Real Bible Studies, Luke 7

The Centurion’s Servant

After delivering Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus heads off to his home base of Capernaum, where word reaches him that a Roman centurion has a slave (according to the wording in the RSV) who’s ill. We aren’t given many details on what’s wrong with the slave, just that he’s at the point of death. The Roman official asks “the elders of the Jews” to see if Jesus will help. The elders explain to Jesus that the centurion is worthy of his concern because he’s always supported them (“loved our people”) and built a synagogue for them. Jesus agrees, but before he gets there, the centurion sends word that he’s not worthy of having Jesus in his house and that if Jesus will just say the word, the slave will be healed. Jesus is astonished by the centurion’s faith in him and pronounces the slave healed. When the elders return to the centurion’s house, they find this to be true.

This is a story unique to Luke’s Gospel. While Mark and Matthew mention a few interactions with the Romans, most notably while they’re torturing Yeshua prior to crucifying him, none are very favorable to the Romans. In fact, Yeshua’s mission as depicted in Mark and Matthew is to liberate Jerusalem from Roman rule, not to offer them eternal life through faith in him. I’ve heard various commentators speculate that Luke was an early Gentile follower of Christianity and references in his work to “the Jews” seem to support this assumption though Matthew also uses this terminology without cozying up to the Romans. In any case, it’s obvious Luke has a more favorable attitude toward the Romans than the previous Gospels. With stories such as this, we start seeing subtle hints that Romans (who would eventually control the Church) were more accepting of Jesus than his own people.

The Widow’s Son

Luke then has Jesus head to a city called Nain with a large crowd and as they approach the city walls, a procession comes out bearing the body of a young man. He is identified as the only son of a widow, who’s grieving for his loss. Jesus takes pity on her and raises her son from the dead, astounding and frightening those who witness it. Other than showing that Jesus has power to do this, however, not much is revealed by the incident. There doesn’t appear to be any underlying allegory to it, as with some of the miracles Yeshua performs in the other canonical Gospels.

Messengers from John

At last we reach another parallel with Mark and Matthew, as messengers from John arrive. Luke’s version raises more questions than answers, especially in light of how John has been treated so far. Recall that Luke opens his Gospel by telling readers that John’s mother Elizabeth is Mary’s kinswoman, making John Jesus’s cousin. Luke seems to forget this as he has John summon messengers and send them to Jesus to ask if he’s the figure John has been predicting. This is reminiscent of how the story is related in Mark, Matthew, or both. Remember, when Mary walked into the room with Elizabeth, with John in utero, the baby leapt with joy. Now, he’s sending others to check out someone he should already have known. Other than telling us John and Jesus are related in the first chapter, Luke features no other interaction between them including Jesus’s baptism.

Mark and Matthew strongly imply that John is dead by the time his followers start questioning Yeshua, and Luke agrees with their accounts that Jesus began his ministry after John was taken into custody by Herod Antipas. Jesus’s response to John’s followers, to report to John what they’ve seen implies a detachment between the two movements. Readers should also recall, that unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke doesn’t show Jesus being baptized by John, but states that Jesus was baptized around the time John was baptizing people. It remains to be seen what significance this detachment will have on the story, but Luke definitely seems to be downplaying the notion that Jesus’s ministry was an outgrowth of John’s as is implied in the other synoptic Gospels.

Jesus then launches into a sermon about John that adds more confusion to the story. Mark and Matthew have Yeshua display almost a reverence for John, throwing his treatment by the scribes and Pharisees back into their faces when they question him. Luke has Jesus question the crowd as to why they sought out John in the wilderness and proclaims that John was a messenger. In the next breath, he says that while no one of woman born is greater than John (possibly including himself) that in the kingdom of God, the least among them is greater than John. Luke relates that those who were baptized by John rejoice while the scribes and Pharisees don’t. Jesus concludes by stating how both he and John have been criticized but for exactly the opposite reasons.

A Sinful Woman

Chapter 7 concludes with Luke’s spin on the woman who anoints Jesus. In his version, the woman doesn’t just break open a container of expensive ointment, she washes Jesus’s feet with her tears and dries them with her hair. Luke doesn’t give many details about what the woman has done or why she’s hanging out at a Pharisee’s house and he adds further confusion by identifying the Pharisee as Simon. In other accounts, the incident happens at a disciple’s house or within view of the disciples. In response to what Jesus senses the Pharisee is thinking, Jesus gives a parable about a man who lends two individuals money, one ten times more than the other. He asks who’ll be the more grateful when the debt is forgiven. Simon answers that the one who owed the most would be the most grateful and Jesus replies that it’s the same for those forgiven for their sins, as though the gratitude is more to the point than the forgiveness. At any rate, Jesus forgives the woman and tells her faith has saved her. Needless to say, the rest in attendance question who Jesus thinks he is by forgiving people.

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