The Gospel of Luke: The Great Reversal

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An edited excerpt from Justo L. Gonzalez's commentary on Luke entitled "The Story Luke Tells: Luke's Unique Witness to the Gospel"


He has brought down the powerful from their thrones. Luke 1: 52

One of the central themes in the Gospel of Luke is what interpreters have often called “the great reversal” — or perhaps in today’s more common language we should call it “the world upside down.” This theme appears in the very beginning of the Gospel, in the song of Mary that is usually known by the first word of its Latin translation, Magnificat. The canticle begins this way: Magnificat anima mea Dominum — “My soul magnifies the Lord.” But in truth the theme is not just the praise of God, but rather the praise of the God who is the Lord of great upheavals. Mary praises God because “he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant” and because God “has done great things for me.” And then she places her own exaltation in the context of a great upheaval:

He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy. . . . (Luke 1: 51-54)

As noted before, this hymn echoes Hannah’s canticle in 1 Samuel. There we find the following lines:

My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.
. . .
The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.
. . .
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor. (1 Sam. 2: 1, 4-5, 7-8)

In her song, Hannah praises God for the great reversal that is taking place in her life. The book of Samuel begins by telling us about Elkanah and his two wives, Hannah and Peninnah. Although Elkanah loved Hannah, Peninnah tormented her, for she had children and Hannah did not. Because that society prized fertility and child-bearing, Hannah was ashamed of her barrenness, and apparently her rival used this as an opportunity to goad and sadden her. The rest of the story is well-known. Hannah’s prayers are answered, and finally the barren conceives.

In that context, Hannah praises God because, as she says, “My strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies.” Hannah rejoices over what God has done in her, and from that point moves to a series of affirmations about how this action is a pattern for God’s other actions — which leads us back to the theme of typology and the patterns of divine action. Thus, Hannah sings not only because God has allowed her to conceive, but also because the God who has so blessed her is also the God who breaks the bows of the strong and gives strength to the weak; the God who makes the rich have to rent themselves out for bread, and gives food to the hungry.

Note that both the song of Hannah and the song of Mary begin with the exaltation of the one who sings, but then move on to a more general praise of the God who not only does mighty things, but also turns the world upside down, exalting the humble and bringing down the mighty from their thrones, feeding the hungry and making those who are overfed work for their bread, breaking the bows of the strong and giving strength to the weak. In other words, both women praise God for the great reversal that the divine intervention brings about, not only in their lives, but in society in general.

This great reversal that Luke introduces in the song of Mary appears throughout his writings, in both the Gospel and Acts. It would be a mistake to think that Luke is the only one who develops this theme, because it appears quite frequently in the Bible, and certainly is found in some of the parallel texts in Matthew and Mark. Furthermore, the explicit phrase “some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last” (Luke 13: 30), which appears only once in Luke, appears repeatedly in both Matthew and Mark. (See, for instance, Matt. 19: 30; 20: 16; 20: 17; Mark 9: 35; 10: 31; 10: 44.) But even though Luke employs that phrase only once, the theme to which that phrase points appears repeatedly and pointedly both in his Gospel and in Acts.


This great reversal is both religious and social. Even though such distinctions were not made then as they are now, it may be profitable for us to discuss them in order. The great religious upheaval appears early in the Gospel of Luke. In chapter 4, Luke tells us about the preaching of Jesus in a synagogue in his own land. Both Matthew and Mark say simply that Jesus taught in the synagogue, and that people marveled that Jesus, whom they all knew as a carpenter’s son, was able to teach in this manner. Apparently because of that familiarity, they disbelieved, and for this reason, Jesus did not perform many miracles in their midst. Related to this, in Matthew as well as in Mark, is Jesus’ comment that “prophets are not without honor except in their country and in their own house” (Matt. 13: 57; Mark 6: 14).

Luke gives more details. He tells us first of all that the text that Jesus read was taken from the prophet Isaiah, and he also tells us what it was that Jesus preached. The comment about a prophet not being honored in his own land does not appear at the end of the narrative, as in the other two Synoptic Gospels, but rather at the beginning, as an introduction to Jesus’ sermon. The sermon itself then becomes an illustration or explanation of this saying. Jesus tells his neighbors that in the time of the prophet Elijah, when there was a great famine, there were many needy widows in Israel. Yet Elijah did not go to any of them, but rather to a widow of Zarephath in Sidon — that is, a Gentile widow living in a city-state known for its enmity to Israel. And in the time of the next prophet, Elisha, there were many lepers in Israel, but Elisha did not heal any of them; instead, he healed Naaman, who was from Syria, the great enemy of Israel. Indeed, Jesus made a point of saying that these two great prophets did not show favor toward the widows or lepers of Israel, but rather toward a Phoenician widow and a Syrian general.

When Jesus said this, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage” and sought to kill him. It is important to note that the people’s rage was not triggered, as we often think, by Jesus’ daring to claim that “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” On the contrary, even after Jesus said those words, Luke tells us, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (Luke 4: 22). The wrath of the congregation was aroused because Jesus told them through his stories about the prophets that, even though they were his neighbors, and even though they were children of Israel, this should not lead them to expect privileges from God.

Later on, in chapter 6, Luke tells us that those who came to listen to Jesus and to be healed by him came not only from all of Judea, but also “from the coast of Tyre and Sidon” (Luke 6: 17). In chapter 7 — in a passage that has a parallel in Matthew but not in Mark — Jesus says about a Roman centurion who is a pagan, “not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7: 9). In other words, when it comes to faith, this pagan has an advantage over even the most religious people in Israel. Shortly thereafter, Luke places in the mouth of Jesus words that do not appear in the other Gospels. Commenting on John the Baptist, Luke tells us that the common people heeded his words and even the tax collectors were baptized — that is, the most despised people in Israel, most despised because they not only were agents of the foreign invader, but also were in constant touch with the unclean and because they handled idolatrous coins. In contrast, we are told that “the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected God’s purposes for themselves” (Luke 7: 30). And, still in chapter 7, Jesus defends the worth of a sinful woman to a Pharisee who has invited him to dinner.

In chapter 14, in a passage that has no parallel in the other Gospels, Jesus tells a parable about a man who prepared a great feast, but when the time came for the special meal, all his invitees offered excuses. At that point the man ordered his slave to go out into the streets and lanes of the town and invite any person in need to the great dinner. This included particularly “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14: 21) — that is, people who were often considered sinners and thought of as cursed by their sin. None of the religious people — those who were first given the invitation — enjoyed the banquet, while the guests of the last minute did. Since the parable begins with an allusion to the great banquet in the reign of God, it is clear that Jesus is telling those who boast that they were first to receive the word of God must not presume that for that reason they will enjoy the final banquet.

Very soon after that parable, in chapter 15, there is the parable of the lost sheep, which does have a parallel in Matthew 18. This is a well-known parable, for it gives us hope and consolation when we are like the lost sheep. But in Luke the parable is more biting, for Jesus is actually reprimanding the Pharisees and the scribes — the leaders in religious matters — who criticize him for eating with publicans and sinners. Within that context, what stands out is not only the value of the lost sheep, but also the point, seldom noticed today, that the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the wilderness. In a great reversal, the lost sheep is cared for while the ninety-nine who are already with the shepherd are simply left on their own.

Something similar may be said about the well-known parable of the prodigal son, which appears only in the Gospel of Luke. Once again, we imagine that the main character is the prodigal, and that the theme of the parable is the love of the father who receives the wayward son. But the parable does not end with the return of the prodigal, for there is another character who is equally important: his older brother. He has served his father faithfully in his brother’s absence, obeying him in all things. And now that his younger brother returns and is received with a feast, he refuses to go in, because he is better than the one who has just returned from distant lands. Another great reversal!

After another series of parables — among them the one about the rich man and Lazarus, to which we shall return — the entire theme of the great reversal comes to a high point in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, in which the tax collector who confesses his sin is deemed more sincere than the Pharisee who declares himself religious, and Jesus ends by saying that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18: 14).

This great reversal that is central to the Gospel of Luke appears also in Acts, where the pagan Cornelius has a clearer vision than the apostle Peter, where the “Pharisee of Pharisees” who goes to Damascus in order to persecute the disciples of the Lord becomes one of the most faithful among those disciples, and where Paul and Barnabas repeatedly come face to face with the unbelief of those who should have believed (for they had the scriptures), contrasting with the openness of the Gentiles to the gospel.


This great religious reversal also has social dimensions. This appears most clearly in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. Lazarus “longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” (Luke 16: 21). But after both men die, Lazarus is in heaven by Abraham’s side, and the rich man is in Hades. So in the end it is the rich man who begs Abraham to send Lazarus to “dip the tip of his finger and cool my tongue” (Luke 16: 24). The reversal takes place between the rich and the poor, between the poor one who would have been satisfied with scraps and the wealthy one who now begs for water.

The theme of the poor and their place in the kingdom appears in the Third Gospel much more often than in any of the others. The word poor or needy appears only five times in Matthew, and the same number of times in Mark. Two of those references occur in the context of the suggestion that the alabaster jar — filled with the precious ointment that Mary poured on Jesus’ head — should have been sold in order to give the proceeds to the poor. In contrast, Luke is constantly speaking about the poor and the needy.

This can be seen at the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, in the text he reads in the synagogue: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor” (Luke 4: 18). This particular passage is important, because as we analyze the structure of Luke’s writings, we note that in both the Gospel and Acts there is a text from the Old Testament that is quoted near the beginning of the book and that outlines an important theme that is to follow. In Acts, it is the text from Joel that Peter quotes on the day of Pentecost. In Luke, it is the passage from Isaiah that serves to frame the rest of the book. And in this passage the very first thing that is said about the mission of Jesus is that he has been sent to bring “good news to the poor.” (However, one must not exaggerate the contrast among the Gospels on this particular point. Both in Matthew [11: 5] and in Luke [7: 23], when the disciples of John ask Jesus if he is the one who has been expected, among the signs that Jesus gives them is the fact that “the gospel is announced to the poor.”)

The Beatitudes are one of the many places where we see Luke’s emphasis on poverty and on the great reversal the believers are to expect. Many of us know by heart the First Beatitude according to Matthew: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5: 3). Although this probably does not mean a spiritual poverty in contrast to material riches, it certainly is possible to understand it as such. But Luke leaves no doubt about meaning when he says, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6: 20). Here there is no place for a “spiritual” poverty in contrast to a material one. It is also interesting to note that while Matthew’s beatitude refers to “the poor” in the third person, as if they were not present, Luke’s beatitude directly addresses the poor: “Blessed are you who are poor.” And to make matters clearer, Luke includes a series of woes that are the counterpart of the Beatitudes. In the case of the poor, the counterpart is “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6: 24). Furthermore, most of the Beatitudes in Luke have to do with the social and material conditions in which people live: “Blessed are you who are poor, . . . you who are hungry now, . . . you who weep now. . . .” And the reversal is underscored in the woes: “You who are rich, . . . you who are full now, . . . you who are laughing now. . . .”

The great reversal in the Gospel of Luke between the rich and the poor comes to a climax when Jesus, while a guest at the home of a Pharisee leader, dares to criticize his host’s guest list:

When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. (Luke 14: 12-15)

Having noted this emphasis of the Gospel of Luke on the poor and the needy, we may at first be surprised that the theme does not appear in Acts beyond chapter 4, where Luke tells us that among the disciples of the Lord, no one was needy. But this should not surprise us if we remember what the presence of the needy implies among the people of God. In order to understand this, we may turn our attention to a passage that appears in Matthew and Mark, but not in Luke. It is these famous words of Jesus: “For you always have the poor with you” (Matt. 26: 11; Mark 14: 7). To this day, these words are often used in order to avoid paying too much attention to the needs of the poor. But in these passages Jesus is actually quoting Deuteronomy 15: 11, where, amid the regulations concerning the Year of Jubilee, when all property is to be restored to its former owners, the law commands that this regulation not be used as an excuse not to help the needy in the interim. As the people await the Jubilee, they must be liberal in their support of the needy.

Almost at the beginning of the Gospel, Luke tells us that in his first sermon Jesus declared that in him the promise of Isaiah was fulfilled, and part of his mission was “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” — that is, the Year of Jubilee. It is as a result of that preaching by Jesus, and of the gift of the Spirit in Acts, that the church is born. And Luke then tells us that, since the church lived in a constant jubilee, “there was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need” (Acts 4: 34-35). This is why, after this chapter, Luke no longer speaks of the needy. (However, we do know from the epistles of Paul that when there was a need in Jerusalem, the churches in other cities contributed to an offering for the poor in Jerusalem.) Apparently, Luke does not quote Jesus’ saying “For you always have the poor with you” because his vision of an ideal church is of a people of God that lives in a constant jubilee, and in which therefore there are no poor.

In summary, the theme of the great reversal, which is seen in religious terms in what Jesus says to the scribes, Pharisees, tax collectors, and sinners, may be seen also in economic and social terms in what he says about the poor and the rich, and in the result of the presence of the Spirit in the church, thanks to which there are no longer any needy.

The great reversal also takes place in other dimensions of social life. One of them is the matter of gender, which deserves particular attention in our study, and therefore will be reserved for the next chapter. Another of the social dimensions of the great reversal has to do with the ethnic and cultural divisions of the time. Once again, it is important to remember that the distinction that we make today between such matters and religious issues did not exist in antiquity, and therefore prejudice and ethnic and racial divisions were based on religious matters.

Were we to draw a series of concentric circles, with Jerusalem and Judea at the center, we would see that the next circle of prejudice and exclusion was that of the Galileans. Galileans were Jews, but they did not live in Judea, for Samaria stood between Galilee and Judea. Also, Greeks, Romans, and other neighboring peoples had left their mark on Galilee, to the point that already in the time of Isaiah it was called “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Isa. 9: 1, quoted also in Matt. 4: 15). For the same reason, John tells us that Nathaniel asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1: 46). And later in the same Gospel the Pharisees declare that no prophet has ever come out of Galilee (John 7: 52). The Judean Jews — those from Judea — spoke the Aramaic of the region, and so did the Galileans. But the Judeans believed that the Galilean accent was inferior.

A bit further out from the center than the Galileans were the Hellenistic Jews, those in the Diaspora or Dispersion, who lived in distant lands and whose most common language was not Aramaic, but most often Greek. Hellenistic Jews were considered inferior by Jews in Palestine because they lived among pagans by whom they inevitably would be contaminated, and they did not attend the temple as frequently as the Judeans. For a long time after the conquests of Alexander, the Jews had struggled to keep their cultural and religious purity in the face of Hellenistic influx. Therefore, the Jews of the Diaspora, often called “Hellenists” or even “Greeks,” were not well regarded by the more conservative Jews in the Holy Land.

If we then continue with our series of concentric circles, we shall see that beyond the Galileans and the Hellenistic Jews were the Samaritans. Due to a complicated series of historical circumstances, the inhabitants of Samaria, who claimed to be descendants of Israel, followed a different version of the faith of Israel than that of the Jews. Their Pentateuch differed in some points from the Jewish Pentateuch, and they insisted that the proper place for God’s temple was Mount Gerizim. For all these reasons, Jews, including Judeans as well as Galileans and even Hellenists, looked down on them and considered them infidels. This is the background of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke as well as of the story of the woman by the well in John 4.

In the next concentric circle were those whom Jews called “God-fearers,” who were Gentiles who believed in the God and the moral laws of Israel and sought to live according to them, but for some reason did not formally convert to Judaism. In the Lukan literature there are several examples and references to such people — for instance, the Ethiopian eunuch and Cornelius the centurion.

Finally, still further out were the pagans, who did not believe in the true God. Most of them were idolaters and polytheists. They were contaminated by eating all sorts of unclean animals and by practicing various sorts of impurity and impiety. What’s more, since the Romans were among these Gentiles, the Jewish nation saw in them the invading enemy, the extortionist power that imposed onerous taxes, the pagans who dared bring their idolatrous eagles to Jerusalem itself, and the power of occupation that had grown in Caesarea, a city that was markedly Roman and pagan — and not too far from Jerusalem.

The great reversal in Luke affects each of these categories. To begin with, although Jesus is born in Bethlehem of Judea, his family is from Galilee, and he is raised in Galilee. It is there that he begins his public ministry, and it is from that area that he draws his closest disciples. When looked at from this perspective, the story of the long journey to Jerusalem that occupies a central portion in the Gospel of Luke but not in the other Gospels is a story in which the periphery marches toward the center, and the center resists to the point of crucifying Jesus. In Luke 13, some ask Jesus about certain Galileans whom Pilate had ordered killed, and Jesus comments that these Galileans were no worse sinners than the eighteen Judeans on whom the tower of Siloam had fallen. In the final instance, the entire process of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus includes a strong element of resistance on the part of the Judeans against this Galilean band and their leader, who seemed to have taken the city and the temple by storm.

As for the Samaritans, the prejudice against them on the part of the Jews may be seen in Luke 9: 52-53, when Jesus begins his final journey to Jerusalem. Since he has to go through Samaria, he sends messengers to prepare a place for him in a Samaritan village. But the villagers will not receive the messengers, for they know that Jesus is going to Jerusalem. Significantly, when the disciples want to have fire fall upon the village, Jesus tells them that he has not come to destroy...

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LukePhillip Santillan