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In Luke we find that Jesus’ community is counterintuitive. Those whom one would expect to be “in” are excluded, and those whom one would expect to be “out” are included. The deepest twist of Luke is that Jesus includes the outsiders and excludes the insiders.
The dynamic here is similar to that of Matthew, yet Matthew highlights a moral question, Luke a social one. The two are by no means mutually exclusive. Yet what we emphasized in Matthew is mainly a vertical issue; what we are focusing on in Luke is mainly a horizontal issue. In Matthew we saw the human desire to be in with respect to God; in Luke we see the desire to be in with respect to other people.
A quick trip through Luke makes clear how pervasive a theme this is. In Luke 1 an angel appears to both Zechariah the priest and Mary the young virgin. Yet Zechariah, the insider, responds the way Mary, the outsider, ought to have responded. Mary, the outsider, responds the way Zechariah, the insider, ought to have responded. In Luke 2 it is lowly shepherds who are highlighted as noteworthy visitors to the newborn Jesus (2:8–20)—not, as in Matthew’s Gospel, the wise men from the east who were important enough to drop in to the king’s palace on their way to Bethlehem (2:1–7). (One rabbinic tradition lumped shepherds in with tax collectors and revenue farmers as those who will have a particularly hard time being accepted before God.3) In Luke 3, it is those of direct Abrahamic descent who are designated by John the Baptist as a “brood of vipers” (3:7–9).
In Luke 4 Jesus outrages His hearers by reminding them that two of the ultimate Jewish insiders, Elijah and Elisha, healed not the Israelites but the outsiders of the day—a Gentile widow and a diseased pagan soldier named Naaman (4:25–27). In chapter 5, Jesus invites a tax collector named Levi to become an insider and then eats with him at his house while those Jewish men with the best education, the best pedigree, and the best moral résumés grumble (5:27–32). Jesus blesses outsiders and curses insiders in Luke 6, blessing the poor, the weeping, and the reviled while pronouncing woes on the rich, the laughing, and those about whom others speak well (6:20–26).
Showing that He does not have a kind of reverse bias against insiders simply because they are insiders, Jesus accepts a dinner invitation from a Pharisee named Simon in chapter 7 just as He had eaten with a tax collector in chapter 5. The same pattern of embracing outsiders surfaces once more, however, as a socially alienated woman—“a woman of the city, who was a sinner” (7:37)—is embraced and forgiven, while Simon appears to be left on the outside, failing to understand the debt that he himself needs forgiveness (7:36–50). In Luke 8, Jesus dubs the common crowd His mother and brothers, leaving His actual mother and brothers outside (8:19–21).
In Luke 9, a young child is picked up by Jesus and placed among the disciples as an example of whom they should receive, while those who are ready to leave everything behind—so long as they can first say goodbye to Dad and Mom—are not “fit for the kingdom of God” (9:46–48, 62). In chapter 10, a socially despised Samaritan is the hero of the famous parable rather than the socially revered priest or Levite (10:25–37),4 and in Luke 11, Jesus says the men of Nineveh, outsiders if ever there were any, will rise up and condemn the crowds listening so attentively to Jesus (11:29–32). Chapter 12 describes the rejection of a rich man,5 contrasted with the abundant treasures belonging to those who sell their possessions and give to the needy (12:13–21, 31–34).