Reading the Gospel of Luke in the ‘Year of Mercy’ 2015/2016

On December 8 2015, Pope Francis opened the ‘Year of Mercy’. During this time, the mass readings have mostly been taken from the Gospel of St Luke, which fits very well with the Pope’s theme. Although God’s mercy is stressed throughout the Bible, it has a special emphasis in the third gospel. In the first chapter, Luke presents two ‘songs’, the first of Mary (‘The Magnificat’) in which she is aware of the blessing of God to her personally, but also ‘his mercy from generation after generation’. In the song of Zachary (‘The Benedictus’), he also recalls the past where ‘God showed mercy to our ancestors’ and looks forward to the ‘tender mercy of our God who from on high will bring the rising Sun [Jesus] to visit us….’

Towards the end of the gospel when Jesus is dying on the cross, only in Luke we find his prayer for mercy to his executioners: ‘Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.’ Luke also shows Jesus himself extending mercy to the penitent thief crucified with him. As well as recording God’s mercy to us, Luke challenges his readers to show mercy to others.

Luke is the ‘most’ gospel in several ways. It is the longest of the four. It is also the only Gospel which has a ‘sequel’, as Luke also wrote The Acts of the Apostles telling of the early work of the Church and thus Luke is responsible for over one-fourth of the New Testament. His writing is of the highest literary quality in the New Testament, employing a careful use of the Greek language and adapting it to the various styles that suit each section. (This is hard to pick up in translations so scholar’s notes will help.) The dedication at the beginning is in classical Greek style, while some sections are written in the manner of the Greek Old Testament and other parts show a lively use of the speaking style of the time. It seems directed to Gentiles and leaves out complications of the Jewish religion, which concern Matthew – these modern Christians also are less interested in.

This gospel many find most attractive and congenial. Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary lists some of the characteristics: the gospel of or ‘great pardons’ – that is, mercy – of universal salvation, and of ‘messianic joy’. It is also the ‘gospel of the poor’ and besides concern for them, Luke seems to challenge the wealthy. It has the most women as characters and some of them, like Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, play important roles in Luke. He tells us women followed Jesus in his ministry and some provided financially for him in his travels (8:1-3). This gospel has the portrait of Mary the mother of Jesus that underlines Catholic devotion to Our Lady.

Luke is full of lively stories that have entered into our culture even beyond Christians, such as the parable of the Good Samaritan. It is hard to imagine Christmas without Luke’s account of the angels, shepherds, and the baby in the manger. He is gentle and sensitive; as G. B. Caird says, he ‘had an inexhaustible sympathy for other people’s troubles’. Caird also mentions his artistic ability shown in ‘vivid pen-portraits’ of the people he writes about. He portrays the apostles and original disciples in a reverent light (while Mark can be critical of their lapses and their problems of understanding Jesus’ mission). But Luke can also be demanding, challenging his readers with Jesus call to what Stuhlmueller calls ‘absolute renouncement’. It is the gospel that most often tells us about Jesus praying and urges us to follow his example.

None of the gospels names its author and the titles we use come from early traditions. It is likely that the evangelist is the same Luke mentioned in Paul’s letter to the Colossians as ‘the beloved physician’ who was faithful to him in his house arrest. There are some sections in the Acts of the Apostles about Paul’s missionary journeys in which the third person pronoun suddenly switches to ‘we’, implying that the writer was accompanying Paul at those points. In his prologue, Luke makes no claim to knowing Jesus in his lifetime, and he is likely to be a later convert who came to take an active part in the missionary work.

In his prologue, he tells us he made an effort to collect information from those who were ‘eyewitnesses and ministers of the word’ and set out to write an ‘orderly’ and reliable account of Jesus’ life and ministry, and his passion, death and resurrection. Luke hints that he also had written sources, and many scholars think he had a copy of Mark that he follows rather closely. If so, he obviously saw shortcomings in Mark and made many changes, improving the rough Greek Mark wrote in and adapting the text as he saw the need. He and Matthew share much that is not in Mark, sometimes the wording of these sections is close to identical. They probably had some common source, but there are no surviving written texts to tell us what it might have been. (Biblical scholars often call these sections ‘Q’ from a German word for ‘source’.) Luke also has much material that is only in his gospel, and some of these are is the most popular, like familiar parables and the stories of Jesus birth.

Luke uses the idea of ‘journeying’ as his underlying organizing scheme. There are many short journeys, but the overall one is Jesus moving from his first preaching in Galilee to Jerusalem for the final days of his life. (He also uses ‘journey’ in Acts, there showing the Church moving from Jerusalem to Rome, the centre of the political world of that time, and a symbol for the universal spread of the Gospel ‘to the ends of the earth’.)

There are other traits in Luke you can watch for. One is that he likes parallels, and we see this in the opening chapters where there is a parallel set up between John the Baptist and Jesus, two ‘annunciation’ stories by the angel to a parent, two birth scenes, and two expectations set up for the future of the children. In this case, there is a ‘step up’ from John to Jesus, so that Luke lets us know how much more important Jesus will be. He also will pair a short parable about a man with one about a woman, like the man who finds the lost sheep and the woman her lost household money. (See Luke 15:3-10.)

Luke shows a deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, mostly in its Greek translation. He sometimes quotes from it, as in 4:16-21 when Jesus applies the prophecy of Isaiah to himself. But more often, they are subtle reflections not cited, which a casual reader without the same background will miss. A Bible with cross-references, such as the Jerusalem Bible or the New Revised Standard Version will point some of these out.

I would recommend sometime during Year C taking a look at Luke as a whole, to get a sense of his particular way of looking at Jesus, his life, and his teaching. Even a short summary like this one suggests some of the riches of the third gospel.

If you want to go deeper into the Gospel there are a number of commentaries and reading guides for Luke, from the popular to scholarly. It is hard to recommend one to suit everybody, as individual needs and preferences vary. I suggest checking bookstores or sources online. I have the two volume set by Joseph A. Fitzmyer, which runs to nearly 2000 pages and is obviously not a starting place for a beginner! At the opposite end, I also have the short Luke-Acts by Nicholas King (Kevin Mayhew, publisher.) King leaves out introductory material, such as that I’ve summarized above, and plunges right into the beginning of the Gospel. His style is lively, sometimes humorous, yet his scholarship comes through as needed at various points. He has made his own translation of the whole New Testament with useful notes and that would be good not only for Luke but in comparing him to Matthew and Mark. It also gives full texts of the Letters used in Sunday masses. In each section, King includes questions to the reader in the hope of getting us to apply the gospel to our own lives.

I also check Saint Luke by G. B. Caird, the Commentary on the Greek text by Howard Marshall, Andrew Gregory in The Fourfold Gospel and both the Jerome Biblical Commentary and the later revision of this, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. References to all these authors appear in the Year C notes from time to time when I think they help in understanding the short selections.

Joan Griffith