Text Study for Luke 3:15-22 (Part 3)

Bombs or Bouquets?

It’s clear from a general reading of the Lukan account that the Lukan author has made significant adjustments and additions to the Markan composition. The same can be said of the Matthean account, but that’s a topic for next liturgical year. Those adjustments and additions are obvious in the text for the Baptism of Our Lord C.

We might discuss them in a text study like this or a Bible study in a congregation. But the Lukan editorial work is not a topic for a sermon – at least not in my hermeneutical tradition. That being said, the responsible preacher needs to know these changes and to have some understanding about why the Lukan author does what they do.

And…there’s the challenge.

As we have this conversation, I think it’s important to be clear that I don’t assume that the Markan composition is somehow more “original” or “authentic.” I think it’s clear that the Markan account comes earlier in the timeline of the Christian movement than the other three gospel accounts. That puts the Markan composition closer in time to the actual events, but that is no guarantee that it is more “historically accurate.”

That’s not the agenda for any of the Gospel composers. I’m not saying that they just made stuff up (well, that may be the case in a few instances). Instead, I’m saying that each of the Gospel composers has theological assumptions and goals that found and frame the particular Gospel in question. I like the Markan composition best for a number of stylistic and theological reasons, but NOT because I think it’s the one closest to “The Truth.”

One way to think about the differences between the Markan and Lukan accounts could go like this. I think the Markan composition is more “kerygmatic” and the Lukan composition is more “apologetic.” I’m using those words in fairly narrow technical ways, so I should explain what I mean.

A kerygmatic approach sees the Good News as an invasive reality that has little or nothing in common with the world as it is. There’s a real sense in which the Markan composer likes to blow stuff up – at least theologically. We get dropped into the explosive part of the story right away, and everything seems to happen “immediately.” The impact of this approach is confrontational and challenging. The Good News comes from outside the world as it is, and you can adjust to it or not – your choice.

In the kerygmatic approach, God’s Word comes into the world on its own terms, take it or leave it. Thus, it is (to steal Paul’s language), a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to us – to us who have given ourselves over to that new reality – it is the power of God and the wisdom of God.

An apologetic approach sees the Good News as more consistent with the world as it is. We can use things we know about the world to get some general insights into what God is up to with the Gospel. We might be able to see some of these general insights, for example, in the natural world. Human philosophy might offer categories and analytical tools that help us to achieve a better understanding of theology and the ways that God operates. History might be interpreted as the outworking of God’s plans, whether most people know it or not.

Think about the things the Lukan author does in these first three chapters of the Gospel. The introduction is a clear description of an apologetic effort. The author wants to give Theophilus an “orderly account” of what Jesus means and who he is. There are the repeated attempts to locate all of the gospel events in the framework of “secular” history. Non-Jews have large parts in the plot and are at times the partial targets of the rhetoric.

So, Luke makes adjustments and additions to the Markan bomb-throwing enterprise. This seems clear in the account of Jesus’ baptism. In the run-up to the text, John the Baptist give ethical exhortations which are personally pointed but do not require a direct challenge to the Imperial system. Luke notes that the Herodians, clear losers in the historical struggles for rule, are at fault for putting John to death.

And Luke separates Jesus from John at the baptism as well as separating, at least rhetorically, the baptism from the descent of the Dove. It seems that the Lukan author is trying to make the birth and calling of Jesus similar to some degree to the birth stories of Greco-Roman heroes. I’m not suggesting that the Lukan author wanted to make Jesus into a Galilean Hercules. What I’m suggesting is that the Lukan author was keen to put the Gospel account into terms that would be more understandable for people in the Hellenistic world of the late first century.

Markan bomb throwing is fine if you think that the end of the world might come tomorrow or the day after. In fact, in the shadow of that impending doom, such apocalyptic assertiveness would be the only option that made sense. Going slowly, building the case, taking the time for questions – that would seem foolish in a world about to come to an end. Decide! Choose! Or soon the choice will be made for you!

If the Lukan author is coming to grips with a longer eschatological time scale, then such bomb throwing makes less sense. If, in addition, the Lukan author is targeting more privileged and established folks who have more to lose when the establishment gets blown up, then persuasion, meeting people where they’re at, hearing objections and alternatives, that makes more sense.

I don’t experience the Lukan account as “compromising” the Markan composition in any way at all. But it is a different time, a different audience, a different strategy, and a different tone.

Kerygmatic or apologetic – that’s always one of the questions that faces us as Christian witnesses. Do we risk being so “other” and confrontational in our witness that people can’t even hear or understand what we’re saying? That seems counterproductive. Do we line up our presentation of the Gospel so completely with the culture that Christian distinctiveness disappears into the blur of cultural conformity? That may be even worse.

Worst of all, do we allow our Christian witness to be coopted by the cultural establishment as a way not to challenge that establishment but rather to underwrite it? That’s the real challenge for Christians in the past two millennia. In the Eastern churches, there is so often the problem of being a “national” Church, completely aligned with (often oppressive) power structures. That is, in large part, the issue for Orthodoxy in Russia these days.

In the United States, a particular brand of Christianity has underwritten the system of White Supremacy here for four hundred years. A particularly virulent brand of what David Gushee calls “White Christian Nation-ism” has come into full view through the January 6, 2021, insurrection, and other similar events. To be White, Christian, and jingoistically authoritarian are all facets of the same ugly gem, in this perspective.

Those are extreme examples. For many of us western Christians, our accommodation with White supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist, individualist American culture has become so familiar that we don’t even notice the accommodation. It could be that the Lukan author can help us this year to walk the line between sectarian separatism and semi-conscious accommodation.

So, for example, various Caesars claimed to be “sons of God.” What did they get wrong (or right) about those claims? How so? Some Christians attribute a vocation for former president Trump analogous to the vocation of Jesus here in Luke and elsewhere. That’s certainly not right, but why not? How so?

To what degree can I accommodate the lifestyle choices of my neighbor for the sake of the gospel witness? At what point does that accommodation become acquiescence? Should I focus more on challenge or dialogue, on debate or listening? I look forward to Lukan help with these questions.

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