A Look at the Cross: Luke
Refracted from the cross, as Luke tells it, is a warm glow of home. Orange would call it the red of home. Others would say it would be the smell of warm pancakes wafting up the stair case of their childhood home; the familiarity of a small town, or the back corner of a coffee shop. Everyone has a place where they just “feel at home”. If Luke had one message as displayed through the cross, it is this: it’s never too late and you are never too far gone to come home.
It is conveyed in his biography. Luke, the Gentile doctor, has always been outsider. His life was a life of exclusion. Then he started traveling with Paul. And things just got worse. Paul was trained as a Pharisee, so he held honor in whatever town he went into, especially a Hellenistic Jewish community. But the trips to Synagogue, his stop in Jerusalem at the temple, and his meals with Jewish families, ended up with Luke again reminded that because of his race, he was too far gone. Still it is Luke that records Simeon’s words at Jesus’ dedication at the temple: “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of ALL people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” (2.32) It is also easy to see why Cornelius, the centurion and first gentile convert, played such a huge role in Luke’s second volume, the book of Acts. This was a chance for Luke to come home.
It is conveyed by his hero’s. The first people to spread the word about the arrival of Jesus were lowly shepherds who found themselves on the list of the Rabbi’s unclean professions. Matthew brings wise men with gifts; Luke brings dirty old shepherds. When he heals 10 lepers, the only one to return and thank him was the mixed-race Samaritan (17.11ff.). Salvation came to the house of Zacheuss the tax-collector, a traitors man (19) and a widow found her offering praised (21). Everyone in the book of Luke (and Acts for that matter) seems to come with some baggage, an “as-is” sticker as John Ortberg put it. But these people who are broken and crippled and shattered were never too far gone and never too late to go home.
It is conveyed by his parables. Luke has the famous lost chapter of Luke 15 where a sheep, a coin, and two sons need to find their way home. Though the courage of the shepherd, the persistence of a woman, and the mercy and grace of a Father, do they eventually find their way home. Each story builds with it the anxiety and wonder if the characters are going to make it back. “How long will it take?”; “Do they make it?”; “Will the searcher give up?” He also tells the story of a Samaritan man who has mercy on a traveler. The story really begins with the question of “what is the law really about?” (10.25) Jesus asked the question and the the expert of the law answered it correctly. In an effort to skirt the application, the teacher of the law wanted to know “who is my neighbor?” When we start excluding people, it makes loving people easier. Jesus replied with the story. The reason for the story was to show the man how to live; translation: how to get home. A Smaritan made it home, where as a priest and a Levite, missed it.
It is conveyed in the moments before his death. Bursting onto the scene at the crucifixion, a minor character in the story takes on a major role. We know nothing of this man directly. Luke calls him a “criminal” [gk. kakarugos]. Luke uses the word 3 times from Luke 23.32-23.39 and the only other time in scripture that it is used is by Paul in 2 Timothy 2.9, where he recounts that he was chained like a “criminal”. Some things can be found in parallel passages. Matthew calls him a “robber” [lestes] (Mt. 27.38) but he also uses the same word when Jesus asks the crowd that is arresting him: “Am I leading a rebellion?” So the word most likely should be rendered “insurrectionist” or “bandit” if you are the fan of the Old West. Needless to say, this “criminal” was a revolutionary or outlaw. Chances are good that he was probably supposed to die that day beside his leader, Barabbas, whose cross Jesus now occupies. The day began with him hurling insults at Jesus (as recorded by Matthew) but if there is a theme to Luke’s gospel it is: you are never too far gone and its never too late to come home. His fellow criminal is mocking Jesus until he steps in. This is for another time, but there seems to be a connection between these two and the two sons in Luke 15. One is “coming to his senses” and the other is dying in his self righteousness. Needless to say, this is how Luke records the event:
“One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us?’
But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since youa re under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for wear are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’
Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
Jesus answered him, ‘I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.’ (Luke 23.39-43)
Moments before his death…this man finds home. The gospel about being lost and separate, about homecomings and forgiveness, shows this criminal finding his way home. What brought him home? I can’t say for certain, but as Mark Scott once reminded me: “In the cross, you can see a lot of love in just a few hours.” Was that what brought this man home? Was it Jesus statement, also only found in Luke, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do?” (Luke 23.34) that brought this criminal home? I can’t be certain. Probably a little of both.
It is comforting that it is never to late and that we are never so lost that we can’t come home.