Imagine if the Gospel of Luke was the only story about Jesus available to us. What then would that story look like?
Now, we have four stories –four Gospels- available to us, of course, and that fact alone should raise the important point that the story of Jesus is capable of being understood on different levels. It is multi-linear. Perhaps that is something like the formation of map coordinates, a kind of triangulation point: that the authors each indicate something of crucial import that can only be properly located when the other lines are fully drawn.
Some of these writers appeal to historical reference points. “ In the year when” so-and-so was Emperor, so-and-so was High Priest and so-and-so was the local Governor. These were verifiable facts, grid references for when things happened. There are plenty of such moments in the New Testament: for example, there’s an offhand remark in the book of Acts, referring to the eviction of Jews from Rome, which we know from sources outside the Bible that happened in the year 49 AD.
But what does Luke’s story look like, taken by itself? What are the values that it espouses and the causes that it takes up? You see, it is clearly not the first Gospel to be written, since the introduction says that “Many” others have written an account. So why bother writing again?
Andrew Davies was commissioned to do an adaptation of Dickens’ Dombey & Son for BBC Television a few years back, and then, in a policy shift somewhere in the higher echelons, this was changed to a reworking of David Copperfield. His letter querying this suggested something of the “Why” question that we might ask of Luke. Since this has been done repeatedly, he asked, why do it again? Of course, the BBC answer would have been something along the lines that David Copperfield is a much more popular story than Dombey & Son (my own opinion would be: only because it is not as well-known, but let it pass…). Like the BBC, but for different reasons, Luke was explicit about the need to “do it again.”
His reasons are clear: He wanted to put things “in order”. It’s an interesting point. For example: little moments in the story of Jesus are moved around in the other three Gospels. The most glaring of these movements is moving the account of Jesus knocking over the moneychangers’ tables from the end of Jesus’ public ministry (in Matthew, Mark and Luke) to the beginning (in John). John clearly had a different agenda that was not chronologically based. Was Luke reasserting a historically correct order?
Another reason for doing a fresh adaptation is to recover lost emphases, to retell the story for a new generation, to be truer to the original. It is generally assumed –with excellent reasoning- that Mark gave us the first Gospel. It can be shown that Luke and Matthew both use that Gospel to provide something of a template for their own. Their differences and adaptations, then, show something of the specific story that they wanted to tell.
Remember too that Luke and the others were writing into specific life-contexts. There were real people living in the first century who didn’t receive it as we do, as part of “The Bible” but who received it, more or less, as News (“Good News”) about Jesus. And by the time Luke was writing, people had already given up their lives: they had been prepared to die rather than deny the truth of what Luke and the others had said. Jesus was already received as “Lord” in a society to which “Caesar is Lord” was the password into citizenship and social acceptance. To say “Jesus is Lord” was –by contrast- a path into ostracism, second-class treatment and possible persecution and ridicule.
We should not be surprised, then, when we turn to distinctive or dominant views of Jesus, that we find His humanity shining through and His compassion for the outcast of His world more clearly and centrally in Luke than in any of the other gospels. Luke does, indeed, use such titles common to the others – such as Christ, Son of God, and Lord – but they are not nearly as prominent as they are elsewhere. What strikes most readers of Luke’s gospel is how Jesus’ humanity shines through.
Four groups of outcast stand out in particular, Samaritans and Gentiles; tax-collectors and sinners (an unusual expression linking one particularly notorious up-and-out category of individuals (as opposed to down-and-out) at least with respect to their socioeconomic status with other notorious outcasts); thirdly women; and fourthly the poorest of the poor.
Samaritans and Gentiles
As examples of Luke’s distinctive concern for Samaritans and Gentiles, only he records the Parable of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), or the Story of the Ten Lepers, the only one of which who returned to give thanks to Jesus for His physical healing and thus experiences spiritual healing, was surprisingly the Samaritan (17:11-19). Jesus does not, because of the omission of the withdrawal from Galilee, minister directly to Gentiles in the ways that He does in Matthew and Mark. But such details as the sending of the servants a second time further afield to bring in more people to the master’s banqueting table in a parable like that of the Great Supper (14:23) may well hint at what certainly becomes a dominant theme – outreach to Gentiles wherever they may be found – by the time we reach the book of Acts.
Tax-Collectors and Sinners
Tax-collectors and sinners are well illustrated with texts like 5:30, 7:34 and 15:1. The last of these introduces the chapter of the three Parables of the Lost, culminating in the most famous and perhaps best illustration, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. See also the parable of the Pharisee and Tax-collector (18:9-14) and the conversion of Zacchaeus (19:1-10).
More Women Mentioned Specifically than in Other Gospels
Luke has far more women in his account than do the other gospels. The birth narratives appear recounted, it would seem, from the perspectives of Elizabeth and Mary – as opposed more to perhaps Joseph’s perspective at least in Matthew 1. In addition to the male prophet Simeon, there appears the even more elderly female prophetess Anna, recognizing the birth of the Christ-child in the temple in Jerusalem (2:25-38). Pairs of parables in distinctive fashion in Luke’s gospel balance male and female roles characteristic of the day – such as the Parables of the Mustard Seed and Leaven (13:18-21), the man’s farming occupation, the woman’s bread-baking occupation; or the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin (15:3-10). Both a woman and a man are healed of their crippling diseases on differing Sabbath days (13:10-17; 14:1-6). And, in what no doubt was a scandalous event at the time, Jesus announces the forgiveness of sins and praises the unnamed prostitute’s behavior when she crashes the party at the house of Simon the Pharisee, lets down her hair, anoints Jesus’ feet with oil and wipes the feet with her hair. One modern commentator on the gospel of Luke, Joel Green, has likened this action to a woman appearing in a formal dinner party in the Western world today topless. Jesus, in Luke, also praises Mary’s devotion to His teaching, over against the culturally expected domestic duties of Martha (10:38-42). And it is only in the gospel of Luke where we read and hear of the names of those more well-to-do women (8:1-3) who formed what today might be called the support team of Jesus and the apostles. They paid for their traveling provisions and, indeed, accompanied them on the road – mixed company in context that would have, at the very least, left the door open for great suspicions of scandal in Jesus’ day.
Jesus’ Ministry to the Poor
For examples of His ministry to the poor in Luke, we may consider the fact that the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Plain (beginning Luke 6:20) speak literally of you poor being blessed, rather than the poor in spirit as in Matthew. Or, in Jesus’ headline synagogue sermon at Nazareth (4:18), He pronounces the fulfillment of the ministry of the anointed Spirit of the Lord as prophesied in Isaiah to preach good news to the poor. The various teachings in the Parable of the Great Supper and the introductory illustrations that lead into it (14:7-24) all demonstrate God’s concern for the sick and dispossessed, who are unable to help themselves or return favors. And the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31) vindicates the neglected, presumably pious poor man (since his name means God helps) at the expense of the rich, but obviously godless, unnamed dweller and feaster in luxury, who recognizes at the end that his family has not repented or become right with God. Presumably thus he acknowledges that his lot in this earthly life had been similar.