There are many commentaries on each book in the bible, and more than a few historical or archeological tomes explaining their times and people. But have you ever wondered how a particular book was received by those first readers? Take the gospels for instance. You can read any number of explanations about who the writers probably were, something about their intended audience, and more than a little about their imputed theology, but what was the impact of their first publication?
I figure that Luke, more than the other three, was tremendously controversial. I imagine that his first readers were both scandalized and mesmerized. It must have been the sort of book they had to hide under the mattress so that others wouldn’t see it, just as I hid From Here to Eternity under mine, and I’m sure that you had something hidden under your mattress also. The other gospels certainly sniff around the edges of the social scandal with their casts of prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners of various kinds, but Luke dives with lusty delight into a life with Jesus who seemed to know every sinner up close and personal and was enthusiastically willing to violate every social norm and barrier he came across. It’s hard to imagine a religious leader, much less the Son of God, having such low standards of propriety considering the crowd he hung around with.
I imagine that early readers of Luke’s gospel must have read it in disbelieving awe that lured them into a sense of freedom and fulness of life they never new existed, and I imagine that many new Lukan Christians appeared to others as unrepentant rebels who had no respect for traditional standards of morality. They certainly couldn’t fit into traditional Jewish ways, nor were they very acceptable in Hellenistic communities. Who knows what the Romans thought. I also imagine that it was this very new found freedom from traditional social constraints that could have led them astray. Failing to integrate the teachings of Jesus about a higher righteousness into their thinking and practice, they could easily have become first century versions of Haight-Ashbury hippies. Perhaps that is what Paul’s many admonitions and correctives are all about, and maybe that’s why the pastoral letters are so intent on restoring some of the discipliine of traditional mores.
The point is that it’s very hard for our modern eyes to read Luke, or any of the gospels, with a full appreciation of how radical they were and how accurate were the words of the Pharisees when they accused the early Christians of turning the world upside down. Time and again, the adults in my bible studies have considered these words with teary eyed sentimentalism that, I believe, deprives them of the full power of Christ reaching out to us in our own day and time.
So what do you think?