Article Information

Eben Scheffler1

1Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies, University of South Africa, South Africa

Correspondence to:
Eben Scheffler

Postal address:
PO Box 392, University of South Africa, Pretoria 0003, South Africa

Received: 28 May 2014
Accepted: 09 Aug. 2014
Published: 20 Nov. 2014

How to cite this article:
Scheffler, E., 2014, ‘Empathy for the psychological underdog: A positive psychological approach to Luke’s Gospel’, HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 70(1), Art. #2742, 8 pages.

Copyright Notice:
© 2014. The Authors. Licensee: AOSIS OpenJournals.

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
Empathy for the psychological underdog: A positive psychological approach to Luke’s Gospel
In This Original Research...
Open Access
On positive psychology
General affliction (Lk 4:18; 6:21, 25)
Old age as a predicament and ageing well as an opportunity
Luke’s emphasis on mental processes in his portrayal of Jesus’ exorcisms (Lk 6:1819; 4:35; 8:2639; 9:3743)
Compassion, empathy and altruism
   • Competing interests

Taking the lead from Wisdom of Solomon 7:20, which clearly indicates that ancient authors did engage in the specialised ‘scientific’ (although contemporary) study of mental processes (διαλογισμοὺς ἀνθρώπων), it is argued that the author of Luke’s Gospel paid special attention to the alleviation of human psychological suffering. Employing an approach recently being labelled as ‘positive psychology’, attention will be paid to general affliction (e.g. Lk 4:18; 6:21, 25), old age (Lk 1:5−80; 2:25−38), grief (e.g. Lk 7:11−17) and the emphasis on mental processes in Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ exorcisms (e.g. Lk 4:35; 6:18−19; 9:38), as well as the psychological dimension involved in other types of suffering (e.g. poverty, sickness, enmity and social ostracism). The ‘mental process’, ‘feelings’ or ‘empathy’ that motivate the alleviation of suffering (in the behaviour of Jesus and his followers) will also come into focus in the discussion of the Lucan use of the terms οἰκτίρμων (Lk 6:36), ἔλεος and σπλαγχνίζομαι (e.g. Lk 10:33, 37).


When researchers call Luke ‘den Psychologen unter den neutestamentlichen Schriftstellern’ (Du Toit 1965:26 – ‘the psychologist amongst the New Testament authors’), it by no means implies anachronistically that Luke had all the knowledge that the past 150 years of scientific psychology gathered – not even in embryo. On the other hand, we as present-day ‘scientific’ researchers should not be so arrogant as to think that ancient authors did not make a conscious effort to study the different spheres of reality, or that they did not do it intelligently. Gerhard von Rad (1970:30) drew attention to the fact that conscious study of reality formed part and parcel of the late Jewish wisdom tradition. According to Von Rad (1970:30) the book of Proverbs contains wisdom for ordinary life which only forms a small part of a comprehensive quest for knowledge (τῶν ὄντων γνῶσιν = science) which even in ancient times had a much broader basis. Referring to Wisdom 7:18−20 (which dates between 100 BCE and 100 CE) he consciously employs present-day scientific terms:

In den späten Buch der Weisheit Salomos werden den einmal einzelne Fächer der damals gelehrten Naturwissenschaften aufgezählt; es sind dies Astronomie, Zoologie, Dämonologie, Psychologie, Botanik und Pharmazie (SapSal 7:18ff). Es ist kaum anzunehmen, dass alle diese Wissensgebiete den Lehrern erst in den spätesten Phase zugewagchsen sind. (Von Rad 1970:30)

The relevant text from Wisdom can be seen in Table 1.

TABLE 1: The translation of Wisdom 7:1720.

Interestingly, the term διαλογισμοί in verse 20 and verses 21−22 (cf. the reference to ‘what is manifest’), has striking similarities with Simon’s words to Mary in Luke 2:35: ‘καὶ σοῦ [δὲ] αὐτῆς τὴν ψυχὴν διελεύσεται ῥομφαία − ὅπως ἂν ἀποκαλυφθῶσιν ἐκ πολλῶν καρδιῶν διαλογισμοί. (‘and a sword will pierce your soul too – so that the secret thoughts of many may be laid bare).’ Numerous other instances may be mentioned which reflect a similar psychological interest in people’s ‘thoughts’. Of the 14 occurrences of διαλογισμὸς in the New Testament, 6 occur in Luke’s Gospel (2:35; 5:22; 6:8; 9:46; 9:47; 24:38). Jesus is especially portrayed as knowing peoples thoughts (5:22; 6:8; 9:47; 24:38).

On positive psychology

In what follows I hope to show that positive psychology, a psychological approach that has developed recently, provides an appropriate interpretative method of tapping into Luke’s psychological insight.1 In fact – to my mind – the Gospel in a certain sense can be regarded as providing rudimentary notions for this approach. But what is positive psychology?

An 800 page (A4, double column) volume appeared in 2005 in which various authors made various contributions on relevant themes from a positive psychological perspective (Snyder & Lopez 2005).2 According to Seligman,3 who is regarded as a major founder of this approach, (positive psychology aims at ‘catalys[ing] a change in psychology from a preoccupation only with repairing the worst things in life to also building the best qualities in life’ (Seligman 2005:3).4

The fathers of traditional psychology (e.g. Wundt, Freud, Jung5) were medical practitioners working with a disease model that seeks to cure diseases by treating symptoms with special medicine-like treatment (e.g. psychoanalysis, behaviour therapy). Positive psychology focuses on the ‘building of strengths’ and does not deny treatment, but also develops aspects that prevent mental illness and enhance the quality of life.6 Psychology should not merely help one to cope with the afflictions of life, but to enjoy life to the full.7 Seligman (2005) continues:

The field of positive psychology at the subjective level is about positive subjective experience: well-being and satisfaction (past); flow, joy, the sensual pleasures, and happiness (present); and constructive cognitions about the future – optimism, hope and faith. At the individual level it is about positive personal traits – the capacity for love and vocation, courage, interpersonal skill, aesthetic sensibility, perseverance, forgiveness, originality, future-mindedness, high talent, and wisdom. At the group level it is about the civic virtues and the institutions that move people towards better citizenship: responsibility, nurturance, altruism, civility, moderation, tolerance, and work ethic. (p. 3)

Seligman (2005:7) concedes that as far as traditional psychology is concerned positive psychology has affinities with the work of Allport (1961) and Maslow (1970, 1971 – the latter distinguishing the need for positive self-fulfilment as an ultimate goal in life).8 However, as I hope will become clear, positive psychology goes beyond the fulfilment of any personal individual human need.

The various contributions in the Handbook of positive psychology reflect approximately 47 issues on which positive psychology focuses, as well as several theoretical contributions on the subject. Many of these topics, or themes, are directly present in the Gospel of Luke, and nearly all are indirectly related to the Gospel. Table 2 contains a selection of themes that receive focused attention, directly traced in the Gospel of Luke (and/or Acts) or related to it.9

TABLE 2: Themes considered in positive psychology and also present in Lukes Gospel.

It is clear from the statistics above (column 4, Table 2) that in nearly all cases these themes feature more prominently in Luke’s Gospel than in the other Gospels and Acts. Even so, it should be kept in mind that differences are to be expected between Luke’s view on a particular topic and that proposed by positive psychology on the same topic. But there are surely also striking similarities. Given the status of the Lucan text (as scripture of a religion to which a third of today’s world population belongs), it seems proper that the views of the Gospel could at least be accommodated in the discourse regarding a specific theme, especially since the concepts studied by positive psychology are in many instances (cf. Table 2) literally the same, a situation that did not exist in traditional psychology.

In what follows, attention will be paid to ageing and compassion (empathy and altruism included). But as already said, positive psychology addresses and does not deny negative mental states. We will therefore first turn our attention to some of these, briefly indicating the terrain, without any claim to complete treatment.

General affliction (Lk 4:18; 6:21, 25)

In Luke’s programmatic Nazareth episode (4:18) the terms αἰχμαλώτος [captive] and τεθραυσμένος [oppressed] (although being quoted from Isaiah 61) are best interpreted to refer, in view of the Capernaum episode that follows, to sickness and demon possession (Scheffler 1993:39). Despite these possible concrete references, the terms do not lose their general meaning of overall psychological suffering. According to Klein (2006:189), both these words ‘sind geistig-geistlich zu fassen’ and the term ἄφεσιν used in connection with them refer in this context not only to forgiveness but ‘Entlassung’ (release, freedom). Captivity and oppression in this sense are taken to refer to psychological affliction caused, for instance, by sickness, demon possession, poverty or any other kind of suffering. This psychosomatic aspect is emphasised by positive psychology. Cassell (2005:443–444), a medical doctor writing on compassion, emphasises that, because a human being is a person and not only a body, there is a psychological dimension to any bodily sickness. For him it is a good doctor’s task not only to treat a sick person’s physical symptoms, but to do so with compassion.

In Luke’s Gospel, the beatitudes (Lk 6:20−26) are best interpreted as referring to states of suffering rather than virtues, as in Matthew’s Gospel. Luke’s third beatitude (unique to him) in verse 21 (μακάριοι οἱ κλαίοντες νῦν – ‘blessed are those that weep’, cf. also the πενθήσετε καὶ κλαύσετε ‘mourn and weep’ in the corresponding woe of verse 25) also seems to refer to a general state of psychological suffering, an ‘Ausdruck der Bekümmernis’, (‘an expression of worry’ – Grundmann 1974:143). The psychological suffering could have been caused by the particular forms of suffering referred to in the other beatitudes, for example poverty10, hunger and persecution (or by any other condition for that matter). For all kinds of suffering are in the end interrelated, and affect a person psychologically, exacerbated by the fact that human beings think and ponder about them (Wolter 2008:249).

In this context Luke’s peculiar narration of the raising of the widow’s son in Nain (recalling the raising of the widow’s son by Elisha in 2 Kings 4) can also be mentioned (7:11−17). The focus is not so much on the raising itself as on the widow’s grief in losing her son. It is emphatically mentioned that ‘he was his mother’s only son’ (μονογενὴς υἱὸς τῇ μητρὶ αὐτου). Jesus’ compassion towards her elicits the miracle and it is explicitly stated in verse 13:When the Lord saw her, he had compassion for her (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη ἐπ᾽αὐτη) and said to her, “Do not weep”’ (μὴ κλαῖε). After raising the son, it is also explicitly mentioned that ‘Jesus gave him to his mother’ (ἔδωκεν αὐτὸν τῇ μητρὶ αὐτοῦ). Jesus’ psychological engagement with the mourning mother is clear.11

Also unique to Luke is Jesus’ concern for the women who lamented him on his way to the cross, when he ironically directs their attention away from his own suffering to theirs and their children (23:28). To my mind Ellis’s (1974:266) observation that the women acted from religious obligation, underplays the sincerity of their feelings on a psychological level. The same holds also true for Grundmann’s (1974:429) remark that Jesus ‘ist über sein Geschick erhoben’ (cf. also 1974:429).

Old age as a predicament and ageing well as an opportunity

In the Handbook of positive psychology Williamson (2005:676−686) wrote an article on ageing well in which he argues that ageing need not be regarded (by elderly people or members of society) as a burden to society, even though it increases the number of older people in it. On the contrary, by adopting certain attitudes (e.g. continuation of meaningful activities12) old people need not experience their age as a predicament or a disability, but even as a blessing and privilege.13

In all probability, this optimistic attitude was not prevalent in Luke’s day where the handicaps of old age took their toll. Old people feature in Luke’s narrative more than they do in any of the other gospels. Although ageing is primarily a physical process, Luke’s positive interest seems to be in the psychological plight of old people.

The sub-discipline of developmental psychology makes a special study of the way old people experience the ageing process14. The investigation of life’s phases by Erikson (who expanded Freud’s five life15 stages to include the whole span of human life) seems to be relevant for Luke’s emphasis on old age. Erikson distinguishes eight phases16 (a recently published book distinguishes 1217), the last of which (above 65 years) constitutes what Erikson calls ‘maturity’ (see Hjelle & Ziegler 1976:76). A happy old age is marked by ‘ego integrity’ and wisdom, whereas an unhappy one is marked by despair and disgust. Ego integrity ‘arises from the individual’s ability to glance back on his or her life in full perspective … and humbly but assuredly affirm “I am satisfied”’ (Hjelle & Ziegler 1976:76).

Luke introduces two sets of old people in his Gospel, Zecharaiah and Elizabeth (1:5−80) and Simeon and Anna (2:25−38). In the case of the former it is explicitly mentioned that they were ‘advanced in years’ (1:7). Because Zechariah was a law-abiding priest belonging to the middle class (Jeremias 1974:104), they were not suffering in an economic or spiritual sense (the latter referring to being branded as a sinner, see Scheffler 1993:96−101). The old couple was childless, which, besides the psychological implications, was also (according to contemporary belief) regarded as divine punishment (Grundmann 1974:49). Zechariah’s answer to the angel (‘How should I know this? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years [προβεβηκυῖα ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις].’ – 1:18) re-emphasises their predicament. In this context, Elizabeth’s pregnancy denotes an alleviation of acute suffering. Again old age is emphasised, this time by the angel who announced Jesus’ birth to the younger Mary: ‘Elizabeth … who was called barren … in her old age [ἐν γήρει αὐτῆς] has conceived a son’ (1:36). Instead of a despairing old age, Elizabeth could therefore experience what Erikson calls ‘ego integrity’, and she expresses this in the words: ‘The Lord has done this for me, now that it has pleased him to take away the humiliation I suffered in public’ (Lk 1:25). The disgrace, ὄνειδός μου ἐν ἀνθρώποις (Lk 1:25) testifies to the shamefulness of childlessness in contemporary society, and intensifies the psychological suffering of being old. To be old is one thing, to be old and childless was considered totally meaningless. Zechariah’s utterance of the Benedictus as a whole (Lk 1:68−79) can, in a similar way, also be interpreted as an expression of his ego integrity.

Without going here into detail, the narration of Simeon and Anna’s experiences18 in 2:25−38 also reflects empathy with their predicament as old people. As with the case of Elizabeth and Zechariah, their predicaments are ultimately relieved with ego integrity as a consequence, as expressed in Simeon’s words ‘[n]ow you are letting your servant go in peace as you promised; for my eyes have seen the salvation which you have made ready in the sight of the nations’ (Lk 2:29−31). As far as Anna is concerned, it is explicitly mentioned that she was of great age (προβεβηκυῖα ἐν ἡμέραις πολλαῖς) ‘... a widow till she was eighty four’. Like Simeon, she was eagerly expecting the redemption of Jerusalem, and her giving thanks to God at Jesus’ presentation amounts to ego integrity. By including these unique traditions, Luke did not merely show an interest in the ageing process, but also in the psychological alleviation of the affliction of old people. In our present-day world solving their problems in miraculous ways is surely not on the table. However, the evangelist’s involvement should be shared, looking for appropriate modern ways of alleviating the psychological burdens of the aged.

Luke’s emphasis on mental processes in his portrayal of Jesus’ exorcisms (Lk 6:1819; 4:35; 8:2639; 9:3743)

Luke transmits three of Mark’s four exorcisms and does not add any from his Sondergut or Q. However, his enhanced psychological interest is reflected in the fact that, in three cases of physical healing (Peter’s mother in law’s fever in 4:38−39, the dumb man of 11:14 and the crippled women 13:11), the sickness is ascribed to a demon, contrary to his sources).

Before paying brief attention to the exorcisms (the Capernaum demonic, the Gerasene demoniac and the epileptic boy) a comparison of his summary of the healing of the demon possessed in 6:18−19 with that of Mark (3:10−12) reveals a remarkable psychological interest (see Table 3).

TABLE 3: Comparison between the demon possessed of Mark and Luke.

Unlike Mark, Luke explicitly mentioned that the people were troubled by demons (ἐνοχλούμενοι ἀπὸ πνευμάτων ἀκαθάρτων, 6:18b). Mark focuses on the demons falling before Jesus confessing him as the son of God. The actual healing of all the people is mentioned by Luke and not by Mark (καὶ ἰᾶτο πάντας, 6:19). It seems, therefore that in Mark’s view the actual healing of the demon-possessed persons, and their psychological suffering, was secondary to the fact that Jesus had authority over demons, whereas Luke has no interest in Mark’s possible theological motif of the messianic secret. For him (Luke), the suffering of the psychological underdog is paramount and his view rectifies Mark’s by stressing Jesus’ alleviation of the suffering of all (πάντας) those who were sick and demon possessed.

In Luke’s editing of at least two of Mark’s four exorcisms his emphasis on the alleviation of psychological suffering also surfaces clearly. He made significant changes to his Marcan source to reflect Jesus’ unconditional compassion for the persons who were demon possessed. Firstly, in Mark 1:26 it is stated that the unclean spirit convulsed (σπαράξαν) the Capernaum demoniac before it came out. In contrast to this, in Luke 4:36 the casting out is pictured as a less painful process: the demon threw the man in the midst of them (ῥῖψαν instead of σπαράξαν), came out of him, but did him no harm (καὶ ῥῖψαν αὐτὸν τὸ δαιμόνιον εἰς τὸ μέσον ἐξῆλθεν ἀπ᾽αὐτοῦ μηδὲν βλάψαν αὐτόν). This clearly indicates Luke’s (and Jesus’) empathetic concern. Second, in the exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac (Lk 8:26−39; Mk 5:1−20), Luke introduces the term ἐσώθη in Luke 8:36 to underscore the deliverance of the demoniac – in modern terms, psychological liberation or healing.19 After the healing, the healed boy’s positive inclination towards Jesus is emphasised by the words ‘sitting at Jesus’ feet’ (Mk 5:15 has ‘sitting there’) and he is also depicted as fully obeying Jesus (Lk 8:38−39, contra Mk 5:19−20).

By shortening Mark’s version of the healing of the epileptic boy (Lk 9:37−43a; Mk 9:14−27), Luke retains the focus on the actual healing of the boy. As in Mark, the boy’s suffering (clearly a grand mal epileptic attack, cf. Suinn 1975:391−392) is described in detail in Table 4.

TABLE 4: The epileptic boy in Luke.

However, Mark’s version elaborates much more on the unbelief of the disciples and the (lack of) faith of the boy’s father. If one compares Mark 6:5 with 9:23, Mark seems to see a close connection between faith and healing. Here too Luke plays down the close connection between faith and healing as he did with his creative reinterpretation of Mark’s Nazareth episode in Luke 4, thereby emphasising that for Jesus there are no conditions and boundaries to God’s mercy for, and compassion towards, those who suffer.

Of special significance is also Jesus’ interpretation of the coming of the kingdom of God, not as an apocalyptic event (contra Mark and Matthew) but as happening here and now when psychological healing is affected: ‘But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you’ (Lk 11:20). This correlates perfectly with Luke 17:20−21 where the kingdom is explicitly described in psychological terms:

The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, “Look, here it is!” or “There it is!” For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you. (Lk 17:20–21)20

Compassion, empathy and altruism

In the Handbook of positive psychology, Cassell (2005:434−445) wrote a chapter on compassion, whilst Batson, Ahmad, Lishner and Tsang (2005:485−498) wrote on empathy and altruism. For the purposes of our interpretation of Luke, compassion can be regarded as an exchangeable term for empathy. Batson et al. (2005:486) define empathy formally as ‘an other-orientated emotional response elicited by and congruent with the perceived well-fare of someone else’. Batson et al. (2005) emphasise that true empathy is basically altruistic, leads to concrete action that benefits people who are suffering, and is not done for egoistic reasons. They quote Pilavin and Charng (1990:27) who contend on the basis of several studies conducted that:

There appears to be a ‘paradigm shift’ away from the earlier position that behaviour that appears to be altruistic must, under closer scrutiny, be revealed as reflecting egoistic motives. Rather, theory and data now being advanced are more compatible with the view that true altruism – acting with the goal of benefiting another – does exist and is a part of human nature. (Pilavin & Charng 1990:270 in Batson et al. 2005:490)

In Luke’s Gospel, the notion of compassion and altruistic empathy is expressed by the terms ἔλεος (Lk 1:50, 54, 58, 72, 78), οἰκτίρμων (Lk 6:36), σπλαγχνίζομαι, (7:13; 10:33; 15:20; Ac 1:18) and ἐπιμελεσθαι (to care – Lk 10:34−35). Luke employs three characters (Mary, Zecharaiah and Jesus) to promote it.

In Mary’s Magnificat (in all probability based on Hannah’s Song in 1 Sm 2:1−10) it is God’s mercy (ἔλεος) through the ages (1:50) that finds expression in the reversal of roles of the poor and the mighty in 1:51–53, and which would benefit Israel (1:54). Zecharaiah’s Benedictus also refers to the mercy shown to Israel’s ancestors (1:72), which also provides the basis for the salvation that would come from his son’s follower, Jesus (1:78).

In a programmatic saying as part of the Lucan Jesus’ sermon on the plain, which advocates action that benefits sufferers, Luke renders the Q-saying of 6:36 as ‘be compassionate (οἰκτίρμονες), as your father is compassionate (οἰκτίρμων), instead of the ‘you must be perfect (τέλειοι) as your heavenly father is perfect (τέλειός) of Matthew 5:48. This notion of God as primarily merciful is not always consistent with (violent) images of YHWH (e.g. as a warrior, יְהוָ֖ה אִ֣ישׁ מִלְחָמָ֑ה – Ex 15:3) that can also be ascribed to the Jewish and Israelite tradition, although it is not absent in the Old Testament either (cf. Ex 34:6−7)21.

Luke furthermore portrays a Jesus who is motivated by the same compassion which is ascribed to God and who expects his followers to be likewise motivated. In the raising of the son of the widow of Nain, it is stated that Jesus was moved with pity for the widow (ἐσπλαγχνίσθη ἐπ᾽αὐτῇ, 7:13) and that he acted as a result of this pity or compassion, in word (‘do not weep’) and deed (the raising of the son).22 That he expected his followers to do likewise in a multicultural context (cf. the work on multiculturalism by Lopez et al. 2005) is nowhere more prominently communicated than in the parable of the good Samaritan (10:33−35). Contrary to the Jerusalem clergy, the Samaritan was moved with compassion (Σαμαρίτης ἐσπλαγχνίσθη) and cared immediately and extensively for the assaulted man (money-wise included). To describe the compassion and the resultant deed as one action, which emphasises their unity, Luke also uses the expression ὁ ποιήσας τὸ ἔλεος (the one who has shown mercy) to refer to the Samaritan in 10:37. The parable ends with the call that the listener should do likewise (καὶ σὺ ποίει ὁμοίως). In the following table, Cassel’s (2005:n.p.) essential ‘requirements for compassion’ are listed and their remarkable23 presence in the parable of the ‘compassionate’ Samaritan is indicated (see Table 5).

Similar expressions of compassion can be found even when the terms are absent, as for example in the account of Jesus’ healings (cf. above), his concern for the lamenting women, his healing of the high priest’s ear during his arrest (22:51) and his acceptance of the penitent robber who was crucified with him (23:39−43), as well as his prayer for his crucifiers (23:34). Most of these motifs are unique to Luke’s Gospel.


In the Handbook of positive psychology contributors endeavour to reflect scientifically on virtues which, up to now, were mainly reflected upon in the realms of philosophy and religion. In line with the endeavour of present-day psychology to be an objective science, positive psychology has sought to provide precise definitions and measurements. This has been done with limited success. To the amazement of those philosophers and theologians who, from the start, regard measurement as impossible and who regard knowledge about matters such as love, forgiveness, humility and compassion as a matter of faith, or at least personal conviction, positive psychologists have indicated that these virtues exist and are part of human nature. On the other hand positive psychologists also admit that there are aspects of these concepts that escape human measurement. For how can wisdom, humour and ethics be fully measured? It seems therefore that, besides individual reflection and meditation on these virtues, mutual discussion and reflection on them as well as experiencing them in mutual and interactive relationships, is also the way to appropriate them and simultaneously gain more profound insight into them. Surprisingly this leaves space for religion and spirituality, which as such is also consciously recognised by positive psychology (see Pargament and Mahoney’s contribution on the discovery and conserving of the sacred – 2005:646−659).

There is some irony in the fact that, whereas biblical scholarship is often preoccupied with technical issues like the sources of texts, as if their understanding depends on a precise reconstruction of their origin and function in ancient contexts, psychology and spirituality would engage in cultivating the treasures which exegesis often neglects – perhaps in an endeavour to gain intellectual respectability. To my mind, positive psychology has therefore a large contribution to make in the endeavours of biblical scholars who want to engage in psychological biblical criticism.

Of course Luke, like other ancient texts, is not replete with insights on positive psychology. However, to my mind, especially Luke’s Gospel can be regarded as a religious text which, if properly reflected upon – also with the aid of positive psychology – has much to contribute to the motivation and fostering of thoughts, virtues and feelings that make for worthwhile living, as it has indeed to some extent done through 2000 years of Christianity.


Competing interests
The author declares that he has no financial or personal relationship(s) that may have inappropriately influenced him in writing this article.


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1.In my doctoral dissertation, Suffering in Luke’s Gospel, I distinguished and discussed ‘psychological suffering’ as one of six dimensions of suffering that Luke emphasised (Scheffler 1993:90−96). Positive psychology, as a specific psychological approach, only appeared on the scene later (Butler-Bowdon 2007:254−259; Seligman 2002, 2005:3−9; Collin et al. 2012:200−201) and therefore this article comprises an extended refinement of the discussion in my dissertation.

2.Because of its almost encyclopaedic nature, and for the purposes of this contribution, I confine myself mainly to this volume, although some other relevant psychological works will also be referred to.

3.Seligman once served a term as chair of the American Psychological Association, which testifies to the wider recognition of his work.

4.Interestingly, there also exist similar voices outside the ‘school’ of positive psychology who criticise ‘biomania’ and highlight values, relationships and the ethics of care (e.g. Allen 2013:105 referring to the work of Bracken et al. 2012:432).

5.For a brief overview of their approaches, see Collin et al. (2012:32−37; 92–99; 101−107).

6.The medical ‘diagnostic’ approach finds a classical expression in the Handbook of abnormal psychology (Eysenck 1973), whose various contributions all reflect that very approach (e.g. criminal behaviour, drug dependence, abnormal sexual behaviour, abnormalities of perception, motivation and learning etc.). In terms of the traditional approach the term ‘normal psychology’ could be an alternative term used, preventing the positive approach from completely denying psychological defects.

7.Cf. also Fueter’s (1986:309−319) penetrating (and relevant for positive psychology without referring to the latter) discussion and distinction between the language of science or ‘diagnosis’ and the language of healing.

8.For a brief overview of the approaches of Allport and Maslow, see Collin et al. (2012:138−139; 306−313) and Hjelle and Ziegler (1976:171−210; 249−286). To my mind Maslow’s humanistic psychology is closer to positive psychology than Allport’s trait theory (which focuses on individuality, but positively emphasises rationality, proactivity and heterostasis – 1976:207). Maslow’s fifteen features of self-fulfilment define its overlap with positive psychology: self-fulfilled persons (1) perceive reality sufficiently and tolerate uncertainty, (2) accept themselves and others for what they are, (3) are spontaneous in thought and action, (4) are problem-centred instead of self-centred, (5) have an unusual sense of humour, (6) are able to look at life objectively, (7) are highly creative, (8) are resistant to enculturation but not purposely unconventional, (9) are concerned with the welfare of humanity, (10) are capable of deep appreciation of basic life-experiences, (11) establish deep satisfying interpersonal relationships with a few people, (12) undergo peak experiences, (13) have a need for privacy, (14) support democratic attitudes and (15) have strong moral and ethical standards.

9.Other themes investigated in positive psychology (not mentioned in the table), include: human strengths, resilience in development, the concept of flow, positive emotions, self-esteem, coping, emotional intelligence, (emotional) creativity, personal control, well-being (mindfulness), optimism, self-efficacy, adjustment, goal-setting, passion for knowledge, reality negotiation, authenticity (in social relationships), uniqueness seeking, personal relationships, empathy and altruism, moral motivation, toughness, positive affect, integrative science, social support, sharing the story, benefit-finding, meaningfulness, humour, spirituality, positive growth and constructivism (Snyder & Lopez 2005). Many of these themes overlap, but they represent different perspectives which all have one purpose: to enhance psychological well-being.

10.Poverty is generally regarded as a major theme of the Gospel. For a penetrating study of this dimension of Luke’s emphasis on human suffering, see Scheffler (2011).

11.For a profound ‘psychological’ commentary on this passage, see Drewermann (2009:479−494).

12.To continue with what one can do best and which gives one joy seems, according to positive psychology, to be the apt strategy for the aged. But there should be a conscious decision to do just that and not to reflect negatively on the ageing process. H.H. Ellens ([SBL St Andrews] oral comm., July 2013) remarked during discussion time when I delivered this paper at the SBL in St Andrews: ‘Traditional psychology asks the ‘patient’, “What is wrong?”, positive psychology asks, “What are you going to do with the time left?”’

13.Lyrically expressed by the German novelist Hermann Hesse (2012:24): ‘Wir alten stehen erntend am Spalier/Und wärmen uns die sommerbrauenen Hände./Noch lacht der Tag, noch ist er nicht zu Ende,/Noch hält und schmeichelt uns das Heut und Hier.‘

14.See, for example, Kimmel (1974:343−381) for a penetrating discussion of the theories regarding ageing and mortality, the role of disease in the ageing process, physiological changes that come with ageing and changes in intellectual processes in ageing.

15.Freud’s five stages are labelled oral, anal, phallic, latent and genital (Hjelle & Ziegler 1976:31−36).

16.Erikson, in his ground breaking book Childhood and society (1963) labels his eight stages, infancy (0−1 years), early childhood (1−2 years), play age (3−5), school age (6−11 years), adolescence (12−), young adulthood (20−25), middle adulthood (25−65) and maturity (65+). For a summary see Hjelle and Ziegler (1976:63−77).

17.Armstrong’s (2007) stages are (1) prebirth, (2) birth, (3) infancy, (4) early childhood, (5) middle childhood, (6) late childhood, (7) adolescence, (8) early adulthood, (9) midlife, (10) mature adulthood, (11) late adulthood, (12) death and dying, (13) beyond death.

18.For a more detailed discussion see Scheffler (1993:91).

19.For a relevant modern treatment of the concept ‘Psychische Befreiung’ (psychological liberation) along with ‘politische Befreiung’ (political liberation), inspired by the Christ event, see Moltmann (1973:268−315).

20.This text caused the Irish author George Bernard Shaw to comment: ‘Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is among you” – ever since the Church has sought for it somewhere else.’

21.Exodus 34:6–7 reads: ‘YHWH, a God merciful and gracious (רַח֖וּם וְחַנּ֑וּן) slow to anger (אֶ֥רֶךְ אַפַּ֖יִם), and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (וְרַב־חֶ֥סֶד וֶאֱמֶֽת), keeping steadfast love (נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙) for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֹ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה), yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ The text is clearly contradictory (not so according to Fensham 1970:229), portraying God as both merciful and forgiving, as well as punishing. The first part can be regarded as the ‘default’ ancient Israelite view of God, into which other (even contradictory) aspects were accommodated. Jesus’ view of God, according to Luke, mainly emphasises the ‘default’ position, although punishment is not absent for loveless behaviour (Lk 12:48; 16:19−30). Interesting are the diverse receptions of this text in the rest of the Old Testament where, in some cases, reference is only made to YHWH’s grace – cf. Numbers 14:18 (grace and punishment); Deuteronomy 5:9 (grace and punishment); Nehemia 9:17 (only grace); Psalm 86:15 (only grace); 103:8 (anger only temporary); 145:8−9 (only grace); Jeremiah 32:18 (focus on grace); Joel 2:13 (only grace); Jon 4:2 (only grace); Nahum 1:3 (focus on punishment).

22.Jeremias (1980:158) speculates regarding the omission of σπλαγχνίζομαι in the healings of the leper (5:12 contra Mk 1:41) and the feeding of the 5000 (Lk 9:11 contra Mk 6:34): ‘… er vermied is beide Male, offenbar weil er sich an dem Affekt Jesu stiess.’ However, feeling is not absent in Luke’s rendering (he expressed his willingness to heal the leper) and uses ἀποδέχομαι (‘welcome heartily’) in the feeding episode. The fact that he retains σπλαγχνίζομαι in Luke 7:3 testifies to the fact that he actually wants to portray a Jesus with compassion and the use of it to describe the actions of the Samaritan and the forgiving father (which indirectly refers to Jesus’ own actions – cf. 15:1, 20) integrates too well with Luke’s view.

23.Remarkable, since Cassel refers nowhere to the parable and most probably made his analysis without considering Luke’s Gospel.


Crossref Citations

1. Reflecting on Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness from a positive psychological perspective
Eben Scheffler
HTS Teologiese Studies / Theological Studies  vol: 71  issue: 1  year: 2015  
doi: 10.4102/hts.v71i1.2982