While the Gospel of Mark focused on the mostly Gentile Christian community in Rome and the Gospel of Matthew was more focused on the Hebrew-Christian community in Antioch, the Gospel of Luke stresses that Christianity is a way of life for Gentile as well as Hebrew-Christian believers; and that it warrants legal recognition in the Roman Empire.
The Gospel of Luke therefore stresses building bridges between groups rather than polarization. Yes, Luke is about healing and reconciliation: actions greatly needed in our own contemporary society.
Luke’s author was a highly educated Gentile Christian who came from a thoroughly Greco-Roman environment. Unlike Matthew’s author he was not well-grounded in the Hebrew tradition. Scholars speculate on whether his “ordered account” was written for a Christian community in Antioch or some other location in Asia Minor, like Ephesus or Smyrna. Luke and Acts of Apostles make up a two-volume work often called simply Luke – Acts; and they are addressed to the “most excellent” Theophilus, who was presumably a Gentile of some social standing. Interestingly, we never hear about Theophilus again, neither in Scripture nor anywhere else in ancient literature. The author of Luke -Acts wrote to Theophilus to assure him “that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:3-4).
Some writers say the unknown author of the Gospel of Luke may have admired Paul (c. 5 – c. 64 CE), but in many ways Luke does not resonate with Paul. Yes, Paul was a pharisee and believed in the resurrection of the dead, and he certainly believed that Jesus had been raised from the dead. Paul, however, did not need an actual physical resuscitation of a corpse in order to believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. According to Paul, the earthly body: the physical body had to die in order for the heavenly or the spiritual body to be born. “A natural body is sown, and a spiritual body is raised up.” (See 1 Corinthians 15.)
Luke’s portrayal of Jesus raised from the dead, however, is not Pauline. It is highly imaginative and Jesus is portrayed more like a resuscitated corpse, than someone transformed into a new form of life. Luke’s post-resurrection Jesus tells the disciples to touch him: “Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” (Luke 24:39) Then Luke’s Jesus asks the disciples if they have anything to eat. “They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.” (Luke 24:42 and 43) Acts continues the story of Christianity in the 1st century, beginning with the ascension of Jesus. Later chapters tell of Paul’s conversion, his mission in Asia Minor and the Aegean, and finally his imprisonment in Rome, where, as Acts ends, he awaits trial.
For background documentation, Luke’s author drew from the Gospel of Mark, the sayings collection called the “Q” source, and a collection of material called the “L” for Luke source, an oral or textual tradition. The author is not named in either the Gospel of Luke nor Acts of Apostles, but a tradition dating from the 2nd century suggested that the author was the Luke who was a companion of Paul. While this view is still occasionally put forward, many biblical scholars today question that supposition. Textual analysis suggests that Luke-Acts was written not earlier than 80 – 90 CE. It uses Mark, as a source, looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and does not show any awareness of the letters of Paul, which began circulating late in the first century. The text was still being revised well into the 2nd century.
Last week I stressed that Matthew saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Hebrew history. He began his infancy narrative with a genealogy of Jesus from Abraham down to Joseph and Mary. Luke, on the other hand, understands Jesus as the high point in all of human history. His genealogy is presented at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry and runs from Joseph to Adam. Luke is also more Mary-oriented than Joseph-oriented. In Matthew’s infancy narrative the light is on Joseph. In Luke’s account, it is Mary who shines. She is the one who hears and keeps God’s word.
What strikes me, as I re-read this gospel? Three themes hold my attention: women, building bridges, and religious hypocrisy.
WOMEN: In Luke Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (Luke 4:38-39), a 12-year-old girl (Luke 8:41-42, 49-56); a woman with a 12-year infirmity (verses 43-48); and a woman who had been crippled 18 years (Luke 13:10-17). In Luke we see Mary the Magdalene, an early disciple of Jesus. She is mentioned by name twelve times in the canonical gospels. In 2016, Pope Francis made July 22 Mary the Magdalene’s universal liturgical feast day and said she should be called the “Apostle to the apostles.” That designation was actually first made by Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) in the thirteenth century.
In Luke, Mary the Magdalene sits before Jesus and listens to him. Her sister Martha complains to Jesus that Mary should be helping her with serving. Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha…it is Mary who has chosen the better part.” (Luke 10:38-42) In the Resurrection accounts, women and not men are most important: Women were among those who observed the crucifixion (Luke 23:27, 49). Women prepared spices to anoint Jesus’ body (verses 55-56). Women were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty (Luke 24:1-3) and angels told them Jesus had been raised from the dead (verses 4-8). Women were the first to proclaim the Resurrection to Jesus’ other disciples (verses 9-11).
Reading these verses in Luke, I thought how ironic it is that the question of women’s ordination is still being debated in the RCC. And I also had to reflect on the misogyny of Pope Gregory I (c.540 – 604), who began the distorted portrayal of Mary the Magdalene as a repentant prostitute and a promiscuous woman. Not surprisingly, Gregory I, who was pope from 590 to 604 CE, believed that women are only fit either for prostitution or for maternity. Despite that, his supporters later proclaimed him “St. Gregory the Great.” Some “saints” were very strange people.
BUILDING BRIDGES NOT WALLS: Luke’s stress on peace-making implied a new relationship with the Roman Empire. Dialogue had to start, and destructive polarization had to end. In Luke’s infancy narrative, angelic messengers proclaim: “Good news of great joy for all people. To you is born this day . . . a Savior! . . Peace on earth among those whom God favors!” (Luke 2:10-11,14) These words echo and go far beyond the Imperial Roman monument inscriptions that had praised Caesar Augustus, the first Roman emperor, as “god” and “savior.” Luke hereby stresses that Jesus had more fully and more uniquely completed the work of the first Roman emperor.
Thinking about building bridges, later in this gospel, Luke offsets the fact that Jesus was executed by the Romans, by having the Roman Prefect Pontius Pilate declare Jesus innocent three times (Luke 23:4,14,22). Only Luke, unlike Mark and Matthew, has the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross exclaim: “Surely, this man was innocent.” (Luke 23:47) In Luke’s narration, Herod Antipas and Pontius Pilate become unlikely friends, after being in Jesus’ presence (Luke 23:12). And finally, only in Luke’s Gospel does Jesus pray for forgiveness for his crucifiers (Luke 23:34).
RELIGIOUS HYPOCRISY: Some observers accuse Luke of antisemitism, because he regularly shows Jesus criticizing Hebrew religious leaders (Pharisees, scribes, and Levites). I think these critics miss the point. Jesus was strongly critical of the arrogant religious hypocrisy of some of the religiously elite in his day. When invited to dine in the home of a Pharisee, for example, the religious leader accused Jesus of not washing ahead of time. Jesus replied: “Now then, you clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people!… give what is inside the dish to the poor, and everything will be clean for you…you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God…Woe to you Pharisees, because you love the most important seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” (Luke 11:37-44)
Luke speaks strongly to our own contemporary society, in which the religiously elite and “Christian” political activists praise God yet ignore the poor, the oppressed, the diseased, and the marginalized.
Unfortunately today the word “pharisee” has taken on a pejorative meaning. In fact the Pharisees were a Hebrew movement concerned with establishing a clear and consistent Hebrew identity in everyday life. Interestingly, it was the Pharisees who believed in an afterlife and resurrection of the dead. If one reads the New Testament closely, one sees that Jesus had sympathetic supporters and followers from the ranks of the Pharisees. Nicodemus, for example, who visited Jesus at night to ask him questions, and then provided money and spices to give Jesus’ body a proper Hebrew burial after the crucifixion, was a Pharisee (see John 3). And in Luke 13:31, a Pharisee comes to warn Jesus that Herod wanted him killed.
Concluding thoughts: The Gospels are a call to follow Jesus by living as he did, open to the Spirit always and everywhere. Thinking about Luke and responding to that call, how do we deal with respecting the place and role of women today? In our contemporary church and society are we bridge builders or wall builders? And of course, how do we deal with and correct religious hypocrisy?
Next week we will begin with a look at the Gospel According to John, a gospel very different from the synoptics. And here I don’t mean the 2003 film with Christopher Plummer as the narrator.
PS A correction. At the end of last week’s post, I referred to Matthew 25:52. That should be Matthew 26:52. My mind is good but my fingers are old.