Monday, August 24, 2009

Gospel Solos or Synthesis?

I've been doing my initial prep on the passage for next Sunday's sermon, which is Luke 9: 28-36, the Transfiguration. And as I've been reading it, I've been thinking through the words that Luke uses, seeing how it all fits together. At the same time, as I compare the other gospels, I'm realising again that while Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell the same story, they each have their own particular emphases. Each one includes unique details or facts that the others omit.

It's what is referred to by academics as the 'Synoptic Problem'. The Synoptic Problem looks at how the three Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are written, and asks were they copying each other? Which was the original account the others used, and what other sources did the authors use to compile their story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus?

At the initial sermon prep stage, it can be helpful to see how the gospels vary, and how the details together give us a fuller picture of what happened. So, for example, in the Transfiguration accounts, Matthew records that Jesus' face shone like the sun (17:2), and that Jesus touched the disciples and told them to "Rise, and have no fear" when they heard the voice of God (17:7). Mark and Luke don't tell us this. Similarly, Mark's unique detail is that Jesus' clothes became 'intensely white, as no one on earth could bleach them' (9:3). Matthew and Luke just say that his clothing was dazzling white, white as light. So also, Luke gives us a detail about what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah - 'his departure (footnote: his exodus), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.' (9:31)

The composite images, as well as agreeing on so much, when put together, can help us see the bigger picture, as they provide these unique details. But the question I'm wondering today is this: when I preach on Sunday, do I preach the synthesis of the three gospel accounts together, making it into one all-encompassing narrative, or do I preach Luke's account only, sticking to his text, and hearing what he says?


It's understandable for us to want to smooth out the stories and make it easy with one super-narrative, just one great gospel account. After all, why would we really need three Synoptic gospels, and another one to boot, when they're just telling us the same story? Why do we need four (at times fairly) repetitive stories about Jesus' life? Why not just get one combined gospel story which is easier to handle than the three or four individual accounts?

That way, when preaching from one passage, we can dip into the others and then we'll only have to ever preach one series through the gospels catching everything along the way...


I think the better way to go is to concentrate on the text of Luke's gospel account, to focus on hearing him, and what he is saying, rather than the cover-all approach. Each gospel writer has particular concerns and emphases - these should be seen as the strengths, not the weaknesses of their account. Strengths, because they become the basis for seeing what the author is purposing as he includes the story in this particular way as he writes the particular details.

The work of exegesis - out of the text - calls for us to listen to the text, in its fullness, not quickly abandoning the text for the quirky details found in the other gospels. While this is undoubtedly harder, it is ultimately more rewarding, as we come to appreciate the individual gospels in their own right, as well as their authors, as they together but separately and distinctly testify to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Saviour.

Now back to Luke!

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