A Continuous Story

The parable of the sower in St. Luke’s Gospel concludes with Jesus explaining that the seed that fell on good ground and yielded a hundred fold represents “those who, hearing the word [of God], hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bring forth fruit with patience” (8:15).

Jesus’ words certainly apply to the life and work of the Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, and to his most recent book, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church. Johnson’s newest volume is a sustained, substantive, readable study developing his long-held thesis that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles must be read as a continuous narrative, a two-part symphony as it were. Never intended to be bifurcated into freestanding parts, Luke-Acts is a unified text in which the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus are seamlessly linked to the story of his disciples following the Ascension. In fact, it was precisely the embodiment of Jesus’ prophetic life and teaching among his followers post-Pentecost that inaugurated a revolutionary understanding of salvation history and illuminated the purpose of human community itself.   

Johnson is very familiar to readers of Commonweal; his work has appeared in these pages consistently over the past twenty years. He has written on matters scriptural, theological, and spiritual; his articles have ranged from historical subjects to current Gordian knots in society, culture, and the church. As a Scripture scholar, Johnson (a tenured professor) has proved anything but esoteric or reluctant to engage real-life issues. A Catholic layman, he is committed to the tradition and to the conviction that the Holy Spirit continues to address the church and the world in unexpected ways. When it comes to the academy or to the church, Johnson is never a mere respecter of persons (see Luke 20:21). Read, for example, his balanced but critical 2008 review of Pope Benedict XVI’s Jesus of Nazareth in the journal Modern Theology. Further, Johnson’s openness to how the Holy Spirit might be challenging his own and his readers’ assumptions and routines makes him one of today’s most unsettling theological interlocutors. He manages this achievement while maintaining a gentle equanimity and disarming personal manner that make him a sought-after speaker and teacher.

None of this diminishes the bite of what Johnson has to say. In fact, should you or anyone you know be looking for scriptural interpretations calibrated to appease bourgeois expectations, Johnson is not your man. And if you think the Holy Spirit settled matters the day after Pentecost, or that from now on it’s simply a matter of repairing to the catechism for answers, you’d best open Acts and start reading from chapter 2. In Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church Johnson explains that “the followers of Jesus are shown by Luke to be as fully, and perhaps even more radically, prophetic than Jesus himself. The Jesus movement does not conclude with the death of Jesus, but continues with even greater energy and power in his spirit-filled successors.”

For Johnson, then, Luke-Acts is not only an uninterrupted narrative but part of the larger metanarrative of prophecy that runs through the Hebrew Scriptures, the New Testament, and the actions of the Spirit in the church—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. “Prophecy is not merely a matter of words spoken,” Johnson notes, “but a way of being in the world; it brings God’s will into human history through the words, yes, but also the deeds and character of the prophet.”

Johnson reminds us there is no wiggle room with God (although there is infinite provision for mercy): we will be judged by our deeds and our character, on how we relate to matters such as power, service, and mammon. In an age like ours—so preoccupied with self-currying—Johnson’s approach makes for a withering set of diagnostic categories. And this analysis applies not simply to individuals but to the church (for Johnson, “church” is not restricted to a particular denomination). The real question propelling this study “is not ‘Was the early church as Luke describes it?’ but rather ‘How does Luke’s portrayal of the early church challenge the church in every age?’”

While Johnson has taught at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University for decades, he has never limited his audience or outreach to academic settings. Even though this book is explicitly directed to readers within the faith community (it began as a series of presentations to “ecclesial groups,” both Catholic and Protestant), it bears the hallmarks of Johnson’s many popular books and oral presentations. Straightforward, clear, and accessible, it nevertheless presupposes a certain degree of scriptural and theological literacy.

At one point in his brief preface, Johnson makes reference to another of his books, Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church (1996). He might also have noted his more recent prize-winning Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (2009), or his companion-volume translations and commentaries The Gospel of Luke (1991) and The Acts of the Apostles (1992), part of the Sacra Pagina Series. Materials in those works are foundational for this study. Yet what finally makes this book singular is its insistence on the relevance of the prophetic challenge of Luke-Acts for us today. In this sense Johnson is carrying Luke’s prophetic enterprise into a third millennium. Johnson, like Luke’s sower, plants generously, but the harvest will still depend on the response of, among others, his readers. Meanwhile, Johnson has diligently prepared the soil—patiently, honestly, and with a good heart.

Published in the 2012-04-06 issue: 

Patrick Jordan is a former managing editor of Commonweal.

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