Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Times They Are A-Changin': Luke and Eschatological Reversal (Part 1)

Symbol of St. Luke the Evangelist in 19th Century
Stained Glass, St. David's Episcopal Church,
Manayunk, Philadelphia (photo by author)

Bob Dylan is the greatest songwriter of the rock era of popular music. Alternately wry, humorous, absurdist, ironic, and scathing, Dylan, more than any other single artist, gave musical voice to the thoughts and aspirations of the burgeoning baby boom generation. The key to his musical success was his conscious intent both to work within and develop multiple musical traditions (English and Celtic folk, country, blues), and his encyclopedic knowledge of the various forms led him to choose his influences wisely (e.g., Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Bukka White, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell). While still only 20 years of age, Dylan wrote the brilliant song of protest, "Blowin' in the Wind," cushioning his protests about war, freedom, and injustice with the soft pillows of rhetorical questions. A year later he abandoned subtlety, preferring instead a direct prophetic call to his elders and those in power to, as it were, get with the program that was inexorably taking place before their very eyes. I am speaking, of course, of his classic "The Times They Are A-Changin," written in October of 1963 and becoming the title track for his third album, released in Januray 1964. His lyrics are as follows:

Come gather 'round people 
Wherever you roam 
And admit that the waters 
Around you have grown 
And accept it that soon 
You'll be drenched to the bone 
If your time to you 
Is worth savin' 
Then you better start swimmin' 
Or you'll sink like a stone 
For the times they are a-changin'. 

Come writers and critics 
Who prophesize with your pen 
And keep your eyes wide 
The chance won't come again 
And don't speak too soon 
For the wheel's still in spin 
And there's no tellin' who 
That it's namin' 
For the loser now 
Will be later to win 
For the times they are a-changin'. 

Come senators, congressmen 
Please heed the call 
Don't stand in the doorway 
Don't block up the hall 
For he that gets hurt 
Will be he who has stalled 
There's a battle outside 
And it is ragin' 
It'll soon shake your windows 
And rattle your walls 
For the times they are a-changin'. 

Come mothers and fathers 
Throughout the land 
And don't criticize 
What you can't understand 
Your sons and your daughters 
Are beyond your command 
Your old road is 
Rapidly agin' 
Please get out of the new one 
If you can't lend your hand 
For the times they are a-changin'. 

The line it is drawn 
The curse it is cast 
The slow one now 
Will later be fast 
As the present now 
Will later be past 
The order is 
Rapidly fadin' 
And the first one now 
Will later be last 
For the times they are a-changin'.

The most immediate context for this song is, no doubt, the struggle for African American civil rights. Dylan, after all, had performed at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington in August of that same year. Interestingly, however, he broadens and generalizes the theme of change in the penultimate verse, where he alludes to an incipient generational change that was, at that time, scarcely visible to the public as a whole. Moreover, he emphasizes the portentous nature of the coming societal reversal by deliberately alluding, in the final stanza, to Jesus' enigmatic logion, uttered in the aftermath of his encounter with the "rich young ruler" and  recorded in Mark 10:31: "But many who are first will be last, and the last first."

No New Testament author emphasizes the notion of this coming societal transposition more than Luke, for whom the birth of Jesus—destined to be "Savior," "Messiah/Davidide," "Lord," and the bringer of "peace" to "all the people" (panti tō laō, a reference to the people of Israel, not, as is commonly (mis)understood, to "all people" in general; Luke 2:8-14)—to a teenage peasant girl is narrated in the context of an empire-wide census enacted during the reign of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-7). This is the very same "divine Caesar" who was described on his birthday by the provincial assembly of Asia as "a saviour who put an end to war and established all things," and whose appearance "exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good tidings" (cited in S. R. F. Price, Rituals and Power: The Roman Imperial Cult in Asia Minor [Cambridge: CUP, 1984] 54-55). It is that world, the world of the pax Romana established by military "pacification" and sustained through oppression and taxation, that was to be turned upside down by the birth of the Jewish Messiah in fulfillment of God's covenant promises to Abraham and to David. And, to those Jews who lived with the ignominy of foreign occupation of their covenanted homeland, this was "good news of great joy" (euangelizomai charan megalēn; Luke 2:10) indeed. The reversal—indeed, the revolution— this "gospel" message entailed is then made programmatic by Luke in his narration of Jesus' reading of Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue at his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16-21):

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
     to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus here not only makes the explicit claim, no doubt ludicrous to his auditors, that the hopes enshrined in the Isaianic prophecy were being realized there and then. He also, and just as clearly, is making the implicit and scandalous claim that he was the Spirit-anointed herald of the gospel for the poor, marginalized, and oppressed people of God.

What concerns me is how the radicalness of Jesus' (and Luke's) message has been domesticated by the church. Fuller Seminary Professor Joel Green expresses this nicely, with reference to Mary's Magnificat, recorded by Luke in Luke 1:46-55: "[M]ore often than not, we have wrapped it in antiseptic dress, spiritualized it, projected its message of redemption-by-social-transformation into the eschaton" (The Theology of the Gospel of Luke [Cambridge: CUP, 1995] 1). By and large, the evangelical church has transformed the gospel into a soteriological bit of good news about "me and my relationship with God" and ignored, at best, the societal implications latent in it. Green's lament about the eschatological projection of such implications is nowhere better evidenced than in the dispensationalism on which I cut my theological teeth, which relegated Jesus' "social" message to the Messianic "kingdom" which supposedly lay entirely in the future. Even today, with the influence of such dispensationalism receding in the undertow of theological fashion, many evangelicals who seek to make an impact in the public sector do so primarily by promoting "biblical" standards of morality, almost exclusively in the sexual arena. But does not the gospel of Jesus Christ have something to say about power? Does it not have something to tell society about how status ought to be measured? I. of course, believe it does. What I intend to do in the next couple of weeks is to look at a few passages in which Luke's theme of "eschatological reversal," the societal transposition effected by the Christ event, is prominent.

I leave you with two performances of Dylan's classic song, the first an alternative version by the great Dylan himself, and the second a take by Dave King and his brilliant Irish/punk band Flogging Molly.


  1. Love Dylan. Thanks Doc, can't wait to read more.

  2. Jim, believe it or not, I like the Irish punk band rendition. The cadence and volume clarifies the words' emphasis. Hmm, we could have an interesting political discussion on how the times they are a changing now. :)