TO THE EDITOR, CATHOLIC TIMES, CREDO FOR 21.Jan 2001
Fr Francis Marsden
This year our Sunday Gospels are provided by St Luke, the “beloved Physician”. It may be helpful, for the coming year, to outline the special qualities of this third Gospel. These emerge when one examines the content which is unique to St Luke. To give you the statistics: of Luke’s 1149 verses approximately 350 come from St Mark, and 325 are shared in common with Matthew, but 548 verses are peculiar to St Luke.
A doctor, and by tradition also an artist, St Luke appears as a companion and fellow worker with St Paul in Col.4:14 and 2 Tim 4:11. However it is not really Paul’s ideas which come across in his writings. It is the apostolic tradition itself, enriched by a generation of reflection and meditation.
Most scholars date St Luke’s Gospel shortly after 70 AD. A few place it earlier, before the death of Paul. Luke had chance to gather his information in Palestine when Paul, arrested in Jerusalem, was remanded in prison in Caesarea-Maritima (61-63 AD), languishing for two years until he was shipped to Rome for his appeal to Caesar to be heard. Or indeed at any later date.
By tradition born at Antioch in Syria, Luke is a Greek-speaker, a Gentile writer writing for Gentile readers. For them he interprets the Palestinian-Jewish account of Jesus’ life and deeds. For instance, he always quotes the Greek rather than the Hebrew forms of place-names.
Luke gives us the most eloquent and stylistic Greek of the four Gospels. His is a literary work written to be read and to be admired. His Prologue, which is read this weekend,is said to be the most sonorous and cultured passage of Greek in the entire New Testament, modelled on classical forms.
“Seeing that many others have undertaken to draw up accounts of the events that have taken place among us, exactly as these were handed down to us by those who from the outset were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, I in my turn, after carefully going over the whole story from the beginning, have decided to write an ordered account for you, Theophilus, so that your Excellency may learn how well founded is the teaching that you have received.” (1:1-4)
Here Luke is setting out his credentials: the most painstaking historical research has gone into this account. He has systematically consulted the eyewitnesses and apostles. He is writing as a historian, although the Church knows he was also inspired by the Holy Spirit. Grace and scholarship are melded into one.
As a historian, when Luke relates the emergence of John the Baptist, he gives us six datings, beginning with the universal Roman Emperor: in the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar, then Pontius Pilate, Herod, Philip his brother, Lysanias and Caiaphas.
We do not know who Theophilus (meaning “Lover of God”) really was. Was he one particular individual, a high Roman official, an eminent and cultured convert to Christianity? Or is Luke using a stylistic form of address to any educated reader?
Again and again in Luke’s Gospel we find this universalist quality. He emphasises that Jesus is the Saviour of all human beings, not only a Jewish Messiah. He cuts through the barriers of racial exclusivity. His genealogy of Jesus (Ch 3) begins not as does Matthew’s, with Abraham, Father of the Jews, but with Adam, father of the whole human race. The hated Samaritans are shown as models of gratitude (the cleansed leper who alone out of ten returned to give thanks). Gentiles are portrayed as models of good conduct and steady faith (the Roman centurion whose slave is sick – Domine, non sum dignus . . )
Luke’s Gospel highlights Jesus’ deep sympathy with the poor, the weak and the lowly. Certain key texts on these themes appear only in Luke e.g. the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, for whom after death the roles are reversed. He begins the Beatitudes with the startling: “Blessed are the poor,” rather than Matthew’s more interior: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” When you wish to put on a feast, invite the poor, the lame, the blind, not your prosperous friends who will repay the compliment. Think of the lilies of the field . . and trust in Providence, rather than being a rich fool who pulls down his barns to build greater. In the parables of the man building a tower, and the king suing for peace, Luke urges the renunciation of possessions and a realistic reckoning of the cost of following the Lord.
Luke’s Gospel repeatedly offers the gift of repentance. Jesus is the “friend of sinners” who dines at Zacchaeus’ house when the tax extortionist mends his ways and pays compensation to his victims. His is the Parable of the prodigal Father with two sons, one a wastrel and the other resentful. He contrasts the self-righteous Pharisee and the humble publican at prayer in the Temple. The one preens himself, the other beats his breast at the back.
The Good News is for the simple and the lowly: “Then, filled with joy by the Holy Spirit, Jesus said: I bless You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and the clever, and revealing them to mere children.” The poor woman finds her lost drachma. Coming in from a day’s work, we must see to our Master’s supper before our own. At the end we can only say “We are merely servants. We have done no more than our duty.”
Luke loves to portray how Jesus is moved by compassion and sorrow for human suffering. The parable of the Good Samaritan, which urges us to act similarly, is uniquely his.
Luke’s Gospel is the first volume of a two-part work, the second part being the Acts of the Apostles, the “Gospel of the Holy Spirit.” So he writes often about the Holy Spirit and power which fill Jesus’ mission, whereas Matthew and Mark focus on the Kingdom of God. Jesus is “empowered with the Spirit” in order to perform his healings and exorcisms.
Luke alone quotes the prophecy of Isaiah which this weekend’s Gospel includes:
“The Spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for He has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and to the blind new sight, to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lord’s year of favour.”
This prophecy satisfies Luke’s orientation towards “good news for the poor.” Luke, writing for Gentiles, rarely quotes the Old Testament. St Matthew, in contrast, has a Jewish-Christian audience in mind, for whom the Prophets mean a great deal.
Luke’s Gospel is infused with a sense of praise and rejoicing in the Spirit. It is Luke who has passed on to us the Benedictus, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis, all used in the Daily Prayer of the Church. After the Ascension, the Apostles are “full of joy” and continually praising God.
Many scholars have speculated about Luke’s possible closeness to Our Lady and her kinsfolk – he alone provides the Annunciation and Visitation narratives, the Nativity story with the poor shepherds, the Presentation in the Temple, and the twelve-year old Jesus found in the temple. Generally he is more open to the feminine role: the widow of Nain, the woman of ill repute who anointed Jesus’ feet in Simon the Pharisee’s house, Mary Magdalen, and domestic conflicts of Mary and Martha.
Luke’s is a Gospel of prayer, which begins in the temple with Zechariah offering incense. It colcludes in the Temple as the Apostles pray to be clothed with the Pentecostal “power from on high.” He often emphasises the importance of Jesus’ own life of prayer – at His baptism, His night vigil before the choice of the twelve Apostles, at the Transfiguration, the agony of prayer in Gethsemane and upon the Cross.
Luke alone gives us two parables to teach perseverance in prayer: the insistent friend calling at midnight for bread, and the widow who would worry the Unjust Judge to death.
After the Resurrection, Luke relates the account of the two disciples meeting the Risen Jesus on the Emmaus road, and recognising Him in the breaking of the bread. The risen Saviour eats grilled fish. Luke alone depicts the Ascension.
The symbol of Luke the Evangelist is the calf or bull, the animal of holocaust and sacrifice. For Luke, Jesus is the redeeming sacrifice who breaks down all the barriers of the old order, between Jew and Gentile, slave and free man, saint and sinner. Jesus is the Saviour of the entire world.