Overview of St Luke’s Gospel

The Gospel of St Luke     Year C

Introduction: In our three year cycle of Gospels, Year C is designated the year of the Gospel of St. Luke. Written between the years 80-85 AD, the Gospel of Luke must be read with the Acts of the Apostles. Together they constitute one set, written in two volumes and dedicated to Luke’s patron, Theophilus. Written in Greek by one who is conscious of the historical aspects of the Christ event, Luke seeks to show Jesus as the universal savior was accepted by the Gentiles but ultimately rejected by the Chosen People. He seems to have access to several sources, but is intent on producing one reliable report in two volumes that will tell of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and assist his followers in remaining faithful to the Gospel message.

Who is Luke the Evangelist? As with the writers of the other synoptic Gospels, Luke does not identify himself in the body of the text. But from the writings of Paul and the other NT writers we encounter a companion of Paul, a physician named Luke who is traditionally identified with the writer of the Gospel. Tradition and the writings of the Church Fathers tell us that he was a Syrian by birth, most likely from Antioch and that through his many travels with Paul, including his final journey to Rome where Paul was executed, he became acquainted with the traditions and writings handed down by the Apostle to the Gentiles.

“Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you” (Col 4:12-14)

“Demas, in love with the present world has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica, Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Luke alone is with me” (2Tim: 4:10-11)

It was probably after Paul’s death in 64AD that Luke left Rome and went to Greece where he began the writing of his two volume work: Gospel and Acts. Tradition tells us that he died in old age and was buried in Constantinople. Luke is venerated as the patron saints of physicians and those in the healthcare profession.

Luke’s Sources: Much has been written about the sources used by Luke to write his Gospel. If, as many believe, he was a companion of Paul, then very little of Paul’s theology such as the mystical body of Christ or redemptive death of Jesus is reflected in the Gospel text. Scholars tend to divide into three main groups: those who see Matthew’s gospel as the main source, supplemented with original Lukan material, those who see Mark as the source for both Luke and Matthew with Luke supplementing it with material from an unknown source, usually referred to as Q and finally those who believe that Luke has access to early and trustworthy witnesses like the family and apostles or friends of Jesus who shared with him their memories and experiences of Jesus.

The Theology of Luke: Any description of Luke’s theology must begin by noting that the gospel is the only NT Book to have a second volume or sequel. Luke tells us that in the introduction to the Book of Acts when he refers to his “former work”, which most likely is the Gospel. This two volume approach, whether intentional or not, is very advantageous to the believer for it allows us to separate the material relating to the life of Christ from that relating to the development and growth of the Church. While it seems like a history of the life of Jesus it is really a history of salvation, a document of faith written with the purpose of recalling how the Holy Spirit definitively came into human history through Jesus of Nazareth and passed from the Risen Christ to his Church. Thus Jesus is the flowering of a long made plan of God to save everyone. It is this central truth that Luke seeks to recall in his Gospel as well as to help solidify and strengthen the belief of those who have received Jesus as savior. For Luke wants his readers to come away, not with a book dedicated simply to historical facts but with assurance, confidence and trust in Jesus as the long awaited Messiah of Israel and Lord of all peoples. The centrality of Jesus is heavily underlined now in a spectacular way and the subordination of God’s law to Jesus is a logical consequence of his being the only door to salvation, a door no longer reserved to the Chosen People but now open to all nations.

Luke’s Gospel is characterized by its universality and inclusiveness of Gentiles, women, those on the fringes of society: tax collectors, sinners and prostitutes. From now on everyone, Jew and Gentile, has the possibility of entering the Kingdom of God. Jesus is the link that joins the Old Covenant with its history of the Chosen People with the New Covenant of the Church. For Luke, John the Baptist, the key figure in the Infancy Narratives, is the last and the greatest of the Old Testament prophets. He is the one who announces the Messiah. And this Messiah is more than Israel ever dreamed of!

Three further themes that dominate Luke’s Gospel are: ReversalMercy and Perseverance in Prayer. In the first of these, Luke is at pains to teach us that God’s ways are very different from our ways. This theme of Reversal is first proclaimed in the Hymn of Mary usually referred to as the “Magnificat” (Lk 1:46-52) when Mary gives praise to God for all that he has done. Amongst these great acts are the scattering of the proud in heart, the putting down of the mighty and the exaltation of the lowly, the filling of the hungry and the sending the rich empty. We see it in the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-30) when the poor will inherit the kingdom, the sorrowful will laugh, the hungry will be satisfied and those rejected will leap for joy and be rewarded in heaven. We see this reversal too in the famous parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32) when the faithful son cannot bring himself to experience the love of his father, while the unfaithful son comes to realize that despite his infidelity he was always love by his father. And finally we see it in the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man (Lk 16:19-31) when each is rewarded according to how they spent their lives.

As the Gospel unfolds, we sense the theme of Mercy unfolding. Mary proclaims the mercy God has had on “those who fear him” (Lk 1: 50) While Zechariah re-echoes it in the words of the Benedictus:
“To give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God” (Lk 1:77-78)

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk 10: 29-37) Jesus responds to the question of the lawyer concerning eternal life and our responsibility to our neighbor. At the end of the parable Jesus asks the lawyer who was neighbor to the man in need and the lawyer is forced to respond “the one who treated him with mercy” To which answer Jesus responds: “go and do likewise”. Through the telling of this famous parable Luke seeks to make the teachings of Jesus relevant to his community!

The other great theme is Perseverance in Prayer. Throughout the Gospel Jesus prays before every major event in his life. His deep and intimate relationship with His Father is a key component in the Gospel of Luke. Through his emphasizes on prayer Luke seeks to encourage his community in a strong and consistent prayer life.

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in a bodily form as a dove” (L k 3: 21-22)

” he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Lk 18:1)

“And he came out, and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples followed him. And when he came to the place he said to them. ‘Pray that you may not enter into temptation’ and he withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and knelt down and prayed” (Lk 22:39-41

Journeying in the Gospel: One of the many motifs that run through Luke’s Gospel is the motif of the journey. In the Infancy Narrative three journeys are recorded. First Mary, having received the message of the angel travels in haste to visit her cousin Elizabeth in the hill country of Judah (Lk 1:39), then to comply with the decree of Augustus Caesar, Joseph and Mary are forced to travel from Galilee to Bethlehem (Lk 2:3-4) where the child Jesus is born. At the end of the Infancy Narrative of the Gospel Mary and Joseph travel from Jerusalem, having presented Jesus in the Temple. On the way back they realize that Jesus is not with them and they rush to the city where they find him teaching in the Temple (Lk 2:41-51)

At the very end of the Gospel on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35) two grieving disciples encounter the Risen Christ who walks with them. Not recognizing him they recount to him the events of the past week and in turn Jesus breaks open the scriptures for them “interpreting the things concerning himself”. As they approach the city they invite him to stay and eat with them and it is there they recognize him in “the breaking of bread”.

Both the Journey to Emmaus and the episode known as the Finding of the Child in the Temple serve to highlight the centrality of Jerusalem in the Gospel of Luke. Almost one third of the Gospel is dedicated the journey of Jesus to the city of his passion. Luke introduces that journey in Chapter 9 “when the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Lk 9:51). For Luke, Jesus is going to Jerusalem but his journey will not end there, for when Luke speaks of him “being received up” he is speaking about the Ascension, this, for the evangelist is the real goal of Jesus’ journey.

In the course of his journey Luke presents many practical insights, many in the form of parables and sayings, for the life of the Christian. Jesus must pass through the city of his passion in his journey to resurrection and return to the Father. Thus the one who seeks to follow Jesus must also be willing to embrace the journey of the cross, through the city of our lives, on our individual and communal journey to the Father.

The Infancy Narrative: One of the most interesting features in the Gospel of Luke is the Infancy Narratives from which most of our Christmas story is gleaned. Unlike Mark who begins his Gospel with the adult John the Baptist, Luke chooses to begin his Gospel with Narratives of the infancies of John the Baptist and Jesus. Both births are inextricably linked. The announcement of the birth of the Baptist is strategically placed to be compared with that of Jesus, and while the announcements are very similar in many ways yet the response of Mary is very different from that of Zechariah. Luke also uses the Narratives to compare and contrast the identities and roles of Jesus and John. While their messages are very similar in that they both relate to the Kingdom of God, Luke is at pains to emphasize that John’s primary role is to “to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Lk 1:17) whereas Jesus is the conceived by the Holy Spirit, who would “over shadow” the virgin and would be known as the “Son of the Most High” to whom would be given the “throne of his father David” (Lk 1:32). His role is contained in his very name “Jesus” from the Jewish meaning “God saves”. This subordination of John is emphasized in the count of the Visitation (Lk1: 39-57) in the words of Elizabeth “and why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” and in the “leaping for joy” of the unborn John in the presence of the unborn Jesus.

Here again we see the universality and inclusiveness of the Gospel message as it is first proclaimed to those on the fringes of society, the shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks by night” (Lk 2:8). It is here also that we find the original texts for four great hymns of the Church: the Gloria (Lk 2:14), the Magnificat (1:46-55), the Benedictus

(Lk 1:68-79) and the Nunc Dimittis (Lk 2:29-32). As essential parts of the official prayer of the Church they offer a deep reservoir of meaning and source of reflection for all who seek to enrich their prayer life.