A Sociolinguistic Reading of ptōchos in Luke’s Gospel, Part VII: “Lukan usage of ptōchos from the ‘Q Source’ (7:22)”

Posted: March 15, 2014 in General

poverty-5Another text Luke parallels with Matthew in 7:18-23. Putting Luke 7 in the larger context of 6:20-8:18, Bovon notes the mix of speaking (6:20-49; 7:18-35; 8:4-18) and action (7:1-17; 7:36-50), with a summary in 8:1-3 (cf. Bovon, 1989: 369). John the Baptist sends two disciples, since two witnesses would be necessary to attest to some event (vv. 18-19). The inquiry by the disciples of John is made after healings have been reported to him. The gossip network (cf. Luke 4:14-15) is reporting a new status for Jesus, and John seeks confirmation of it [1]. Word and deed progress side by side as Jesus moves through Galilee. While the words supplement Jesus’ actions, the actions in turn supplement his words. In that way, words and deeds are dynamically interlocked in Jesus’ mission. The arrangement is Luke’s, since there is a mix of material from Mark and Matthew, as well as unique Lukan material [2]. The Lukan passages have parallels in Matthew 11 and occur there in the same sequence as here, though with the omission of some materials that Luke uses (cf. Matthew 11:2-6, 7-11, 16-19; see Craddock, 1990: 99-101). Hence we are dealing with Q material again, even though Luke has modified or transposed some of it [3]. As we have already seen in the case of Luke 6:20 in comparison to Matthew 5:3, Lukan editorial tendencies are once again vivid in 7:22. The significance of the list in 7:22 (cf. Matthew 11:5) is that every activity is a healing of some kind, except the last item about preaching good news to the poor [4]. While Matthew presents the original Q material, Luke takes the passage to address an entirely different social context (see Stanton, DJG, 1992: 644-650). The sociolinguistic connotation of Lukan ptōchos is once again brought to the notice of the reader here.

The phrase ptōchoi euangelidzontai stands out in the list, not only because it comes last and so functions climactically, but also because of its distinct character. It alludes Isaiah 61:1 in Luke 4:18 and also looks to Luke 6:20, which gives a beatitude to the poor [5]. Craddock (1990: 100) says that, “Jesus is carrying out what he announced as his program in the synagogue at Nazareth, the fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-2”. The favor of which Isaiah spoke is being realized in the preaching and teaching of Jesus. Luke develops his specific message in relation to the contextual realities of his time (cf. Green, 1997: 295-297). The language he picks up shows the way he caricatures his surroundings. According to Charles H. Talbert, “both Luke’s choice of genre type for his message to the church and his development of the type chosen are rooted in the sitz-im-leben of his community” [6]. Thus, it is clear that Luke’s message was formulated out of his social context [7].

Jesus’ reply recalls the words from Isaiah, which he used in the synagogue at Nazareth. Here Jesus again refers to the poor; and, in addition to the blind, he also mentions those who suffer from lameness, deafness, and leprosy (cf. Green, 1997: 297). In the passage, the ptōchoi to whom Jesus announces the good news of the kingdom are a large group (cf. Davids, DJG, 1992: 701-710). They include not only the destitute [8], but also the illiterate, the socially outcaste, the physically handicapped, and the mentally ill (in the Gospel language: ‘the poor’, ‘the little ones’, ‘the tax collectors and sinners’, ‘the sick’, and ‘the possessed’) who form so large a part of the crowds that continually swarm about Jesus in the early days of his Galilean ministry (cf. Sean Freyne, Galilee, 1980). All these are the ‘poor’ (ptōchoi) because all are seen as victims of oppression—whether human (as with the destitute and outcaste) or demonic (as with the crippled, the sick, and the possessed)—which reduces them to a condition of diminished capacity or worth (see Green, 1997: 297). It is this diminution (whether social, physical, or economic), this being ‘bent’, this state of oppression, which is the specific feature defined the gospel ‘poor’ [9]. According to George M. Soares-Prabhu, “. . . the poor are a sociological rather than a religious group” [10]. Their identity is defined not by any spiritual attitude of openness, or dependence on God, but simply by their sociological situation of powerlessness and need. What Soares-Prabhu says here is more appropriate in the context of the Lukan poor.

Luke indicates that Gentiles were among those who benefitted from Jesus’ healing activity. Jesus also healed a relatively large number of women (cf. Scholer, DJG, 1992: 880-887). Luke indicates that Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever (4:38-39), that he aided a widow by raising her son to life (7:11-17), the he cured a woman who had long been afflicted with a hemorrhage (8:43-48), and that he healed a woman who had been beset by spirit that rendered her infirm for eighteen years (13:10-13; cf. Scholer, DJG, 1992: 880-887). Although Luke’s Jesus expressed a definite concern for the poor, the infirm, women, and Gentiles, it is also clear that Jesus is not portrayed as unconcerned about those not falling within these groups. Rather, universalism is a striking feature of Jesus’ social stance [11]. Again, it is noticeable that the term ptōchoi in Luke can accommodate all other vulnerabilities.

According to Luke, Jesus’ position is one of concern and compassion for people from all walks of life, but he does not passively accept values or practices that run counter to his own vision regarding healthy social relationships [12]. The sum total of six classes of unfortunate persons thus described in Luke 7:22 (i.e., tuphloi, chōloi, leproi, kōphoi, nekroi, and ptōchoi) stresses the kind of persons to whom the message of the Lukan Jesus is being brought. So the phrase ptōchoi euangelidzontai means good news to all those who are afflicted by social, economic, physical and other kind of oppressions (cf. Green, 1997: 297). Thus in both 6:20 and 7:22 Luke attempts to make the text socially relevant, and avoided the tendency of spiritualization of poverty. His social redaction of the text made it closer to the sitz-im-leben of the masses.

End Notes:

[1] Malina and Rohrbaugh, Social Science Commentary, 285. For more details about “Gossip network” in the gospel traditions, refer to Neyrey, The Gospel of John, 2007: 26, 55-56, 96-97, 193, 317, 319-320.

[2] F. Bovon, Das Evangelium nach Lukas: Luke 1:1-9:50, Vol. 1, Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 3/1 (Zurich: Neukirchener Verlag, 1989), 369. 

[3] Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I-IX, 662.

[4] Boch, Luke 1:1-9:50, BECNT, 667.

[5] Ibid., 667f.

[6] Charles H. Talbert, Literary Patterns, Theological Themes, and Genre of Luke-Acts, Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series, Vol. 20 (Missoula: Society of Biblical Literature and Scholars Press, 1974), 135.

[7] Further, James H. Charlesworth says, “. . . Jesus’ unique words were shaped by contemporary Jewish thought and especially by the interpretation of scriptures by his fellow Jews”. See James H. Charlesworth, “The Historical Jesus: How to Ask Questions and Remain Inquisitive”, The Handbook of the Study of the Historical Jesus, Vol. 1, ed. T. Holmen and S. E. Porter.

[8] A fast growing population in the Palestine in Jesus’ time, where heavy civil and religious taxation led to large-scale rural indebtedness, the selling off of small land holdings, and the creation of a vast rural and urban proletariat, subsisting precariously on daily wage labor, begging, or banditry.

[9] George M. Soares-Prabhu, “Class in the Bible: The Biblical Poor a Social Class?” Voices from the Margin: Interpreting Bible in the Third World, ed. R. S. Sugirtharajah (New Delhi: Orbis Books, 1991), 156.

[10] Ibid., 157.

[11] Cassidy, Jesus, Politics, and Society, 24.

[12] Ibid.

Upcoming post:A Sociolinguistic Reading of ptōchos in Luke’s Gospel, Part VIII: ‘Lukan usage of ptōchos from Mark (18:22)’”

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India


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