Entering into the gospel of Luke

The Baptism of our Lord – 2016

Luke 3:15-22

Marian Free

In the name of God who opens our eyes and sends us out to waken the world to its salvation. Amen.

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany – the year of Luke has crept up on us, obscured in part by our celebration of a number of festivals that are best illustrated by readings from the other gospels. Year C, the year of Luke began on the first Sunday of Advent. This means that once again we will make our way though the third gospel. As we do we will become familiar with those themes and ideas that distinguish Luke’s account from that of Matthew and Mark and we will begin to discern what the differences tell us both about the author and about those for whom it was written.

In order to fully understand Luke, we have to place the gospel in context. There is a strong consensus that the first gospel to be written was that attributed to Mark. Scholars believe that Matthew and Luke used Mark as the basis for their own accounts but that they also had a common source. So for example, some of the parables and sayings that have been added are common to both Matthew and Luke – for example the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount are absent from Mark, but used by Matthew and Luke.

At the same time, both Matthew and Luke have material that is unique to them. Matthew alone records the parables of the ten bridesmaids and the separation of the sheep and the goats. It is only Luke who records our best-loved and most well-known parables those of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan.  From this we conclude that Luke used Mark, a source that he had in common with Matthew and material that only he knew.

Among the gospel writers Luke has a further claim to our interest. He alone wrote two volumes – the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles – the life of Jesus and the history of the early church.  The author of Luke is concerned with salvation history.  He divides time into a number of periods – the era of the promises of God, the  interim time of John the Baptist and the infancy of Jesus, the time of Jesus, the interim of the Cross, the Resurrection, the Ascension and Pentecost and the time of the Church that will end when Jesus returns.

Like the rest of the gospel writers Luke must confront the conundrum that by and large the Jews have not embraced Jesus whereas the Gentiles.  Luke deals with this in at least three ways. He writes in such a way as to develop demonstrate the continuity of Jesus with Judaism, beginning by formally introducing John as the last of the Old Testament prophets and he frames the story with Jerusalem – the Jews most sacred space. This is to illustrate his argument that salvation in the form of Jesus came to the heart of Judaism and it was there that it was rejected before being offered to the Gentiles. In comparison to Matthew whose gospel has a Jewish focus, Luke is keen to demonstrate that Jesus has relevance for the whole world. Luke’s genealogy goes back all the way to Adam – making Jesus’ humanity (rather than his Jewishness) blatantly clear.

There are a number of other things that make Luke’s gospel distinct. For a start, the gospel is addressed to a single person Theophilus.  Whether or not Theophilus is a real person or a representative figure, it would appear that Luke writes for townspeople, people who had better education and higher incomes than the Galilean disciples of Jesus. Luke changes the setting from a poor rural environment to one that is more familiar to his intended audience. He changes villages to cities, the amounts of money are bigger and the disciples are more informed, less like peasants (they own their own boats)[1].

In Luke’s gospel, the disciples are less foolish than in Mark and more aware of who Jesus is and of their own unworthiness in his presence.  The Holy Spirit has a dominant place in this gospel (and subsequently in Acts) being mentioned 28 times in the gospel[2] and a massive 83 times in Acts. The Holy Spirit moves both Elizabeth and Zechariah, they are promised that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirits overshadows Mary such that she becomes pregnant and Simeon, filled with the Holy Spirit recognises Jesus when he is brought into the Temple. The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism and Jesus promises the Holy Spirit to those who believe and warns of the sin against the Holy Spirit. (In Acts, the Holy Spirit directs the action almost entirely.)

Worship and prayer are central to the third gospel. Not only does the gospel begin and end in Jerusalem, but it begins and ends with a worshipping community. Jesus prays at all the important moments in his life (before choosing the 12, before asking who people say he is, before he predicts Peter’s denial and in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus’ disciples see Jesus praying and ask him to teach them how to pray and Jesus encourages them to pray and includes a parable on prayer. The Jesus of Luke scolds people for not giving thanks. All in all there are 20 references to people worshipping in Luke’s gospel.

Outsiders play a significant part in this gospel. Jesus says of the centurion that nowhere in Israel has he found such faith, the Good Samaritan challenges stereotypes of who is “good”, it is the Samaritan leper who gives thanks. Women also play a significant role. Though we can debate what Luke’s intention was, his gospel is more balanced – a woman as well as a man is healed on the Sabbath. The woman who anoints Jesus is identifies as an exemplar of hospitality. God is depicted as the shepherd who looks for the lost sheep and the woman who looks for the lost coin. The parables of growth feature a farmer who tosses mustard seeds and a woman who kneads yeast.

Luke is more concerned with money than the other writers, but his attitude towards wealth is ambivalent. On the one hand, he is anxious not to alienate his audience (patron) Theophilus, on the other, he appears to be convinced that those who are rich have a responsibility to use their wealth wisely.  Wealth is to be used by all. So we see that only Luke records the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and of the man who plans to build extra barns to store his surplus crops.

Unlike the other gospel writers, Luke is concerned to locate the gospel in history. This is evidenced by his reference to the census and to his naming of the various leaders (including differentiating between the different Herods).

We will be spending this year with Luke. Can I suggest that you make the time to read the gospel from beginning to end? Read it on its own or with a commentary. Become familiar with the content, make a note of the things that confuse you, notice the aspects that surprise and challenge you. Ask questions, challenge the text. Don’t be afraid to interrogate the gospel in depth.  Our scriptures are robust, they will withstand any amount of questioning and they have survived so long that they are not likely to be diminished or damaged by our weak attempts at exploration. It is more likely that they will reveal hitherto unexplored, unexposed depths.

Have conversations with the text, with each other, with Rodney, with me so that you will be better equipped to have conversations with others.

Text me, email me, talk to me, make comments on the sermon blog, write down your questions, your frustrations and at year’s end, we will all be better equipped to share the gospel with the world – or at least that small part of the world of which we are a part.


[1] There are a number of examples, but perhaps the best example of the way in which Luke re-frames the story is the account of the healing of the paralytic. If you recall, there is such a crowd around Jesus that when a group of friends arrive carrying their friend on a stretcher they find that they cannot get anywhere near Jesus. In order to get closer, they dig up the roof and lower their friend into the room. A city dweller would not understand that Palestinian houses have flat mud roofs, so Luke makes a slight change and has the friends remove tiles from the roof in order to lower the paralytic.
[2] Compared with 25 occurrences in the remaining gospels together.


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