guilt you may feel, you are precisely the kind of person Jesus came to die for.
Weiss, Bernhard. A Commentary on the New Testament, Vol. II. United States: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1906.
Bock, Darrell. Luke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
Mattes, Mark. “Fear and Love.” http://www.lutheranquarterly.com/lent–fear-and-love.html