We can safely say several things about the Gospel of St. Luke, the Gospel read throughout the Catholic Church at Sunday Mass during this liturgical year, which began on the First Sunday of Advent, a few weeks ago. First, Luke was not an apostle and never met Christ. He admits this in his introduction where he describes his research: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus…” Luke refers to previous accounts already in circulation, most certainly the Gospel of Mark and an independent source of the savings of Jesus, called the Q-source, a source available to Luke and Matthew, but not to Mark.
The dating of Luke’s Gospel has been set at around 80 A.D., a half-century after the Resurrection of Jesus. Among the clues: Luke’s description of the end times is drawn in considerable detail from the actual destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D.; Luke’s theology of the Holy Spirit expressed in his Gospel and in his accompanying Acts of the Apostles explains the nature of Jesus’ presence in the Church that looked to exist for many years to come, i.e., as the years passed and the Second Coming did not occur, Luke found it necessary to explain the presence of Christ, in the Holy Spirit, that would extend far into the future. St. Paul’s first Letter to the Thessalonians, by contrast, written in the early 50’s A.D., expected an imminent return of Jesus. [See 1 Thessalonians 4]
This Gospel is dedicated to “Theophilus.” The identity of this individual is one of the New Testament’s mysteries. In the literal Greek of Luke, the name means “friend of God,” and some commentators see the name as a generic term for any well-intentioned searcher of the truth. On the other hand, in the custom of the time it was accepted practice to thank the patron who made the project possible through financial and other kinds of support. A popular theory in my school days in the early 1970’s held that Theophilus was a high-ranking Roman official; in this scenario, Luke may have been trying to convince Theophilus that, far from being a threat to the Roman Empire, Christianity might be the religious movement that could unify the Empire.
Luke writes his Gospel in sophisticated Greek, to an audience that honors the Scriptures of Israel. This style suggests an intended audience of both Gentile Christians and Diaspora Jews who had converted to Christianity, i.e., Jews who did not live in Judaea but had migrated around the Gentile world. The internal evidence of this Gospel strongly suggests an affluent audience, “financially secure enough that wealth had become a challenge to their spiritual health.” [Paulist Biblical Commentary, p. 1037] The best evidence suggests that this Gospel was written in Syria. Again, it is helpful to keep in mind that Luke is also the author of The Acts of the Apostles, much of which is devoted to St. Paul’s missionary work beyond Palestine, in the Greek-speaking eastern portion of the Roman Empire.
Luke’s cites his sources in his opening text [see first paragraph above] but like all the evangelists, he writes with a unique theological outlook of Jesus the Christ. With good reason Luke is regarded as the evangelist of the Holy Spirit as he describes the power of the Spirit in the person of Jesus from the very instant of his human existence—"“The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.” [Luke 1:35, Gabriel’s words to Mary.] Later in the Gospel, in Chapter 3, Luke writes: “After all the people had been baptized and Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” [Luke 3: 21-22, Baptism of Jesus by John.]
This emphasis upon the Holy Spirit is critical when we recall that the first generations of Christians believed that the Second Coming of Christ would occur momentarily. When this did not happen, and Rome destroyed the holy city of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., confusion, discouragement, and even doubt about Christianity’s future needed an inspired restatement of how Jesus’ legacy would be played out. Luke addresses this question in a brilliant Easter Sunday narrative, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. In Luke 24: 13-35 the author crafts the story of the two disciples abandoning Jerusalem in utter discouragement. Meeting Jesus on the way, but not recognizing him, they pour out their doubts and broken hearts. Jesus reinterprets the Biblical promises to assure them that God’s plan was still in play. The three men stop to eat, and during the meal “It happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened, and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight. Then they said to each other, ‘Were not our hearts burning [within us] while he spoke to us on the way and opened the scriptures to us?’”
The term “breaking of bread” was the Christian idiom for the primitive Eucharistic celebration. What Luke is teaching here [and this text is unique to Luke] is that the presence of Jesus is with the Church always when it celebrates Eucharist, and eventually the other sacraments. Our eyes are always opened to see Jesus in the sacramental life of the Church. It is not far fetched to say that Luke’s Gospel is the blueprint for a Church that can endure for millennia.
Luke goes further to explain that Jesus remains present in the Church through the unfailing presence of the Holy Spirit. In a stroke of pure genius, Luke parallels the human conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit in Chapter 2 of his Gospel with the dramatic conception of the Church by the Holy Spirit in his second chapter of Acts of the Apostles. It is this abiding presence of the Holy Spirit that empowers the Church to preach, teach, and sanctify in God’s name, i.e., where the Church draws its authority to proclaim the truth of Jesus. Again, it is no exaggeration to say that Luke’s Gospel and Acts of the Apostles has bequeathed to us the identity of the Church we know today.
As if this were not enough, Luke has left us with a collection of the most powerful parable lessons for Christian living. The following parables are unique to Luke and do not appear in any other Gospel:
The Two Debtors (7:14)
The Rich Man's Meditation (12:16)
The Barren Fig Tree (13:6-9)
The Good Samaritan (10:30-37)
The Three Loaves (11:5-8)
The Guests (14:7-11)
The Tower (14:28-30)
The Lost Coin (15:8-9)
The Prodigal Son (15:11-32)
The Unjust Steward (16:1-9)
The Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31)
The Slaves Duty (17:7-10)
The Importunate Widow (18:2-5)
The Pharisee and the Tax Gatherer (18:10-14)
The Watching Slaves (12:36-38)
I would do an injustice if I tried to summarize a common theme or themes to this body of metaphors. Moreover, parables in the Gospels are intended to raise as many questions as answers. However, scholars agree that Luke’s Gospel in general places considerable emphasis upon the universality of salvation, i.e., Gentile and Jew; justice and solicitude for the poor; wrath toward the greedy; mercy and forgiveness; sensitivity to marginalized populations. Luke’s Gospel has also enjoyed a reputation for its inclusion of women in his narrative and in parables.
And at this Christmas season, it would be a gross error to forget the magnificent narrative of events surrounding the birth and early years of Jesus. There are only two Infancy narratives in the Gospels: Matthew’s and Luke’s. Mark and John have no birthing narratives. I recommend that when reading the Christmas narratives, do not mix Luke’s with Matthew’s. Read Luke’s narrative [Chapters 1 and 2] as a stand-alone narrative to be faithful to the evangelist’s intent.
Again, I encourage you to make the Gospel of Luke your study focus during this liturgical year. I recommend you consider a commentary or aid, and there are good ones available. Check with your parish’s director of religious education or faith formation director for recommendations for commentaries on St. Luke, or Bible studies on St. Luke being offered in your parish. Remember, too, the Gospel of St. Luke will be read about every Sunday at your parish Mass for the next year.
If you are shopping for yourself, I have several recommendations from my own experience. If this is your first shot at Bible study, I suggest the New Collegeville Bible Commentary’s The Gospel According to Luke: If you want to tackle something more challenging, consider Sacra Pagina: Gospel of Luke or Joel B. Green’s The Gospel of Luke.
This year I am reading an intriguing commentary on St. Luke from Liturgical Press’s Wisdom Commentary, Luke 1-9. This commentary was researched and written by two Catholic feminist scholars. I have completed the first two chapters and find it a very insightful and spiritually moving commentary on this Gospel from the perspective of feminine scholarship and experience. I would not recommend it as a first read on Luke’s Gospel, but you are all adults, and you can do what you want.