William Wrede’s The Messianic Secret
Part 11: Luke Abandons the Secrecy Motif
While we may have had to wait until the end of Mark’s story for the denouement of the secrecy gospel, Luke removes all suspense early on with the scene in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:16-30). In The Messianic Secret, William Wrede writes:
Here Jesus reads out the words of Isaiah 61.1f. regarding the anointing for messianic vocation and then goes on to say, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. But this is nothing other than a messianic self-proclamation, and if Luke in all probability made up this scene himself in so far as it is at variance with Mark, and certainly thought of it as an introduction determining the character of the presentation of the story which follows, yet one gains the impression that here he is doing something which Mark would hardly have done. However many contradictions may be found in Mark along with the idea of secret messiahship, this is on a different footing. It looks like a denial of the idea itself. (Wrede, 1901/1971, p. 178, emphasis mine)
Is the Sermon on the Mount private instruction?
Luke’s Jesus does not hide his light under a bushel. He lets everyone know who he is. We can see the extent to which Luke has embraced this public, openly messianic Jesus even in the way he teaches the crowd.
Wrede makes the point that in Matthew, much of the instruction Jesus imparts to his disciples remains private. The Transfiguration, the prophecy of the passion, the meaning of parables, the “question about the last things,” etc. happen away from the crowds and sometimes away from the majority of the disciples. But that’s not all.
We may also mention that even the Sermon on the Mount is regarded as instruction of the disciples. For according to 5.1, when Jesus sees the crowds, he goes up the mountain and then the disciples approach him[*] in order to receive his teaching. This, of course, is again forgotten at the end of the sermon in 7.28.
[*] prosēlthan autō hoi mathētai, Matthew is very willing to say, even although they were already together with Jesus. Proserchesthai [coming near to, approaching] is generally used by him more often than in all the other New Testament writings put together. (Wrede, 1901/1971, p. 178)
In other words, Jesus is moving away from the crowd and up the mountain where he will give private (secret?) instruction. Apologetic and traditional commentators haven’t seen it that way, of course. Instead of retreating, they imagine that Jesus is simply getting a better vantage point from which to address the crowd. But the text is quite clear.
Matt. 5:1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him. (ESV, emphasis mine)
R. T. France in his commentary on Matthew explains.
But the teaching is addressed, initially at least, not to the crowds, but rather to the narrower circle of his committed disciples, to whom we have been introduced in 4:18-22, and who are now taken apart from the crowds to be instructed on what their new commitment involves. The focus of these chapters is not then the wider proclamation of the “good news of the kingdom” (4:23), but the instruction of those who have already responded to that proclamation and now need to learn what life in the “kingdom of heaven” is really about. The teaching will frequently describe them as a special group who stand over against, and indeed are persecuted by, people in general. (France, 2007, p. 153, emphasis mine)
In fact, we have two good clues to Matthew’s intent. Jesus sees a crowd [ὄχλους (ochlous)] and retreats up a mountain [ὄρος (oros)]. We will recall a similar theme later in Matthew.
Matt. 14:23a And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up on the mountain by himself to pray. (ESV, emphasis mine)
We take it, then, that when Jesus wishes to avoid the crowds, he climbs a mountain. Matthew is not concerned with the particular mountain upon which Jesus will impart his private teaching. The where and when are not important to the narrative; we need only know that it is away from the crowds.
Jesus embraces the multitudes on the plain
Luke’s setting for the Sermon on the Plain, by contrast, is public. Jesus moves down from the mountain to preach to the crowd.
Luke 6:17,18 Jesus came down with them and stood on a level place; and there was a large crowd of His disciples, and a great throng of people from all Judea and Jerusalem and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear Him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were being cured. (NASB)
Note that just before the sermons in Matthew and Luke, we have passages concerning the calling of the Twelve. So we’re essentially at the same point in the gospel narratives. However, Luke appears to be emphatically telling us that Jesus did the opposite of what Matthew told us. In fact, he tells us that there was a large crowd of disciples augmented by a huge multitude (πλῆθος πολὺ/plēthos poly) of people from all over.
Not only is Jesus departing from the mountain to meet a friendly crowd of his own followers, but he’s moving to a level place (τόπου πεδινοῦ/topou pedinou). Luke has chosen a word here — pedinou — that occurs once in the entire New Testament. One could argue that no other NT author needed to express the idea of a “flat” place, but I think the evidence taken together indicates that Luke specifically intended to contradict Matthew’s entire opening setting.
Matthew and Luke both begin their “sermons” with the Beatitudes. Matthew is telling his inner circle that the “poor in spirit” are blessed. Luke, by contrast, looks directly at his disciples while the multitude listens in and says: “Blessed are you poor.” From a narrative perspective, something different is happening in Luke.
As Mark Goodacre pointed out in The Case Against Q, Jesus isn’t just talking about the poor; he’s talking to the poor — viz., his chosen disciples who have just given up all that they have to follow him.
In other words, the Sermon on the Plain is apparently addressed not simply to “the poor” in general, but it also has, at the same time, a targeted, specific message to the community of disciples who, as one of the major elements in their decision to follow Jesus, have abandoned everything.
As we saw above in relation to Luke 12:22-34, the theme of the poverty that accompanies discipleship surfaces at key moments in Luke’s narrative. (Goodacre, 2002, p. 140)
The conclusions, if we’re correct here, are obvious. It means that Luke knew Matthew, and deliberately contradicted him at crucial points. It also means that we can take the semi-consensus among Q scholars that Luke’s version of Q sayings is typically more original and throw it out the window.
Who persecuted the prophets?
In Matthew’s gospel, we have another clue that this instruction was meant for the disciples.
Matt 5:12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (ESV, emphasis mine)
At the narrative layer, that’s a message to the followers of Jesus who are proclaiming his message. I would argue that it’s a message to the readers of the gospel who are probably facing rejection in the synagogues. Who are “they”? They are the Jews who will not accept the new teaching of the Christ. In the present narration, it would appear that they are the crowds that Jesus has avoided by climbing up the mountain.
Luke changes this verse slightly.
Luke 6:23 Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets. (ESV, emphasis mine)
He has softened the accusation somewhat by telling the disciples that the ancestors of the crowd persecuted the prophets of old.
Luke still maintains some stories in which outsiders do not understand his message; however it isn’t because of secrecy, but because they choose not to accept his message. Those who do not follow Jesus do so out of their own accord. That lesson reaches its climax with the two thieves on the cross, one who mocks Jesus, the other who asks to be remembered when he comes into his kingdom.
Each choice has its own consequences.
France, R. T.
Goodacre, Mark S.
The Messianic Secret, Cambridge, 1901/1971 (Translated by J. C. G. Greig)