What does Jesus have to say about social justice in Luke’s Gospel?

Introduction

In giving consideration to the concept of Social Justice, let us have a look at the Oxford English Dictionary definition and John Rawls’ pivotal work on the subject, aptly entitled Principles of Justice. First, the Oxford English Dictionary: justice in terms of the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society.

For Rawls (1971) there were two key principles: ‘The first principle: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with similar system of liberty for all. The second principle: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and, (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under the conditions of fair and equality of opportunity’.

With these as backdrop, this essay seeks to explore cross cuttings themes on Social Justice from Luke’s account of Jesus, as consolidated in the verses of Isaiah 61:1–2a, recorded in the gospel of Luke 4:16–30.

Luke’s Jesus

The gospel of Luke opens up Jesus’ ministry with an event recorded in Luke 4:16–30, just after his temptation by devil (the god of this world). However, before we delve into this event it is important to touch briefly on the key battlegrounds with the devil during his temptation. First he was tested for: his devotion (If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread); then his love for power and wealth (To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours); and finally his desire for fame (If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone) (Luke 4:1–13).

Unlike Adam who fell for the lure of the derivatives of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Jesus matched each of the devil’s assault with scriptural texts. He emptied himself of the desires of the material world, emerging victorious — ‘filled with the spirit and his fame spread through all the surrounding country’ (Luke 4:14–15).

Going back to Luke 4:16–30, we see an account in which Jesus visits the local synagogue in Nazareth (the town he had been brought up), and a scroll was presented to him for reading — perhaps based on his new found fame the leaders decided to honour him. As fate would have it, this scroll was the book of Isaiah, so he unrolled it and read to the congregation:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ (Luke 4:18–19)

I believe this proclamation echoed though the structures of the synagogue just like a prophetic manifesto of the kingdom of God, which he began to express through his: actions, lifestyle, preaching and teaching over the course of his ministry.

According to Cone (2012), ‘This reversal of expectations and conventional values is the unmistakable theme of the gospel’. Cone went on to use the term transvaluation of values in explaining this phenomena, a term he borrowed from Niebuhr, citing examples from: Luke 16:15, ‘What is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.’; and Luke 18:14, ‘All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ In line with this thought, Torre (2014) noted that, ‘Justice begins with the plight of the poor, the oppressed, the marginalised, the outcast, and the disenfranchised. To engage in justice is to do with it, and from, the perspective of those whom society considers (no) bodies.’ (p. 86).

Grassi (2003, p. 172) and Stanton (2002, p.79) highlight that the word manyin Luke’s prologue denotes that other writers had embarked on a written account of Jesus’ life. They both agree that Mark was a primary source for Matthew and Luke, and, the possibility of another source which was not accessible to Mark. According to Stanton (2002), ‘Luke’s portrait of Jesus seems to stress his human qualities. Even more than Matthew and Mark, Luke emphasizes the concern of Jesus for women, for tax collectors and sinners, and for those at the fringes of society’ (p. 79).

The book of Luke takes its readers on a journey which can be summarised in three stages: Jesus’ ministry in Galilee (Luke 4:14–9:50); his journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51–19:48); and, his arrest, trial, death, resurrection, instructions and promise of power — through the Holy Spirit (Luke 20–24:53).

Through Luke’s writing, we are privy to seminal parables like: the Prodigal son and the Good Samaritan. The latter inspired Martin Luther King’s last speech to a crowd of striking sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, popularly known as ‘I’ve Been to the Mountaintop’. The crescendo of this piece being the moral dilemma he presents to his audience, and the ethical question he leaves them to muse over:

‘…In the days of Jesus it came to be known as the ‘Bloody Pass.’ And you know, it’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking, and he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the priest asked, the first question that the Levite asked was, ‘If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?’ “But then the Good Samaritan came by, and he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’

Through the threads of key events and key personalities, Luke unravels the mystery of the incarnation, presenting a beautiful tapestry of spiritual liberation and social justice for humanity. I can hear the reverberations of God’s thoughts through the pages of this gospel — I hear God pondering ‘If I do not stop to help humanity, what will happen?’ For the rich young ruler was as poor and vulnerable, as the widow in the earlier parable who was seeking justice from the unjust judge. Perhaps both accounts were craftily juxtaposed by Luke for reflection by his audience. Reflection on the social dilemmas they were faced with on a daily basis (Luke 18:1–14).

So he cites that Jesus was born in the days of the decree by Emperor Augustus, and John the Baptist began preaching in the fifteenth year of the reign of the emperor Tiberius. Stanton (2002) noted that the dedication of both volumes (Luke and Acts), to most excellent Theophilus, strengthens the case that Luke’s writing was geared towards the intelligentsia of his era (p. 80). Perhaps with a view not to alienate this group, he omits ‘the day of vengeance of our God’ (Isaiah 61:2b) in his account of Jesus’ reading of the text in the synagogue — our God denoting the God of the Hebrews — as to Jesus, the saviour of both Jews and gentiles. However I hasten to clarify that some scholars take the literal meaning of Theophilus, (lover of God, or friend of God) , underscoring that the letter was not written to any individual, but rather, a body of believers.

Furthermore Grassi (2003) also noted Luke’s purpose for writing as detailed in his prologue of his Gospel, with emphasis on the events fulfilled among; indicating the promises of God found in the scriptures. He further highlights the quote by Jesus towards the end Luke’s Gospel, (Luke 24:44): ‘these are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled’ (pp.172–173).

Jesus and social justice according to Luke

Hanson and Oakman (1998) mentioned that the ruling elites during Jesus’ era sought out the backing of either the Seleucids, Ptolemies, Parthians or the Romans; for protection, access to power, religious control, and inducement (p.87). These families protected their interest through very strong family ties and allegiance, making economic and social mobility very difficult for the peasantry. Like the widow in the parable (Luke 18:1–8), the peasants were entirely dependent on the ruling elites for justice on issues regarding: unfair tax bills, the dispossession of their land and property, the oppression by their employers or slave masters, the arrest or enslavement of their children… In the absence of equity some resulted to banditry. As a result Jesus’ association and identification with these groups, made him an enemy of the establishment (Luke 7:36–38). He was seen as a renegade preacher, a non-conformist, one with a contrary agenda, one who was gathering a following, one who might lead an insurrection. And because they had too much at stake, they sought to get rid of him, with a view to maintain the status quo and protect their interest. In some quarters he was even seen to be an arbitrator, hence he replied the man who demanded his intervention over a family dispute: ‘Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?’ (Luke 12:14).

Luke recorded thirteen parables by Jesus. These parables can be best described as allegories or simple stories, some from oral tradition; which he used to illustrate moral or spiritual lessons to his audience. As well as spiritual and ethical slants, these parables also carried along themes of social justice, and clear links Jesus’ messianic manifesto as recorded in Luke 4:18–19. They include: the parable of the Sower (8:4–15); the parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25–37); the parable of the Rich Fool (12:13–21); the parable of the Mustard Seed (13:18–19); the parable of the Great Dinner (14:15–24), the parable of the Lost Sheep (15:1–7); the parable of the Lost coin (15:8–10); the parable of the Prodigal Son (15:11–32); the parable of the Dishonest Manager (16:1–9); the parable of the Widow and Unjust Judge (18:1–8); the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9–14); the parable of the Ten Pounds (19:11–27); and, the parable of the Wicked Tenants (20:9–19).

As with his teaching and lifestyle, Jesus’ call to repentance is far more emphasised in Luke’s writing in comparison to the other gospels. His desire was for change, and for the people to become agents of change — hence he cried over Jerusalem in disappointment before entering the city (Luke 19:41). We see later in the Book of Acts, and through history, these catalysts (disciples) causing sea change in the way people do: business, politics, relationship, worship, law, race-relations, diplomacy, education, government; across the Roman Empire — incarnating God’s will and kingdominto communities as they fled persecution from the authorities.

It is also important to note that Luke highlights Jesus’ dealings with non-Jews and the ruling elites of his era. For instance, the story of the centurion whose servant was gravely ill comes to mind (Luke 7:1–10). This senior Roman soldier’s social and political status is brought to light to us through the testimony of the Jewish elders he sent to solicit Jesus’ help. They spoke of some of his good deeds — including his contribution to the building of a synagogue. The centurion’s sphere of military authority was also underscored by the statement of faith he conveyed through his friends to Jesus:

“Lord, do not trouble yourself, for I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; therefore I did not presume to come to you. But only speak the word, and let my servant be healed. For I also am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and the slave does it.” (Luke 7:6–7 NRSV).

Conclusion

Grassi (2003) noted that ‘If one word were to sum up a dominant concern of Luke, it would be metanoia, meaning ‘repentance’ — literally, a change of mind and heart. The beginning and end of Luke’s two volumes focus on this word.’ (p. 173).

For Luke, repentance was a precursor to forgiveness. There needed to be a conscious effort on the part of the recipients of God’s love; to effect a lasting change. Perhaps a process not dissimilar to the exegesis of the different landscapes, and their corresponding response to the seeds scattered by the sower, in the parable of the sower.

So in closing, I return again to Luke 4:18–19, this time with a view to amplify the text using John Rawls’ Principles of Justice.

Jesus said: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’

And John Rawls encapsulates the spirit of these words in two enduring principles: ‘The first principle: each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal basic liberties compatible with similar system of liberty for all. The second principle: social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and, (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under the conditions of fair and equality of opportunity’ (p.302).

Bibliography

Cone, J. (2012) The Cross and the Lynching Tree. United States: Orbis Books

Grassi, J. (2002) Informing the Future: Social Justice in the New Testament.United States: Paulist Press International, U.S.

Hanson, K. and Oakman, D. (1998) Palestine in the Time of Jesus: Social Structures and Social Conflicts. United States: Minneapolis : Fortress Press, c1998.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 3, 1968). “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” (Transcript). American Rhetoric.

Rawls, J. (1971) Theory of Justice. United States: Belknap

Stanton, G. (2002) The Gospels and Jesus. 2nd edn. United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, USA.

 

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