What Do We Do with Difference?
7 Epiphany C 2022
How should disciples deal with human hierarchies? That question animates the Gospel according to Luke more than any of the other three canonical gospel accounts. The Markan composer seems to imagine a fairly “flat” community made up primarily of the economically and socially marginalized. The Matthean author is more concerned with the legitimacy of the Jesus movement within the Judaisms of his time. The Johannine author is dealing with the dynamics of community and anti-community. Thus, the hierarchies in both communities are of less consequence to the Johannine author.
The Lukan gospel is known for its concern for the poor. It is studied for its attention to women, whether that attention is regarded as positive or negative (or some of each). The Lukan account has more uses of the Greek words for “poor” and “rich” than any of the other gospels and perhaps more than the other three combined (I haven’t checked that). The Lukan gospel has more notices of the relative ranks of its characters than any of the other gospels. The Lukan gospel has more names of and stories about women than any of the other gospels.
Status, hierarchy, rank, caste – however you want to describe it, the Lukan author expends a great deal of papyrus and energy addressing these realities. Even the Lukan discussions of ethnicity are about hierarchy. After all, the real bite of the Good Samaritan parable is that the Samaritan is good, not bad. And it is Luke who uses the words and images of women to describe the character of God.
This focus on the ladders of power, privilege, position, and property begins in the Magnificat in Luke 1. Mary sings of the Great Reversal that is launched by the child she will bear. The lowly servant will be called “blessed” by all succeeding generations. Those who would be praised, the proud, will be left utterly confused. The enthroned powers will be dethroned, and the lowly will be elevated. The hungry will be satisfied, and the rich will be famished.
Status, hierarchy, rank, caste, privilege, power, position, property – these realities are addressed repeatedly in the Lukan account. Why?
I need to remind myself often that none of the New Testament writers thought they were writing “the New Testament.” The Lukan author is trying to set down an orderly account of the Gospel for his patron, “most excellent Theophilus,” so that his patron’s faith may be deepened and strengthened. Even in the superscription to the Lukan account we see the hallmarks of hierarchy. Gradations of human worth exist in the Lukan community, and our author needs to address them. If those differences weren’t there (and causing distress), the Lukan author would write about something else
We are now far enough along in the growth of the Christian movement that people of higher status are no longer oddities in that movement. It’s not that there were no relatively wealthy Christians earlier on. We have only to read Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians to see that class and gender distinctions were imported from the larger culture into the first Christian communities. And that importation was causing unhealthy divisions in those communities.
Forty years later, hierarchy was still a live issue for disciples. If the Lukan community didn’t have concerns about the relationships between poor and rich, hungry and full, weeping and laughing, reviled and honored disciples, then I suspect the Lukan author would have selected other materials and would have chosen other styles and emphases. I always need to remember that the Gospel authors made choices about their material. We know this from the confession at the end of the Johannine account that there were many things that didn’t make it into that book.
The Gospel writers made choices that were relevant to and pressing upon their communities. That doesn’t mean that the Gospel accounts are irrelevant to us. That is hardly the case. But it does mean that if we are to read these accounts faithfully, we must begin with the issues and concerns that faced the first communities. We must seek to read and understand those issues and concerns with empathy and accuracy. Only then can we make a faithful and respectful connection to our own issues and concerns.
Nothing in the New Testament (or in the whole Christian bible, for that matter) is a palimpsest upon which we get to write whatever we want in describing the reality and meaning of the text. When we do that overwriting, we then make the text subject to our authority rather than the other way round. When I am guilty of that activity, I hope to be challenged on it. And I intend to do it as little as possible.
With that confession, we can come back to the question. How should disciples deal with human hierarchies? That seems to have been a timely question for the Lukan author and for the community which received that document. It is certainly a timely question for us in the United States – especially we White Christians who are confronted with our ongoing complicity in the project of White Supremacy which undergirds so much of our national life.
Is the goal for Christian community to have no hierarchies at all? We might draw that from Paul’s description of the outcome of Christian baptism in Galatians 3. “As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:27-28, NRSV).
A generation later, however, the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians seem to assume those same hierarchies and to reinforce them in Christian communities. Wives are to be subject to husbands, and children are to obey parents. Enslaved persons are to obey their earthly slaveholders – not grudgingly, but with enthusiasm since the service is ultimately rendered to the Lord.
Are human hierarchies built into the fabric of Creation? Shall we regulate these differential dynamics of power rather than seeking to remove them? Are human beings innately hierarchical, prone to dominance/submission dyads, locked in the dance of honor and shame? This is a question that has energized anthropologists and sociologists from the first days of each of those disciplines.
Modern science has too often concluded that not only are human beings inveterately hierarchical, but the hierarchies in place at the time represented the “natural order of things.” The amount of time spent demonstrating that White Europeans were the pinnacle of human evolution is, in retrospect, astonishing and embarrassing. An equal amount of time was spent (and is sometimes still spent) demonstrating that Black Africans were (and are) at the base of that evolutionary pyramid, never to rise above a barely human status.
A similar quantity of scholarly energy has been devoted to demonstrating that the poor are impoverished because that is also in the natural order of things. Some perspectives are always searching for the few “worthy” poor who deserve help from the rich. When those have been identified, then the rest of the destitute can be disregarded and discarded as “unworthy.” The real goal is to make the “worthy” category vanishingly small. In the end, poverty itself becomes the crime and is regarded as its own punishment.
In the Greco-Roman worldview, human hierarchy was also the natural order of things. The honorable, male, head of the household, the paterfamilias, was the pinnacle of human being. Those male high points were also in a hierarchy which found its culmination in the Emperor, the father of the fatherland. Every person had a place in that honor/shame system. Social harmony was achieved when everyone knew their place and stayed in it.
The assertion of Judaism that all human beings are bearers of the Divine Image had the potential to disrupt that hierarchical thinking and at some points in history did precisely that. But the human drive to be more than another was central to the ancient monarchies of Israel and Judah as well. The classical prophets called for the economic re-normalization of the Jubilee year. But that may have been only aspiration and never reality.
Nonetheless, Jesus calls upon that prophetic tradition in the instruction and formation of disciples. He came and stood on a level place, and everyone stood on the level with him. In the blessings and woes, the hierarchies in the Lukan community receive critical analysis and prophetic warning. In the verses that follow, the Lukan Jesus gives instructions on how those hierarchies are to be managed and flattened within that community.
Status, hierarchy, rank, caste – they walk in the sanctuary doors with us every Sunday morning. Power, privilege, position, and property – these are issues that confront every Christian community, if only we are willing to look at ourselves with honesty and clarity. We don’t all live the same lives. We don’t all have the same stuff. We don’t all stand on a level place.
How do we deal with the differences and continue as faithful Jesus followers? That challenge drives and informs the Lukan sermon on the Plain.
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