Jenell Paris’ post this week introduces a new book for which she wrote the introduction

Christian colleges and universities vary one from another, but share a central commitment to Christ, and to teaching students in a “Christ-animated” manner. As an anthropologist, I rely on interdisciplinary study to deepen my knowledge of Scripture so that I can come to my subject of expertise with biblical and theological knowledge that is suited to a college setting. The newly published Spiritual Practices of Jesus is a wonderful resource that I can apply in teaching students about the anthropology of politics, power and authority, and religion.

Cathy Wright shows how the Lukan account of Jesus sits within its cultural context, including comparisons with ancient literature. She explains how Luke’s first readers likely would have interpreted Jesus’ teachings, and then explores the implications for today’s readers. Along with me, my students will likely be inspired by her encouragement that we become people who listen “for the direction of God in the silence of their lives, who are as dependent on God as on air, for whom divine engagement is not a cause for astonishment but a natural outcome of a life spent in intimate friendship with God” (188).

The following excerpt from pages 183-184 concludes the scholarly exposition of Luke’s literary world, and summarizes the Lukan account of Jesus’ teachings.

Luke’s narrative intends not only to inform but also to transform. Luke’s intended readers would have known that the best form of government was to have a virtuous ruler who ruled through personal example. Such a leader would be able to effect virtue in others. Luke’s readers, knowing that philosophy was a lifestyle more than a set of theories, would have expected their ideal teachers to be models of virtue. Even if few individuals actually met the ideal, Luke’s intended audience was familiar with it. They may have known stories of ideal kings and philosophers who had such a union with the gods that their lifestyles were powerful models of virtue for others. They would have recognized the unity of life and teaching as a mark of an ideal philosopher-king and knew that such an individual actually had the power to save others by the power of example.

Luke clearly presents Jesus as one who has a perfect unity of life and teachings. Luke describes his Gospel as a story of “all that Jesus did and taught” (Acts 1:1). Specifically, in each of the three areas of simplicity, humility, and prayer, Luke emphasizes the unity of Jesus’ words and deeds. Jesus teaches his disciples to place their security in God (Lk 12:28) and abandon themselves to the kingdom (Lk 12:32) with no worries for the future (Lk 12:29). The wealthy must exercise generous benefaction (Lk 12:33). Jesus himself has no place to lay his head (Lk 9:58) but must himself depend on God’s provision (Lk 6:1; 9:13; 10:4-5). With no wealth to give, Jesus devotes his life to bestowing freely the treasure of the kingdom (Lk 12:32). Jesus has sharp criticism for religious leaders whose live are fueled by pride (Lk 20:45-48) and even his self-seeking disciples (Lk 9:46-50; 22:26). He himself is actually worthy of all honor but still rejects the praises of others (Lk 11:27-28; 18:18-19) and models servant leadership for his disciples (Lk 22:27). Jesus’ teaching about prayer is rooted in his own prayer practices. Jesus instructs his disciples about the necessity of prayer for their successful participation in the kingdom, depicting a God who is both generous and faithful to answer their requests (Lk 11:1-13; 18:1-8). Jesus himself prays constantly (Lk 9:18; 22:39) and before the critical moments of his ministry (Lk 4:14; 6:12; 9:28-29; 22:39), seeking the will of God and spiritual strength (Lk 22:39-46).

Luke’s intended readers would have likely recognized in Jesus the marks of an ideal hero. Because of this, they would have responded to Luke’s portrait of Jesus with a recognition of the formative power of Jesus’ example in the areas of simplicity, humility, and prayer. Their attitudes and expectations for the text would have likely differed greatly from those of many contemporary academic readers of Luke who may approach the text as an object to be mined for information. Instead, they would have approached Luke’s Gospel with an expectation to be transformed through their encounter with Jesus.”

This scholarship might spark further biblical or theological study in classes within those disciplines. In others, such as my social science classes, there are abundant opportunities to bridge disciplines in both analysis and application. The value of simplicity challenges modernity, in capitalism’s systemic orientation to progress and profit. Certainly, individuals can choose simplicity at the level of household, but how could this value influence economic policy, national economy, or globalization? Humility brings a counter-value to public discourse, social media, and professional self-promotion. How can we be in the world and not of it, building careers and participating fully in our communications context, but with a sense of identity and value based in Christ, and not in brands, likes, resumes, and wealth? Prayer offers a radical space of grounding and re-grounding of the self in a chaotic world. In the face of social change, chaos, and distraction, we can learn to begin with prayer, and from that quiet center, begin to engage the world.

Excerpt from Wright, Cathy (2020) Spiritual Practices of Jesus: Learning Simplicity, Humility, and Prayer with Luke’s Earliest Readers (Downers Grove, IL: IVP).

Jenell Paris

Messiah University
Jenell Paris, Ph.D., is Professor of Anthropology and Sociology at Messiah University in Grantham, PA.