Peace on Earth (Gospel of Luke)

I don’t know a whole lot about Advent. This past holiday season was the first time I really considered it. It wasn’t a tradition that was talked about in the communities in which I grew up. While we did talk about Christmas as a season, it was pretty loose. We didn’t do a lot of Christmas plays. We didn’t do a lot of caroling or community events. Of course, Christ was talked about (i.e. celebrating the birth of Jesus), but there was no build up, no daily or weekly meditations centering around preparatory themes, and no formal liturgies. So, when I say that the theme for the second Sunday of Advent (December 5, 2021) was Peace, take that with a grain of salt.

I think it’s a fitting theme, because as Christmas songs filled the airways — as we heard them in stores or on the radio or wherever it is we might have gone — one of the things that came up as a regular theme was “peace on earth.” I can’t tell you how many times I heard that growing up — “peace on earth and goodwill toward men.” It’s intriguing that we find the idea of “peace on earth” in scripture, yet it seems like a pseudo-theme in the lives of many Christians. We say we want peace on earth, but functionally, we push against it.

What Is Peace?

Peace has several definitions in English. Sometimes, people simply mean “an absence of violence,” but I think most people understand that peace is more than that. It’s tranquility. It’s physical safety and emotional and spiritual safety. It’s both a communal state of being and an individual state of being.

Consider all the horror stories you’ve ever heard about neighborhood feuds, bad roommates, or grocery store Karens. Most of those situations don’t escalate to the point of physical violence, but it would still be silly for me to say there was peace. Most people recognize that we don’t have to kill each other to be “at war” with one another, and unless there’s personal and interpersonal peace, we can’t truly say there’s peace, at all.

This is true in scripture, as well, where we find the complex idea of Shalom, an idea often watered down in Western Christianity. Growing up in conservative congregations, I was often told to keep things simple. “Christianity is simple.” “The Gospel is simple.” “Salvation is simple.” Peace, likewise, was supposed to be simple, but Shalom is not simple, because it’s a holistic concept that considers all of a person’s and community’s wellbeing.

The Problem With Peace

The problem with peace is that a holistic idea of peace requires an emphasis on a certain group of people: the underprivileged, disenfranchised, and marginalized. That usually makes people with power, authority, and/or privilege uncomfortable.

Think about it: if peace is holistic — requiring more than just the absence of physical violence — it can’t be achieved while people are being marginalized. It requires the whole of society to be at peace. Entire communities have to work toward peace together. Even if we manage to eliminate physical war — to stop all interpersonal violence — true peace doesn’t exist apart from shalom, and shalom doesn’t exist when people are marginalized and disenfranchised from society. Non-violent oppression is still oppression, and oppression isn’t peace.

If we live in a systemically oppressive or marginalizing society, then peace (and the pursuit of peace) would be in natural opposition to the status quo. This means a natural opposition to those who benefit from the status quo. People who receive power, authority, and/or privilege from the status quo aren’t usually in a hurry to change it.

Peace in the Gospel of Luke

Luke mentions peace more than the other gospels, and a lot of the language surrounding those passages is fairly common (in my experience). As I consider several of these passages, hopefully it’ll be enough to find some familiar experiences in your own life.

I say “hopefully” with some caution; common ground is helpful, but if that common ground is shared, negative experiences, it’s a double-edged sword. On the other hand, if your experiences have been different from mine, let me know.

The Way of Peace (Luke 1:76-79)

The first mention of peace in the gospel of Luke is by the priest Zechariah. He sings a song about his son, John (the Baptizer), and the last part goes like this:

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
    by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
    the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,”

Luke 1:76-79a, NRSV

Growing up, the language from this song was used often: prepare the way of the Lord, knowledge of salvation, forgiveness of sins, tender mercy, light in the darkness, the shadow of death… I heard all of those things talked about often, but I can’t remember ever hearing them in the context of Luke 1. I think the reason for this was simple: verse 79 doesn’t actually end with the shadow of death.

“to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
    to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke 1:79, NRSV

There’s a lot we could unpack, here, especially if we want to get into how different translations talk about “knowledge of salvation” and “forgiveness of sins,” but this post is about peace. That’s the part that gets conveniently left out in a lot of communities, because that’s the part that’s really challenging. Talking about the other stuff without the mention of a way of peace is easy in conventional, American Christianity, because we can just say, “You’re a sinner. You live in the shadow of death. You need to accept God the Son and come into the light of God by the forgiveness of your sins, and then you will be saved,” or something like that.

I disagree with that theology, even before considering the part about peace. Unfortunately, it’s still one of the most prominent versions of Christianity being used in America, today. I don’t think that version of the Gospel meshes with a way of peace.

Luke adding the qualifier that these things are to guide our feet into the way of peace creates a relational dynamic that needs to be addressed. Peace is something that exists between parties. We have to have peace with people, and to have peace with people means we have to work at the actual relationship. That’s the part that’s uncomfortable, so we conveniently leave off the way of peace at the end.

What would happen if instead of chopping off the way of peace, we reimagine the rest of the passage with the understanding that being guided into the way of peace is the goal? How would that change our understanding about knowledge of salvation, forgiveness of sins, or God’s tender mercy?

Peace on Earth (Luke 2:13-14)

Did you know that “peace on earth” is mentioned in Luke, as well?

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

Luke 2:13-14, NRSV

You might have a translation that says the more well-known phrase, “Peace on earth, goodwill to men,” or something similar. I think both versions can reveal why this passage is more comfortable for many Evangelical Christians than the Luke 1:79 verse.

The latter is directly connected to all of the other things mentioned in the song. If I say God’s goal is to guide me into the way of peace, I have to deal with the implication that my life is committed to such a way and wrestle with how forgiveness, mercy, sin, etc. connect to that peace.

Luke 2:14 isn’t directly connected to those specific things, so even saying goodwill to men gives me a broader margin to work with. Here’s how I’ve seen that play out:

  • Goodwill
    Goodwill is often treated the way many people treat the idea of “not being racist.” That is we only have to be able to say we were friendly toward someone or that we don’t bare them any ill will. Then, we have goodwill toward men. No need to actually free them from oppression; we just have to rationalize that we’re not the ones oppressing them. Peace, then, can be simplified to the “we aren’t actively hurting people” sort of peace I mentioned above.
  • Goodwill and God’s Glory
    2:14 connects peace and goodwill to God’s glory, so whatever is glorifying to God is eligible to be categorized as goodwill to men. If, for example, our theology says empathy is a sin because empathy interferes with God’s glory (e.g. keeps us from condemning sinners into repentance), then we don’t have to include empathy in our acts of “goodwill.” Peace, then, can be reduced to my intention to glorify God, even if the means are oppressive.
  • God’s Favor
    For translations like the one above, “those on whom his favor rests” isn’t qualified. We can easily distort through context who gets to receive peace on earth by implying who has the Lord’s favor. Health & Wealth theologies sometimes cross this line; material wealth and protection from disease indicate favor from God, so the implication is that poor and/or sick people are unfavored and, therefore, don’t qualify to experience God’s peace on earth.

In other words, Luke 2:14 is much more easily incorporated into systems of power, because the passage connects peace to fewer and broader things.

The Lord’s Favor (Luke 4:18-19)

Many of you have probably noticed that we’re talking about picking one passage over another. This can become problematic no matter what we’re considering. As usual, consistent theology means considering many passages, and Luke’s presentation of peace becomes more concrete as we do this.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Luke 4:18-19, NRSV

The year of the Lord’s favor is proclaimed to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed, and if we go back through the Old Testament, we see something similar. The groups of people in the Old Testament who are given special emphasis throughout most of the prophets are the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner. In other words, the disenfranchised and marginalized. Those people in society who need to be taken care of or have struggles taking care of themselves. Those people who are alone and aren’t connected or “plugged in.” These are the people on whom the Lord’s favor rests and to whom the Lord’s favor is proclaimed.

I think this works to counteract the issue of Luke 2 by showing that the Lord’s favor is at least directed toward the disenfranchised, but that means those of us who aren’t disenfranchised will have to struggle with Luke 4. A common response, in my experience, is essentially denial; Christians see themselves as the disenfranchised even when they’re not. We spin it, and we say, “The Lord’s favor rests on me. Therefore, peace to me,” and we cut out Luke 1’s path to peace.

This is the way many conservative, Evangelical Christians enter the Christmas season. This is the way many enter Advent and they idea of a coming Messiah. We start to cut people out of it. We start to say these people shouldn’t be here, and those people shouldn’t be here; peace to these people and not to those people. We start to do exactly what the disciples did when they say not to let the children bother the master. We do the same thing that they tried to do in Luke chapter 7.

“Those” People (Luke 7:36-50)

One of the Pharisees asked Jesus to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. And a woman in the city, who was a sinner, having learned that he was eating in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment. Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw it, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him—that she is a sinner.”

Luke 7:36-39, NRSV

The Pharisee is focused on that easy part of Zechariah’s song — about sins than need forgiving and being lost in the shadow of death and being pulled up and having a light shine on you. He identifies this woman as a sinner, but he’s missed out on the path to peace and on the emphasis of the scroll of Isaiah: that there is a certain people to whom the Lord’s favor is being proclaimed.

Jesus spoke up and said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” “Teacher,” he replied, “speak.” “A certain creditor had two debtors; one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. When they could not pay, he canceled the debts for both of them. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon answered, “I suppose the one for whom he canceled the greater debt.” And Jesus said to him, “You have judged rightly.” Then turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” But those who were at the table with him began to say among themselves, “Who is this who even forgives sins?” And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

Luke 7:40-50, NRSV

It’s the woman, not Simon or the other guests, who receives the peace. She’s the one to whom the year of the Lord’s favor is proclaimed in Isaiah — the marginalized — as evidenced by Simon’s response to her: if Jesus knew who this person was, a sinner, then he wouldn’t be letting her cry all over his feet and touch him.

The path to peace is one that involves and, more importantly, emphasizes those people who are marginalized and disenfranchised, so when he declares glory to God in the most high and peace on earth for all the people on whom the Lord’s favor rests, he’s not talking about the people who are “in.” He’s talking about the poor and the oppressed and the captive and the blind — those people lost in the shadow of death, as Zechariah calls it — and not in a condemning way but in a way that says, “Rejoice! Be at peace, because the year of the Lord’s favor has come, and it has come for you.”

Blessed Are the Disenfranchised (Luke 6)

This emphasis on the disenfranchised is seen again in Luke’s version of the Sermon on the Mount.

Then he looked up at his disciples and said:

“Blessed are you who are poor,
    for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
    for you will be filled.
“Blessed are you who weep now,
    for you will laugh.

Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.”

Luke 6:20-22, NRSV

This is why a lot of Christians favor Matthew over Luke; Matthew spiritualizes it. When people say blessed are the poor in spirit, they can see themselves, but if they say blessed are the poor, they have to ask, “Am I poor?” Middle class American Christians have trouble finding themselves there, so it’s not appealing.

We have to take them both, because Luke doesn’t say poor in spirit. Luke says blessed are the poor. “I’ve been anointed by the Holy Spirit to come and proclaim the good news to the poor and the captive and the blind and the oppressed.” Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now. Blessed are you who weep now. Blessed are you when people hate you and exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil because of the Son of Man. In other words, blessed are the disenfranchised and marginalized of society.

In Luke, Jesus also goes one step further than in Matthew by including woes.

“But woe to you who are rich,
    for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
    for you will be hungry.
“Woe to you who are laughing now,
    for you will mourn and weep.

Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”

Luke 6:24-26, NRSV

That is to say, Luke draws the dividing line in the sand. Peace to everyone on whom the favor of the Lord rests. Who are those people? They’re the disenfranchised and marginalized, and more than that, the people who are not disenfranchised and marginalized: you’re going to have a hard time. Jesus tells a parable about this in Luke 18 where he says it’s easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom.

It’s not that the Lord doesn’t love people who are “in” or in power. It’s that people who are in power are often the ones who oppose the path to peace to begin with, like Simon the Pharisee, like the people who would rather stick to their traditions than allow Jesus to heal a man’s withered arm on the Sabbath, like the people who would rather watch others starve than allow them to pick grain on the Sabbath. Such people are opposed to the path to peace.

Fire and Division (Luke 12:49-53)

In Luke 12, Jesus gives a harsh perspective that reflects the reality of many people’s lives. It seems to be in contrast to what he says in other parts of Luke.

“I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed! Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:

father against son
    and son against father,
mother against daughter
     and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law
     and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”

Luke 12:49-53, NRSV

Didn’t Jesus just proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor? Didn’t the angels proclaim peace on earth, and didn’t Zechariah proclaim that now is the time when we will be led into the path of peace? How, then, can Jesus say he didn’t come to bring peace? How can he be bringing fire and division, instead? Or, as he says in another place, not peace but a sword.

I think Jesus is talking about encountering the opposition of power. On our way to peace, we encounter the opposition of authority, the opposition of people who would rather have their status quo than have actual peace. Why should we bring the disenfranchised into our circles? They’ll just upset the balance we’ve created that keeps us in power. Why should we discomfort ourselves with all of “those people” — with sinners who come in and weep, with their dirty clothes and their poor lives? Why should we make ourselves uncomfortable by the way they look when I can keep the status quo, instead, and be “clean” and “pure”?

There can’t be peace when people think that way, and the problem moving into annual seasons of giving, peace, and glorifying the risen savior is that we often come as gatekeepers instead of servants. Rather than coming to nurture peace, we come to dictate who gets the Lord’s favor — who comes into the light and who stays in the shadow of death. We show up like Simon. We “know” who the sinners are, and we know that if God knew, God would reject them the way that we do, and yet, Luke evidences all the way through the gospel that Jesus doesn’t play that game.

Jesus is for the poor and the hungry and the mourning. He’s for the orphan and the widows. He’s for the people rejected by society — the captive and the slave. He’s for the people who are oppressed. Those are the people with whom the Lord’s favor rests, and it’s for them that the peace of God comes. Jesus is here to bring a fire that will cleanse out those of us who fight against that kind of peace.

What Does This Mean for Us?

When I say “us,” I’m talking about those of us who probably aren’t counted among the disenfranchised. What does it mean for those of us coming into this season of celebration when we’re not the poor and marginalized — when we’re not the captive and oppressed, the blind, the hungry, or those who mourn?

What it means for us is that God is calling us to find that path to peace. What it means for us is that we have a responsibility to step outside of our comfort — outside of the status quo that gives us privilege and authority — and into the Way of Jesus who spent his life serving people around him, welcoming people who were different, and empowering those who didn’t fit the status quo.

To celebrate the Christmas season, the birth of Jesus, the advent of Christ in the world without serving the marginalized in our communities is hypocrisy. It completely misses the point of everything that we claim about this time of the year. It doesn’t matter if it’s historically accurate or if we get all the details right. It doesn’t matter if Jesus was born in December or in April, if our nativity scene matches a particular gospel, if we have presents under the tree or not, or if we’ve stripped out everything we think is pagan about the holidays. It doesn’t matter, because anything we do that isn’t built on the proclamation of the Lord’s favor for those who are marginalized and disenfranchised completely misses the point.

If we want to be part of that path to peace, we need to go where the Lord is going. We need to go where the God of peace is present. If God is working with the disenfranchised, then we should be with the disenfranchised, because that’s where the path of peace is found. That’s where the Lord’s favor is found.

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