14 May 2014

Teaching Luke: "Do not be afraid, little flock..."

Last Sunday I filled in as leader for the Discussion Class (Luke Part 2) at Southwest Central Church, Houston, since Michael and Brent were both out of town. Yes, me! At church and teaching on Mother's Day and only a little bit weepy. How I rejoice in this evidence of healing and spiritual growth!  I don't think I was ever privileged to teach a class that was a better fit with the morning's worship service. Our passage from Luke melded perfectly with the reading from Acts 2 from our "Peter Speaks to You" series which informed our worship last Sunday.

In its detailed discussion of Luke, the class had reached Chapter 12 but I began with a reminder of the last verses of Chapter 11:
53 When he went out from there, the experts in the law and the Pharisees began to oppose him bitterly, and to ask him hostile questions about many things, 54 plotting against him, to catch him in something he might say.
Everything in the next section (Luke 12:1 - Luke 13:21) happens in this context of opposition, hostile questions, and plotting "to catch" Jesus which gives an urgency to his words. When Jesus heals on the Sabbath, the experts in the law say, "Gotcha!" but the section concludes:
 13:7 When he said this all his adversaries were humiliated, but the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things he was doing.

The setting is one that Luke has used before, most notably in Luke 6, Jesus' Sermon on the Plain--Jesus teaching his disciples in the midst of a crowd. And, oh! what a crowd, "so many that they trampled on each other." This emphasis on the size of the crowd introduces one of the major Lukan themes: "the world turned upside down." What seems big or valuable is really of no value; what seems small and of little value is really a great treasure.
Jesus and his disciples are surrounded by hostility, a hostility that is moving toward Jerusalem and a cross, just as the original readers of Luke's gospel, the early Christian church, are faced with persecution and the very real possibility of martyrdom. As Craddock writes,  "...these words are more fitted to the church after Jesus' resurrection than to his immediate disciples, because these sayings both imply and openly state the gift of the Holy Spirit." In the face of this hostility, Jesus repeatedly assures his disciples that God cares, that God provides, that the unfruitful fig tree will be cut down, that the faithful servant will be rewarded, and that the Kingdom of God will grow from the small mustard seed which he is sowing into a "tree" where birds may nest in safety and provision.

(Note: in both Jewish and Buddhist traditions and early writings, the mustard seed is an image of creation, an expanding universe, eternity. Its appearance here--particularly with the mention of "garden"--may be evocative of similar ideas.)

The section, Luke 11:53 - Luke 13: 22, is marked by
  1. movement 53 "Then he went out from there" and 22 "Then Jesus traveled"
  2. and the use of "leaven" and birds
Although none of the commentaries I looked at mentioned it, in my reading I noted a chiastic structure:

A     LEAVEN of the Pharisees,  that is hypocrisy
B           Birds e.g. sparrows for whom God cares.
             NO FEAR you are worth more than sparrows     
C             A Question from the crowd re. inheritance
                 Jesus answers with a question:
                 "Who made me the judge?" DIVISION of property
D                   A parable: rich man building barns ("eat, drink, be merry")
                     Not ready for his death and headed to "Gehenna"
E                     DO NOT WORRY
                        Birds e.g. Ravens do not build barns, God provides
                        Lilies, grass withers and is burnt, God provides
                        32 “DO NOT BE AFRAID, little flock,
                              for your Father is well pleased to give you
                              the kingdom.
                                33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor.
                            Provide yourselves purses that do not wear out—
                            a treasure in heaven that never decreases,
                           where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.
                      34 For where your treasure is,
                         there your heart will be also."
  D'                  A Parable: servants waiting for their masters' return
                       Ready with loins already girded and lamps continually burning
 C'              A Question from the Disciples (Peter)
                  Jesus answers with a question:
                 "Who is the trustworthy steward?" DIVISION of households
                 "You hypocrites!"
                 "Judge for yourself what is right!"
B'        Wild birds that nest in the mustard tree
A'    LEAVEN of the Kingdom of God

In this text Jesus seeks to reassure his small group of followers in the midst of a much more numerous crowd that the Kingdom of God will grow, that God will provide everything his "little flock" needs just as he provides for birds.
Major teaching themes include:
  • hypocrisy
  • "my" possessions vs. God's provision
  • "riches" vs. "treasure"
  • being prepared for persecution, for death, for judgment
Of the repeated themes which this class has been noticing we see:
  • angels,
  • Holy Spirit
  • the world turned upside down
  • the poor
  • the Kingdom
  • clean/unclean (I'm not sure this item is on the list on the blackboard)
  • and numerous pairs
We have a pair of fears: the one who can destroy the body vs. the one who can destroy the soul.
We have a pair of brothers--as we had a pair of sisters in Chapter 10:38-42--where one asks for judgment against the other.
We have not a pair but a triplet of birds: sparrows, ravens (an "unclean" bird), and wild birds. The appearance of the third reinforces the chiastic emphasis on E Luke 12:22-34 as the key section of this text.
We have a pair of questions; one from the crowd and one from the disciples represented by Peter.
We have a pair of parables both speaking to being prepared for judgment.
We have a pair of trees: an unfruitful fig tree and the tree that grows from the mustard seed.
We have a pair of "divisions" of an inheritance and of households.

Does Chapter 12 51 "Do you think I have come to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! 52 For from now on there will be five in one household divided, three against two and two against three. 53 They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
relate to Chapter 11 16 Others, to test him, began asking for a sign from heaven. 17 But Jesus, realizing their thoughts, said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself is destroyed, and a divided household falls. 18 So if Satan too is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand?"

And, perhaps, there is a pairing of baptism and fire in 13:49-50 which looks forward to the second chapter of Acts, also written by Luke.
Part of that passage was the key text to our worship service on Sunday:

Acts 2:42 They were devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Reverential awe came over everyone, and many wonders and miraculous signs came about by the apostles. 44 All who believed were together and held everything in common, 45 and they began selling their property and possessions and distributing the proceeds to everyone, as anyone had need. 46 Every day they continued to gather together by common consent in the temple courts, breaking bread from house to house, sharing their food with glad and humble hearts, 47 praising God and having the good will of all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number every day those who were being saved.

In Luke/Acts, as Talbert suggests, the purpose of wealth is to share with the poor, with one another. Much of our class discussion centered around the difficulty of putting this teaching into practice.

I read and made use of the discussion of this section in these books:

Craddok, Fred B.: Luke: Interpretation for Teaching and Preaching. 1990

Talbert, Charles H.: Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary. 1982

Brent and Michael gave me a third book with these which I read but from which I made no notes so I doubt that it contributed to my understanding of the passage.
Scripture quotations from the NET Bible via Biblegateway.

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