Luke

OF THE FOUR EVANGELISTS, Luke wrote the best Greek and, unlike the other three, was almost certainly a Greek-speaking Gentile himself, who put his Gospel together for a Gentile audience, translating Jewish names and explaining Jewish customs when he thought they wouldn't be understood if he didn't. In his Letter to the Colossians, Paul refers to somebody as "Luke the beloved physician," and without stretching things too far, you could point to three blocks of material in Luke's Gospel, omitted from the others, that might suggest that he was the same man.

First of all, there's the parable of the Prodigal Son, the account of the whore who washed Jesus' feet and dried them with her hair, and the scrap of conversation Jesus had with one of the two crooks who was crucified with him.

Smelling of pig and cheap gin, the Prodigal comes home bleary-eyed and dead broke, but his father's so glad to see him anyway that he almost falls on his face. Jesus tells Simon the blue-nosed Pharisee that the whore's sins are forgiven her because, even painted up like a cigar-store Indian and smelling like the perfume counter at the five-and-dime, she's got more in her of what the gospel of love is all about than the whole Ladies' Missionary Society laid end to end. The thief Jesus talked to on the cross may have been a purse snatcher and second-story man from way back, but when he asked Jesus to remember him when he made it to where he was going, Jesus told him he'd make sure they got rooms on the same floor. Different as they all are in some ways, it's not hard to see that they all make the same general point, which is that, though he could give them hell when he felt like it, Jesus had such a soft spot in his heart for the scum of the earth that you would have almost thought he considered them the salt of the earth the way he sometimes treated them.

Second, Luke is the one who goes out of his way to make it clear how big Jesus was on praying. He prayed when he was baptized and after he healed the leper and the night before he called the twelve disciples, and Luke was the only one to mention these together with a few others like them and also was the only one to say that the last words Jesus ever spoke were the prayer, "Father, into thy hand I commend my spirit." It's also thanks to Luke that there's a record of the jokes Jesus told about the man who kept knocking at his friend's door till he finally got out of bed to open it and the widow who kept bugging the crooked judge till he finally heard her case just to get a little peace, the point of both of which seems to be that if you don't think God has heard you the first time, don't give up till you're hoarse. Luke wanted that to be remembered too.

Third and last, Luke makes sure that nobody misses the point that Jesus was always stewing about the terrible needs of poor people. He is the one who tells us that when Jesus preached at Nazareth, his text was "he has appointed me to preach good news to the poor" from Isaiah (Luke 4:18), and whereas Matthew says that the first Beatitude was "Blessed are the poor in spirit," according to Luke it was just plain "Blessed are the poor" period (Luke 6:20). He also recorded some parables, like the one about the rich man and the beggar, that come right out and say that if the haves don't do their share to help the have-nots, they better watch out, and he's the only one to quote the song Mary sang that includes the words "he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich has sent empty away" (Luke 1:53).

To put it in a nutshell, by playing all these things up Luke shows he was a man who believed that you shouldn't let the fact that a person is jailbait keep you from treating that person like a human being, and that if you pray hard enough, there's no telling what may happen, and that if you think you've got heaven made but don't let it worry you that there are children across the tracks who are half starving to death, then you're kidding yourself. These characteristics may not prove that he was a doctor, like the Luke in Paul's Letter, but if he wasn't, it was a serious loss to the medical profession.

-Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words


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Lucifer

LUCIFER MEANS "LIGHT-GIVER" or "Morning star" or "Son of dawn" and, ever since the Middle Ages, has been one of the aliases the Devil goes by, along with Satan, Old Nick, Old Scratch, the Old Harry, and so forth. Thus the Bible's blackest villain is known by one of the Bible's loveliest names, and not by accident either.

"How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" the prophet Isaiah says (14:12), the point being that it was while he was still at the height of his loveliness that the ugly episode took place.

Lucifer was a leading member of the heavenly chorus that sings Bach around the throne of grace and as such seemed so infinitely removed from all temptation that both to him and to his fellow angels the very possibility must have seemed ludicrous. Then one day he made the mistake of saying to himself, "Just see how far I have come," with the emphasis on the first-person singular, and from there to "Just see how far I can still go" was of course only a hop, skip, and a jump.

When you are one of God's right-hand angels, there is clearly only one step farther you can go, and with his usual uncanny combination of justice and mercy, God let him go there.

Lucifer was no longer called upon to love anybody except himself or to sing Bach anywhere but in the bathtub or to follow anything or anybody except his own instincts and inclinations. He was given an office with mottoes like "Nobody loves you like yourself" and "Nice guys finish last" on the walls and was named to the number-one job in charge of everybody else who both then and for all time felt the same way, and they have been having one hell of a time together ever since.

-Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words


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Love

THE FIRST STAGE IS TO BELIEVE that there is only one kind of love. The middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them. The last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love.

The unabashed eros of lovers, the sympathetic philia of friends, agape giving itself away freely no less for the murderer than for the victim (the King James Version translates it as "charity")—these are all varied manifestations of a single reality. To lose yourself in another's arms, or in another's company, or in suffering for all who suffer, including the ones who inflict suffering upon you—to lose yourself in such ways is to find yourself. Is what it's all about. Is what love is.

Of all powers, love is the most powerful and the most powerless. It is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold that is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent.

To say that love is God is romantic idealism. To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth.

In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion, but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as easily produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus' terms, we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking them. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonably honest friends.

When Jesus talked to the Pharisees, he didn't say, "There, there. Everything's going to be all right." He said, "You brood of vipers! how can you speak good, when you are evil!" (Matthew 12:34). And he said that to them because he loved them.

This does not mean that liking may not be a part of loving, only that it doesn't have to be. Sometimes liking follows on the heels of loving. It is hard to work for people's well-being very long without coming in the end to rather like them too.

-Originally published in Wishful Thinking and later in Beyond Words


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Lot

WHEN GOD DECIDED to wipe the city of Sodom off the map for its sins, he sent a couple of angels down to make sure that Lot was safely out of it first. Therefore he must have had something going for him. On the other hand, it's hard to see just what.

There was the way he conducted himself the day the angels arrived at his house, for instance. The first thing to happen was that some local weirdos started pounding on the front door demanding that he send the angels out to them for purposes that, though never spelled out, Lot seems to have understood well enough since, to save his guests, he immediately suggested that maybe they'd just as soon have his two unmarried daughters instead. The angels evidently thought this was carrying the laws of hospitality too far since, before Lot had a chance to make good on his offer, they struck the door-pounders blind and sent them groping their way back to wherever they'd come from.

The next thing was that Lot went to the two young men who were engaged to his daughters, told them what the angels said was about to happen to Sodom, and advised them to pack their bags in a hurry. The two young men refused to take him seriously. "They thought he was jesting," Genesis says (19:14) and you can hardly blame them.

When the next morning arrived, Lot himself still hadn't gotten out of town, and the angels were in a snit. God had already started the countdown, and there wasn't a moment to lose. Lot refused to budge an inch, however, so finally in desperation the angels "seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him forth and set him outside the city" (19:16). Then they told him to flee to the hills before it was too late.

Lot's response must be read to be believed. "Oh no, my lords," he said. "Behold, your servant has found favor in your sight, and you have shown me great kindness in saving my life; but I cannot flee to the hills lest the disaster overtake me and I die. Behold, yonder city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved" (19:18-20).

All of Lot is somehow in that speech. To begin with, not so much as a passing thought is given to the imminent liquidation of all his fellow citizens. Beyond that, he knows perfectly well that he'll be safe in the hills or the angels would never have told him to go there, but wilderness camping isn't for him. He had already made it clear that he would rather be blown sky-high than leave and have to do without indoor plumbing, the morning paper delivered to the door, the restaurants. But he had a hunch the angels mightn't think all that highly of cities after their recent experience in one, so he tried to wheedle them as tactfully and unobtrusively as he could. Wouldn't it be all right if he fled just as far as that little city over there—that tiny little bit of a one you'd hardly even notice if you weren't looking straight at it? Just to get him moving, the angels gave him the nod, and by the time they'd finished giving it, he was already halfway there.

His wife disobeyed the angels' instructions by looking back longingly at what they were leaving behind and was turned into a pillar of salt because of it. It was a dismal fate to be sure, but when you consider all the years of marriage to Lot that would probably have been in store for her otherwise, she may not have done all that badly at that.

Genesis 19:1-29

-Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words


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