Text Study for Luke 3:1-6 (Pt. 6); December 5, 2021

Underneath History

How does the Lukan author view and evaluate the Roman Imperial culture and system? Some scholars have been sure that the author of Luke/Acts is writing a version of the gospel that will be less threatening to that Imperial culture and system than was the abrupt and radical version of the Markan composition. In the process, this orderly account written for the cultured and urbane “Theophilus,” would be less offensive and more attractive to Gentiles generally.

There’s lots of evidence for this assessment in Luke-Acts itself. Pilate pleads repeatedly that Jesus is innocent and should be released. Centurions are portrayed as “good guys” in the drama rather than as villains. Paul appeals to the Emperor and relies on his Roman citizenship to grant him access to the slow-grinding wheels of Imperial civil and criminal proceedings. These are only a few of the many details that support a relatively “pro-Empire” position or at least one that is somewhat neutral toward the Empire.

Photo by Muhammad Moin Ulhaq on Pexels.com

Other scholars see Luke-Acts as a revolutionary, subversive account with a particular emphasis on reversing the status of marginalized groups, such as the impoverished and women. One only has to refer to the language of the Magnificat for evidence to support this perspective. God “has demonstrated the strength in [God’s] arm, God has strewn about the arrogant by the wild fancies of their hearts; God has thrown down dynastic rulers from thrones and elevated the humble, God has satisfied the hungry with the good stuff and sent away the rich empty” (Luke 1:51-53, my translation).

Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4 continues this theme with its emphasis on reversal and the coming Day of Jubilee. The parables of want and plenty in the Lukan account build upon the reversal of the rich. The parables of the Rich Fool and the Rich Man and Lazarus attack both the structures of wealth and poverty and the substitution of material plenty for Divine Abundance.

Strong exegetical and historical cases have been made and continue to be made for each view. How can one document produce such diametrically opposed interpretations? We got a glimpse of this dynamic in the previous post as we reflected on the “counter-narrative” character of Luke-Acts. The Lukan documents present to us a “hidden transcript of resistance,” in the words of anthropologist James. C. Scott. Amanda Miller offers a helpful summary of Scott’s work and applies it to the Lukan documents.

“In this study, I will argue that the reign of God as espoused by the Gospel of Luke utilizes, among other strategies of imperial negotiation,” Miller writes, “a significant resistance to some of the dominant values and practices of the Roman Empire. Central to that vision,” Miller continues, “is the challenge issued to readers and hearers from all levels of social status to confront and transform their prejudicial or dominating attitudes and actions in light of the reversals proclaimed in the text” (page 2).

What is the relationship between the Christian Way and the Roman Way, according to the Lukan author? Well, it’s “complicated.”

In our text, for example, the Lukan author acknowledges the characters in “Big History.” Emperors, governors, tetrarchs, high priests – these are the people noticed in the official histories, both then and now. These are the people who make and record History from “above,” from the heights of power, privilege, position, and property. The Lukan author takes Big History into account. But the folks on the heights don’t call the shots in the way they think.

The Lukan gospel happens mostly in the history populated by the Little People. The Gospel happens in the history underneath, among those who have little power, privilege, position, and property. That’s the real story, no matter what the writers of the Official History might think. Such Official History also reflects the perspectives of the powerful and is often commissioned to sustain and give credibility to just those perspectives.

Real history happens underneath. I think, for example, of the three stories that structure Isabel Wilkerson’s beautiful work, The Warmth of Other Suns. While Wilkerson is tracing the historical arc of the Great Migration, the movement of seven million black people from the South to the North between 1915 and 1975, she does it through the stories of quite ordinary people – people who are just trying to survive and hoping to thrive. The main characters have no great philosophical ax to grind or ideological cause to champion. They’re just trying to get through the day.

Yet, in that struggling and striving, American history, society, and culture were changed. It wasn’t any one of the Little People who did it. It was all seven million of them. History was written from underneath, not from on high. The stories of those three Little People, when taken in sum, were counter-narratives to the stories told by White People. They were “hidden transcripts of resistance” lived out day to day over the decades of the Great Migration. Without the work of scholars such as Isabel Wilkerson, those stories would have remained hidden, but no less real.

While the three main characters in Wilkerson’s work were not culture warriors or intentional agents of social change, their stories have the power to open our minds to a past we White people have ignored and to open our eyes to new possibilities for the future. In reporting these stories, Wilkerson makes them unhidden transcripts of resistance, especially as she frames them in the larger history of the United States at the time. The Lukan author does something similar.

Miller notes the tendency among the privileged and powerful to read the Lukan account as a purely metaphorical, that is “spiritual” text. In the same way it can be tempting for White people to read Wilkerson’s accounts as “past” and as lovely human-interest stories and nothing else. “The vehement espousal of spiritualized and therefore ‘safe’ readings of the Lukan reversals by wealthy and elite readers, even today,” Amanda Miller writes, “reinforces the conviction that there is something deeper, more threatening, and more potentially transformative at work here, alongside the more conciliatory strategies of imperial negotiation” (page 12).

It is that “something deeper, more threatening, and more potentially transformative” which demands our attention as we hear the Lukan account once again. It is hidden precisely because it will be regarded as dangerous. Therefore, it has to be uncovered and interpreted. “If these passages are indeed part of a strategy of hidden resistance by non-elites,” Miller will argue, “this deeper meaning must include an element of real social commentary and change, or at least the desire for such. Otherwise,” she continues, “it would not have to hidden, nor would it create the need for such passionate (and sometimes convoluted) opposition from the socially and materially comfortable” (page 12).

There is certainly a place for the Big People in the real Lukan history. But it’s not the place they think they have. That’s true elsewhere in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and no more so than in Second Isaiah, the home of the quote in Luke 3:4-6. Cyrus the Persian, for example, is called a “messiah” in Isaiah 45. Cyrus certainly sent the people of Judah home from the Babylonian Exile. But he didn’t do this as an act of faith. Instead, he likely rid himself of a quarrelsome lot who were costing money, and he could be the “hero” while doing so.

The Big People, the Lukan author reminds us, think they are bending history, and perhaps even God, to fit their plans and purposes. Yet, underneath that Official History of the Big People, the Gospel is working to accomplish what seems to be impossible. It’s no accident that one of the recurring themes in the Lukan account is the plans and purposes of God. No matter what the Official Historians write, God’s plan of salvation is moving along underneath history and through it.

The Little People will collide with the Big People at the necessary times. John takes on Herod Antipas. Jesus debates Pilate. Paul appeals to the Emperor. But the Big People are bit players in the real Divine Drama happening under the historical radar. The Lukan author tells their stories to declare the Gospel that happens in spite of and in resistance to Official History.

We can ask ourselves, therefore, a somewhat complicated Advent question. Do I trust in the Big History from above or the Little History from underneath? Personally, I tend to invest far too much credibility in the Big History. I allow my moods and perceptions to be shaped too readily by headlines and announcements, by Big Politics and Big Money. When power, position, privilege, and property call the shots and rule the day, I see very little hope for the world and the future.

But the Lukan author invites me, teases me, into looking from underneath. The Lukan author invites me to hear the subtext, not only in the Gospel account but also in my life in the here and now. If I take the time to stop, look, and listen, I can see and hear the Good News lived out in a thousand daily happenings that will never make it to the twenty-four-hour news cycle. Yet, if the Lukan author knows something, these thousand daily happenings are places where the Good News is working out.

The Lukan author is not inviting us to withdraw from the Big History, to pretend it doesn’t matter, to become so heavenly-minded that we are of no earthly good. But, the author pleads with us to see underneath, to know that much of the real history is hidden and demands closer examination. The author urges us to remember that just because the Big People say things are a certain way don’t necessarily make it so.

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.

Chan, Michael J. https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/a-season-for-truth-telling.

Hearlson, Adam. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-168-79-5.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Mora, Raul Alberto. https://centerforinterculturaldialogue.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/key-concept-counter-narrative.pdf.

Norton, Yolanda. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-luke-168-79-7.

Odell, Margaret. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-advent-3/commentary-on-malachi-31-4-6.

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.

Miller, Amanda C. Rumors of Resistance: Status Reversals and Hidden Transcripts in the Gospel of Luke. (preview, 2014). https://www.google.com/books/edition/Rumors_of_Resistance/QwQDAwAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&pg=PR3&printsec=frontcover.

Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

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