March 16, 2008

Portraits of Jesus: The Universal Savior
Luke 19:1-10, 28-40

In the movie, Philadelphia, both Tom Hanks and Denzel Washington are cast as inner-city lawyers in—Philadelphia. Hanks is a young, up-coming star named Andrew Beckett who works for the most prestigious law firm in the city. Washington is a somewhat marginal attorney named Joe Miller who seemingly scrapes up business wherever he can find it. Needless to say, the likes of Beckett and Miller rarely meet unless necessity requires it.

Necessity requires it when Beckett unceremoniously loses his position at Wexler and Wheeler just days after being assigned the firm’s most lucrative new case. Convinced that his dismissal resulted from his contraction of AIDS rather than his competence and performance, Beckett contacts one lawyer after another in hopes of suing his former firm. No one will take his case. Finally, a desperate and discouraged Beckett approaches Miller, the last attorney on his list, in hopes of securing his counsel. The initial meeting opens well—smiles, handshakes, small talk and all. Pleasantries soon fade, however, when Miller hears the details. Beckett is gay and infected with AIDS. And they had just shaken hands. Quickly, a now fidgety Miller retreats to the chair behind his desk and begins noting everything in his office that Beckett had touched—the door knob, a few chairs, a family picture on the desk, a cigar box. “How can I get this guy out of my office?” Miller wonders to himself. In Miller’s homophobic and uninformed mind, the revelation of Beckett’s sexual orientation and infection had suddenly turned Beckett, an otherwise respectable colleague, into an untouchable, so to speak, someone to make fun of, fear and avoid at all costs.

Would your Jesus hang out with Andrew Beckett? Would your Jesus, the great heavenly mediator that he is, accept Beckett’s case? Luke’s Jesus would. Luke’s Jesus, thankfully, is no Joe Miller. In his mind, no one is off limits. No one is beyond representation. No one is untouchable. In fact, Luke’s Jesus took on flesh precisely to show the world that the love and mercy of God extend to every living person in every corner of the globe. Throughout his gospel, Luke paints a portrait of Jesus as the lord of both the up-and-outers and the down-and-outers, the blessed and the needy, the pure-breeds and the misfits. Luke’s Jesus is the universal savior.

I should perhaps quickly point out that the Jesus in Matthew, Mark, John, Colossians and Hebrews would reach out to Andrew Beckett as well. Matthew’s teacher would instruct him, Mark’s servant would care for him, John’s living word would transform him, Paul’s sovereign lord would lead him, and the writer of Hebrew’s great mediator would intercede before the Father on his behalf. Every Jesus in the New Testament cares about the likes of Andrew Beckett—and Joe Miller, for that matter. But Luke goes out of his way to paint a picture of Jesus as someone who truly loves and reaches out to even the least likely people—the theme is central to the book. Luke alludes to it in his introductory materials, highlights it in his statement concerning Jesus’ mission, and reinforces it through the stories of Jesus that he chooses to tell. Luke’s Jesus came to save and heal everyone in the world.

Luke begins painting this portrait of Jesus already in his introductory comments. In the series of songs and pronouncements that appear in chapters 1-3, Luke gives us a glimpse of the ever-widening love and mercy of God. In her great song of praise—the “Magnificat”—Mary rejoices because God’s “mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” (1:50). God’s mercy is not just a thing of the past. In Zechariah’s prophecy, he blesses the Lord because “he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors…” (1:72). God’s mercy continues to flow to the descendants of Abraham. In Simeon’s pronouncement, he exalts the Lord because his eyes have seen God’s salvation, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32). God’s mercy, like the sweet fragrance of fine perfume, spreads outside the confines of Abraham’s family and reaches to all of the “non-Jews” in the world. Then finally, in the preaching of John the Baptist, Luke removes any lasting ambiguity (3:4-6). All four of the gospel writers include this same passage from Isaiah 40 to describe the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus: “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight’” (Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; John 1:23). But all of them except Luke stop here. Luke alone includes the entire quote, concluding with the phrase, “…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” All flesh. All people. No one on the face of the earth—sit with that a moment—stands outside of the love of God and the saving grace of Jesus.

Luke further develops his portrait of Jesus as everyone’s savior in his account of a familiar incident that took place in Nazareth toward the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Both Matthew and Mark describe the same event in which Jesus teaches the local residents in the synagogue, but only Luke includes Jesus’ personal mission statement. I wrote a personal mission statement a few years ago when I was away on retreat in Wernersville. I listed everything that came to my mind about who I am, what is important to me, and what I sense to be God’s call on my life. Then, I sorted my comments, looked for common threads, whittled away duplicate ideas, and wrote this:
God created me to love him with all of my heart, mind and body; be Christ-like at home, work and play; teach his word to rich and poor; and, model courage and compassion in all that I do.
Here in chapter 4, Luke includes Jesus’ mission statement, the reason he came to serve:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release
to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus has taken poetic lines directly from Isaiah 58 and 61 to put his calling into words. He came to reach out and touch everyone, including the marginalized and neglected people in the world. Such people are not mere interruptions or annoyances, let alone enemies, but the very reason for which he came.

And finally, Luke fills in the color and texture of this portrait by retelling selected stories in which Jesus actually lives out this life of unlimited love and mercy. Other biblical writers of course depict Jesus in this same way—ministering to the poor, hanging out with drunkards, eating pizza with sinners, rearranging the priorities of the righteous—this isn’t anything new. But again, the theme is particularly important to Luke, who is writing to “unclean” Gentiles and trying to convince them that they really do matter to God. And frankly, helping people accept in a profound way the love of God is no small challenge, believe me. So Luke includes any number of memorable stories and parables that do not appear in any of the other gospels.

The beautiful story of a sinful woman who approaches Jesus in the home of a Pharisee and washes his feet with her own tears (7:36-50). “This man can’t be a prophet,” the host concludes, “because if he was, he wouldn’t let such a filthy woman touch him.” Apparently, Jesus doesn’t keep his distance from the lowliest of sinners.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, although no one among Jesus’ listeners back then thought there was such a thing as a “good” Samaritan (10:30-37). It would be like telling a parable to many people around us today about the good Arab or the good Muslim. Yet Jesus used a Samaritan, the avowed enemy of the Jew, to illustrate what it means to be a gracious and genuinely loving person. Apparently, Jesus doesn’t keep his distance from people of other ethnic backgrounds or religions.

The parable of the prodigal son, which is in reality a parable about two sons and their father (15:11-32). The younger son, as you know, inappropriately asks for his inheritance prematurely and quickly squanders it. And the older son, firmly set on justice and keeping the rules, throws a fuss when his father warmly welcomes the younger son home again. Apparently, Jesus doesn’t keep his distance from fallen believers who run from him or struggling believers who question him.

The story of Zacchaeus, the profit-conscious tax-collector who climbed a tree so he could see Jesus as he passed by (19:1-10). Not only did Jesus acknowledge the Herculean efforts that Zacchaeus made to see him, but he went so far as to eat dinner that night at his home. No upstanding citizens would ever do that, would they? Apparently, Jesus doesn’t keep his distance from social outcasts.

Or the story of the thief hanging on the cross beside Jesus (23:43). John merely refers to the two thieves in passing. Both Matthew and Mark suggest that the thieves joined other by-standers in taunting Jesus. Only Luke records the moving conversation that took place between Jesus and one of the thieves. After hearing this thief’s confession and request, Jesus answered, “…today you will be with me in Paradise.” Apparently, Jesus doesn’t keep his distance even from hardened criminals who society seeks to destroy.

Luke’s Jesus came to show the great love and mercy of God to all people—sinners, social outcasts, fallen church members, stuffy legalists, people of varying nationalities and faiths, rich and poor, men and women. And that is exactly what he did. Wherever he was and whoever he was with. His behaviors weren’t contrived or artificial, nor did he simply hand out religious tracts a day or two a month to a mass of unnamed faces. Jesus intentionally lived a life that brought him into regular contact with all sorts of people—godly and ungodly alike—and in that context he showed everyone the love and mercy of God. That is what Luke’s Jesus is all about. He loved—he loves?people.
If this is so, then Luke would ask us at least these two questions:
First, what possible reason might we continue to cling to that prevents us from accepting the love and mercy of God ourselves? How are you and I different from the likes of these? Who are we and what have we done that might lead Jesus to keep his distance from us if we honestly turn to him? If Luke’s Jesus reaches out to all the world with the love and mercy of the Father, then doesn’t he reach out to you and me as well?
Second, if Jesus cares so deeply about everyone, regardless of who they are and what they have done, shouldn’t we? Shouldn’t we, like Jesus, set aside our preconceptions, prejudices and hang-ups and get in the trenches with people who are lost and hurting? Shouldn’t we?
Wait a minute. On second thought, I think Luke would feel cheated if I failed to ask a third question as well. After all, it is not hard to imagine the various faces in the crowd who are cheering later in the gospel as Jesus makes his way down the Mount of Olives on the back of a colt. There they are, waving their palm branches and shouting, “Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” Can you see their faces? They are the people Jesus loves. Local residents. Foreigners. Rich people. Poor people. Outcasts. Lepers. Sinners. A centurion or two. They are all cheering the man who more than anyone else they had ever met affirmed their dignity and offered them hope. What will become of them in the week ahead? Where will they be when Jesus is arrested, beaten and crucified? Hiding? Forgetting? Or still believing? That, I think, is Luke’s third question to us, too. If Jesus cares so deeply about us, do we genuinely love him in return? Are we satisfied on being fair-weather followers who shout when things go our way, or are we intent on being committed disciples who journey with Jesus all the way to the end?