Introducing the Gospel of Luke

Luke can be called the ‘most’ gospel in several ways, first because it is the longest of the four. It is also the only one which has a ‘sequel’, as Luke also wrote The Acts of the Apostles telling of the early work of the Church. These two mean that Luke is the author of more than one-fourth of the New Testament. William Barclay notes that is is the most comprehensive of the first three, beginning before the birth of John the Baptist and the only one that describes the Ascension of Jesus after his resurrection.

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 harder to see in translations.) 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 toward Gentiles and leaves out complications of the Jewish religion, such as explaining dietary laws as Mark does, and these modern Christians may be less concerned about.

This gospel many find the most attractive and congenial. Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. writing in the Jerome Biblical Commentary lists some of the appealing characteristics: the gospel of ‘great pardons, of universal salvation, and of messianic joy’. It features the most women and some of them, like Elizabeth the mother of John the Baptist, play important roles in Luke. He tells us of women who followed Jesus in his ministry and some provided financially for him in his travels (8:1-3). This gospel has a 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, often known as well to non-Christians, especially his parables like that of the Good Samaritan. Even in a secular world, at Christmas Luke’s account of the angels, shepherds, and the baby in the manger have a visible role. 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 understanding Jesus’ mission). It is the gospel that most often tells us about Jesus praying, thus encouraging us to follow his example.

But Luke can also be demanding, challenging his readers with Jesus’ call to what Stuhlmueller calls ‘absolute renouncement’. It is also the ‘gospel of the poor’ and besides concern for them, Luke seems to warn the wealthy about their selfishness.

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 the Letter to the Colossians as ‘the beloved physician’ who was faithful to St Paul 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. 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. He may have been a Gentile, but if so one knowledgeable in the Jewish scriptures and expectations.

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. This hints that he had written sources, and many scholars think he had a copy of Mark that he follows rather closely as a chronological guide. 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 and of course adding much more material. He and Matthew share much that is not in Mark, in some of these sections, the words are 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 that is only in his gospel.

Luke uses the theme of ‘journeying’ as his underlying organizing scheme. There are many short journeys, but the over-arching one is Jesus moving from his first preaching in Galilee to Jerusalem for the final days of his life. He also uses a ‘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’.

Other traits in Luke include 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. (Luke 15:3-10)

Luke shows a deep knowledge of the Hebrew Bible 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 will point some of these out and they are picked up in commentaries.

If you want to study the Gospel in a careful way, there are a number of commentaries and reading guides, from the popular to scholarly level. It is hard to recommend one to suit everybody, as individual needs and preferences vary. There is information online that may help in making a choice.

I work with the Greek text, which most will not want to try. Basic for this is the two volume set by Joseph A. Fitzmyer – which runs to nearly 2000 pages and is obviously not a starting place for a beginner – and the Commentary on the Greek text by Howard Marshall. At the shorter end is Luke-Acts by Nicholas King, S.J. He has made his own translation of the whole New Testament with short notes and that would be good not only for Luke but the other books from which mass selections are taken. In each section, King includes questions to the reader in the hope of getting us to apply the gospel to one’s own life.

Others I use in the liturgy notes include Saint Luke by G. B. Caird, Andrew Gregory in The Fourfold Gospel and both the Jerome Biblical Commentary and the later revision of this, The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. Pablo T. Gadenz in the American series ‘Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture’ is useful for beginners for biblical background, history and customs. Illustrations show such things as what a millstone looked like. It has suggestions for ‘reflection and application’ which can sound ‘preachy’ but indicate ways the text is meant to be lived and prayed with. Another from the US is George Martin, Bringing the Gospel of Luke to Life, 600 pages in a more personal and chatty style.

Luke, however, is easy to read on its own; much will be familiar, but with the Bible, where God speaks to us through human author, there is always something more to learn and take into one’s life. May your own journey with Luke be a good one!

Joan Griffith

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