Identity

What happens to your identity if you bear the name of Christian? Do you lose your identity? In Colossians, Saint Paul says that, in the renewal of the “new self,” “there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free, but Christ is all and in all” (3. 11).

I have given thought to this matter over the years, coming to the conclusion that, well, you lose your identity as a believer in the Lord. The loss of identity is part and parcel of the start of the “new self” Paul mentions in Colossians. Our identifying markers have gone the way of the wind. How can one love the neighbor if one still holds onto identity? “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2. 20).

Now, I am not so sure this is what Paul is saying. This is true, but also partially true. Let’s think about this as if we were living in the first century Roman Empire.

In many regions of the Near East and Eastern Mediterranean, clothes function as social markers, but also tell a story. Clothes are an indication of social status as well as location. For example, just by being able to read the design on a traditional headscarf (i.e., hijab), one could know from which village someone comes.

Slaves wore or did not wear certain clothes; for example, they were often deprived of shoes. The higher social classes dressed better, of course. Does this now mean that if a slave became a disciple they would then have new clothes?

Likely not. Their identity remains the same, this is who they are socially in the Roman Empire. Someone from the Galatia region of Asia Minor does not change their clothing, which may be specific to the region in which they live, to look like the clothes, say, from Galilee or Antioch. Why should they?

So I think Paul is saying that your identity remains the same. What changes is the power one identity has over another person or tribe — it no longer has this power! The Gentile believer who eats with the Jewish believer forgoes the power of their identity over the other, since they are both seated at a table that is not theirs, i.e., at the Lord’s table.

So in loving the needy neighbor, there is then no need or place for you to assert your identity. Jesus told a parable about a Good Samaritan (Luke 10. 29 – 37). As the hearers, we need to know his identity as a Samaritan, as this is part of the tension of the parable. But in his service to his fellow suffering human within the parable, the Samaritan’s identity doesn’t matter.

In the next post, we will see how this mechanism functions in Paul’s Letter to Philemon.

No Distinction

Following the previous post, Luke-Acts, we will look at the dichotomy between notions of civilization and barbarism.

The Romans, a highly refined civilization, practiced crucifixion, a cruel punishment. The British, in the heydey of the Pax Britannica, invented the concentration camp; the United States used depleted uranium against Serbia and Afghanistan, not to mention the use of atomic bombs against a civilian population.

Civilization can be such a broad term, and barbarism, well, misunderstood.

In his Letter to the Romans, Saint Paul says that he is “a debtor both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish” (1. 14). Greek here is not meant to refer to a culture or an ethnicity — it is a stand-in for any civilized people (like the Romans). Barbarians, on the other hand, are those people, both within and outside the Roman Empire, both conquered and unconquered, who were considered unlettered and uncultured. Their speech might also be seen as unrefined and their dress and manner uncouth.

But for God, no distinction is made between these two groups. So why does Paul make this distinction? He does so because it is a common social denominator in Roman society — in other words, this is how the Romans divided the world (us and everybody else).

So, in speaking of the “Greeks and barbarians,” he is addressing a salient point of how the Romans saw their empire and its mission to bring civilization to the barbarians — slow down, Paul says, because your civilization includes behaviors that are truly barbaric. The pageantry of the empire simply masks those behaviors.

Who fought in the Roman army? People from the lower ranks of Roman society, including slaves. People who had no rights.

On the other hand, barbaric cultures, as they were called, had established tribal notions of honor and acceptable behaviors within the society.

Paul calls on the Romans, who had a refined culture, to look at their actual practices, and he calls on the barbarians to forego their tribalism as the identity marker to share fellowship with the nations.

So, at table, there is no distinction by God and there should not be any within the church as well.

Luke-Acts

One of the recurring comments I have read over the years about Luke the Evangelist is that he was the church’s first historian, and that his Acts is a history. You know, there’s the oft-repeated idea that the Acts of the Apostles is a history of the early church.

In the ancient Greek tradition, the two predominant historians were Herodotus and Thucydides. The latter, writing during the Peloponnesian War, which led to the ruin of Athens, considered himself the first serious historian, writing his history based off evidence — speeches he heard or had reported to him by reliable witnesses.

In the centuries since Thucydides wrote, the Romans entered the scene and took over the Mediterranean region and along with it, the remains of the empire of Alexander the Great. Building on the Greeks, the Romans had their own historians. By the first century, among the most famous was Livy, who wrote the History of Rome.

This history was an origins narrative, explaining how Rome came to be, and came to rule. But in this sense, there was a commonality with Thucydides and Herodotus — history is a search for origins. For Thucydides, the origin he examined was what led to the defeat of Athens.

Luke begins his Gospel with an explanation that he is writing a narrative (v. 1), and that these events about which he is writing “were handed down to us” by certain people (v. 2). These people, who he does not name, “became from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants [i.e., “at your service/in your service] of the word.” They were not eyewitnesses — they became so, hence the use of γενομενοι, which means “became/were made.”

In Luke 1. 1 – 2, Luke writes that his narrative is an orderly account based off what was handed down by people who became reliable eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. So Luke is establishing to the Roman ear that this narrative has an origin of Jesus’s life (Mark’s Gospel does not), and so they should listen to it. The reference to the account have been “handed down” is a phrase of familiarity to them, and the mention of Augustus in Luke 2 highlights to the Romans the period in question.

To the Romans, for whom chronology was important in history writing, this was essential to provide. And so this is how the Gospel and Acts were written. But, rather than being a history of the early church, or even the life of Jesus, as is commonly stated, Luke-Acts is a “history of the word of God,” from Jesus to Paul, from Galilee and Jerusalem to Rome (Luke 1 – 2; Acts 28).

There is something about Livy’s work which is interesting. In the beginning of the history, he writes: “It has been handed down to us, as a certain fact . . . .” Is Luke referencing Livy and Thucydides here? Both Luke and Livy begin with a reference to things handed down, as fact, and he alludes (as per Thucydides) to the presence of eyewitnesses. This word “eyewitnesses” appears only once in all of Scripture, and it appears only here, in verse 2. And in Luke 2, he announces the birth of Jesus by referencing how this happened during the days of the decree of emperor Augustus that the whole world then be registered in a census (2. 1).

If we consider that the name Luke is actually Latin (i.e., Lucas, Lucius, Lucianus), the prospect that Luke was writing specifically to the Romans as a civilization is plausible, but why did he choose this narrative format, and what was his message to them?

It is plausible, and likely, that Luke-Acts is an invitation to the Romans, within Rome and beyond, to find this word as worthy of their table fellowship, and to find common space with the people they considered barbarians or subjects of theirs, including the Jews of their time.

Think about it –the Romans considered themselves to have been the greatest civilization ever. They beat the Greeks and absorbed their culture as needed, and introduced to their known world paved roads, aqueducts, and architecture. They also introduced the notion that the accused is innocent until proven guilty, and they were proud of their legal system.

Why would the powerful Roman families adopt a teaching that had a genesis within Judaism, a people with whom the Romans kept mostly professional and strictly non-social relations? After all, the Jews functioned to the Romans as “less-than.” So, what would draw a Roman to the Gospel, whose origin (a la Luke 24) is in the law and the prophets?

Luke’s ingenious approach has much to do with answering this. Under Roman practice, practicing Jews did not have to offer incense to the emperor, merely to pray for him. The reason is that Judaism predated the Roman empire, and this was a concession and acknowledgement of Roman society. If the Good News and, therefore, Luke-Acts is a “history of the word” in the time of the Romans, but whose antecedents go back to the Law, then by extension, Rome has been made a part of Luke’s, and thus Scripture’s, history. Are we not speaking of the word of the Cross to this day?

To explain further, the Romans were presented with an opportunity to receive the Good News as a privilege; to accept the history into which they were written (by Luke) and submit to it, or to go their own way as they were and leave the world in the same condition.

Secondly, those barbarians. The natural tendency of an elitist Roman would be to see in the barbarians as uncouth and immoral peoples, with whom virtuous Romans would have no dealings. At best, they are a conquered peoples. But how could they not listen to the trial of Jesus in Luke 23 before Pilate and not also conclude that, they too, are no less brutal? Where is there virtue in a society if the innocent are so easily disposed?

Thirdly, by ending Luke with table fellowship, a staple of the Roman society, Luke now makes of his Luke-Acts the subject of table conversation. How can a powerful Roman patrician, who would dispose of a biological progeny at will, not have to re-assess his “house rules” after hearing Luke 15 and the parable of the Prodigal Son? How could a patrician bury his slaves under harshness when in Luke 18 even the blind man has been given a voice?

As such, Luke-Acts is a true book of evangelization, of the spreading of the Good News, uniting Jew and Gentile at table. Luke-Acts is thus the door through which the Gentile could come to know Jesus Christ and the word he carried with him to the cross (Luke 24. 44 – 49).

Hold it There

In one of the “let’s get out of here” events of the Bible, Jacob finds a means and time to escape from his father in law Laban, who, being unimpressed with the ambitious Jacob made him work for over twenty years for the privilege of being with his daughters Leah and Rachel.

In Genesis 31. 19 – 55 we have this escape, along with Laban catching up to Jacob and his (i.e., Laban’s) daughters, and the covenant that is made between father in law and son in law. A peace treaty is made, where Laban will not hold Jacob accountable for the past, and Jacob promises to not return to Laban’s lands. The forefather also promises to take care of Laban’s daughters and their children.

As we explained in the previous post, Arc of the Covenant, Jesus just does not exist “out there” in a world of ideas. Jesus was, is now, and will always be, according to the Scriptures. What this means is that Jesus could only be presented to us by the evangelists according to the language and words found in the Old Testament, or more accurately, the Law, the prophets, and the wisdom writings (including so called apocryphal included like Sirach, et al).

But if this is the case, then the parables of Jesus are not simply pulled from thin air. Jesus retells the Scriptures, or more correctly, “interprets” them to explain how the stewards had misunderstood them.

In Luke 15, we have a kind of similar event, told as a parable. I can imagine someone listening to the Prodigal Son and perhaps, just maybe, thinking — “Wait, I’ve heard before a speech like the one the older brother gives. Similar to it. Sounds a lot like the speech Jacob made to his father in law Laban in Genesis 31. 36 – 42.”

In both Genesis 31 and Luke 15, we have speeches where a son (or son in law) makes the case, to put it bluntly, “I’ve worked my life off for you, and you don’t appreciate it at all!” In Genesis, it is Jacob; in Luke, it is the older bother in the parable of the Prodigal Son. “Listen!” says the older sibling to his father, “for all these years I have been working like a slave for you.”

Was not Jesus alluding to Jacob, and his retort to Laban? Is not the older brother’s speech similar to that of Jacob’s?

The interesting aspect of all this is that Laban is indeed, a very difficult man. He is relentless in his oversight of Jacob, and perhaps as people we, too, may feel sympathy with Jacob (though we recognize him as a schemer).

If Luke 15 hearkens back to Genesis 31, then we can safely assume that the father in the prodigal son was also a very difficult man with expectations. Which, of course, would make his running to the younger son all the more dramatic. His compassion is unanticipated (much like Laban’s offer to make a covenant), as well as his response to the older brother. We do not expect this from him. Not disputing anything the older brother says, the father simply responds that a celebration is warranted, because the older brother’s younger brother “was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (15. 32).

In the covenant between Laban and Jacob, the promise was sealed with food. We are told they ate together, that bread was broken, and that they danced all night (v. 54). In Luke 15, there is also a meal and dancing.

Jesus takes a well-known story from Genesis and makes of everyone listening to it a Jacob. If Jacob, the forefather Israel, could make peace and eat to celebrate the covenant, then what is your excuse?

Not only Jesus, but also the parables, are according to the Scriptures.

Arc of the Covenant

By a perversion of justice he was taken away — Isaiah 53. 8

It is hard, as a reader or listener, to control narration. It just moves, like a train. Hit the “pause” button, quit the movie, the story remains as is. You and I cannot control it. To ignore anything uncomfortable, well, just leave the story and do not return to it (until you’re ready).

Along these lines, narration is like a moving stream. So is narrative character development.

So we would not just jump to a certain point, in say, The Grapes of Wrath, and expect to have the clearest picture of a certain character. We start from the beginning, and can discuss character traits, likes and dislikes only at the end.

In large stories, even those that take place over several books, we speak of a character’s arc, meaning how their life story or purpose develops, or doesn’t. The character begins here, but ends up there. As we have seen, David begins as a beloved shepherd but ends up as a proprietor king. That is his arc.

Others in the Bible have an arc. Abraham, Noah, Moses, Elijah — to name a few. They encounter struggles, have to make decisions, and come out “the other side” in a different way, though I would not say necessarily as “better.” There is no “better” in Scripture.

The question I have been trying to answer is this, though: does Jesus have an arc?

This is not some theoretical question. All characters go through a change, but it seems that Jesus does not. We have presented to us, from the beginning, someone so perfect, there is no room for growth. And this is not an inconsequential question. If he has an arc, what is it? What would this then mean? If he does not, then how can this be possible?

Classical theology addresses this issue with the expression that, being fully God and fully human, Jesus possesses perfect knowledge as God. He lacks nothing. So, in this sense, He does not have a development, at least (as one could argue) after his baptism. He may even “grow” and mature, but only in the sense that, as a human, he learns to follow his divine will.

In storytelling, a character, especially the hero of the story or protagonist, undergoes change and growth (usually for the better) by experiencing and overcoming an adversary or a struggle. Sometimes, these struggles are internal — for example, consequences of one’s upbringing, social and class status, doubts, psychological weaknesses, etc., and other times they are external — for example, a nemesis, a monster, or a natural event.

These lines are not absolutes, as different types of struggles can be “won” by the protagonist. Sometimes an inner struggle allows for an outer struggle to be conquered. For example, Moses “comes to terms” with his mission from God in Exodus 3, and so he has no doubts leading the Hebrew people into the wilderness, where the natural environment becomes unbearable for them but not him.

Does anything like this happen to Jesus?

In the Gospel of Luke, two events stand out: the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4. 1 – 15), and the agony at the Mount of Olives (Luke 22. 39 – 54)). One is an external struggle, imposed by the three questions Jesus is asked; the other is his internal agony in those final moments before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Jesus “passes” both of these tests. The consequence of passing his temptations is that he begins proclaiming the Gospel; in passing the test of his agony, he endures the trials and the cross.

But does he change, or become better by any of this? Well, Jesus is no more wiser after the first test than before. In fact, it was his knowledge of God’s wisdom (i.e., the Scriptures) prior to the temptations that allowed him to pass the test. With the agony at the Mount of Olives, however, Jesus passes a major test of trust in his Father’s will (see v. 42).

So Jesus does appear to have an arc in the Gospel of Luke. His agony at the Mount of Olives, which we are told led to him sweating as if with great drops of blood (22. 44), is a “crucible” moment for him, as this is a test imposed on him by the Father.

But here’s the thing: Jesus’ arc in the Gospel of Luke does not make sense as it is presented along these terms. Why not? Consider the following: Jesus is conceived and born according to divine purpose and is born near a shepherd field (Luke 1 and 2); he lives among the poor in Galilee of the nations, and dies outside of Jerusalem, the capital of Roman Judea; he teaches in parables along the way, and enters the homes of the poor and the oppressors (Bethany and Jericho); he dies at the hands of a collusion between local religious authority and the Roman power on the cross.

Throughout Luke, Jesus encounters an obstacle that needs to be overcome. There is not one defining obstacle that defines him, but many trials throughout his life. He says as much to the disciples at the last supper: “You are those who have stood by me in my trials” (22. 28).

So, then, does Jesus have an arc? Yes, it is the arc of Scripture.

In the Gospel of Luke, the evangelist highlights the oppression and the injustice that Isaiah proclaims, “by a perversion of justice he was taken away” (53.8). Notice the cruelty in Luke 23. 16. Pilate knows that Jesus is innocent, yet he is still ready to have him flogged. And, upon his death, the Roman centurion proclaims the innocence of Jesus (23.47; an ironic statement, as the Romans were proud of their legal system, which Luke shows to be corrupt and which the Gentile centurion recognizes).

The crucifixion of Jesus was not just simply the death of one man in a stand-alone life story. The Gospel of Luke is not a biography of Jesus. The crucifixion was an attempt to bury into oblivion not only Jesus but also the entire Good News, which Jesus proclaimed starting from Galilee and carried on his shoulders to the cross outside of Jerusalem.

The life and death of Jesus can only be understood in light of what came and was promised before (Isaiah 52.13 – 53.12; Luke 25.27; 25. 25.44 – 45).

The true arc here is the arc of the Scriptures, expressed as God’s covenant and promise, which Jesus carries “against all odds” leading him to the cross. No one else in Scripture does that. While the forefathers and mothers, prophets and poets each have their own individual arcs, only Jesus carries the entire arc of Scripture as part of his own life story.

This is why for John, writing after Luke, Jesus is the Word.