Meeting St. Luke Today: Understanding the Man, His Mission, and His Message

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  • Copyright: 2009-09-01
  • Publisher: Loyola Pr
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Preeminent biblical scholar Harrington helps people uncover both the theological and literary beauty of this Gospel while he effectively bridges the gap between modern biblical scholarship and Christian spirituality.


A Year Dedicated to Luke the Evangelist

In the Year C (2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, 2022, etc.) of the Catholic Church’s lectionary of Scripture readings for Mass, the Gospel passage almost every Sunday is taken from St. Luke. In the New Testament we meet the person we call St. Luke only indirectly. We do so primarily through the two books that have traditionally been ascribed to him: the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. These two writings are among the longest and most influential books in the New Testament. Indeed, what we call Luke’s Gospel is sometimes described as the most beautiful book ever written.
My hope is that this guide to Luke’s Gospel may help those who teach, preach, meditate, pray, and discuss the Sunday Scripture readings and that it will open up some of the riches in this attractive and challenging text. I hope as well that this little book might be an entry point into the many treasures that God has given us in the Holy Bible.
After a brief introduction to what we can say with confidence about Luke the Evangelist, this volume provides in six chapters a narrative analysis of the entire Gospel of Luke. These chapters focus on the Gospel’s words and images, characters, plot, literary forms, indications of time and place, and theological message. The next two chapters examine how Luke handed on and interpreted earlier traditions and how Luke developed key themes throughout his Gospel. The last two chapters suggest how a person might pray on the basis of Luke’s texts by using the methods of lectio divina (“sacred reading”) and Ignatian contemplation, and how in the Year C of the Sunday cycle of Gospel readings Luke’s portrait of Jesus can challenge us to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Each chapter concludes with two or three questions for reflection and discussion.
I am grateful to Joseph Durepos for the invitation to write this book and to Loyola Press for continuing to promote the many different facets of Jesuit spirituality.


Part One
Meeting St. Luke


The Evangelist and His Gospel

In the main text of the Gospel of Luke, the author never identifies himself as Luke by name (as Paul does in his letters and as John does in Revelation). The title “According to Luke” seems to have been added later to the main text, sometime in the second century. From at least the second century on, the author of this Gospel has been identified as one of Paul’s coworkers, named Luke.
The first verse in the Acts of the Apostles (“In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did”) indicates that the same author wrote both Luke’s Gospel and Acts. At several points in Acts (16:11–16; 20:5–16; 21:1–17; 27:1—28:16) the writer uses “we” language, suggesting that he accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys and on his way to Rome. In Paul’s letters a person named Luke is described as one of Paul’s “fellow workers” (Philemon 24), the “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14), and Paul’s faithful friend (2 Timothy 4:11). Christian tradition identifies this Luke as the Evangelist and as the author of two volumes: the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.
However close Luke’s relationship to Paul may have been, it’s important to recognize Luke’s distinctive literary and theological approaches to Jesus and the movement he began. This is Luke’s Gospel, not Paul’s Gospel. A later tradition identifies Luke as a painter. While the history behind this identification is dubious, it makes the point that Luke is a master of details. Often, what is on the surface may seem straightforward and simple but emerges on further inspection to have hidden depth and complexity. Readers need to pay careful attention to the details because Luke’s truth is often in the details.
The focus of this book is Luke’s biography of Jesus, not the biography of Luke. In fact, we can say little about Luke’s biography beyond the few mentions of someone named Luke in the Pauline letters and perhaps the “we” passages in Acts. But there are several things we can say with great certainty about the Evangelist who wrote Luke’s Gospel. The Evangelist whom we call Luke knew the Greek language very well and was capable of writing it in various literary styles. While probably a non-­­Jew (a Gentile) by birth, the author of Luke-­Acts certainly knew a great deal about the Jewish Scriptures, may have been a “God fearer” (a Gentile associate member of a Jewish synagogue), became a Christian perhaps under Paul’s influence, and believed that the Jewish Scriptures were being fulfilled in Jesus and the early Christian movement.
The original audience for which Luke wrote was most likely made up mainly of Gentile Christians. However, in order to understand this Gospel they would have to have known a good deal about Judaism and the Jewish Scriptures. Perhaps they too were God fearers, that is, non-­Jews attracted to Judaism by its monotheism, high ethical standards, and rich community life.
There is little consensus about exactly where Luke wrote his Gospel. While earlier scholars placed it in Antioch in Syria or Caesarea in Palestine, now there is a tendency to locate it in Greece or even Rome. Wherever it originated, it soon became a Gospel for all the churches and enjoyed wide circulation throughout the ancient Mediterranean world.
At several points in this Gospel (19:43–44; 21:20, 24) the Evangelist seems to refer to the destruction of Jerusalem in ad 70, and his use of Mark’s Gospel as a source suggests that he composed his Gospel around ad 85 or 90 on the basis of earlier traditions. Luke’s account of the spread of the gospel in Acts breaks off rather abruptly around ad 60 with Paul still exercising his ministry of the word while under house arrest in Rome. Luke, however, seems to have completed his two-­volume work about twenty-­five or thirty years later. Whether he intended a third volume or was satisfied with telling only the story of the earliest years of the Christian movement is debated among scholars.
With regard to the origin and purpose of Luke’s Gospel, we are on firmer ground when we focus on the Evangelist’s own words in 1:1–4. This is the kind of statement that historians in antiquity customarily placed at the beginning of their works. Written in an elegant classical Greek style, the preface to Luke’s Gospel is one long sentence in the original text.

Luke 1:1–4
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.

In his preface Luke refers to “many” previous writers on the topic of Jesus and proposes to write an “orderly account” as they did. His subject matter is “the events that have been fulfilled among us”—certainly Jesus’ birth, public ministry, passion and death, and resurrection, as well as the spread of the early church throughout the Mediterranean world, as described in Acts. Luke claims to have relied on trustworthy sources (“eyewitnesses and servants of the word”) and to have carried out extensive research (“investigating everything carefully from the very first”). He does not claim that he himself was an eyewitness to Jesus. He dedicates his book to “Theophilus.” Writers in antiquity often relied on the generosity of a wealthy patron for financial support. The name means “lover of God.” This may have been his real name or a nickname honoring his piety. Or it may be merely a symbol for all of Luke’s prospective readers.
The Evangelist’s basic purpose was to provide Theophilus and other readers with an “orderly account.” It is important we understand that this expression does not necessarily mean orderly only in the matter of accurate chronology. It more likely means arranging the episodes and teachings in a way that best achieves the desired effect on the reader. What Luke hoped is that his narrative about Jesus would provide Theophilus with greater information and certainty about what he had already learned about Jesus in his earlier instruction. The second book in Luke’s two-­volume work—the Acts of the Apostles—is also dedicated to Theophilus and concerns the spread of the good news about Jesus from Jerusalem to Rome.
One of the written sources that Luke used was Mark’s Gospel, and so his Gospel (as well as Matthew’s) can be regarded as a revised and expanded version of Mark. Luke improved Mark’s Greek, tightened and polished Mark’s narrative, and included source material apparently not available to Mark. He used Mark’s Gospel in three large blocks (Luke 3:1—6:19; 8:4—9:50; 18:15—24:11). In between there are two large blocks of non-­Marcan material: what scholars call the “small insertion” (Luke 6:20—8:3) and the “large insertion” (9:51—18:14).
Another source that Luke used was the collection of sayings attributed to Jesus that is known today as the Sayings Source “Q.” The symbol Q derives from the German word for “source” (Quelle). Matthew also used Q, though independently from Luke. Most of the Q material appears in the two “insertions.” Almost half of Luke’s Gospel (including the infancy narrative and several of the parables, such as the Good Samaritan and the prodigal son) consists of special material found only in Luke’s Gospel and so is designated by the symbol “L” (for Luke). The L material was probably not a single book but rather a combination of traditional written and oral materials along with some passages composed by the Evangelist himself.
Luke set out to compose an orderly account about Jesus’ birth, public activity, passion and death, and resurrection on the basis of traditional materials in order to inspire greater certainty and confidence in his readers concerning their Christian faith. To its first readers it would have looked like a biography in which Jesus of Nazareth appears as the exemplary figure (though Jesus as the Son of God is far more than just a good example).
Luke’s narrative begins by placing Jesus’ birth and his preparation for his public ministry in the context of the faithful within Israel and the Jewish Scriptures (1:5—4:13). Then he describes Jesus’ public ministry in three phases: his early activities in Galilee (4:14—9:50), his journey with his disciples from Galilee to Jerusalem (9:51—19:27), and his ministry in Jerusalem (19:28—21:38). Finally he discusses Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem (22:1—24:53). In this geographical-­theological organization Luke followed Mark’s outline. But he has added an infancy narrative, greatly expanded the journey narrative from two and half to ten chapters, and included accounts of the risen Jesus’ appearances to his followers.
In telling his story of Jesus, Luke develops several themes that carry through not only in the Gospel but also into Acts. He discerns three phases in salvation history: from Adam to John the Baptist, the time of Jesus as the center of history, and the age of the Holy Spirit and the church. He places Jesus in the context of world history, while emphasizing Jesus’ integrity and political innocence. He portrays Jesus as showing special concern for the poor and other marginal persons, as praying at the most important moments in his life, as a prophet sent from God, as the best example of his own teachings, and as a model for Christians facing persecution and martyrdom.
In reading and praying over Luke’s Gospel it is important to approach the text as one of the principal witnesses to the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, the one whom early Christians recognized as the Son of God and the Lord Jesus Christ. At the same time we need to appreciate (following what Luke says in 1:1–4) that this Gospel is the product of a long and complex process of transmission from Jesus (ad 30 or so) through the early church to the Evangelist (ad 85–90), and we can expect to find new contributions and adaptations at each point along the way. Moreover, in interpreting Luke’s Gospel we need to respect the literary forms and conventions that the Evangelist chose to use, and the meaning that he intended to express. In this way we will read Luke in accord with what the Second Vatican Council said about the Bible and its interpretation in its 1965 Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei verbum).

For Reflection and Discussion
From the author’s preface in Luke 1:1–4, what do you expect from reading and studying this Gospel?
What might Luke have meant when he described his goal as providing an “orderly account”?


Part Two
Luke’s Story of Jesus

The Time of Preparation
Luke 1:1—4:13

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit
and fire.”

—Luke 3:15–16

Luke wrote a narrative about Jesus. He could have produced a collection of Jesus’ wise sayings (like the Sayings Source Q) or a theological treatise on the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection (like Romans and Hebrews). Instead he decided to tell the story of Jesus from his birth to his death and resurrection in the form of an orderly narrative.
In Luke’s narrative Jesus is the central character, and all the other characters relate to him, either positively or negatively. The plot traces the story of Jesus from his birth and preparation, through his public ministry first in Galilee, then on the road, and finally in Jerusalem, where he meets his death and experiences his resurrection. All this happens when Israel is part of the Roman Empire and under Roman control. Place and time are clearly important elements in the plot. Luke tells his story from the perspective of a believer in Jesus (as the Messiah, Son of Man, Son of God, Lord, etc.) and in light of what he describes in his preface as serious research. While not claiming to be an eyewitness himself, he presents himself as an all-­knowing narrator whose words can be trusted.
One approach to studying the Gospels that has become popular in recent years is called narrative analysis. This approach pays special attention to the text as it has come down to us in the Bible, that is, to the “text in front of us” rather than to what may be behind the text or what we might want to make the text say. It focuses on characterization, plot, time and place, the narrator’s point of view, and so on. The six chapters in this section provide a brief narrative analysis of Luke’s Gospel. While not a substitute for reading the text, it is intended as a help or guide to reading Luke’s Gospel in a fresh way and discovering why Luke’s Gospel may well be the most beautiful book ever written.
An important function of Luke’s preface (1:1–4) is to establish the reliability of the author and to delineate the ideal reader. The author tells us that he has done serious research on the topic and has set out to write an orderly account that will be both informative and persuasive. His ideal reader is Theophilus, a “lover of God,” who has already received some instruction about Jesus and the early days of Christianity. The Gospel will attempt to provide Theophilus (and all readers) with even greater certainty about these matters.
The first section of Luke’s Gospel concerns the circumstances of Jesus’ birth (1:5—2:52) and his adult life before his public ministry (3:1—4:13). It tells us who Jesus is and why he is so important. Luke prepares us as readers to understand that from the very beginning of his life on earth Jesus was no ordinary person. Rather, by his origins and early experiences, Jesus was well qualified to appear on the public stage as a wise teacher, powerful healer, and faithful witness to God as his Father.
In Luke’s infancy narrative (1:5—2:52) there is a remarkable shift in literary style from the elegant classical Greek of the preface (1:1–4) to the Semitic style of the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Septuagint). With this change in style, Luke places us readers in the world of the Old Testament, and he signals that Jesus’ birth took place among the best representatives of the people of God. The Word became flesh in a particular place and time: in the land of Israel under the Roman Empire in what we have come to call the first century.
The structure of Luke’s infancy narrative promotes a comparison between John the Baptist and Jesus. The point is that while John is great, Jesus is even greater. This comparison is carried out first in the announcements of the births of John (1:5–25) and of Jesus (1:26–38) and then in the descriptions of the births of John (1:57–80) and of Jesus (2:1–40). The comparison is reinforced in the episodes of the visitation (1:39–56) and of the child Jesus in the temple (2:41–52), as well as in the hymns proclaimed by Mary (the Magnificat in 1:46–55) and Zechariah (the Benedictus in 1:68–79). Luke’s infancy narrative begins and ends in the Jerusalem temple and moves around the land of Israel with stops at Nazareth in Galilee, the hill country of Judea, Bethlehem, the Jerusalem temple twice again, and back to Nazareth.
In the announcement of John’s birth (1:5–25), the main character is Zechariah, an elderly priest taking his turn serving at the Jerusalem temple. To him the angel Gabriel announces the birth of John the Baptist and his mission to prepare God’s people to turn to the Lord their God. Zechariah’s encounter with the angel in 1:11–20 follows a pattern that will be replicated in the announcement of Jesus’ birth to Mary: commission (to be John’s father), objection (we’re too old), reassurance (from Gabriel), and sign (his being silenced). Zechariah’s being struck mute provides the sign, and so his wife, Elizabeth, becomes pregnant. While this episode contains several motifs that will be developed throughout the Gospel narrative (prayer, joy, the Holy Spirit), the most obvious theme is that the story of salvation begins at Jerusalem, in the temple. At the close of the Gospel, the risen Jesus will commission his disciples to bring the good news to all nations, “beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47).
In the announcement of Jesus’ birth (1:26–38), the main character is Mary, a young woman of Nazareth who is engaged to Joseph. Her encounter with Gabriel proceeds according to a similar pattern: commission (to be the mother of the Son of the Most High), objection (I am a virgin), reassurance (the Holy Spirit will come upon you), and sign (Elizabeth’s pregnancy). While John is to be the prophet like Elijah preparing God’s people, Jesus will be the Son of God and the Davidic Messiah whose rule will last forever. Thus John is great, but Jesus is even greater. While Zechariah seems puzzled by his commission, Mary, once she understands, embraces her task enthusiastically, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (1:38). While John’s conception takes place in the usual human way, in the case of Jesus the Holy Spirit is active in his life from its very beginning.
In the Visitation (1:39–56), the two expectant mothers—Elizabeth and Mary—come together in a way that further establishes the superiority of Jesus. Under the power of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth (the older woman) declares Mary “blessed” and refers to her as “the mother of my Lord.” Even John in his mother’s womb rejoices to be in the presence of Mary and Jesus. Mary is also declared “blessed” because of her trust in God’s word to her (see 1:38; 2:19). Mary’s song of praise (the Magnificat, 1:46–55) celebrates God’s practice of choosing lowly instruments (like herself) and turning the natural order of society upside down in fulfilling his promises to his people. Mary then leaves Judea and returns to Nazareth in Galilee (1:56).
At the birth and naming of John (1:57–80) there is great joy in the hill country of Judea at Elizabeth having borne a son and at the perfect agreement regarding his name (which means “the Lord shows mercy”) in accord with the angel’s words in 1:13–14. Zechariah’s hymn of celebration (the Benedictus, 1:68–79) highlights the themes of salvation, divine mercy, and covenant. Yet the focus of his praise is mainly Jesus the Son of David, while he relegates his own son, John, to the role of prophet and precursor—Zechariah, too, gives witness to the superiority of Jesus. According to 1:80, when John grew up, he went off to the Judean Desert until his appearance as an adult on the public stage (in 3:1–20).
Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and naming (2:1–21) first explains how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem, the city of David his ancestor. Joseph and Mary had to travel there to be enrolled in an imperial census (2:1–5). The birth of Jesus (2:6–7) takes place in humble circumstances. The child is placed in a manger (a trough from which animals ate) because there was no room in the inn. Nevertheless, Jesus’ birth is celebrated by an angelic proclamation and chorus (2:8–14), and the shepherds (lowly figures in their society) make a respectful visit to the parents and their child (2:15–20). The contrast between the nobility of the child Jesus and the humble circumstances of his birth is brought out especially in the angelic identification of him, “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:11). The naming of Jesus (in 2:21) fulfills the angel’s prophecy in 1:31. His name means “the Lord saves.”
Forty days after Jesus’ birth, the family travels to the Jerusalem temple for the purification of Mary after childbirth and for the presentation of the child Jesus (2:22–40). There two elderly representatives of the best in biblical piety—Simeon and Anna—recognize the true nature and destiny of this child. Using the language of Isaiah, Simeon hails Jesus as “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (2:32), while also introducing the possibility of eventual suffering for the child and his mother, thus pointing forward to the Passion. Anna also recognizes this child as God’s instrument of Jerusalem’s redemption.
At the age of twelve, Jesus accompanies his parents on a pilgrimage at Passover to the Jerusalem temple (2:41–52). There Jesus debates with the great scholars and wins their admiration for his brilliance. His parents, however, are surprised at his behavior in separating himself from them, and they fail to understand it. Jesus’ explanation (“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” [2:49]) establishes God as his real father and the Jerusalem temple as his real home. Thus Luke’s infancy narrative ends where it began, and the family goes back to Nazareth.
From his account of Jesus’ birth, Luke moves the narrative abruptly forward to John and Jesus as adults in 3:1–20, all the while reinforcing the superiority of Jesus. The list of rulers in 3:1–2 situates them both in the context of history in the Mediterranean world around ad 29. The extended quotation of Isaiah 40 serves to identify Jesus as the Lord and John as his herald and highlights Jesus as the one who brings “the salvation of God.” The sample of John’s preaching in 3:7–14 consists of warnings about the judgment accompanying the coming of God’s kingdom and instructions on how to act in the face of it. In 3:15–18 John admits that his baptism in water is no match for Jesus’ baptism in “the Holy Spirit and fire.” In a peculiar move Luke in 3:19–20 describes John’s arrest and imprisonment for criticizing Herod Antipas before his account of the baptism of Jesus, thus leaving unclear who exactly baptized Jesus. For Luke, John belongs to the time of Israel (see 16:16), whereas Jesus represents a new period in salvation history, the center of time.
The remaining three passages in Luke’s account of the time of preparation concern various aspects of Jesus’ identity as the Son of God. The revelation of Jesus as God’s Son (3:21–22) occurs after his baptism and while he is at prayer. A voice from the heavens declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The genealogy of Jesus in 3:23–38 traces his lineage back to “Adam son of God,” thus emphasizing his universal significance for humankind. And the three tests or “temptations” in 4:1–13 establish what kind of Son of God Jesus really is. He is concerned with doing his Father’s will as revealed in the Scriptures, not with physical pleasure, political power, and fame. He passes the tests that ancient Israel in the wilderness failed, and he does so with quotations from the book of Deuteronomy.

Reflection and Discussion
How does Luke’s infancy narrative prepare us for his story about Jesus as an adult?
How has this exploration into Luke’s texts added to your thoughts and impressions about Jesus’ relationship with John the Baptist?

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