This is the third post in a series offering a number of imaginary letters from the ancient world, only recently “discovered”. The letters, we might imagine, reflect what the recipient of the “orderly account of the things that have come to fulfilment” (what we know as the Gospel of Luke), the man named Theophilus, might have written to the author of that work, as he received sections of the “orderly account” in sequence.
For earlier letters, see https://johntsquires.com/2022/02/17/i-make-prayers-on-your-behalf-letters-to-luke-1-year-c/ and https://johntsquires.com/2022/02/19/i-rejoice-in-the-gift-of-writing-letters-to-luke-2-year-c/
Theophilus to Luke, greetings.
I give thanks to God for your faith, and for your gift of storytelling. But let me get straight to the point.
How exciting it was! As we gathered at table, my companions were in fact eager to hear from your writings. I had mentioned to them, at our last meal, that I was reading through your work, and that I was much impressed with its erudition as well as with its entertainment value. (I think, perhaps, that I exaggerated my point a little; but I am sure that you will forgive me this.) So, they were most eager to hear from it for themselves, and accordingly, I was able to read to them a not insignificant section of your work.
I chose to begin by reading from the charge which Jesus gave to his twelve closest followers, when he sent them out to proclaim God’s kingdom amongst the villages (Luke 9:1–6). I must admit that my decision to begin at this place was influenced by the fact that immediately after this, you reported the interest which King Herod showed, as he wished to learn more about Jesus (9:7–9).
It seemed to me to be important to establish that people of means and power, such as Herod, could take an interest in Jesus; for this was precisely the kind of group to which I was reading your account—people of means and power.
I continued my reading of what took place in your narrative, through the description of Jesus’ decision to head, steadfastly and with steely resolve, towards Jerusalem (9:51). At this point, the nobility of Jesus’ words about the supreme importance that should be attached to following him (9:57–62) had a striking effect on those who heard it.
All agreed that this was a most unconventional way to go about collecting students to teach! The reading followed all that you had written, in order, right on up to the passage where Jesus spoke with vigour and passion about God’s care for each one of us (12:22–34).
I must admit that I had some degree of discomfort when I read the stinging words spoken by Jesus concerning the rich, just before this passage (12:13– 21); for I felt that some of my companions at table might well take offence. I was also aware that some other things that Jesus had said must have been perplexing to my companions, for they probably were not aware of the intense hatred for Samaritans which is found amongst the inhabitants of Judea (9:52–56; 10:25–37).
However, it was more than pleasing to discover that these people amongst my audience were more concerned to explore the significance of Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom, and the sovereignty of God, which seem to be scattered throughout the excerpt which we read. In fact, the reading was interrupted by a vigorous discussion immediately after I had read the words, “it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (12:32).
I was struck in a way that I had not imagined before, by the comments of one Philoxenes, a learned man, who showed not a little awareness of the niceties of history writing. For, you see, Philoxenes proposed that your description of Jesus as one who pointed to the providential care of God, was not unlike the way that some of the writers of the history of Greece and Rome had made use of precisely this topos to organise their works.
Indeed, I began to recall some of the lessons I had taken many years ago— lessons whose relevance had faded into insignificance until the present moment reawakened them in my memory. Lessons about how a good work of history tells of how the gods intervened in events, in both direct and indirect ways, so as to be seen to be sovereign over those events.
In the course of this discussion, I had occasion to refer to some comments in earlier passages of your work which I found to be of particular relevance. For instance, when you noted that Jesus preached his message as he travelled around the synagogues of Judea (by the way, surely you mean Galilee?—for at this point in the story, Jesus was active only in the north!)—when you say that his message was, “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom” (4:43), are you intending to allude to this theme, of the providential guidance of human actions by the gods? For it seemed to some of us at table—and I must confess to being persuaded by this view—that this was, indeed, the theme which you had in mind: the divine necessity which impelled the message of Jesus.
Furthermore, as I proudly pointed out, in a portion of the work which we had not yet read (but which I have already surveyed), Jesus himself says, “I must be on my way to Jerusalem” (13:33). And I also noted that you had very clearly reported Jesus as referring to “the plan of God” (7:30) in a section of the work before that which we read at the meal.
And someone else commented on the striking tone of Jesus’ words to the disciples, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering” (9:21), words which came almost immediately before the voice of God himself was heard, commending Jesus as “my son, my chosen one” (9:35). For it seemed to us that you had provided us, your listeners, with many pointers to the way in which the story of Jesus took place under the guidance and direction of the Lord God.
If this is indeed the case, I shall be careful to note any recurrences of this idea in the later sections of your work which, I confess, I have not yet been able to read. For I am now of the mind that you have consciously shaped your narrative on the models provided by those earlier chroniclers of human history who were intent upon showing how the divine providence has “brought the orderly arrangement of the visible stars and the natures of human beings together into one common relationship, continually directing their course throughout all eternity” (Diodorus Siculus, Universal History 1.1.3).
If you have time, it would be good to hear your comments on these ruminations. If you are not able to write—and I do not need to remind you of the comments you made to me, about how you would be consumed by the task of completing your second volume, so that it might be complete when I return—then I shall look forward to a spirited discussion with you when I see you once more in Achaia.
Greetings to all. Secundus, the faithful scribe of all that Theophilus dictates to him, adds his greetings. I pray that you may keep well.
I will return in a short time, after my business here is complete. Farewell.
Questions for discussion: what do you think of the idea that “divine providence” is the guiding force in the events of history? do we still hold to this idea today? how do we discern what is in accord with the plan of God?
This and the associated “letters” were part of my presentation at a conference held at St Hilda’s College, University of Melbourne, in November 2000. The conference was entitled “Preaching and Teaching in the Year of Luke: a national conference on preaching, teaching and learning”. It was sponsored by the national Uniting Church agency, Uniting Education, in association with Otira, the Continuing Education agency of the Synod of Victoria. The keynote addresses were subsequently published as AT TABLE WITH LUKE (UTC Publications; UTC Bible Studies 2, 2000) ©John T. Squires 2000