Our curiosity about the authors of the New Testament always seems to outrun the sparse information that survived the Church’s early years of dispersion and persecution.
Nevertheless, we do have this brief description of the man behind the third Gospel in an anonymous manuscript dating back to about 160 AD.
Luke, a Syrian of Antioch, a physician by trade, was a student of the apostles. Later on he was a disciple of Paul until the latter’s death. Having served the Lord faultlessly, having remained unmarried and without children, he passed away, full of the Holy Spirit, in Boethia, in northeastern Greece, at the age of eighty-four. Under the impulse of the Holy Spirit, Luke wrote his Gospel in the region of Achaia in central Greece. In his prologue, while acknowledging that other gospels had been written before his, Luke explained that it was necessary to present to the faithful converted from paganism an exact account of the economy of salvation, lest they should be impeded by fables or caused to stray from the truth by the deceit of heretics.
Chapter 1 (verses 1-4) introduces us to Luke’s “orderly account” of what took place in Jesus’ earthly life. He goes on to refer to the “things which have been fulfilled among us,” moving us to think about the way Jesus’ words and actions set a pattern that had a profound influence on his followers “from the beginning.” By producing a two-part composition, Luke was able to demonstrate how the earliest successes and sufferings that he described the Church experiencing in the Acts of the Apostles echoed those of the Master, which he narrated in his Gospel. In effect, this beloved physician prescribes a regimen for spiritual health and growth: seek to know Jesus as his first followers did by making his story a part of your life.
The central and most powerful message of Luke is that Jesus willingly embraced death on the cross for us and that the Father affirmed this act of love by raising him from the dead. This proclamation is in complete harmony with the witness of the rest of apostolic Church, but each of the writings in the New Testament presents the good news in a distinctive way, and Luke’s Gospel is especially rich in unique contributions. Before settling in to work through its treasures one passage at a time, let us identify some of these features which give a special perspective to Luke’s portrait of Jesus.
A Portrait Drawn with Words
An ancient tradition claimed that St. Luke was not only a talented history writer but also a skillful artist. Although we have no first-century canvases that can verify this legend, Luke’s ability to engage the human imagination is quite literally “on display” in the countless books and museums that contain depictions which are, in fact, graphic illustrations of his Gospel. How many painters have sought to show Gabriel greeting the Mother of the Messiah, or to capture angelic choirs singing “Glory to God in the highest” to the wide-eyed wonder of shepherds and sheep? Only Luke records these moments, and several others of similar renown: the pint-sized public official, Zacchaeus, up in a sycamore tree (Luke 19:1-10); the consoling words of Jesus to a criminal who accepts his own crucifixion (23:39-43); and an evening walk to Emmaus with the engaging Stranger who was concealed in the flesh but who revealed himself in the breaking of bread (24:13-35).
Some of the most memorable scenes in this book are sketched by Jesus himself in his parables: the gardener giving the fig tree one more year to make good (Luke 13:6-9); the contrite tax agent out-praying the self-satisfied Pharisee (18:9-14); and the father with arms wide open to welcome a long-sought son—one who had hit bottom but who was saved by coming home (15:11-32). The message in all these parables is not new to those acquainted with the other Gospels, but each of these pictures in Luke highlights the conviction that Jesus sought to proclaim about his Father: he is ready to show compassion long before the offender can even figure out an apology.
A Gospel to Pray With
Using these and other images to lead our imaginations into more meaningful contact with Jesus is already an important part of what a book of meditations is about. The purpose of a devotional commentary is to help us to lift our minds and hearts to God, and to respond as we discover him seeking us in the Scriptures. This goal was obviously one of the important motives underlying the composition of Luke’s Gospel because he returns so frequently to this aspect of Jesus’ life. Not only does he record Jesus’ instructions about praying, he shows us how Jesus himself maintained a rhythm of prayer that accompanied all his decisions and activities. It is also to Luke that we are indebted for the texts preserved in the canticles of Zechariah, Simeon, and the Blessed Virgin Mary (Luke 1:68-79; 2:29-32; 1:46-55). Those who recite the Liturgy of the Hours continue to make them part of the Church’s living voice of praise and thanksgiving every day.
We can make good use of this Gospel as a prayer aid by coming to it as active listeners. We can ask what prompted Luke to include the special features that attract our attention. We can be creative in seeking parallels between our own personal journey and the events of Jesus’ life. Most of the time believers approach these stories by reading relatively small excerpts and examining them in discussion, through a homily, or in personal meditation. This is quite fitting, because even brief passages contain abundant food for reflection. It is also important, however, to watch for the way several shorter sections link together to outline aspects of Jesus’ attitudes or his way of acting that are too extensive to be portrayed fully in any one episode.
Jesus’ Universal Concern
One of the frequently revisited themes in Luke is the striking openness of Jesus toward every group of people that needed his attention and the power of his love to restore people. Luke has a fresh way of underscoring this sensitivity of Jesus with small but significant details, or sometimes by bringing in whole new episodes or incidents. It is especially evident in the way Jesus shows concern for the marginalized members of society, like the poor, widows and orphans, those stricken with leprosy, or victims of prejudice, like the Samaritans.
In a similar vein, Luke reports several instances in which Jesus interacted with women in meaningful ways. For modern readers this may not seem surprising, but for first-century Palestinians such initiatives could be a jarring experience. All the evangelists report that Mary Magdalene and her female companions were chosen to be the very first people to announce Jesus’ resurrection, acting as apostles to the apostles. But Luke’s narrative goes further than any of the others in the actual number of women it mentions and the information it gives about some of the important ways they figured in our Lord’s ministry. It even gives us the specific names of a few women we would not otherwise have: Elizabeth, Anna, Joanna, Susanna, and Mary, the mother of James (Luke 8:1-3; 24:1-11). Although modern readers may know nothing more about these people, we all instinctively understand the significance of being recognized and appreciated as an individual, and of being remembered by name.
Luke’s careful accounting ranges from the precious material he saves about the Virgin Mary, to the women who accompanied Jesus on his preaching tours, to the unnamed and unconventional admirer who anointed the Master’s feet and dried them with her hair (Luke 7:36-50). And where else would one expect to find a parable in which the character representing God is a winsome peasant who throws a big party over the recovery of a single coin—something perhaps insignificant to others but very precious in her own eyes (15:8-10)?
Jesus’ Special Interest in the Poor
A second area where the alert reader can profit by noting Luke’s technique of “revisiting themes” concerns the value of detachment from material possessions. Matthew, Mark, and John all depict Jesus as unencumbered with physical possessions, instructing his disciples to conduct their missions in a similarly austere way, and demonstrating a constant concern for the poor. But Luke sharpens this message by including several teachings of Jesus not recorded elsewhere:
In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus cautions that there are dire consequences in the afterlife for those habitually insensitive to the poor who are on their doorstep (Luke 16:19-23). In the parable of the rich man, who thinks only of hoarding wealth for himself, Jesus reminds us of the passing nature of worldly goods and the precariousness of earthly life (12:16-21). Finally, attending a banquet held by a prominent religious leader, Jesus tells his host to invite the poor and the handicapped to his celebrations, precisely because they cannot afford to invite him back (14:12-14). Again and again, Luke reminds his readers that almsgiving and renunciation of personal possessions are the ordinary prerequisites for those who want to follow Jesus.
Open to the Holy Spirit
As we listen to and pray our way through this Gospel, we can appreciate the richness of the text more deeply if we continue to look for passages where Luke shows Jesus, not only as a noble figure who incites awe, but as a model who inspires imitation. Is this too daunting a challenge? Where do we find the ability to understand and the courage to adopt the ideals Luke has preserved in these pages? Not surprisingly, he has anticipated this question and has woven into the Gospel one further major element, a theological thread which binds others together in a meaningful way. This, of course, is Luke’s quiet but persistent interest in the role of the Holy Spirit.
As in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit is the power of God, responsible for the conception of Jesus and his anointing at baptism. The Spirit guides him into the desert and empowers his mission and miracles. Luke tells us that, after Jesus’ ascension, the same Spirit descended upon the disciples. He bestowed on them the understanding, talents, and confidence they needed to follow Jesus. He taught them to conform their hearts and minds to Jesus and to share their vision of him with a new generation.