3/30/2010

The Great Inversion in Luke

There are many distinctive themes in Luke’s gospel: his focus on women, his concern for social justice and the poor, his extra detail on the birth of Christ. But I think I’ve found something that ties them all together. Dallas Willard calls it the Great Inversion – the teaching of Jesus that the last will be first and the first will be last, that he who is great must be a servant, that God’s mode of judging is not just different but opposite ours.
That is evident from the first chapters. Mary, a simple girl from presumably a simple family (Luke doesn’t tell us) responds with humble belief and submission to Gabriel’s announcement (1:38,45), while the priest Zechariah demands a sign (1:18). Mary’s song of thanksgiving emphasizes God’s care for the humble and the poor (1:46-55). Jesus, the son of God, is born in a stable (2:7). God invites lowly shepherds to His birth (2:8-20). The first story that Luke tells us about Jesus’ ministry is that He declared that He was the fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-2: good news to the poor, release to the captives, liberty for the oppressed(4:16-21). The first disciples that Jesus calls are fishermen (5:10-11) and a tax collector (5:27). Luke’s version of the sermon on the mount (blessed are the poor, the hungry, those who weep, the hated and excluded) is counterbalanced by woes (woe to you rich, woe to you who are full, woe to you who laugh) (6:20-26). Jesus declares that he who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than John the Baptist (7:28-30). Jesus contrasts a prostitute’s love with a Pharisee’s, and judges the prostitute’s to be greater (7:47). Luke makes special note of the women who accompany Jesus (8:2-3). Jesus teaches that to be His disciple means to follow him to execution (9:23-24). When the disciples argue over who is greatest, Jesus tells them that the one who is least is greatest. A widow’s coins are worth more than the great surplus of the wealthy (21:1-4).
Luke tells us that the Pharisees were lovers of money (16:14). They provides a foil to Jesus’ extensive teaching on feeding the poor (14:13-14, 12:33) and giving up everything to follow him (14:33). Compare also, the rich young ruler (18:18-24), who was reluctant to sell his possessions and follow Jesus, with the disciples who “left everything” (5:11, 5:28). And of course the crowning example of this inversion is Jesus, the spotless lamb, being slain in place of the sinners who deserved His death.
I could go on, but hopefully you get the point. In short, Luke is saying on nearly ever page of his gospel that when Jesus burst upon the world He turned it upside down and overturned everything we thought we knew. In the divine reality of His Kingdom to be first is to be last. To be greatest is to be least. To lead is to serve. To be poor is to be rich.
This is good news for everyone except the rich and important, which is perhaps why it is so hard for them to get in (18:24-27) and why Jesus repeatedly counsels them to renounce their goods (18:22, 14:33, 12:21, 12:33-34). His warnings against the dangers of possessions are strict: “A man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions” (12:15), “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (9:25). “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (12:48).
This is where I come in. While I’m not rich, I have a reasonably good job. I get to work with my mind, and am pretty good at what I do. I like to think that I’m fairly intelligent, and I’m not too bad at this holiness thing. When I read these passages prayerfully, this is what they say to me: “Gabe, by Kingdom reckoning you are not nearly as important as you think you are. Those people you like to look down on are actually way ahead of you in line. The homeless and the mentally retarded will be hearing ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’ while you’re way back in the parking lot.” But in the kingdom of God, the back of the line isn’t such a bad place to be.

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