A window into Luke

Epiphany 4

Luke 4:21-30

Marian Free

In the name of God, whose son Jesus is revealed to us in the gospels. Amen.

Over the course of this year you will notice that our gospel readings come predominantly from the Gospel of Luke. The reason for this is that we are in the third year of the lectionary cycle. Over three successive years we read, almost in full, Matthew, Mark and Luke. (John does not have a year to itself, but is read during Easter and Lent during those years.)

We do not know anything about the author of the gospel of Luke, but we can deduce some things from the gospel and the way in which it is written. Luke, as Matthew, follows the same order as Mark, however Luke leaves out information and text which he (we presume the author was a “he”) considers unnecessary. For example, he completely omits chapters 6 and 7 of Mark possibly because they contain a number of repetitions. On the other hand, Luke is a storyteller and with just a few details is able to create a comprehensive picture or tell a compelling story. Two of the most well-known and loved stories in the New Testament are told only by Luke – the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal son both of which say a lot very succinctly. So, despite Luke’s preference for brevity, his gospel is significantly longer than that of Mark.

For centuries, it was argued that the author of Luke was a physician. Scholars pointed to Luke’s interest in, and apparent knowledge of things medical. However, it has long since been observed that Luke has no more knowledge or interest in medicine than any other NT writer. It is clear, however, that Luke does have more interest in social justice. (In Acts we find the idea that members of the church should have all things in common and the Song of Mary states that God “has put down the mighty from their thrones and the rich he has sent empty away.”)

We know that Luke was the author of two books – the Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles – which, though separated by John in our Bibles, originally belonged together. That they have the same author is demonstrated by the fact that both books are addressed to the same person – Theophilus – and that similar themes play out throughout both books. One clear theme is that of journey and mission. The Gospel, concerned as it is with re-telling the life of Jesus, is focussed on Jerusalem and a large part of the book is taken up with Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem and its consequences. In Acts, the focus begins in Jerusalem, the centre of Judaism and the birth place of the church, and from there the story broadens out to include the Mediterranean and Rome, the centre of the Empire.

Luke’s gospel was probably written some time between the years 80 and 90. it cannot have been written before the sixth decade of the first century otherwise it would not have been able to include the details recorded at the end of Acts, nor can it have been written any later than the late second century which is the date of our earliest copy.

By the time that the gospels were written, the emerging church faced a crisis – the Jews to whom Jesus was sent had failed to respond to his message, whereas the Gentiles – who did not belong to the people of Israel – had come to faith. To some extent, all the gospel writers deal with this conundrum in some way, but the issue expressed most clear in Luke. The third gospel demonstrates both that God remains faithful to his promises – God has not abandoned the Jews – and that the inclusion of the Gentiles was always part of God’s plan. This is one reason that the author of Luke begins the story in the centre of Judaism and concludes the account in the centre of the empire.

Even though Luke is keen to demonstrate the movement of the faith throughout the whole world, he is equally keen to emphasise its Jewish roots. According to Luke, the story of Jesus and of the early church is nothing less than a continuation of Judaism and the fulfilment of the OT expectations. Unlike Mathew, who repeatedly alerts us to the fulfilment of the OT, “this was to fulfil what was written in the scriptures”, Luke makes the same point by repetition and allusion. So for example, the Song of Mary is almost identical to the Song of Hannah and Jesus’ life is portrayed in such a way that those who knew would associate Jesus with Moses. (Moses goes into the wilderness. In the desert Moses experiences a call from God. The people to whom Moses is sent do not understand and so on.) In fact it can be argued that Luke sees the account of John the Baptist as the conclusion of the OT era (the last of the prophets), and Jesus as the beginning of the new, God’s anointed one.

Today’s gospel reading is recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke. Luke’s record is however, quite different from the other two. If you were able to place the three accounts side by side you would see that Luke provides new material that is not found elsewhere. All three report Jesus’ preaching in the synagogue. Only Luke quotes the passages that Jesus reads: “He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives.” Likewise only Luke has Jesus claim that the scripture is fulfilled in him. The former is consistent with Luke’s social justice emphasis and the latter with his fulfilment theme. Luke alone has Jesus insinuate that the crowd (like the Jews in the times of Elijah and Elisha) are unable to recognise one of their own whereas those from outside (Naaman) do. (The reader is not surprised – this is what is happening in their own time – Gentiles believe, those to whom Jesus was sent do not.)

The response of Jesus’ listeners in Mark and Matthew is relatively mild despite being impressed, they took offense at him because they knew him so well). In Luke the reaction to Jesus’ claim and to his insinuation about the lack of faith in his listeners is so powerful and negative that they try to kill him. (Luke, at the beginning of his account of Jesus’ ministry is already making it clear that it is not that God has abandoned God’s people, but that they have failed to recognise God in Jesus.)

Most of us think that we know what the Bible says so sometimes it comes as a shock to learn that passages and stories that we thought belonged to all the gospels belong only to one or that one writer makes what we consider to be radical changes or additions to a familiar story. It is also exciting to compare the three accounts. Our new knowledge encourages us to ask questions, to consider why Luke added so much to his source material, what he was trying to say about Jesus, who were the people who heard or read the Gospel, how did the early church develop and grow and so on? During the year we will discover the answers to some, if not all of these questions.

Scripture is fascinating, confusing, challenging and comforting, but above all, it is one way that God communicates with us and a way that we in turn communicate God to the world. Don’t we owe it to God and to the world to discover and to understand as much as we possibly can?

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