Salvation in The Gospel of Luke 

by Brad Cotton

( lesson given 25 May at Circleville Presbyterian "Challengers" class)


“Take your Bible, and take your newspaper, and read both. But interpret newspapers from your Bible” Karl Barth.


My wife Toye and I took flowers to her mother’s grave the other day. Carolyn loved the Pumpkin Show, our local Sukkoth or “Festival of Booths”. I fell in love with Carolyn’s daughter at Pumpkin Show 1989 when Toye held my hand.


There is a Jewish couple, the Jordan’s, several spaces to my mother-in-law’s right. Their memorial stone has Numbers 6: 24-26 inscribed “The LORD bless you and keep you; / The LORD make His face shine upon you, / And be gracious to you; / The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, / And give you peace,” There is a beautiful photo of the couple in Jewish prayer shawls. I never knew them, but they speak to me and give me peace, even now.


I said to my wife “We know church people who believe this couple is in Hell.” How incredibly arrogant, violent and hateful. As Carol taught here, and I am sorry I couldn’t attend, the Church must change or die. I say this kind of exclusive theology, locking folks out of the faith community, is precisely, precisely what Jesus taught against. Jesus included, not excluded.


What did the wandering Jewish sage Jesus actually do and say? Jesus that is, not Christ. Christ is a Pauline invention. Paul never says anything about what Jesus actually taught. Jesus could have been mute as far as Paul is concerned. It is hard to get the facts, free of Paul’s obsession with substitutionary/ atonement theology as all the Gospels were written well after the Pauline letters. Mark is circa AD 70, Luke and Matthew in 80’s-90’s, John after that.


What do we know, at varying levels of certainty? Italics below are from “Evolution of the Word” by Marcus Borg—an interesting text featuring the New Testament arranged in the order in which the books were written—not the order they are presented canonically. Plain text is my summary of points gleaned from my own 25 years study of materials from Borg, John Dominic Crossan, Bart Ehrman, Paula Fredriksen, Elaine Pagels, John Shelby Spong, Karen Armstrong, the Jesus Seminar and others.


At the center of Jesus’s message was the Kingdom of God. His first words in Mark, our earliest Gospel, are about the coming of the Kingdom of God. They are Mark’s advance summary of what Jesus said and his story are about.


The Kingdom of God was not about “heaven”, but about the transformation of this world, the earth, which is clear from the Lord’s Prayer “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth.”  Jesus suggested that the Kingdom of God  required our work to be realized, as well as already present, had we but the enlightened consciousness required to see it.  Luke 17:20-21 reads “Asked by the Pharisees when the Kingdom of God was to come, he gave them this answer, ‘The coming of the Kingdom of God does not admit of observation and there will be no one to say, “Look, it is here! Look it is there!” For look, the Kingdom of God is among you.”       ( New Jerusalem translation, others translations  say “within” rather than “among”.)


He spoke primarily to the peasant class (90 percent of the population) which was made up of agricultural and manual laborers who lived in rural areas, small towns, villages, hamlets, the countryside. He didn’t go to cities, except Jerusalem. Luke’s Jesus was after all born in a homeless shelter, his birth announced to undocumented immigrant day laborers. ( Shepherds were bottom of the social heap and the Greek word “tekton” is more accurately interpreted as “day laborer” rather than “carpenter” )


As a teacher he consistently used arresting aphorisms and provocative parables to invite his readers to image reality, life, and their lives differently. The most reliable material representing what Jesus actually said, the only thing that would have survived 40-70 years of being passed down orally by illiterate peasant disciples would be these short pithy sayings. Absolutely none of the long-winded proclamations of his own divinity in John were ever said by Jesus.


He broke social boundaries. He was known and criticized for eating with marginalized people, including virtual outcasts and untouchables, and for his associations with women.

Jesus did not refer to himself as the Messiah or the Son of God. He “shussed” those who did so.  ( Mark’s “Messianic Secret”) See also Luke 18: 19 “ Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’ “. Jesus often used the term “Son of Man”, a term taken straight from the Book of Daniel, an earlier prophet who also spoke constantly about the coming “Kingdom of God.”


Jesus was crucified—a fate reserved solely for political insurrectionists. The synoptic gospels confirm it was Jesus’s confrontation with the moneychangers and dove-sellers that was the final straw that caused the established ( and monied) collaborationist (with the Romans)  church of his time to have him eliminated.

Jesus’s presence was so moving and powerful that his absence after the crucifixion caused many to experience Him as still present. My point: What did he teach that was so powerful he was felt to live after death and yet so dangerous he had to be killed? ( dangerous even today)


Luke/ Acts never promulgates substitutionary atonement. Salvation is by “believing” ( pistevo) in Jesus, which meant to live as He taught, to live in “The Way”.  Probably the most reliable canonical record we have of the early Jewish-Christian community is the Letter of James.  Note: Luke 22:19-20 “ body and blood poured out for you” is not in the oldest versions of Luke known. These are later insertions by later “proto-orthodox” scribes trying to make Luke’s Gospel conform to Pauline ( actually Jewish mythological beliefs) ideas of sacrificial  blood atonement.


We discuss two parables found only in Luke, the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan. As both emphasize God’s overwhelming compassion and forgiveness, each is very “Lukan”.  First: from The New Jerusalem Bible ( Doubleday 1990),


One of the most attractive features of Luke is his picture of the gentleness of Christ. He is anxious to stress his Master’s love of sinners (15: 1 seq., 7, 10); to record his acts of forgiveness (7:36-50; 15:11-32; 19:1-10; 23:34, 39-43) ; and to contrast his tenderness for the lowly and the poor with his severity towards the proud and towards those who abuse their wealth (1:51-53; 6:20-26; 12:13-21; 14:7-11; 16:15, 19-31; 18:9-14). …. The one thing necessary is repentance, abdication of self, and on this the gentle,  tolerant Luke takes a firm stand, insisting on unflinching and complete detachment (14:25-34), especially from riches (6:34 seq.; 12:33; 14:12-14; 16:9-13)


Focusing on the Prodigal Son’s return home after living a life lost in carnal distractions. Sin being “distractions” from our  task to further the Kingdom of God.

While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with pity. He ran to the boy, clasped him in his arms and kissed him. Then his son said, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring out the best robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the calf we have been fattening , and kill it; we will celebrate by having a feast, because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life; he was lost and is found.” ( New Jerusalem Luke 15: 20-24)


The father ( God) doesn’t look over the top of his newspaper and say “ Humpf! The little jerk is back.” He runs out, his joy overflowing. He doesn’t ask the boy to recite any doctrine or creed. The son is saved.

The Prodigal’s sins were carnal. Luke is not forgiving of sins of greed and avarice that cause Lazarus to suffer. The parable of the rich man and Lazarus is placed directly in the next chapter after the Prodigal’s return.  No crumb’s “trickled down” from the rich man’s table. ( Luke 16: 19-31). The Rich Man languishes in Hell while poor Lazarus is in Heaven.


To listen to many loud voices in US Christianity today, the threats to our nation are the carnal sins of the Prodigal: “The poor are poor because they have bad character” they say. The truth is, the poor are poor because the rich man has bought up it all, and bought all the lawmakers. Jesus would say so. Would Jesus forgive the rich man? Luke does not!


Karl Barth advised us to interpret the newspapers through the Bible.


Can I forgive Rick Scott, the governor of Florida who made millions as CEO of Columbia/Hospital Corporation of America even when his company was found guilty of felony Medicare fraud and fined $1.7 billion? Scott, and 24 other conservative-led states have refused to expand Medicaid, causing thousands of Lazarus’s to die. May God have mercy on these governor’s souls. I condemn them without mercy. Would it be I could jail them.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is usually taught as a weak soppy story about kindness to the injured. It is in fact a biting attack on self-righteous religious smugness. The worst possible heretical hated outcast, the Samaritan, is praised as closer to God than the priestly rulers and slick “experts in the law” (Contemporary English Version). The only folks Jesus ever condemns are the smug and the rich.


The Great Commandment

And now a lawyer stood up and, to test him, asked ‘Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ Jesus said to him ‘What is written in the Law? What is your reading of it?’ he replied,        ‘ You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have answered right, do this and life is yours.’  


Parable of the Good Samaritan

But the man was anxious to justify himself and said to Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’

We know the rest of the story, a Priest and Levite passed by. A hated Samaritan did God’s will. Jesus said to the loophole-seeking lawyer “ Go and do  the same yourself”


Today’s “lawyers” and “Priests and Levites” argue that a personal belief in Jesus is all that salvation requires. Luke’s Jesus says “do”  God’s work. Today’s “lawyers and Priests and Levites” say that these were personal directives only, not directives for society as a whole. No even half-serious study of Scripture supports such a convenient, self-serving interpretation. The Priests and Levites were the State of the time.


Salvation in Luke is to “pistevo” in Jesus, to repent of self-centeredness, especially when such self-distraction ( aka “sin”) results in exploitation of the marginalized.  “Pistevo” is to do as Jesus did . Read Luke, except for the later false insertion of Luke 22:19-20 there is nothing about sacrificial atonement, nothing about “died for you”, nothing about a killer God demanding blood. Salvation is to live in “The Way”.


Lastly, at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount ( aka Luke’s Sermon on the Plain”) Matthew 7:21 “ It is not anyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord who will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but the person who doesthe will of my Father in Heaven.”


“Jesus’ death serves as the climactic moment when the pattern of obedience and faith reaches its completion and the true character of Jesus … is definitively achieved. From his temptations to his death, the whole career of Jesus expresses the “today” of salvation available in Jesus”. (The Passion According to Luke: A Redaction Study of Luke’s Soteriology, Jerome H. Neyrey)


“At the heart of Luke’s conception of the cross is not its necessity as a means of atonement, but its necessity as an act of suffering [ at the hands of his persecutors] which finds its vindication in the resurrection and exaltation to Glory.” (“The Death of Christ in Lukan Soteriology” Pilgrim, W. E. ThD dissertation Princeton Theological Seminary)


 “… faith without deeds is useless.” (James 2:20)


“The command of God is a call for the championing of the weak against every kind of encroachment on the part of the strong... Christianity is fundamentally on the side of the victims.” Karl Barth quoted inOccupy Theology: Theology of the Multitude.