This entry has been modified to fit the audience of this blog from an essay written for the upper level religion course, Gospel of Luke, at Concordia University in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
In ancient Roman society, it was a common practise to exalt the mighty and bring down the humble to even lower positions. That worldview has not changed much in modern western society. In American pop culture we praise celebrities, the favoured politicians in accordance with each biased political affiliation, the rich like Bill Gates who own 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 even insanity. We become sickened at the sight of physically deformed and mentally ill people. It is man’s natural inclination to execute immediate judgements about 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. Jesus socialised and dined with thieves, prostitutes, the sick, the mentally ill (also demon possessed), and the physically deformed. In the person and work of Jesus we see that salvation is for the lowly, not the mighty. Although salvation is offered to the mighty, in their haughtiness they often fail to humbles themselves to confess Jesus as Lord and Saviour.
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.” To understand why this is significant, we need to understand the meaning of the word Christ. “Both Christ and Messiah mean ‘anointed’ or ‘anointed one'” (United Church of God). Some people, even Christians, misunderstand “Christ” as being Jesus’ last name, but it is His title—anointed one. Last names are specific to our culture; in biblical times they did not identify themselves with last names but with their father’s genealogical line. Kings in the Old Testament were given the title of “the Lord’s anointed” (1 Samuel 2:10; Psalm 2:2; Lamentations 4:2, just to name a few). “The Greek name ‘Jesus’ is a transliteration of the Hebrew name Yehoshua or Yeshua, the English form of which is ‘Joshua.’ This name literally means God is salvation” (UCG). There are numerous prophecies of this Messiah, some of which include: He would be a descendant of David, He would be born of a virgin, and 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 that “God [who] is salvation, the anointed one” (Jesus Christ) has been born—or, in a word, Immanuel, “God with us” (Isaiah 7:14b; Matthew 1:23).
The Good News/Gospel of Jesus Christ is, therefore, the salvation that comes from Him. It comes from 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. Thus, when Jesus came, the Jews did not believe He was the Messiah because He was not the king they had imagined for so long—they expected Him to immediately establish His kingdom (Luke 19:11). Instead of conquering the Roman Empire, Jesus socialised and dined with ragamuffins. He even had the audacity to forgive sins, which made the Pharisees furious (Luke 5:20-21). The work and person of Jesus continually shows salvation is for the lowly, not for the mighty, even though He offers it to 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” (Luke 1:46-48, 52-53). Mary’s praise is an echo of Hannah’s prayer with the same theme (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Darrell Bock comments on Mary’s praise, “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” (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 of 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)! To fear the Lord and thus honour Him and acknowledge He is Lord, therefore, means to lower oneself from self-righteousness (might/haughtiness/pride) to humility. Without this humility, it is impossible to fear and love the Lord.
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 He could do so (Luke 5:12-13), He heals the man with the withered hand, a man with a demon, Jairus’s daughter (Luke 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 (Luke 5:20). In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), 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 mighty priest or Levite 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 to 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 neighbour. As the lawyer sought to justify himself (Luke 10:29), Jesus illustrated that only the lowly receive justification because only in such a humble state can one receive such a gift, whereas the mighty and self-righteous ignore and reject it. 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 actions of the rich ruler.
This particular man (Luke 18:18-30) was concerned about inheriting eternal life. He doesn’t realise the contradiction in his question, 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; he knew something was missing. Jesus does not praise him for his obedience to the Law, as the man might have expected. Instead, Jesus tells him that out of all the things he possesses, he lacks one thing. He tells the man to sell all his possessions and then come follow Him. The point was not to live in poverty for true Christian piety, as early mendicant thinkers such as Peter Waldo, Francis of Assisi, and Augustine would erroneously 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. A man’s earthly father gives him the inheritance not out of obligation, but simply because he chooses to; the father can annul the inheritance whenever he so chooses. In the same way, the inheritance of eternal life is not something we strive towards to grasp with our own will; it is a gift God chooses to give us, and should we reject His Word later in life He can always choose to remove that inheritance. Furthermore, this man supposedly had everything, but what was missing? Jesus Christ was the missing link; He gives us the inheritance. In fact, the inheritance is His! So, Jesus called him to drastic faith, which requires the lowering of oneself. Instead of taking heed of Jesus’ words, the man walks away sad because he did not want to get rid of his possessions—his mighty standing, or self-righteousness.
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” (Luke 18:24-25). Not just material wealth, but wealth in knowledge and wealth in oneself, which is pride. This statement Jesus said is an odd statement because He’s contrasting two things to make a point, but both subjects in each contrast both fail to do the action Jesus connects them to. How can a camel pass through the eye of a 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 in 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 apostles themselves asked, who can be saved? Only when one lowers their pride can they, in this lowliness, receive faith in Christ. “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). Ergo, while the mighty are offered salvation, as long as their hearts remain hardened they cannot receive the inheritance of eternal life unless God works to soften their hearts into a humble state to receive such a wonderful gift.
Jesus bringing salvation to the lowly is ostensible. He brought salvation to the sick, demon possessed, those of low social status such as women and Gentiles, 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 clever farce, the apostles would not have written the first witnesses as being women.) Yet we see that only those who are lowly receive salvation because God works in lowly hearts, not hardened, prideful hearts. The universal appeal of the Gospel, therefore, is true—that salvation in Christ is meant for all men and women, no matter their socioeconomic status, nationality, 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 power and control. 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” (Luke 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—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 sent away with nothing. 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.
*Disclaimer: this article has been republished with the full permission of Sheep of Christ, which is owned by the author.*
Bernhard Weiss. A Commentary on the New Testament. Vol. II. United States: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1906.
Darrell Bock. Luke. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1994.
Mark Mattes. “Fear and Love.” http://www.lutheranquarterly.com/lent–fear-and-love.html
United Church of God. “What do ‘Messiah’ and ‘Jesus Christ’ Mean?” http://www.ucg.org/bible-study-tools/booklets/jesus-christ-the-real-story/what-do-messiah-and-jesus-christ-mean