This year our Mass readings will be primarily from the Gospel of St Luke so let take some time to see who he was and grasp his methods and intentions. Conveniently today’s gospel is in two sections: the first tells us what he is doing and the second indicates why he is doing it.
Luke is a second-generation Greek speaking, Christian. This is important. He is writing about 80 AD to other Greek speakers who were not born Jews. He is not an eyewitness of these events and indeed most of those have died. They left many writings and as Paul has already reminded us in today’s second reading there were authorized teachers to pass them down. These documents included the Gospel of Mark, some stories shared with Matthew and a few unique to Luke. Also, as Luke is interested in all the events that formed the early church, he will write a “second volume” the “Acts of the Apostles” which will take the story to Rome itself. This will be read during Easter time and there are some sections in which Luke will imply that he was with Paul and was himself an eyewitness.
It is often noted that Luke writes excellent Greek and was an educated man. He knew that many people like him were entering the Church. This gospel is written for Theophilus who whether an historical figure or not represents the kind of person who would require that the story be presented in an “Orderly sequence”. He assures his readers through Theophilus that he has investigated everything and can attest to the truth of what he has written.
We should note that immediately after the first section of today’s reading, Luke will examine the family history of Jesus, his birth, dedication in the temple, his baptism by John and supply a genealogy. He will thus not only continue the story to Rome but bring it back to Jesus’s birth and indeed through his ancestors to Adam.
These are conventions of Greek historical writing which Theophilus and his audience would have recognized and understood. Luke will use them to emphasize distinctly Chistian themes and issues. Classical peoples had specific ideas about how power is obtained and employed and the forces and decisions which move history. For Luke history is moved not by fate nor by immortal but not omnipotent deities nor even virtue, but the action of the Holy Spirit. Jesus will do all things in the Spirit even events which may seem to be accidental or the decision of a powerful person, will be shown as part of the Spirit’s plan.
They would also want to see heroic figures as models and guides. What will become of me If I live like Jesus? The answer is simple, a Christian will become like Mary. Mary is the only disciple who appears in the first part of Luke, the body of the Gospel itself and finally in the acts of the apostles. She is ever faithful to her call as a disciple. We are meant to be the same.
As we will see, the Holy Spirit and Mary are hidden in plain sight throughout Luke.
The second section today is in chapter four and Luke will show us why he wrote the Gospel and Acts.
He knew the power of Greek thought and culture. His facility with the language and techniques of Classical writing shows that this was part of him. He understood how powerful and seductive this was and how easy it would have been to take Jesus and make him Greek. He died and rose so let us see him as a god who dies in the winter and is reborn in the spring. He gave a sublime moral doctrine so let us make him a great moral teacher.
Luke understood that Jesus was not a Greek, he was a Jew and could only be understood as one. As we saw in our first sentence today Luke was compiling “a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us” For Luke Jesus needed to be understood as fulfilling the prophecies and promises of the OT. We see that in every passage of the Gospels and acts.
He returns to Nazareth and enters according to his custom the synagogue on the sabbath day. As a good Jew this was his regular practice. He was acknowledged as a leaned person and thus was asked to read the day’s assigned passage from a prophet. It was from Isaiah and considered by his time to reveal part of the job description of the messiah.
He acknowledges that he is chosen by the spirit and that he will show his election by encouraging the poor, freeing those enslaved by sin which for Isaiah and thus Jesus includes political and most particularly financial oppression as well as purely spiritual. He, and his disciples, will even give physical sight to the blind.
Much about Jesus is revealed here. He has shown what his mission is and although he will transcend traditional prophecy his intentions and methods would be impossible to understand without the Hebrew scriptures. Luke assumed that his very Greek audience will engage in Bible study. They will then know their own redemption is incomprehensible in purely Greek terms. As will be said a few centuries later “Ignorance of scripture is ignorance of Christ”
I would like to note that our next parish bible study will be on St Luke, more to come on this, but until then look at the power of our own culture. How easy it is to interpret the scriptures in terms of the times not the other way around. Particularly enticing is to read every section on freedom, liberation, and salvation from the perspective of Western Individualism and fail to appreciate the nature and role of community in the scriptures. No one steeped in the Hebrew scriptures, certainly not Jesus or Paul, could do this.
I look forward to reading Luke every third year so I can be reminded that only if Jesus is at work in all our lives is he at work in mine.