This entry is part 4 of 7 in the series: ‘Reading While Black’ (McCaulley)
Chapter four is subtitled: ‘The Bible and the Pursuit of Justice.’
The burden of this chapter
‘is to outline the ways in which the Gospel of Luke contains a vision for the just society transformed by the advent of God that speaks to the hearts of Black Christians.’
Luke was a Gentile Christian. As such, his very place in the Christian community would have been a matter of some controversy at first.
Luke’s Gospel reflects the resolution of this early controversy by heralding the fulfilment of God’s age-old plan to create an international, multi-ethnic people for his own glory.
In this regard, then, Luke can be seen as something of a ‘patron saint’ of African American ecclesial interpretation.
Many enslaved African Americans were converted through the preaching of evangelists during the great awakenings. But to what extent was the Christianity being taught the Christianity of the Bible, particularly in regard to the slavery question?
It is clear from the opening of Luke’s Gospel (Lk 1:1-4) that various accounts of Jesus were floating around at the time that he put quill to parchment. Some of these may not have been helpful. Therefore,
‘as an alternative to potentially misleading pictures of Jesus, Luke’s Gospel meets the early experience of Black Christians whose Bible reading awakened them to the truth about God.’
Zechariah and Elizabeth
As members of an oppressed nation, this elderly couple,
‘would have faced the same questions that Black pastors have had to deal with for generations. Where is God? Why hasn’t he saved us? Does he care about our suffering? Zechariah must have been forced to explain what Torah faithfulness meant in his context. Why keep the festivals and say the prayers if tomorrow might look much the same as yesterday?’
Yet this couple maintained their righteousness before God (Lk 1:5) despite both national and personal tragedy:
‘They had walked from one end of their life to the other and maintained their faith in God despite the fact that many of their friends and neighbors may have long since given up any hope that God might act. They continued in this faith even though they had been unable to conceive and give birth to a child.’
Zechariah and Elizabeth are like the black grandparents who dragged their children to church and prayed for them when they could not pray for themselves.
The faith of this couple was energised and sustained by memory. They were ‘looking for the consolation of Israel (Lk 2:25), a phrase that takes us back to Isa 40.
‘The latter portions of Isaiah repeatedly speak of a second exodus in which Israel would again be free. The first exodus served as the basis for the hope of a second act of God’s redemption. John, their son, would articulate the same hope for a new exodus. That is why his ministry would take place near the Jordan—that locale through which God opened a way into the Promised Land. The exodus, then, was a focus of hope for his family.’
God’s decision to give a son to the aged Elizabeth recalls the giving of Isaac to Sarah and Abraham. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel, God is replaying his ‘greatest hits’, reminding his people that what he has done before he can do again.
In a similar way, African Americans have recalled the ancient Scriptures as that thought, spoke and acted for the emancipation of their people.
The testimony of Mary
Mary’s Song locates her squarely within the faith of Israel: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord’ (Lk 1:46):
‘Mary was a believer and a worshiper. Her song is more than a statement about political liberation. Her testimony includes the worship of the one true God. Political liberation (to use a modern dichotomy alien to the first century) had as its telos the liberty to worship, not merely an assertion of their own political vision.’
But Mary worships God precisely because he is merciful, has not respect for money and power, and turns his loving attention to those who fear him (Lk 1:50). He brings down the proud and lifts up the lowly (Lk 1:52-54).
Mary’s hope is that of the Black Christian, that God might hear and save,
‘that he might look upon those who deny us loans for houses or charge exorbitant interest rates in order to cordon us off into little pockets of poverty and say to them your oppression has been met with the advent of God’
Mary’s reference to the ‘strong arm’ of God recalls Isa 51:9f; 52:10-12, where God calls on the God of the exodus to do it again and bring his exiled people home. Isiah goes on, of course,
‘to describe a suffering servant whose death for sins brings about a second exodus and the end of the covenant curses that led to Israel’s exile (Is 52:13–53:12).’
Mary, following isaiah’s lead, evokes the image of exodus and the end of slavery. Through her child, God will once again liberate his people.
The Baptism of the Son and the Hope of the Disinherited
As noted, the baptism by John was located near the Jordan river – a place redolent with memory of the exodus. When Jesus came to be baptised, his Father declared him to be “My Son, the Beloved (Lk 3:22).” To be God’s Son is to share in his kingship. And kingship is associated with just rule (Psa 72:1-4):
‘According to the Psalmist, the king—who reflects God’s own justice—is on the side of the poor and disinherited.’
And the rest of Luke’s Gospel will show that:
‘Jesus is not Son merely because he is king like all the other kings of Israel. He is Son because he shares in the divine identity of the Father that precedes the creation of the world.’
The Sermon of the Son
When Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by Satan, we are once again in the world of the exodus. Where Israel was tested and failed (Ex 32:1-17), Jesus is tested and is true to God and his word (Lk 4:1-13). Three times Jesus responds to Satan by quoting Deuteronomy, the text given to Israel at the point of entry to the Promised Land.
‘By citing Deuteronomy, Jesus sets the stage for his first sermon in Nazareth to be heard as the greater law. They are words for the formerly enslaved on the verge of receiving God’s promises.’
This same incident reminds us that there are false, as well as true, uses of Scripture. It wasn’t that the texts quotes by Satan we untrue, but that he made false uses of them:
‘This is my claim about the slave master exegesis of the antebellum South. The slave master arrangement of biblical material bore false witness about God. This remains true of quotations of the Bible in our own day that challenge our commitment to the refugee, the poor, and the disinherited.’
When Jesus preached his first sermon in Nazareth, he selected, from the assigned text (the scroll of Isaiah) Isa 58:6; 61:1. He speaks as the Servant of the Lord, pronouncing good news of freedom to the oppressed. In context (Isa 58:6) this will be done by ‘breaking every yoke’.
What does this mean for the black Christian? Jesus raises up those who have been cast down by society. See also Cor 1:28.; James 2:5. God sides with black people against slavery, Jim Crow, housing discrimination, and so on.
In the gospel, the poor are not merely the ‘acted upon’. They are not the passive recipients of the kindness of others. They themselves are moral agents, capable of sin and repentance. This means, among other things that they cry out for freedom, but are called to remain holy even when freedom is long delayed.
In the teaching of Isaiah and of Jesus, the gospel brings about a different kind of world:
‘According to Isaiah, true practice of religion ought to result in concrete change, the breaking of yokes. He does not mean the occasional private act of liberation, but “to break the chains of injustice.” What could this mean other than a transformation of the structures of societies that trap people in hopelessness?’
Conversely, there is an urgent message here for the wealthy, who,
‘inasmuch as they participate in and adopt the values of a society that dehumanizes people, find themselves opposing the reign of God. This dehumanization can take two forms. First, it can treat the poor as mere bodies that need food and not the transforming love of God. Second, it can view them as souls whose experience of the here and now should not trouble us. This is false religion that has little to do with Jesus.’