This editorial by Andrew M. Britz, OSB, titled “God’s gracious word,” was published in the April 4, 2001, issue of the Prairie Messenger. It is featured in his second volume of editorials, Rule of Faith: as we worship, so we believe, so we live.
St. Luke wrote his Gospel for simple people, for the am ha-ares, “the people of the land.” These people were scorned, considered too ignorant to take advantage of the salvation available to them as members of the chosen people.
The scribes and Pharisees had made the observance of the Law a complicated matter. Not only were there more than 600 laws to be carefully observed; there was also a long, extremely complicated “teaching” to accompany these laws indicating how they were to be observed or, as was often the case, how the initiated could be excused from their obligation.
Jesus saves some of his harshest words for this legal folly: “Alas for you, because you load on people burdens that you yourselves do not move a finger to lift . . . you have taken away the key of knowledge; you have not gone in yourselves and have prevented others going in who wanted to” (Lk 11:46, 52).
Jesus, St. Luke knew, had both simplified and complicated the message of salvation. Gone was the notion that the law of God could be captured in a number of laws — even if that number tended to grow and thus seemingly “complicated” life. Yes, what a strange “simplification” Jesus gave as his alternative; he infinitely complicated religion, making it exactly as complicated as human life itself.
So Luke, instead of attempting to theologize or legalize religion, told stories — stories that “the people of the land” could easily grasp, stories that at once gave them dignity and freedom, dignity in God’s presence, freedom from all those laws they could not hope to properly fulfil.
Theologians have written countless books on the meaning of the Lord’s death and resurrection; canon lawyers, over the centuries, have written many thousands of canons to give an institutional face to Jesus’ passing from death to life.
While certainly not intending to disparage the critically important contributions of theologians and canonists, we must remember that our faith in our salvation is at once much more simple than any law could ever indicate and much more complicated than the smartest among us will ever grasp.
St. Luke tells two simple stories to convey to us the meaning of the death of Jesus on the cross and of his rising to an altogether new way of life.
The tradition prior to St. Luke’s Gospel had Jesus silent on the cross. Our Saviour is presented with a silent strength — but not so strong as to make it impossible for us to identify with him. His only words on the cross are a moan from the core of his being, a moan that identifies him with the Suffering Servant tradition: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”
Luke has Jesus quite talkative on the cross; right after being nailed to the cross, Jesus shocks the people by breaking this silence that had become part and parcel of the telling of his death by uttering the unbelievably gracious word of the kingdom: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”
That Jesus shocked the people by his word was not something out of the ordinary. In his first recorded words as part of his public ministry (according to Luke) Jesus had shocked the people of Nazareth “by the gracious words that came from his lips” (Lk 4:22); he had quoted the prophet Isaiah about the messianic age. By stopping in mid-sentence, he presented the year of the Lord’s favour without any reference to hellfire, something the local synagogue establishment believed to be an essential part of any true practice of religion (see Isaiah 61:2).
On the cross Jesus put his body where his mouth was. One of the thieves taunts Jesus, asking him to save him from the cross. With no sign of repentance, with no fervent promise never to thieve again, the other thief simply asks Jesus to remember him in the kingdom. Hardly enough to warrant canonization!
But Jesus’ word to the thief, “I promise you, today you will be with me in paradise,” reveals to the people of the land the full meaning of the cross of Christ. Salvation is freely given. The thief had done nothing to deserve the “reward” of life eternal in the company of Jesus himself.
As the people of Nazareth were shocked that first day by the gracious words of Jesus, so the story of the cross and the Lord’s gracious judgment of the thief continues to shock the righteous in the church. In a vain effort to weaken the stark foolishness of our God, the church, in retelling the story, started to speak of the “good” thief, assigning to him a moral rectitude totally absent in the original story.
The second story, concerning the resurrection, is equally simple — and complicated.
Two heavy-hearted disciples are trudging home to Emmaus. They had hoped Jesus would be the saviour, but now he was dead and all their hope had vanished.
Jesus, who is never immediately recognizable to us in our daily lives, speaks of suffering by opening the Scriptures to them. Then they recognize him in the breaking of the bread.
How better could Luke tell us about meeting the risen Lord in the “todays” of our lives than by showing us the true value of the Bible and the sacraments? In word and sacrament we celebrate the Lord’s resurrection. We must ask over and over again: “Did not our hearts burn within us as he opened the Scriptures to us?” And, in recognizing the community we celebrate with as the true Body of Christ, we come to know the living Lord in the “breaking of the bread.”
We have much to celebrate at Easter. Catholics have been enriched by learning from our separated brothers and sisters in the faith how to truly value the Scriptures in worship. We in turn can give them a sense of sacrament that moves far beyond magic and places the mystery of our redemption right at the heart of our believing community.
As a sign of God’s special Easter blessing, we can all together thank St. Luke for his great gift of telling stories by finding ourselves shoulder to shoulder “with the people of the land.”