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Luke’s Portrayal of Sinners. Rhetoric of Direct and Indirect References to Sinfulness in Luke 5,1--6,11

Mod.: R.P. Dean Béchard, S.J.

In staging his story of Jesus, Luke dedicates considerable space to the characters known as sinners. Scholars have noted this peculiarly Lukan emphasis. Ensuing studies have claimed to pinpoint literary and theological roles of sinners in the Lukan narrative. Still, scholarly attention has tended to limit itself to the presence of the lexical markers, while ignoring the indirect modes of referencing the trait of sinfulness. In the process, only the so-called sinner texts, that is, the pericopae containing the word sinner (ἁμαρτωλός) or its cognates, have been thoroughly examined. The multiple indirect references to sin and sinners have been overlooked. This study intends to partially respond to this lacuna. Resting on the assumption that the role of sinners in Luke is properly comprehended by uncovering and assessing all the textual strategies intended to make the reader infer the characteristic of sinfulness, even in the absence of its direct textual referent, this study examines the role of both direct and indirect references to sinfulness in Lk 5,1–6,11.

A cursory look at the story narrated in Lk 5,1–6,11 reveals that, with the exception of the Cleansing of a Leper (5,12-16), the characteristic of sinfulness emerges in every single episode of the cycle. From the self-characterization of Simon Peter as a sinful man in 5,8, through a surprising reference to the paralytic’s association with sin (“your sins are forgiven you”) in 5,20, and the scandalizing presence of the company of sinners at Levi’s house recalled in 5,30, to the indirect labeling of Jesus and his disciples as sinners in virtue of breaking the Sabbath law in 6,2.7, the trait of sinfulness repeatedly makes its way into the fabric of the narrated world. The closer the reading, the more urgent the need to ask about many other possible references to sinfulness. Is not Levi a sinner in virtue of his profession? Are not the disciples of Jesus sinful by eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners, yet are they not simply following Jesus in this regard? Are not the Pharisees and the scribes sinful, or to use Jesus’ expression “the sick ones,” since it is to them that Jesus, the physician, addresses himself? The references to sinfulness are not only frequent, they are also frequently unclear.

In the end, the study reveals that the sinners as characters cannot be said to be either static or dynamic. They are not an easily identifiable category of characters squarely captured by the stable lexical marker, ἁμαρτωλός. Rather, they are, what could be called, liquid characters whose defining characteristic, their sinfulness, is often found inadequate, rendered inapplicable, or transferred to another character. What the reader understands about sinners is that he must discover and assimilate Jesus’ perception of them. Interpretive effort implied by that task is employed productively by Luke. He deploys the references to sinfulness in a way that engages the reader in the dynamics proper to a faith relationship with Jesus. By untangling crisscrossing viewpoints formed around sinfulness — implied, inferred, directly stated, overcome or rejected — the reader’s itinerary of faith, that is, his coming to know Jesus, is enacted.