No Little People: A Snapshot of the Marginalized in Luke’s Gospel
Francis Schaeffer wrote a commentary on Luke titled No Little People. What a striking and fitting title for the third Gospel because it is clear in reading Luke that he had a particular concern for the little people, for the so-called nobodies in the world. Of course, this concern for the marginalized wasn’t fundamentally Luke’s. The beloved physician records Jesus’s love for those who are neglected by the rich and the powerful. The influential are identified by C. S. Lewis as “the inner ring”—those who walk in the corridors of power. But Jesus was particularly concerned about the “outer ring”—those who lack social prestige and influence. We, by way of contrast, are inclined to give our attention to and serve those with influence and power, to praise those who wield influence in the world, those who are celebrated in society.
The concern for the marginalized emerges in Jesus’s programmatic sermon in Nazareth where he says that as the Spirit-anointed Messiah, he has come to proclaim good news to the poor, to free captives, to restore the sight of the blind, and to set the oppressed free (Luke 4:18–19). The lifting up of the weak is also forecasted in Mary’s Magnificat where she proclaims that the Lord scatters the proud, removing them from power while exalting and lifting up the lowly (Luke 1:51–52). Simeon similarly prophesies that Mary’s Son will lead to the falling of some and the rising of others (Luke 2:34), which plays out in the humiliation of the elite and the exaltation of the lowly.
Three New Testament scholars offer passage-by-passage commentary through the narratives of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, explaining difficult doctrines, shedding light on overlooked sections, and making applications to life and ministry today. Part of the ESV Expository Commentary.
Women in the Birth Narratives
One of the features that stands out in Luke’s Gospel is Jesus’s compassion and care for women. In the ancient world women were often not respected and were commonly neglected. For instance, the Romans frequently gave their daughters the name Julia, and if another girl was born they would sometimes name her Julia 2 and then Julia 3. It is quite striking, then, that Luke repeatedly includes women in the story of Jesus. For instance, the birth narrative of Jesus is conveyed from Mary’s perspective, and we are told on two occasions that she reflected and pondered on the significance of the birth of Jesus (Luke 2:19, 51). Joseph fades into the background, not because he was unimportant, but because Mary played the fundamental role in the birth of the Christ. She is the model disciple, submitting to God’s will and his ways in her life (Luke 1:38). Luke also shines a light on Elizabeth, who was the wife of Zechariah (Luke 1:5–7, 13, 24–25, 36, 39–45) and the mother of John the Baptist. As we read about Elizabeth, we recognize that she was among the faithful in Israel, representing the stability and godliness among the people of God that continues with many women in our day. As we read on in the birth narrative, we come to the story when Jesus was brought to the temple as a baby. Luke doesn’t restrict the story to Simeon, but we are also told about the prophetess Anna (Luke 2:36–38). The divine word doesn’t come from Simeon alone but is also proclaimed by Anna who is lauded for her long track record of faithfulness.
As we read the Gospel, we could easily fail to see the many references to women that permeate the narrative. When Jesus as the Spirit-anointed Messiah declares the good news in Nazareth, he reminds his hearers that the Lord works in unexpected ways. Thus, Elijah was sent to minister to and to care for the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4:26). We could say she had three strikes against her: she was a Gentile, a woman, and a widow. But the Lord remembered her and knew her heart toward him. Jesus had an eye for the hurting, for the sick, for the disabled, for the neglected, and for the despised. Peter’s mother-in-law was struck down with fever, and Jesus shows his compassion in healing her (Luke 4:38–39). We think as well about the woman disabled for eighteen years so that she couldn’t stand erect (Luke 13:10–17). All the leader of the synagogue could think about was the alleged Sabbath rule that precluded healing. Perhaps he was upset that Jesus laid his hands on her, considering that to be work. In any case, Jesus recognized that she was Abraham’s daughter, liberating her from crippling disfigurement. Similarly, Jesus raised from the dead the only son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11–17). This woman was bereft of support in the ancient world with the loss of her husband and of her only son, and we see Jesus’s compassion in restoring her son to life. Luke also records the story, like Matthew and Mark, of the woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years (Luke 8:43–48). Her courage, faith, and boldness stood out as she made her way to Jesus in the crowd, believing that touching the hem of his robe would heal her. After Jesus heals her, he summons the woman to testify to all that has happened, declaring that her faith has saved her.
Only Luke tells us the beautiful story of the sinful woman who entered Simon the Pharisee’s house. Her tears fell on Jesus’s feet (Luke 7:36–50); she then dried his feet with her hair and proceeded to kiss his feet and anoint them with perfume. Simon (and presumably the others in the house) was scandalized. But Jesus did not come to save the respectable and self-righteous. He loved and forgave all who came to him with repentance and faith. Still, Jesus didn’t refuse the powerful if they came to him with humility and belief. He doesn’t turn away from Jairus (a synagogue leader) simply because he was part of the establishment (Luke 8:41–42, 49–56). Instead, when the life of Jairus’s daughter was snuffed out, he raised her from the dead, showing that children, who were often ignored in the ancient world, were precious to him (Luke 18:15–17).
We saw earlier that Anna as a prophetess proclaimed the word of the Lord, and we would not know if it were not for Luke, that women traveled with Jesus and supported his ministry (Luke 8:1–3). We realize upon reading this account about the women’s support that many details of Jesus’s ministry aren’t recorded and that we have a small window here into the financial support that came from women. The unforgettable account of Mary and Martha is also exclusive to Luke, where Mary listens to the Lord’s word, while Martha is frustrated because Mary isn’t helping her serve (Luke 10:38–42). We see from this story Jesus’s love for both Martha in her frustration and for Mary as one who gives herself to Jesus’s teaching. Many in the ancient world thought it was a waste of time to educate women, but Jesus commends Mary for sitting at his feet and listening to his teaching. So too, today we should rejoice when women have a desire to study the Scriptures and Christian theology.
Jesus’s teaching wasn’t soft and fluffy and sentimental; he corrects a woman who has a mawkish view of what it means to be in relationship with him (Luke 11:27–28). Nursing Jesus doesn’t automatically bring blessing; one must heed and obey Jesus’s words. It is striking, on the other hand, how Jesus was sensitive to the world of both men and women, and this is reflected in some of his parables. The parable of a man planting a mustard seed is matched by a woman putting leaven in flour (Luke 13:18–21). The parable of the lost sheep reflects the occupation of men in Jesus’s day (Luke 15:3–7), but the parable of the lost coin shines a light on the world of women (Luke 15:8–10). We see the same attention for the world of women when Jesus speaks of the fate of two women who were grinding grain (Luke 17:35) and when he recounts the parable of the widow who was deprived of justice (Luke 18:1–8; cf. Luke 20:47). Jesus knew how common it was for widows to be robbed of their rights since they lacked social influence. Jesus also singles out and commends a poor widow who gave all she owned to the Lord (Luke 21:1–4). The world may not see, know, or care about such an insignificant gift, but Jesus tells us that God sees and is pleased. Those who feel like no one remembers or cares about them are reminded that God remembers, sees, and rewards. Jesus’s disciples fled in his hour of suffering, but women wept for Jesus as he went to the cross (Luke 23:27–31) and prepared spices to anoint his body for burial (Luke 23:55–56). Remarkably, the report of the resurrection was announced to women first (Luke 24:1–11, 22–24), who were not considered to be valid witnesses in Jewish society. We expect Jesus to appear to the Twelve first, but that blessing is reserved for women.
Love for the Poor and Despised
I have concentrated on Jesus’s love for women, but Jesus’s love for little people wasn’t confined to women. Luke also tells us about Jesus’s concern for those who were excluded by Jewish society, for the poor and disenfranchised. Jesus tells us that the poor are blessed (Luke 6:20), and end time blessing belongs to Lazarus rather than the rich man who lived a life fit for kings (Luke 16:19–31). Similarly, the birth of Jesus was revealed by angels to shepherds who weren’t from the elite in Israelite society (Luke 2:8–20). Believers throughout history have often reflected on how unexpected it was that humble shepherds were told about the birth of the king of the world. Jesus had mercy on the lowest of the low in Jewish society, casting out demons from the demonized (Luke 4:31–37, 41; Luke 8:26–39; Luke 9:37–42) and healing lepers (Luke 5:12–16; cf. Luke 7:21–22) and the blind (Luke 4:18; Luke 7:21; Luke 18:35–43; cf. Luke 14:13, 21). The demonized were avoided by all since they were anti-social, troubled, and disturbing. People probably thought they were forsaken by God and that there was no hope for them.
It is the humble and broken and excluded who are Jesus’s disciples if they repent of their sins and give themselves to Jesus.
Along the same lines, lepers were unclean and excluded from the community of God’s people. Touching a leper was forbidden because then one would contract uncleanness, but when Jesus healed a leper he showed compassion and touched him, acknowledging the leper’s humanity and significance. The blind were also shoved to the margins of society since they couldn’t participate in ordinary life in Jesus’s time. But even if they could not see Jesus, he saw them and often stretched out his hand to restore their sight.
Tensions between the Jews and Samaritans had simmered for centuries before the coming of Jesus. Samaritans were ethnically mixed, theologically deviant, and socially unclean. But Jesus came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), and he teaches that hated Samaritans could also belong to God. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the despised Samaritan is the only one who cares for the person robbed and beaten (Luke 10:25–37). When Jesus healed ten who were blind, only the Samaritan returned to give thanks to God (Luke 17:11–19), showing that his faith saved him. Luke’s Gospel anticipates the book of Acts where the good news about Jesus goes to the ends of the earth and is proclaimed to all people everywhere.
We see Jesus’s love for outsiders when he summons tax-collectors and sinners to repentance. Jesus called Levi (Matthew; Matt. 9:9) to be his disciple, attending a feast where other tax collectors and sinners congregated. Tax collectors were particularly despised since they collaborated with the Romans and also skimmed money off the top for themselves. It was difficult for the Pharisees to imagine Jesus actually eating and having fellowship with those who were notorious for their sin (Luke 5:27–32; cf. Luke 7:29, 34). Table fellowship signaled acceptance and welcome, and the religious leaders thought they should be shunned. Once again, Jesus defies expectations, throwing the doors of the kingdom open for all who will repent. The forgiving and loving message of God is recorded in the three parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the two lost sons (Luke 15:3–32). In the same way, the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector reveals that the tax collector was right with God instead of the Pharisee (Luke 18:9–14). Those who think they are righteous and productive, those who think they are pleasing to God, may be deceived. It is the humble and broken and excluded who are Jesus’s disciples if they repent of their sins and give themselves to Jesus.
The story of Zacchaeus sums up Jesus’s ministry: even the most despised members of society can be saved if they repent (Luke 19:1–10). The message of Luke is trumpeted: Jesus came to seek and to save the lost. Every person is made in God’s image and every person is significant. During his ministry, Jesus saw every person and every person mattered to him, and they should matter to us as well.
Thomas Schreiner is a contributor to the ESV Expository Commentary Series: Matthew–Luke (Volume 8) edited by Iain M. Duguid, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Jay Sklar.
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