When Sue told me we were doing a series of sermons on Jesus in the four Gospels I immediately said, ‘Oh, I bagsy Luke’. It’s not only my favourite Gospel but has one of my all time favourite passages in all Scripture, the healing of the woman bent double which you’ve just heard.
What I hadn’t realized until I started reading up for the sermon, was that Luke is not only the longest of the four Gospels, but taken together with his sequel, the book of Acts, Luke is the most prolific writer in the New Testament - he wrote even more than Paul. And I also hadn’t realized what a tough task it is to preach on a whole Gospel rather than just one or two selected passages. What I’m going to offer, then, is no more than an overview. I do recommend you read right through Luke, which will only take you a couple of hours - but then I expect the three other preachers will also exhort you to read through Matthew, Mark and John, so please forgive me for that.
I want to keep the details of date, authorship etc brief cos that’s the boring bit. We know very little about who Luke was, although we do know he was a missionary companion of Paul (there are passages in Acts where he turns to the pronoun ‘we’ rather than ‘they’ which suggests he was there at the events described). There is strong Scriptural and external evidence, and tradition, that he was a Gentile - as far as we know the only Gentile to write Scripture - and that he was a doctor. His Gentile origin shows in the high standard of his Greek, although his writing also has many echoes of Jesus’ language, Aramaic, and of Hebrew. As for the date of the Gospel, it could be anywhere between the early 60s AD and the early 2nd century. You pays your liberal or conservative commentator and you makes your choice.
What is much more generally agreed is the driving purpose of Luke’s writing. One commentary I looked at was entitled ‘Luke: Historian and Theologian’. That pretty much sums up the general opinion. While he sets out his credentials as a historian in the preface which we heard, he is clearly writing history for a theological purpose. Some have classified his Gospel as ‘Heilsgeschichte’ or ‘salvation history’ - and I included that just so I could say ‘Heilsgeschichte’ which is a lovely word. But his interest is not just in the history of salvation, but in the character of salvation and its inclusive scope. In fact he is the only Gospel writer to use the word ‘salvation’ at all, and he has more instances of ‘save’ and ‘saviour’ than the others as well.
Of course the label of ‘salvation history’ could also be used, in different ways, of the other Gospels, with the relationship of theology and history varying. So what else is special about Luke?
In preparation for preaching today I re-read the whole Gospel, using one of those Bibles that has references at the head of each passage, showing where there are parallels to this story or teaching in the other Gospels - especially of course the other synoptic Gospels Mark and Matthew. And I was amazed at the number of passages in Luke that didn’t have any cross references at all, because the story was exclusive to Luke. In fact I developed a new TLA for my notes: ETL, standing for ‘Exclusive to Luke’.
Here’s a relatively short list of what we wouldn’t have if we didn’t have Luke’s account of Jesus’ life and ministry. We wouldn’t have several well loved parts of the Christmas story for a start: this includes the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth and the birth of John the Baptist, Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and her challenging poem the Magnificat which I think makes her the first New Testament prophet, the song of Zechariah, the angelic visit to the shepherds, the story of Simeon and Anna at the Temple, Simeon’s prayer which we call the Nunc Dimittis, and finally the childhood story of the boy Jesus cutting loose from his parents at the Temple and going to debate with the scribes and teachers.
That’s only the beginning. Without Luke we wouldn’t have Jesus’ manifesto from Isaiah 61 at the Nazareth synagogue. We wouldn’t know the names of prominent women who followed Jesus and financed him - in fact we wouldn’t know that they did. We wouldn’t have the parable of the Good Samaritan. We wouldn’t have the story of Mary and Martha’s dispute over the household jobs. We wouldn’t have the parable of the rich fool who planned bigger barns to store his wealth, but then died that night. We wouldn’t have the disciples questioning Jesus about the unmerited suffering of the Galileans Pilate killed, and his enigmatic answer. We wouldn’t have the healing of the ten lepers, of whom only one - a despised Samaritan -
returned to thank Jesus.
Nor would we have the parable of the shrewd manager, difficult and obscure as it is. I have my own interpretation which sees it as about God cancelling our debts to him, but I don’t have time to go into that here. Without Luke we wouldn’t have the parables of the rich man and Lazarus, the lost coin, the woman baking bread, the widow and the unrighteous judge, the Pharisee and the publican, and crucially the Prodigal Son. We wouldn’t have the story of Zacchaeus, which makes this the Gospel for short people. We would not have Jesus telling his hearers to take the lowest place at a dinner, or Jesus weeping over Jerusalem.
Nor would we know that Jesus was sent to be tried before Herod as well as the Sanhedrin and Pilate. We wouldn’t have Jesus on the cross saying ‘Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’; or his saying to the repentant thief next to him, ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’. And we wouldn’t have the full story of the walk to Emmaus, which if nothing else has given us the hymn ‘Abide with me’, and that would be a great loss to football and rugby fans.
In fact the amount of unique material in Luke is so great that I could use the whole sermon to list it and analyse it. Instead I just want to list a few of the major emphases in Luke, which are all clearly shown in the material that’s unique to him.
I’ve already mentioned the emphasis on salvation, which is a more explicit theme in Luke than in the others. Luke is clearly at pains to convey that this salvation is not for a chosen few. The invitation is to all. From the very beginning Luke is interested in Jesus’ interaction with all sorts of people. His birth is announced to lowly shepherds, and his genealogy goes not like Matthew’s version back to Abraham, father of the Jews, but to Adam, father of everyone - and from ‘son of Adam’ to ‘son of God’. In Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s work, Luke shows him giving socially and economically radical commands to those who follow him. And he also includes the end of the ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ prophecy about John, which reads ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of God’, which is missed out in the other Gospels.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry in Luke we see him interacting with social outcasts of all kinds, from the lepers to the hated tax collector. Luke’s Jesus is a friend of the poor - indeed in the Beatitudes he blesses not the poor in spirit or those who hunger for righteousness but simply the poor and the hungry. Also only in Luke are these blessings followed by a series of ‘Woe’s to the rich and well fed - so Luke acknowledges that good news to the poor has inevitably to include some bad news for the rich.
Luke ‘s Jesus is also very much a friend of women, often in socially unconventional ways. He has a number of women’s stories not found elsewhere, including my favourite which I’ll come to in a moment. There is also a large number of occasions where when Luke tells a story or parable about a man, he immediately balances it with one about a woman. For instance, in the birth stories, he tells us about Anna as well as Simeon’. With the parable of the mustard seed he includes the parable of the woman baking bread, while the lost sheep is followed by the lost coin - both of these examples of a woman standing for God in a parable. In Luke, when Jesus says that he will give no sign except the sign of Jonah, he immediately starts to talk not just about Jonah’s mission to Gentiles, but about the Queen of Sheba’s visit to Solomon. It’s a great exercise to go through Luke looking for these man/woman parallels, and I’m grateful to Trisha Dale for first pointing it out to me.
It’s only Luke who records the conflict between Martha and Mary, in which Jesus commends Mary for sitting at his feet, in the position of a disciple or student, rather than worrying like Martha about the domestic stuff In my favourite, the Luke 13 story of the woman bent double, Jesus uses a unique phrase not found anywhere else in the NT - he calls her a ‘daughter of Abraham’. And that healing has always seemed to me to be a kind of symbolic raising up of women from a lower status, into being able to stand alongside men on an equal basis. I used to do a workshop on it where I read the passage and a poem I had written on it, while all the hearers stood in a circle with all the men bent double and all the women standing straight - which I won’t inflict on you today but which provoked some really interesting discussion. Luke also tells us another of my favourites, the anointing of Jesus’ feet by a sinful woman in Luke 7, which I’ve also written a poem about.
As well as the inclusiveness of Jesus’ call, Luke has a strong emphasis on the centrality of forgiveness. As we’ve seen already, he has several parables about forgiveness which others don’t record. And at the end of his version of the Sermon
on the Mount, instead of Matthew’s rather scary version: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect’, Luke has ‘Be merciful as your Father is merciful.’
Such radical openness and mercy, in Luke’s vision, can only be achieved by the infilling of the Holy Spirit. At the very start of Jesus’ ministry, Luke tells us that he returned from the desert ‘filled with the power of the Spirit’. This filling is not only the basis of Jesus’ ministry but it is available to us too as we follow him. As well as sending out the Twelve to teach and heal on his behalf, in Jesus later sends out the seventy, and this has a strong overtone of a mission to the Gentile nations as well as the Jews. And indeed Simeon has prophesied exactly this at the beginning, calling the baby Jesus ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’.
Luke’s Jesus also exhibits and calls us to a radical humility. He twice quotes Jesus’ saying, ‘For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted’. Only in Luke does Jesus’ say, in response to the dispute about who is greatest: ‘I am among you as one who serves’ , a saying which always reminds me of these words inlaid in the floor of the Chapel of Industry at Coventry Cathedral.
Jesus in Luke then, is the one who calls all, men and women, high and lowly, rich and poor - not only to be healed and cleansed by him but to follow him. He is the one who forgives lavishly. He acts in the power of the Spirit which brings healing to the sick and the oppressed and good news to the poor. One commentator says, ‘Whereas in Matthew the keynote may be said to be royalty, and in Mark power, in Luke it is love’ .
But Luke’s Jesus is not just a sort of hippy dropout preaching peace and love in a 60s sort of way - not that I have anything against hippies, I was one myself. With sayings like the ‘Woes’, his message is a challenging and sometimes frightening one. His view of salvation has scary economic consequences, as we see in his response to Zacchaeus promise to give back his ill-gotten gains: ‘Today salvation has come to this house’. In fact ‘Today’ and ‘now’ are words much more frequent in Luke than in other Gospels: he wants to proclaim that God’s salvation in Christ is for now, not for some distant heavenly realm in the future.
You can probably see now why Luke is my favourite Gospel. It’s a great Gospel for a feminist, as well as a short person; and I think with its challenge to fight social inequality, it’s probably a great Gospel for Anabaptists too.