"Selective Salvation in a Fear-Filled World" (Luke 3:1-6)
By Karoline Lewis
"All flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Luke 3:1-6). Well, that depends.
It depends on where you are from. It depends on your country of origin. It depends on your religion. It depends on with whom you are associated. It depends on your race, your ethnicity, your gender, your sexual orientation. The list of criteria for salvation, contrived predominantly from our many fears, is long according to the world as we know it today, but not according to the Gospel of Luke. And since Luke is providing a particular portrait of Jesus, not according to Jesus either.
This passage from Luke for the Second Sunday of Advent points to competing worldviews. The opening verses are deceptively subversive. Into the religious reigns and imperial kingdoms of the first century C.E., the word of God comes. Emperor Tiberius, Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip, Annas, and Caiaphas, will have to tend with the rule of the word of God, a rule that insists on salvation for all.
It is no accident that John the Baptist, whose birth to Elizabeth, old and barren, narrated in the first chapter of Luke, quotes Isaiah, and Jesus will do the same in his sermon in Nazareth. Isaiah was God's word to those exiled in Babylon, separated from life as they knew it because it was separation from the God of life. Those oppressed know the true meaning of salvation. They know that they cannot wait for a religiously and politically construed deliverance that postpones the potential of being saved now.
Rejecting the Gospel
Jesus' opening words in Luke, his inaugural address, if you will, restates Luke 3:6 and also quotes Isaiah (61:1):
"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" (Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus' sermon is well received until Jesus begins to articulate who exactly are the poor and the oppressed. And then the homegrown preacher, having returned to his hometown of Nazareth, is promptly escorted by the people who know him best, to a high cliff off of which to throw the hometown boy.
This is what the gospel, or good news, tends to bring out in people - rejection. In fact, when the women who witness the empty tomb return to tell the disciples what they have seen, the disciples, who should know better, think it's an "idle tale" (Luke 24:11, NRSV). It's always more than interesting when a translation tries to protect us from the truth and then ends up being sexist in the process. The disciples do not call the women's story an "idle tale" - they think their story is "garbage" (the literal Greek word, used only here in the Bible), in other words, a load of crap.
And it appears that a lot of Christians have taken the response of the disciples to heart. All flesh shall see the salvation of God, is better read as "some shall see." The radical inclusiveness of God in Luke was not very popular back then. In fact, it would result in the death of God's son, Jesus. It seems little has changed. We are quite skilled in qualifying God's love.
Most scholars on the Gospel of Luke argue that the author of Luke also wrote the book of Acts, that Acts was a second volume extending God's vision of salvation for all truly to all, "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1:8). What difference does this make? It means that the inclusiveness of Jesus does not end with the ending of Luke. God's vision of "all flesh" doesn't have an ending. It's hard to reconfigure a vision of salvation for "all" to "some" yet we have managed to be successful at that.
Whom Do You See?
As John the Baptist brings God's word of promise to those in the wilderness (Luke 3:2), it is important then to think about what Luke means by salvation. Contemporary belief about salvation tends to limit salvation to an eternal truth, or at least, sometime out in our future after we die. In other words, salvation has been construed as that which will secure your soul from everlasting damnation in hell. "Are you saved?" has everything to do with eternal salvation and very little impact on your here and now. Yet, Luke seems to tell us otherwise.
Over and over again in Luke, moments of God's salvation are not that which is promised in the future, but occur in the here and now because God is present in Jesus. The standout characters in the Gospel of Luke are those who desire and deserve the fullness of life here and now. Life is granted to Elizabeth, barren and old. She is seen with favor by God and becomes the mother of John the Baptist. Mary, a 13-year-old peasant girl, is seen with favor by God and becomes the mother of Jesus. Jesus "sees" those whom we would pass by, those we would deem unworthy of God's love, those whom we would reject with our suspicions and fears. Those whom we would leave for dead, God sees and gives them life (the parable of the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37). Left for "as good as dead" by others they are regarded as necessary for life and worthy of life by God.
Seeing Salvation Together
Martin Luther King Jr.'s paraphrase of Luke 3:6 (from Isaiah 40:4) testifies to the power of God's word to bring salvation to all.
"I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together." King's paraphrase is an interesting turn of interpretation. "All flesh shall see it together," acknowledges the communal commitment to justice.
The inclusiveness of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke means that we will see the most unlikely of characters, including ourselves, have a central role in bringing about the Kingdom of God. This is John's message. Preparing the way is seeing salvation together and together seeing that salvation can be for all. To prepare the way of the Lord is to see those the world overlooks. To prepare the way of the Lord is to join together to make straight the paths of the crooked that seem to rule our world.
To prepare the way of the Lord is to see how we might make possible salvation here and now as that which means a return to the living for all.
Because together, it is indeed possible that all flesh might know life.
Bible Study Questions
1. How would you define salvation? What would does restoration of life mean for you here and now? For others in your life?
2. It is no small thing to be regarded, to be favored, especially when you are exceedingly aware that you should not be. What does it feel like to be noticed and regarded? What does it feel like to be overlooked?
3. How have the events of the recent terrorist attacks and the Syrian refugee crisis affected your views about inclusivity? How would you answer the questions posed in the above video?
For Further Reading
"The Gospel of Luke," in The Women's Bible Commentary, Third Edition. Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, Eds. Westminster John Knox, 2012.
Justo J. Gonzalez, The Story Luke Tells: Luke's Unique Witness to the Gospel, Eerdmans, 2015
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