Living a Different Story
“Luke’s story of Jesus offers an alternative vision of life and practice,” Ray Pickett writes, “that promises God’s deliverance from the dehumanizing effects of imperial society for the covenant community that hears Jesus’ words and does them (page 432). Pickett encourages us to read the Lukan account “as a tightly woven counter-narrative that sets out an alternative vision of life that challenged the foundational values and structures of Greco-Roman society” (page 424). Pickett’s article is worth examining in some detail.
Pickett argues that this counter-narrative “was designed to shape the identity and practices of assemblies of Christ in the last couple of decades of the first century” (page 424). For those of us who were trained to see the Lukan account as a way to accommodate to the Roman Empire and the Gentile world in general, this perspective is challenging, refreshing, and intriguing. In his contribution to Luke and Empire, Pickett argues that the Lukan assessment of the Empire is “neither pro nor con.” There is a difference between resisting the totalizing claims of empire over its inhabitants and actively challenging that ideology in political terms. Pickett and others would describe the Lukan account as more resistance that revolution.
This means that the focus of the Lukan account is not really the Roman Empire. The Empire is the context, the framework, the air that Lukan Christians breathed. But the focus of the account is not so much on what is wrong with the Empire as it is on how to live as a faithful Jesus follower in spite of breathing the air of Empire. Pickett writes that “Luke’s representation of the imperial system serves as a backdrop against which the practices and patterns of life characteristic of God’s reign are depicted in the narrative. Throughout Luke-Acts,” he continues, “Jesus and the community of his followers mediate and embody divine power in ways that cause them to act contrary to the imperial cultural system and those who represent it” (Luke and Empire, page 15).
We should take a moment to review the role and function of counter-narratives in the formation and sustaining of communities. “Counter-narrative refers to the narratives that arise from the vantage point of those who have been historically marginalized,” Raul Alberto Mora writes. “A counter-narrative thus goes beyond the telling of stories that take place in the margins,” Mora continues. “By choosing their own words and telling their own stories, members of marginalized communities provide alternative points of view, helping to create complex narratives truly presenting their realities.”
I think it’s important to note the sociological framework of counter-narratives. The Lukan author is not writing from or to a cultural or political dominant community but rather one that is on the margins. Christians live in an imperial system but give allegiance to a different Lord. Following the destruction of Jerusalem, Christians live in a Diaspora among the nations, that is, the Gentiles. The Lukan author is giving an orderly account of the gospel, not only to tune up the Markan composition, but also to stand up the narrative against the dominant story told by empire.
Pickett notes that the Empire controlled and distributed all the economic, social, and political goods available to people. The Gospel critiques this system and offers a resistant story. That’s the thing about a counter-narrative. It’s not just an alternative account. It’s an account designed to push back. “The Gospel of Luke is a counter-narrative,” Pickett writes, “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” (page 425).
Pickett argues that Luke’s Gospel “does not directly challenge the Roman Empire as an ideological system. Rather,” he writes, “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” (page 425). Pickett proposes that Luke’s counter-narrative is not a theoretical assault on imperial theology but rather the description of a counter-cultural way of life.
“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,” Pickett suggests. “As a counter-narrative it provokes hearers to be and act differently. As is characteristic of Judaism,” he notes, “the narrative is more on the formation of character and community through praxis than on theology per se” (page 426). Picket cites the work of Shari Stone-Mediatore to point out that such an emphasis on praxis rather than theory is characteristic of counter-narratives produced by marginalized communities. He summarizes this part of the argument as follows:
“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 foundation of Greco-Roman society” (page 426).
If the Lukan author wrote this counter-narrative to resist the dominant imperial culture and to promote the “subaltern” Christian communities, then we contemporary readers need to do our best to read it in an analogous way. We need to do that if we are to allow the text its appropriate authority. The challenge is that Luke, of all the four gospels, has been the most co-opted in supporting precisely the “common-sense knowledge and practices” that undergird our own dominant culture.
For example, the Parable of the Good Samaritan is known by many people who have basically zero Biblical literacy. It is told as a cultural “just-so” story about being nice and neighborly. It is the stuff of greeting cards and gift-store baubles. The Parable of the Prodigal Son has been psychologized and popularized almost beyond recognition in some accounts and has lost its counter-cultural edge for most hearers. Part of the challenge of preaching from the Lukan account, I think, is to recapture the counter-narrative character of the text for our own audiences.
Pickett observes that “salvation” is a central reality in the Lukan account. This salvation refers in particular to the restoration of Israel as God’s witness to the world. We run into questions and assertions about this restoration from the beginning of the Gospel (in the Song of Simeon, for example) to the end (in the melancholy hopes of the Emmaus pair and the question of the disciples at the Ascension).
“In Luke-Acts,” Pickett writes, “the offer of salvation requires a human response of ‘repentance’” (page 428). Now we come to the texts before us this week and next. John the Baptizer challenges his listeners to bear fruit worthy of repentance, that is giving external evidence of internal change. “Specific social, moral, ethical, financial, and religious inequalities are challenged in Luke-Acts,” he continues, “and repentance is presented as the means of correcting them.” This repentance is not only a “theological principle” but “denotes a change in behavior” (page 428).
The Lukan counter-narrative tells a different story, but it also calls forth changed ways of living and being. Pickett wants us to “pay attention to how the narrative works to alter day-to-day patterns of thinking, feeling, believing, and behaving. Salvation and the restoration of Israel and the nations,” he argues, “are presented in the Gospel of Luke as an ongoing process of social transformation” (page 428). Here in Advent, we can prepare our listeners to hear and read the Lukan account with just such a framework in mind.
Pickett begins his concluding reflections with this summary. “Luke’s story of Jesus offers an alternative vision of life and practice that promises God’s deliverance from the dehumanizing effects of imperial society for the covenant community that hears Jesus’ words and does them” (page 432). He suggests that the Lukan account holds up the values of hospitality and economic redistribution as counters to the imperial patronage system that values hierarchy and competition for the scarce commodity of honor. The restoration of Israel now includes the restoration of all the nations (Gentiles). “Transformation occurs as people begin to live according to God’s purposes,” Pickett says, “by appropriating Jesus’ teaching in their life together” (page 432).
What can we do with that as preachers here and now? Pickett argues that reading the Lukan account as such a counternarrative would allow us to interrogate our own secular myths of salvation and “the cultural systems to which we are beholden that deform and dehumanize us” (page 432). He suggests that these myths and systems come to us in the forms of totalizing politics, the market as a secular divinity and radical, expressive individualism as a secular spirituality (my terms, not his).
Of course, here (as my father would have said) is “where the cheese gets binding.” We White, Christian, American, privileged, propertied, and positioned people bring the current culturally dominant system in the door of the church with us every Sunday morning. I can’t really hear the Lukan account from the place of the marginalized. If I actually listen to the text as it is, I may well experience it as a counter-narrative, but its “counter” quality will deconstruct my privilege rather than encourage my endurance.
That’s not such bad news. This is precisely the effect of John’s wilderness proclamation. “Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’” John thunders, “for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham” (Luke 3:8b, NRSV). Presumptions of privilege are the first items on the homiletical chopping block for John, so I might expect to get the same treatment. Thus I would now certainly read Luke 3:1-9 as the text on Sunday.
Yet, there is hope for change. The axe of judgment may be in mid-swing, but there is opportunity to bear fruits worthy of repentance. The specifics of that response come next week. This week perhaps we preachers in places of privilege can prepare our listeners for the transition from beneficiaries of the dominant culture to alternative communities living in and on the counter-narrative of Jesus. That shift is happening, and it hurts. But at least we might be able to name it here.
References and Resources
Burnett, Clint. “Eschatological Prophet of Restoration: Luke’s Theological Portrait of John the Baptist in Luke 3:1-6.” Neotestamentica, vol. 47, no. 1, New Testament Society of Southern Africa, 2013, pp. 1–24, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43048893.
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Pickett, Raymond. “Luke as counter-narrative: The Gospel as social vision and practice.” Currents in theology and Mission 36.6 (2009).
Pickett, Raymond. Luke and Empire. https://www.academia.edu/7832495/Luke_and_Empire_An_Introduction?from=cover_page.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.