April 18, 2016

Jesus, as portrayed in Matthew's Gospel, has a harder edge than the Jesus found in the Gospel of Luke.

It is in Matthew that we hear Jesus say, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (5.48). It is in Matthew where, in one of Jesus' parables, a king orders that a man who entered a banquet without a wedding garment should be bound hand and foot and thrown into the outer darkness "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (22.13).

Further, it is Matthew's Gospel alone which presents the stark Last Judgment scene where some "will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (25.46).

Luke's Gospel, in contrast, uniquely provides parables and stories such as those of the prodigal son, the rich man and the poor Lazarus, the good Samaritan and Jesus' visit with Zacchaeus. Jesus concludes the Sermon on the Plain by saying, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (6.36).

As I have stated earlier, my contention is that Luke's Gospel was written after those of Mark and Matthew and aims to overcome what Luke saw as deficiencies in those Gospels. Luke is not indifferent to ethics, but he does place ethics on a lower plane than what Scripture scholar Eric Franklin called "the wonder of Jesus' outreach."

Repentance is not something one must do before being admitted into the covenant community; rather, it is the natural result of such acceptance, the story of Zacchaeus being a prime example of Jesus' attitude. Jesus presents us with a God who forgives sinners before they even ask for forgiveness. He thrusts it upon them.

So it is that the good shepherd is less concerned with the 99 sheep who stay in the flock than with the one who has gone off elsewhere. But nowhere is it stated that the one lost sheep wanted to be part of the flock. Perhaps she is in a huff, fed up with its cliques, its holier-than-thou attitude and its unreflective following of the leader.

It doesn't matter. The shepherd goes out to bring that lost sheep home. Mercy is on the way.

Luke's problem with too strong a reliance on the Mosaic Law is that it leads to an attitude of moral superiority which cuts some people out of the community because of their ethnic background or their moral baggage.

By telling the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus gently but firmly corrects the lawyer who asks "Who is my neighbour?" (10.29) in order to limit his own responsibilities to others.

Luke's basic attitude toward the Law can be seen in the response of Jesus to the Pharisees - "who were lovers of money": "The Law and the prophets were in effect until John came; since then the good news of the kingdom of God is proclaimed" (16.16).

The Shepherd finds that lost sheep and brings her back to the fold whether she wants to come home or not.

The Law, however, is not revoked: "It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away than for one stroke of a letter in the Law to be dropped" (16.17). To emphasize that ethics has not been eradicated, Jesus upholds the indissolubility of marriage: "Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery, and whoever marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery" (16.18).


However, as if to say the Law is not what is most important, Luke immediately has Jesus tell the parable of the rich man and the poor Lazarus (16.19-31). The rich man, likely deemed by many to be morally superior to the poor man, nevertheless fails to realize his obligation to share his wealth and ends up in Hades.

Jesus ends the parable by saying the purpose of the Law and the prophets was to prepare people of the Old Covenant for life in the New Covenant. "If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead" (16.31). Following the Law is secondary to distributing one's wealth among the needy.

Old Testament wisdom literature often presents wealth as a sign of God's favour. But Jesus makes clear that riches imply obligations. Distributing one's wealth to the poor is a clear sign that one is living in God's kingdom.


This point is made with great force in the Acts of the Apostles - also written by Luke - in the story of Ananias and Sapphira.

The couple sold a piece of property but held some money back for themselves, giving only a portion of the proceeds to the apostles. When St. Peter confronted them separately with this fact, each of them immediately fell down dead (5.1-11).

One does not buy one's way into God's kingdom, but how one uses one's wealth is the key to remaining in the kingdom or being cast out of it. In Matthew's Gospel, however, obedience to the Mosaic Law has lost none of its force in determining the boundaries of the community.


One last point of contrast: In Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, Jesus proclaims, "Truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter will pass from the Law" (5.18).

Jesus' comparable saying in Luke is, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (21.33). There, Jesus is not so insistent on the Law.

Luke does not see Jesus as abolishing the Law, but the Law is secondary to Jesus' call to mercy, to a broadening of the community so that one has a universal obligation to help all who have been marginalized.

Membership in the Christian community does not mean we must be morally perfect, but it does mean we must greatly share our abundance with those who have less . . . no matter where they live or to which community they belong.