Jesus has now been established as a prophetic preacher and, like prophets of old, he has the power to heal. Yet something more than Elijah or Elishah is involved in the work of Jesus. From the first days of his ministry he calls disciples to his side (Luke 5:1-11, 27-32) and distinguishes them from other known groups, the disciples of John, or the Pharisees (5:33). The next section of the Gospel continues the story of community formation and begins to sketch a new picture of Jesus. In addition to proclamation and healing, he is also a teacher of a distinctive way of life into which his disciples are being initiated.
The first major block of teaching consists of a sermon delivered by Jesus “on a plain” (contrast Matthew’s setting of a similar sermon “on a mount” in Matthew 5:1). The first section of the sermon consists of “beatitudes,” which are balanced in Luke by a series of prophetic judgments or “woes.”
The beatitudes here, unlike their counterparts in Matthew which focus on the way people behave (Matthew 5:3-11), comment on the conditions that people face. If people are now in a sorry state—poor, hungry, mourning—they will experience a change for the better in God’s kingdom. If people are now rich, full, and rejoicing, their situation too will change, but for the worse.
When will this change happen? How will it occur? The gospel does not offer a definite answer. Matthew’s Jesus speaks as a teacher of virtue. Luke’s Jesus begins his lecture in a prophetic mode, but when and how the prophecy is to be fulfilled remains an open question!
What follows in Luke’s “sermon on the plain” parallels Matthew 5:36-48, although without Matthew’s organizing structure. Scholars believe that Luke’s account of the sayings may more accurately reflect the hypothetical source he shared with Matthew (often called “Q”).
Luke’s gospel focuses on the direct and challenging calls of Jesus to love in the most trying of circumstances. He teaches his listeners to pray for enemies, to respond to violence with non-violence, to give aid without question. Following these calls to radical love and non-violence, Jesus challenges his disciples to love without regard to a person’s worthiness, to love even their enemies. These exhortations reach a climax in the admonition to be merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:36), a marked contrast to Matthew’s parallel call to perfection (Matthew 5:48).
The sermon continues with other known sayings: to give, not to judge, to remove the beam from one’s own eye rather than the speck from the neighbor’s. The sermon culminates with images of the fruitful tree (Luke 6:43-45) and the sure foundation (Luke 6:4-49).
Luke is probably not responsible for the collection of the sayings of Jesus assembled into this homily, but he puts his own stamp on the collection with the summons to be merciful. That may even be the way in which the evangelist tries to rationalize the Teacher’s extreme claims.
After the sermon on the plain, Jesus continues his activity of healing. He first treats the son of a centurion in response to the centurion’s famous expression of humility: “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof” (Luke 7:6).
The healing ministry is carried to an extreme in the miraculous resurrection of the widow of Nain’s son (7:11-17). This is one of the three resurrection reports (other than of Jesus himself) in the gospels (compare Jairus’ daughter of Mark 5:21-43; Lazarus in John 11).
For Luke, traditional stories of miracles are important, but of equal importance is what Jesus teaches, including teaching about himself. The next passage shows Jesus responding to questions from followers of the Baptist. After clarifying the role of John in the grand scheme of things (Luke 7:28), Jesus’ final response (7:35) suggests that he, like John, is a “child” of divine Wisdom.
Here Luke gestures toward a major way in which early Christians understood the significance of Jesus (compare John 1:1-18; Hebrews 1:1-3). The emphasis, above his identity as messiah, is his identity as an embodiment of divine wisdom. He is indeed worthy to teach.
The story that concludes this section of our study (Luke 7:36-50) offers a teaching-by-example. This principle is at the heart of Luke’s gospel.
In this story, Jesus encounters an anonymous sinful woman. In the tradition of the Church, this woman will later be identified as Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned by name in the following passage (Luke 8:2). A similar story is told of Mary of Bethany in John 12:1-8 and tradition. Popular imagination will go on to conflate the two.
Luke’s interest, however, is not in the identity of the penitent woman, nor even in the type of her sin (see, for example, the story of the adulteress in John 8:1-11). Luke rather highlights the attitude of Jesus, who is willing to forgive and welcome this “sinner,” despite the judgmental attitude of Simon the Pharisee. The parable that Jesus then tells Simon about the two debtors (Luke 7:41-42) suggests that Luke understands parables as challenging the hearer reach a deeper insight into fundamental principles. The story as a whole confronts the reader with a similar challenge: what are the limits, if any, of forgiveness of the repentant “sinner”?