In order to best understand Luke (and the Bible in general), we have to understand some of the cultural climate and factors of Luke’s world. His original audience would have read his words in context of these major cultural currents:
The Jewish people were a highly collectivist society. Unlike modern day America, their natural understanding was that the good of the group outweighed the good of the individual. They were very, very nationalistic and family oriented. Your family was where you received your identity. Your family determined where you lived. Your family determined what your occupation would be. And they even usually determined who you would marry. Nothing was more important than family loyalty. Jesus’ description of a new, more important spiritual family in Luke 8:19-21 and 14:25-27 was shocking. (About the equivalent of telling an American that the best way to be happy is to give up your independence and let someone else make all your decisions for you.)
The Israelites are at this time occupied and ruled by the Roman Empire. This means they are simultaneously not autonomous or self-governing because Rome has ultimate political jurisdiction, and also in some ways, they are left alone to do as they please. To fund their massive army, the Roman Empire levied heavy taxes on occupied nations including Israel. This is why the Jewish leaders of the Sanhedrin condemn Jesus to die according to their law, but still have to ask permission from Pilate (Luke 22:66-23:5).
Awaiting a Messiah
God’s people had been given promises throughout their history that someone was coming to make right what was wrong in the world (Isaiah 9:2-7, Zechariah 9:9-10). Their general understanding was that this Messiah would be a political king who would lead them to national prominence and power. Specifically, they were looking for someone who would overthrow Roman occupation. They also anticipated that he would be preceded by a voice who would come in the spirit of Elijah (Malachi 4:5-6). The events surrounding the birth of John the Baptist and his ministry filled many people with excitement that the Messiah – their hope of dignity, prosperity and freedom – was on his way.
The Herodian Influence
King Herod was a particularly terrible and corrupt King over Israel who represented Roman occupying power and oppression. Those who supported Herod were called Herodians. They were the cultural progressives of their time bringing unwanted change and significant moral shifts. They had a Greek perspective on sex, the body and truth. None of these things were welcomed by the Jewish ruling class. This could be roughly compared to the distaste conservatives had for MTV in the early 1990s.
Responses to Occupation
There were four primary responses to Roman occupation:
- Fight em’! Some Israelites believed they needed to stand up to the Romans like David stood up to Goliath. These were the zealots led by a group of assassins called the Sicarii. The most notable zealot in Luke is Peter, one of Jesus’ converted disciples, who still wants to fight at times (Luke 22:49-51).
- If you can’t beat em’, join em’! The Sadducees and other wealthy and prominent officials accepted much of the culture around them in a pragmatic play for power and prominence.
- Run away! Other groups including the Essenes and the Dead Sea groups removed themselves from society to go preserve their cultural purity and hang out with God in the woods.
- Bunker down! Responding to the Sadducees acceptance of culture and the perceived negative influence of the Herodians, many groups remained in Jerusalem but emphasized strict morality and piety. Most notably, this response is displayed consistently throughout Luke by the Pharisees.