Luke’s Jesus sends out 72 disciples to teach and heal. He provides instructions for the road; he also rails against cities that don’t accept his teachings – despite the fact that elsewhere he has said to love your enemies. When the disciples come back exulting that “Lord, even the demons submit to us when we invoke your name!” Jesus says (as though he had magically seen the evidence) “I watched Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” He says that the truth about him has been hidden from the wise and intelligent, but revealed to the “untutored.” Everything has been turned over to him, but no one knows who Jesus is unless he wishes to reveal himself. “Many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, and didn’t see it, and to hear what you hear, and didn’t hear it.”
Luke likes to contrast insiders with outsiders. Jesus’s teachings are secrets to be passed on only to those privileged few in the inner circle to whom Jesus chooses to reveal them. The Jesus Seminar Scholars have suggested that Luke was making Jesus’s message safe for Roman society. However, that does not mean “safe” as in “safe from persecution.” There was little to no persecution of Jews or Christians during the time when Luke was probably creating his two-part epic. “Safe for Roman society” more likely means, watered down (or coded) so it would not present too great a challenge for non-Jewish newcomers to the Way, or offend the imperial theology. If followers of Jesus’s Way proclaimed Jesus as Lord, and not the Emperor, they would be guilty of disloyalty if not treason. But that was a matter of law, not a policy of deliberate persecution on the part of the Roman government.
These passages are easily read as a call to conservative evangelicals to step out in faith and proclaim Jesus as savior from death, hell and sin. Satan, as conservatives like to say, is roaring around like a hungry lion, looking for sinners to snatch and consume. But belief in Jesus can defeat the powers of evil today, just like they did in Jesus’s time.
The idea of “progressive” or “liberal Christian evangelism” may seem at first to be an oxymoron. But consider the state of Biblical literacy in the 21st Century. Most people have little to no knowledge of what the New or the Old Testament actually says. Indeed, outside of Christian churches few consider the Bible to be relevant to any discussion about the tough issues such as human rights for women (i.e., the right to choose what happens to our bodies); climate change; corporate malfeasance; poverty; or war. As for church-going Christians (whether liberal or fundamentalist) most turn out to be “untutored” in the Bible beyond the few short verses required to be memorized in Sunday School. Among these, of course is “Jesus wept.” The writer of Luke’s gospel was trying to make a point that the “wise and intelligent” were less able to recognize the Kingdom of God all around them. The “untutored” were children, the poor, and the less privileged, whose only hope was the Kingdom of God. Given the state of Biblical literacy in the church today, the truth about Jesus is still hidden from “the wise and intelligent.”
The possibility that Jesus’s message was one of radical fairness, and that following Jesus means creating and living in a world based on non-violent covenant instead of desperate selfishness, has certainly been hidden from view since before Luke decided to tell the story. It’s time to give the presidents and prime ministers of today the chance to see and hear the alternatives to imperial, retributive, business-as-usual. It’s time to offer viable alternatives to the feel-good, prosperity-based, exclusive, self-righteousness that passes for evangelism on the right. As liberal pundit Keith Olbermann has suggested, it’s time for some non-violent democratic action.
Taking Luke’s version of Jesus’s marching orders as a model, what would liberal or progressive Christian evangelism look like?
To start with, there are two sets of instructions for the road in Luke. The first set is in 9:1-6, and applies to the 12 members of Jesus’s inner circle. The second set is for the advance team that Luke’s Jesus sends out in pairs ahead of him to the villages he intends to visit. Unlike the 12, the72 are not supposed to wear sandals; not to greet anyone on the road; they are to extend the peace greeting to each house; and eat and drink whatever is provided. But really, all this shows is that as Christ communities formed and re-formed in the earliest days, ideas evolved. One of the ideas that did not survive on a large scale is that followers of the Way were (must be?) itinerant travelers, trusting the culture of hospitality, and the providence of God’s realm.
If 21st Century liberals are to reclaim Jesus’s teachings as a way of life, we may want to take a page from Paul’s mission to the Gentiles outside of Jerusalem. Paul’s original intent was not to form a new separate church, but to transform Judaism from within. But the controversy over whether new Gentile converts to the Way were required to follow Jewish laws (specifically circumcision) led to a rift between Paul and the Jerusalem faction. Paul’s increasingly universal interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection resulted in the eventual separation of Judaism from Christianity. If an analogy may be made between this historical series of events and current Christian debates, then Paul’s letter to the Galatians is particularly relevant. (As an aside, note that Luke’s version of the encounter between Peter and Paul in Jerusalem differs significantly from what Paul writes. Compare Acts 15 with Galatians 2.)
Instead of demanding belief in a story about a resuscitated corpse that somehow is still walking the city streets today, scaring people into proper behavior, progressive Christians can witness to what scholars are telling us was Jesus’s original message. Instead of hellfire and damnation (such as Luke’s Jesus lets loose in 10:13-15) the good news from liberals is that the realm of God – where distributive justice-compassion rules – is here now (See Luke 10:9). Don’t worry about stepping on scorpions or handling snakes or subduing demons. The writer of Luke’s gospel may not have meant that to be taken literally, even at the end of the 1st Century. Once people start living from non-violent distributive justice-compassion, demonic evil begins to retreat.
Today, the controversy is between those who would insist that belief in the story of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead is necessary for salvation in the next life versus the reclamation of Jesus’s original message, which says nothing about the dead, except that the dead should be left to bury their own (Luke 9:62). According to Jesus (in all four Gospels) the realm of God is here and now. This version of Christianity means living in radical abandonment of self-interest in the service of distributive justice-compassion in this life. Signing onto this way of life is a choice that anyone can make, without declaring belief or non-belief in anyone coming back from the dead. Much like Jewish law in Paul’s arguments, the metaphors of incarnation and resurrection – powerful as they are for those who understand them – are irrelevant. What matters is the result. Do we have a world where distributive justice-compassion holds sway? Or do we have a world where greed, retribution, and getting even are the norm? Liberal, progressive Christian evangelism is nothing less than changing the paradigm.