Is Rowan Williams right about Luke?

By Deirdre Good

Rowan Williams’ book, Christ On Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles Our Judgement, published in 2000 has become a classic, as Alison Goodlad observed recently on the Web site of Ekklesia. It is a best seller, read throughout the Anglican Communion. I saw it recently as a Lent reading choice on the library table of the parish I attend in Maine during the summer.

Stanley Hauerwas has nothing but praise for the statement in it that “the hardest thing in the world is to be where we are.” He commends this as an invitation to learn to live in ordinary time, in the confusion and complexity of the present in his new 2007 book The State of the University: Academic Knowledge and the Knowledge of God. Williams asks, he says, how can our ordinary lives express the truth that violence has been overwhelmed and silenced by Christ? Dramatic gestures will not make our lives more authentic. Instead we are called not just to speak the truth but to the more demanding task of hearing the truth in each other by overcoming distrust and so to work for peace.

“We constantly try to start from somewhere other than we are. Truthful living involves being at home with ourselves, not complacently but patiently, recognizing that what we are today, at this moment, is sufficiently loved and valued by God to be the material with which he will work and that the longed-for transformation will not come by refusing the love and the value that is there in the present moment.” (Christ On Trial pp 85-6)

Williams’ book discusses the trial scenes showing how, in each of the four gospels, the interrogation of Christ is reversed and the interrogator becomes, unsettlingly, the interrogated. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ declaration to the High Priest’s question, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” is an affirmation that overcomes all the secrecy of Mark’s gospel about Jesus’ identity: “I am,” he says (14:62). Jesus’ declaration at the trial and not earlier in the gospel means that he cannot be misunderstood as a wonderworker in competition with other sorts of power in the world. The one who says “I am” in the trial is neither wise nor holy nor admirable nor impressive. If we listen to Mark’s Jesus as the voice of God it is we who are silenced.

In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ answer to the question about his identity, “I adjure you by the Living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God” is “So you say” or “the words are your own” (26:64). Jesus’ answer reverses the question: the High Priest has the language and the means to make sense of the world but no actual understanding of the words. That language in Matthew is the language of what Wisdom has done through human agents; it is a question to all who are religious insiders who cannot read this story although it is part of their/our tradition.

Each chapter includes references to poets, novelists, movies and writers. The chapter on Mark opens by noting that the mood of Pasolini’s film, The Gospel according to Saint Matthew, best represents Mark’s gospel. The chapter on Luke opens with the lines from Sydney Carter’s song Knocking on the Window. Alison Goodlad astutely observes that Williams’ approach to the trial narratives of the gospels indicates that they are not the starting point for his reflections but rather as points that distil “the understanding he has derived from other sources such as the gospel narratives as a whole, general scriptural reading, Christian tradition and reflection, and wisdom derived from poetry and fictional works.”

This is most evident in his approach to Luke’s gospel in which the words of Jesus to the council’s questioning whether he is the Messiah, “If I tell you, you will not believe me, and if I question you, you will not answer” (22:67) are construed as “I have nothing to say to you that you will be able to hear or to which you will be able to respond. Luke’s Jesus places himself with those whose language cannot be heard.” (Christ On Trial p. 54).

In this answer, we are told that Jesus indicates God’s presence with those who do not have a voice and who are left out of our ways of organizing our own moral and social life. In a following section, “Allowing the Rights of Others,” stories from those who have little or no experience of being insiders amplify Williams’ approach to Luke. If we are unsettled by someone who cannot speak our language, by those who are mentally and physically impaired, for example, or by making space for children, then it is we who are on trial. In a subsequent section, “The threat of Jesus,” Williams observes that Jesus’ mistreatment in all the Gospel narratives including being beaten, flogged, and crowned with thorns is not surprising: he is beaten because he is powerless; his powerlessness is not in competition for the same space that his judges and captors are defending and he is thus a bigger threat than any rival because he calls into question the whole world of rivalry and defense.

The problem with this reading of Luke is that Jesus is never flogged or crowned with thorns in Luke’s trial narrative. True, Pilate announces his intention to have Jesus chastised and released (23:16) but commentators note that this chastisement is a “minor beating” and not the flogging of which Matthew (27:26) and Mark (15:15) speak that is part of the sentence of crucifixion Jesus undergoes. But in Luke’s narrative this chastisement is never carried out. Herod’s soldiers treat Jesus with contempt and make a mockery (23:11) but Pilate in the next section views Herod’s treatment of Jesus, including the putting on of a robe, as an indication of Jesus’ innocence. The result of Jesus’ being sent from Herod to Pilate is that they both became friends on that day with one another.

Of course, Luke’s gospel does describe God’s compassion for the socially and economically marginalized and its disquieting consequences for us but the trial narrative may not be the best place to locate this concern. Instead, Luke’s account of Jesus’ passion presents a Jesus in control of events where he would in general be passive: Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane is the agony of a heroic martyr not the anguish of Mark or Matthew; the arrest in Gethsemane includes Jesus’ interruption and healing of the violent cutting off the ear of the High Priest’s servant; the crucifixion scene includes Jesus’ dialogue with the criminals on either side of him; Jesus’ last words on the cross indicate confidence not abandonment: “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.”

I am not suggesting that this is the only or the right reading of Luke’s trial narrative, only that it offers a disconcerting reading that takes more of that narrative into account. Jesus’ words to the council are of a piece with Luke’s portrait of Jesus’ composure under duress. Jesus expects a negative response: the authorities will never believe and never answer. Neither here nor in response to an earlier question by what authority he does things like cleansing the temple (20:1-8), does Jesus cooperate. Indeed, Jesus’ declarations in response to his interrogators may be the only weapon he has. But Jesus’ answer, couched in the appearance of control, is a Lucan allusion to a larger narrative of healing and forgiveness from and around the Savior for the slave of the High Priest, for Herod and Pilate, for the criminal on the cross, and extending to those who seek to slaughter other martyrs like Stephen in Acts. Yet underneath Luke lies an alternative account in which the Spirit blows where it wills and Judas repents. What is perhaps uncomfortable for all of us is grappling with the implications of Luke’s contrived stability.

Dr. Deirdre Good is professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. While she is an American citizen, she grew up in Kenya and loves marmite which may explain certain features of her blog, On Not Being a Sausage.

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