Approaching the Gospel of Luke as counter-narrative
Advent marks the beginning of a new year in the church's calendar. The seasons and rhythms of the church calendar are at odds with a world driven by markets and a multitude of political and personal interests. Throughout this year churches around the world following the Revised Common Lectionary will be hearing the Gospel of Luke. The story will be read in bits and pieces, but it was written as a coherent narrative that includes not only the Gospel of Luke but also Acts as the sequel which continues Luke's story of Jesus as it finds expression in the earliest assemblies of Christ. In this article I would like to explore the Gospel of Luke as a tightly woven counter-narrative that sets our an alternative vision of life that challenged the foundational values and structures of Greco-Roman society. In particular, I want to look at how the Gospel of Luke was designed to shape the identity and practices of assemblies of Christ in the last couple of decades of the first century.
To read Luke's story of Jesus as a counter-narrative is to commit to a certain perspective and set of assumptions that need to be identified at the outset. Whether we are aware of it or not, we always read biblical texts from a particular social location that influences how we sec the world and indeed how we hear the texts. We bring our own interests and agendas to the text, and these are shaped by the social worlds in which we live and move and have our being. There are both differences and similarities between the social world in which Luke-Acts was written and heard and our own. The social and political environment of the New Testament as a whole was determined by Roman rule and Greco-Roman values and mores. The religious environment of the Gospel of Luke is Judaism.
One important distinction between ancient culture and contemporary culture is that in our cultural contexts there is, ostensibly at least, a separation of political economy and religion. But Luke writes for people who live in a world in which the elite of the Roman Empire controlled almost all of the resources as well as the social and political structures that determined peoples' lives. Moreover, the Pax Romana and the Greco-Roman way of life were legitimated by religious practices which included a variety of indigenous cults linked together under the banner of the imperial cult. Luke alone among the Gospels invokes this imperial system by noting that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus and during the time of a census that was taken for the sake of collecting taxes (3:1-3). In these few verses Luke signals the correlation between the world of Roman rule and the economic hardship caused by the burden of taxation.
Approximately ninety percent of people in the Roman Empire lived around subsistence level. (1) In other words, the majority of people were preoccupied with basic needs of food and shelter. It is precisely this experience of life under Roman rule that is alluded to in Mary's Song: "[God] has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; [God] has filled the hungry with good things" (1:52-53). The Gospel of Luke is a counter-narrative inasmuch as the divine beneficence and healing mediated through Jesus are set in contrast to an experience of imperial society as one of scarcity and subjugation. Yet while imperial propaganda extolling the benefits of the Pax Romana and the benefaction of the emperor may serve as a back-story for Luke's Gospel, the two-volume narrative does not directly challenge the Roman Empire as an ideological system. (2) Rather, as prophet Jesus critiques the social system from a more practical perspective, and as teacher he articulates specific principles and practices that serve as the foundation for a way of life that is set in contrast to the Greco-Roman way of life. (3)
In the ancient world all texts were rhetorical, that is, they were designed to change the attitudes and actions of those who heard them. The Gospel of Luke functions rhetorically as a counter-narrative because in telling the story of Jesus it envisions a counter-cultural way of life. Luke recounts the events of Jesus' ministry, death, and resurrection as a way of communicating "God's purpose" for a world under Roman rule (cf. 7:30). (4) Consequently, this brings Jesus into conflict with those in the narrative who represent beliefs and practices that are at odds with God's purpose. More often than not Jesus' antagonists in the Gospel are Pharisees and lawyers, but it is their practices that he denounces:
But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and herbs of all kinds, and neglect justice and the love of God; it is these you ought to have practiced, without neglecting the others. Woe to you Pharisees! For you love to have the seat of honor in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces (11:42-43). Here and throughout the Gospel behavior and practices that reflect the justice and love of God are contrasted with characters intent on securing honor, status, and wealth without regard for the well-being of others. Jesus reproves the Pharisees in this passage, not because he disagrees with them theologically, but rather because their behavior betrays a preoccupation with honor characteristic of Greco-Roman culture.
Throughout Luke's narrative, as prophet and teacher Jesus calls into question the dispositions and conduct of characters who personify Greco-Roman social values and structures. The Gospel of Luke is designed to shape the communal identity and practices of audiences by showing how Jesus and his followers exemplify God's love and purpose. As a counter-narrative it provokes hearers to be and act differently. As is characteristic of Judaism, the emphasis throughout the narrative is more on the formation of character and community through praxis than on theology per se. (5) In her book Reading Across Borders, Shari Stone-Mediatore contrasts narratives written from dominant perspectives that are endorsed by powerful institutions and hence come to be accepted as "common-sense" knowledge with stories of marginalized experience that tend to conflict with this "common-sense knowledge. (6) She underscores the relationship between narrative and political thinking and emphasizes how narratives invoke experience and social practices and thereby contribute to critical thinking and liberatory politics. (7) In reading the Gospel of Luke as a counter-narrative against the backdrop of imperial society, Jesus and his followers are viewed as representatives of such marginalized experience advocating for a subaltern politics, namely the "kingdom of God," and calling into question the "common-sense" knowledge and practices that form the...