Friday, September 25, 2009

The Gospel of Luke Challenge - Part 1

Starting at the Beginning: The Dedicatory Preface

St. Luke’s Gospel begins with a short dedicatory preface, which it might be easy to skip over as we move into the interesting words of the infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus. However, I suggest that we will miss something very important if we make such a premature leap, for the opening prologue tells us some very important things about the purpose of Luke’s writings and why he chooses to set out the story of Jesus as he does.

First and foremost we realize that Luke is probably writing under the patronage of a benefactor. In ancient times (as in the present day), it is no small thing to devote the time and energy to write a book. Where we have scholarly and artistic grants or literary prizes, the ancients relied on wealthy patrons. Luke addresses his work to one named Theophilus (his name literally means “one who loves God,” probably not a real name, but one assumed at baptism). We do not know who this person was but as we have other ancient parallels (such as the Jewish historian Josephus, who addresses certain works to his patron Epaphroditus), we can easily recognize the literary convention that Luke employs, namely dedicating his work to the patron in the opening paragraph of the book. What does this mean? In theory, Theophilus would become the owner of the work and he could have it copied (hand copied, of course – another costly endeavour), sold to other wealthy people, deposited it at a library, or traded copies of it for other works of literature with other patrons. It may also have been that Theophilus was a patron of a house church and was commissioning the work to be read “in Church.” These are simply educated guesses on how the text might have been used or circulated based on what we know of the writing and dissemination of other ancient texts. Importantly, this dedicatory preface sets the work apart from the other gospels, which have no such dedication. This opens the age-old question of genre. Does the Gospel of Luke represent the same genre as the others gospels? What is Luke’s self-understanding about the genre he was writing? At least in terms of the style of the preface, he seems to be clearly emulating the style of ancient “history writing.” The reader or hearer of this text would certainly recognize that Luke is setting himself up as a Josephus, Thucydides or Herodotus, who all wrote significant multi-volume historical works.

This brings us to a second point; Luke’s work is indeed a two-volume affair. While it is certainly not a multi-volume work of the scope of the above-mentioned authors, he does seem to have a grand historical purpose in mind. He followed up this first volume (the story of Jesus) with the book of Acts (the story of the Earl Church), which has a similar dedicatory preface. Turn to the book of Acts and consider some of the similarities and differences in their respective prefaces.

The third point: Like all ancient historians, Luke draws on a variety of sources. As I noted in my introduction last week, scholars have done a lot of work to try and sort out his sources. Luke makes no bones about the fact that he used sources. He says boldly

“Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitness and servants of the word, I too decided, after fully investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.”

Luke is not denigrating the other attempts at writing the story of Jesus and the Church, rather he is arguing that as a historian he has access to several source materials and that he will thus employ his historian’s craft to make a fuller orderly account, taking into consideration all the material at his disposal. It should also be remembered that, in general , the ancient historian was less concerned about “fact” and more concerned about “truth.” Thus, the ancient historian wrote with a thesis (or a truth) they wanted to prove and used the available “data” that was amenable to proving their thesis.

This brings us to the fourth point, Luke’s purpose in writing. Having stated that he has gathered previous material and traditions to create a new “orderly account,” he then delivers his purpose in doing so, “So that you (Theophilus) may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” What is that truth? Well, like any good writer, Luke is not going to deliver all the goods up front. This is the literary hook to keep reading. It is clear that whoever Theophilus was, he had received some instruction in the faith. We do not know what that was, but we do know that Luke believes there is more to be said, and most importantly, that amidst all the details of what Theophilus knows, there is much truth to be garnered from the sorting out of the facts and data of the story of Jesus. We expect, therefore, that Luke is going to put the material together in such a way that some new insight, some divine insight, into Jesus will be revealed.

What will that be? That is the story we wish to unfold in the weeks ahead.

Next: The infancy narratives of John the Baptist and Jesus!

c. 2009 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Gospel of Luke Challenge - Introduction

A New Weekly Online Study:

Last year, I hosted a successful online study of the Gospel of Mark, entitled The Gospel of Mark Challenge. As we prepare to move into Year C in late November (the liturgical year in which St. Luke’s Gospel is read), I felt it might be appropriate to host a sequel to last year’s challenge. The first aspect of “The Challenge” was to read a half chapter of the Gospel of Mark each day. The Gospel According to St. Mark is only sixteen chapters long, whereas St. Luke’s is twenty-four chapters. I suppose this means that this year’s challenge will require a bit more persistence than last year’s. That being said, at a the rate of about a half chapter per day, one could read through the entire Gospel of Luke in forty-eight days – a little longer than a month and a half.

The second aspect of “The Challenge” is to read the text as part of a discipline of prayer and devotion. Last year, I suggested using a form of the Daily Office such as Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, or Compline (Night Prayer). I have linked to some resources on the side of this page that may assist you in this way, and of course, you can always use your Book of Common Prayer or Book of Alternative Services if you have one at home.

So this is the challenge -- to read and pray through The Gospel of Luke in the months ahead. In order to support each of you in this challenge, I will be posting a regular Friday reflection in which I comment on a passage that interests me that illustrates some of the key themes in the gospel text. Last year, various individuals wrote to me asking me to comment on particular texts that seemed difficult. I am happy to do so again and encourage you to do so (this is my challenge!).

You are also invited to post comments on the blog. You do not have to have a blogger account to do so – simply click on the “comment” link and sign on as “anonymous.” It would be helpful to type your name at the bottom of the comment, but you are not obliged to do so. You may also send me private emails. I look forward to your responses! Your responses help make this online study more lively and fruitful.

A Bit About the Gospel of Luke:

In order to kick things off, I want to make a few general comments about The Gospel of Luke. These thoughts are not original, but rather culled from my own ongoing reading of Luke and much secondary literature.

Luke is widely considered to have been written in the last decade of the first century (as he has knowledge of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70). Like the rest of the New Testament, the original language of the book is Greek and Luke’s Greek is of the most elevated sort that we find in the New Testament. The Gospel is actually the first part of a two-volume series, the second installment being the Book of Acts (Part one, the Gospel, tell us the story of Jesus, while part two, Acts, tell us the story of the Early Church). We may be inclined to ask, who was “Luke?” He may have been the “Luke the Physician” that we learn about from Acts and also from Paul, but this is disputed. It was not uncommon for writers to write under a respected pseudonym in those days. In any event, it is not likely that the author was an eyewitness of Jesus. Where, then, did he get his material? It seems clear to most scholars that Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source as we find much direct "lifiting" of his Mark's material. Luke also shares with Matthew a considerable amount of material, often verbatim with subtle changes, that is not found in Mark. Thus, it is concluded that and Matthew may have drawn on a now lost source, which scholars call “Q” (from the German quelle – meaning “source”) which is postulated to be a “sayings” collection based on the kind of shared material found in Matthew and Luke. However, a small group of scholars (and I am more and more inclined to agree with them) argue that Luke used both Mark and Matthew as sources, thus eliminating the need to postulate a “lost gospel” theory. (For a good review of these scholarly arguments visit Mark Goodacre’s Case Against Q website. I do also commend his excellent podcasts – more on these in future installments).

Key Themes in the Gospel of Luke:

The following is a list several key themes and concepts that are widely accepted as major aspects of the Lucan Narrative. The list (a summary of: Joseph Fitzmyer S.J., The Gospel According to Luke I-X, Anchor Bible 28, New York: Doubleday, 1982– p. 145), is not comprehensive but provides a useful starting point for us. As you read through the Gospel of Luke, consider some of these themes and the questions they raise.

1. The Lukan kerygma (Greek for “proclamation,” and by this we mean proclamation both by and about Jesus) in Luke/Acts takes a particular form. See if you can recognize the unique nature of Luke’s proclamation by and about Jesus. Hint: consider to whom the words of Jesus are directed and what the Early Church’s preaching about Jesus does to upset the world order.

2. Luke draws on his source material (Mark’s Gospel, and other possible sources, either a “sayings of Jesus” source, or Matthew’s Gospel) in a way that advances the particular themes of his own narrative. As we examine key passages, use a tool called a “Gospel Parallel” or simply compare parallel passages in Mark and Matthew to see how Luke handles the same episode. What does Luke’s unique handling of the episode tell us about the story of Jesus he wishes to communicate?

3. Geography is crucial to theological message – throughout the Gospel the narrative moves geographically toward Jerusalem, whereas in Acts it moves outward from Jerusalem to Rome (to the “ends of the earth”). Consider what this geographical movement says about the proclamation of the Gospel, from Luke’s perspective.

4. Christ in History – Luke roots the “Christ-event” in history as a means to illustrate the inauguration of a new era of human history. What is the meaning of the new era coming into being? How does it relate to the previous era? How does Luke establish the “Christ-event” in time and space?

5. Christology – Luke has invests particular meaning in the titles he uses for Jesus, especially with respect to salvation history. What are some of Luke’s titles for Jesus? What do these titles say about the meaning of Jesus for Luke?

6. Role of the Holy Spirit – Luke has a very unique role for the Holy Spirit in Luke/Acts, especially with respect to conversion and baptism. Pay special attention to references of to the Holy Spirit throughout Luke and Acts. Consider the role of the Spirit as a character in the narrative.

7. Eschatology (concern for the end-times) – As Luke’s Gospel was written toward the end of the first century, he has to deal with what scholars call “the delay of the parousia” (second coming/return of Christ). Observe what Luke does and does not say about the end-times, in comparison with the other gospels.

There is much to think about here as we begin our journey into St. Luke. These are but a few of the keythemes in his story of Jesus; we could (and in the installments ahead, will) add many more themes and strands. At this point, it might be easy to feel overwhelmed at all of these things to consider. In the weeks ahead we will walk through some interesting passages in the Gospel and I will draw your attention to recurring themes, patterns and ideas. The above themes are mentioned only to provide you with a bit of a guide of what to watch for as you read through the text. So as you read, think of things like the role of geography in the story; the role of the Holy Spirit; talk about the end times (and the delay of the end times); the titles applied to Jesus; and think of comparing familiar passages in Luke to parallels in Mark and Matthew and see how Luke tells the story a little differently. Each of these things will prompt questions about “why did Luke tell it this way?” I believe that as we journey together, examining some of these questions in Luke's Gospel and their possible answers, a portrait of Jesus will emerge that can still enliven our faith today.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

"Coming Attractions!"

As October approaches, I realize that this blog, Reflections of a Canadian Churchman, will soon be two years old. When I began writing online, I had only a small idea of what I wanted this blog to be about. It seemed clear to me that a blog could be used as an outreach tool to connect with those in the parish family on both a broader and deeper level. Since then I have begun to realize that a site operates in two ways. The first way is as a tool of communication. Thus, I have used this site (and its sister sites - Sermons of a Canadian Churchman and Book Reviews of a Canadian Churchman) to communicate information, or more precisely, to proclaim the Christian message. This was always the primary goal in writing these online reflections and in posting my homilies. What emerged, though, was the discovery of another function of such a site, the building of relationships. Through this site I have had the opportunity to get to know, converse with (and yes even argue with), and to form meaningful relationships with many individuals whom I have never met. It has also been a means for reconnecting with others who now live far and wide; it has been an opportunity to connect at another level with the parish family; and finally it is a means to connect with those who, for whatever reason, cannot be present amongst the rest of the faithul for corporate worship on Sunday mornings.

I think this latter point is crucial. I have heard again and again from many readers that they find it very helpful to read a homily, a reflection, or an online study when it is just impossible to get to church. Many are traveling as the result of work or the new-found freedom of retirement, some are prohibited because of age or disability, others have felt hurt by the church and feel estranged and unable to return to the community, still others are in an emotionally difficult place and would rather "be apart" for awhile. Whatever the case, we all long for connection, and I am pleased that this site has helped people feel connected with God and with the Church as they travel along on their faith journey. Some people post responses on the site, many others send me personal messages. I treasure each one of them and the relationship that goes with words expressed, for in the midst of the written and spoken word is the Word made flesh, Jesus our Lord.

My original intent had been to post about once a week on this blog. I quickly realized that this was probably not realistic. I also wanted to post my homilies, so I opened another blog, Sermons of a Canadian Churchman. Later I added a third blog, Book Reviews of a Canadian Churchman. As I now look back on forty-one posts on the Reflections blog, sixty-six on the Sermons blog, and four on the Book Reviews blog, I realize that 111 posts in under just two years is slightly more than once a week, so I guess I have met my goal after all.

And so, as I approach the end of my second year of blogging, I thought I would offer some "coming attractions" for the months ahead for the three blogs.

Reflections of a Canadian Churchman
This site will continue to feature my occasional thoughts and reflections on topics in the life of the Church or issues that emerge in my own reading of Scripture or study of theology. It is also a place to address questions that readers send in. Last year's online study The Gospel of Mark Challenge was a great success, and so beginning this Friday, I will be posting the introduction of a new series, The Gospel of Luke Challenge, which will be the focus of the Reflections site throughout the fall.

Sermons of a Canadian Churchman
As we move toward the end of the liturgical year, I will continue to focus my preaching on St. Mark's Gospel. It is my hope that these homilies, as well as last year's thoughts on Mark from my Reflections blog, will form the core of a new book. As we move into Year B in late November, I will preach on St. Luke whenever possible.

Book Reviews by a Canadian Churchman
This page is dedicated to reviews of books either by Canadian authors or from Canadian presses on books of a spiritual, religious, ecclesiastical or theological nature. The next book for review will be Canadian sociologist Reg Bibby's new book on the so-called "Millennial Generation." If you know of a book you think should be reviewed or are an author or publisher interested in sending a review copy, my contact information can be found on the Book Reviews page (see link in right-hand sidebar).

Finally, thank you to all of you who have faithfully followed this blog and read my homiles & reviews over the past two years. I have been blessed that you have let me share my thoughts and reflections with you, but even more profoundly blessed by the conversation and reflection you have shared with me. My prayers are with you as we continue down the road together.

Fr. Dan Graves
Feast of St. Ninian, 2009.