This Advent, as the church embarks on a new liturgical cycle, we turn our attention to the Gospel of Luke. It is timely, then, to pause and reflect on some of Luke’s rich insights, and to acquaint ourselves better with a gospel that speaks directly to our humanity, consistently reminding us of the joy and mercy to be experienced not only during Advent and at Christmas, but throughout our journey of discipleship.
On a rainy October evening, parish and school liturgy teams from across the Archdiocese of Melbourne gathered to do just that in the first of two Advent preparation sessions offered by the Archbishop’s Office for Evangelisation. Their guide was Ria Greene.
Ria has worked in Catholic education for more than twenty years, in both primary and secondary settings, with a specific focus on religious education and faith formation. She has also worked as a parish catechist and sacraments coordinator, and has completed further studies in Religious Education and Theology. As part of a Master’s degree, Ria studied the Gospel of Luke, and she presently teaches a religious studies class on the Gospel of Luke to a small but dedicated group of senior boys at St Bede’s College, where she is Deputy Principal. Her deep love and understanding of the gospel was clearly on display in October at the Catholic Leadership Centre, where she outlined the background and structure of the gospel and then deftly unpacked some of its key themes.
Luke’s gospel was probably written in Antioch and Syria in AD 80–90, a decade or two after the destruction of the temple by Roman forces. As Ria pointed out, this was a time and place very different from our own, and a proper engagement with the gospel will always require cultural sensitivity. Unlike Matthew, who was writing for a Jewish community, Luke addresses a Gentile audience. Luke’s gospel is the first of two volumes by the same anonymous author, the second of which is the Book of Acts.
The gospels were written at a time when the church was expanding, and when the second coming was no longer regarded as imminent. The church was finally settling down to a life of prayer and work; it saw itself as living in a new age, under the power of the Holy Spirit.
As Ria reminded her audience, all the gospels must be read first and foremost as theological narratives. They are portraits that have been shaped by the memories and understandings of the communities that produced them—‘faith documents’ rather than biographies or historical narratives as we might understand them now. The gospel narratives were originally intended to be read in their entirety, something that the liturgical cycle doesn’t readily allow, so Ria encouraged those gathered to take the time this Advent to read the Gospel of Luke as a whole (a task that should take 2–3 hours) in order to gain a better appreciation of its overarching message.
The gospels should also be read in the context of the early church’s concerns about false teaching. While Gnosticism promoted a docetic view of Christ—where Jesus only seemed to be human and didn’t really suffer or die—Luke defends the significance of the passion by insisting on Jesus’ reality and human particularity.
Christians were also entering a period of persecution at this time. Because the early Christians were often associated with Judaism, the Roman authorities sometimes perceived them as revolutionaries, so Luke is at pains to present Romans in a good light and to convey the message that Christians pose no threat to Rome.
We don’t know a lot about the author of Luke. As Ria reminded the audience, the author relies on eyewitnesses, so it’s unlikely that he knew Jesus directly. Some writers identify him as a companion of Paul. He was certainly cultivated and literate, and familiar with the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures; it’s possible that he was not Jewish but a ‘God fearer’—a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism.
He wrote for a group of churches that were diverse in their composition. While they were mostly Gentile, they included both men and women, common people and the social elite, the poor and the wealthy.
Luke draws on three main sources in his gospel:
- the Gospel of Mark (which was written 15–20 years before)
- the source known to biblical scholars as ‘Q’ (after the German Quelle, or ‘source’), which Matthew also uses
- his own source material, not used anywhere else and conventionally referred to as ‘L’.
A number of events are unique to Luke’s account, including: the infancy narrative at the beginning; the parables of the good Samaritan and the lost sheep, lost coin and lost son; and the appearance stories and ascension at the end. Luke provides a prologue to state his purpose and to identify his patron, and also expands considerably on the journey to Jerusalem (chs 9–19), in what Ria described as ‘the spine of the gospel’. The role of geography, and particularly Jerusalem, is significant, with the narrative moving towards and then out of Jerusalem—a city associated with Abraham, David, Solomon and the Babylonians, and the place where Jesus is rejected, raised and exalted, and where, at the beginning of Acts, the disciples are empowered for their ministry.
Luke outlines his purpose right at the outset, in the prologue, where he dedicates his account to ‘Theophilis’, which in Greek means ‘friend of God’. The purpose of Luke’s account is to proclaim the good news. It is not concerned with proving whether these events happened; rather, its purpose is to give an account of what happened and what it means. It is concerned with the significance of Jesus.
Themes of the Gospel of Luke
Luke’s gospel conveys a concern for all humankind, and a particular care for the poor. It also focuses on ministry to and by women. The seeking out and saving of the lost is another recurring motif, as seen in the parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost (or prodigal) son.
The role of the Holy Spirit and the importance of prayer are also central to the gospel’s message, which Ria characterised as one of joy and mercy.
Identity and mission of Jesus
The Gospel of Luke is interested in who Jesus is, and what he’s about. Luke’s Jesus is a charismatic figure. He is led by the Spirit, prays constantly and is obedient to God’s will. His humility is evident in his depiction as a poor wanderer, dependent on the hospitality of others. He is a gentle and compassionate saviour, but also strong and uncompromising towards those who collaborate to exploit others. He has come to bring good news to the poor.
Mercy, compassion and universal salvation
Luke’s Jesus draws close to the poor, to sinners and to those who are marginalised or outcasts, such as lepers and tax-collectors. Luke uses the literary device of ‘reversal’ to emphasise this point, placing those who think they’re righteous on the outer, with sinners and outcasts becoming ‘the new righteous’. This is often conveyed most compellingly in parables such as the story of the prodigal son, and Ria spoke movingly of the power of these parables to challenge and speak to us today. ‘The mystery of sacred texts,’ she observed, ‘is that these words can speak profoundly to our experience in ways that we think nobody else can understand.’
Luke’s gospel includes many references to women that do not appear in the other gospels. Jesus breaches social barriers by reaching out to women, and by healing and freeing them. Women also play an important role in the ministry of Jesus. At a time when a woman’s influence was often confined to the domestic sphere, Luke presents us with women such as Martha, who owned her own home, and her sister Mary, who sits at Jesus’ feet, assuming the position of a disciple.
Ria characterised the Gospel of Luke as a manual for disciples. It teaches us to attend to the inner life, showing us how easily darkness can well up in those whose lives remain unexamined. As Ria said, ‘Jesus gets people, but he doesn’t allow excuses.’ Luke’s gospel calls us to grow. It prepares us to be called and sent. While the disciples are sometimes shown to experience moments of great insight, they often fail to ‘get it’. But as Ria observed, God doesn’t give up on them. Discipleship requires us to stick with it, despite our blindness, confusion and failure. The transformation is gradual. And, as Luke makes clear, we are transformed together, as a community, not just as individuals. In Luke, there are lots of stories where people are paired together in their discipleship.
Kingdom of God
The kingdom of God is vividly depicted and anticipated in Luke’s gospel as a realm of welcome and inclusion—a realm of joy, justice, peace, love and compassion. We are not there yet—as Ria said, we know what we are striving for, we know when we are missing it, when our lives fall short of this promise—but our very disappointment strengthens our yearning for it, and gives us a keener sense of all that God intends for us.
Ria pointed out that Jesus prays at significant moments throughout Luke’s gospel: he prays before he is baptised; he prays in the wilderness; he prays before choosing his disciples; he prays in Gethsemane. Many of the central figures of the infancy narrative also model a life of prayer and thanksgiving.
Another of the themes that receives particular attention in Luke is that of table fellowship. Jesus’ choice of dining companions is often provocative, drawing criticism from those who see his fellow diners as unworthy or unclean. Ria encouraged us to look at the feeding stories and to take note of when Jesus sits at table, who he sits with and the kinds of conversations he has, and then to ask ourselves, ‘Who are the people that Jesus would sit and eat with today?’ Jesus is presented as showing unconditional love to outcasts and those on the margins. But Luke also makes it clear that a meaningful relationship with Jesus is conditional: we need to respond to him.
The good news in Luke’s gospel is for everyone. God’s saving love encompasses the whole of humanity, which is perhaps why Luke presents us with such a rich tapestry of characters. Their stories, as Ria noted, show us that ‘God is generous beyond measure … that God reverses human expectation and creates human possibilities in impossible situations.’
A closer look at the infancy narrative
Ria ended by looking more closely at some key characters and passages in the infancy narrative, showing how they prefigure and encapsulate the central themes of the whole gospel. These first few chapters provide a portrait of God’s plan for inclusive salvation, and nowhere more powerfully than in their depiction of Mary, a young unmarried woman of no special background or status, betrothed to Joseph, who nevertheless experiences ‘a startling reversal of status’ when she is favoured and exalted by God. Her whole-hearted response to the angel’s message—a response of faithful obedience—is contrasted with Zechariah’s reaction of disbelief. She is depicted by Luke as the first disciple, staying with Jesus from the cradle to the cross.
The shepherds, considered by other Jews to be dishonest and unclean, are similarly marginalised and distrusted. And yet they are called to worship the infant Jesus, demonstrating Jesus’ special mission to the poor and outcast.
In a similar vein, Simeon recognises that the child Jesus has been born for everyone, declaring him ‘a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ (Luke 2:32). Significantly, Luke traces Jesus’ family tree all the way back to Adam, the father of all humanity, whereas Matthew only traces it back to Abraham.
Elizabeth’s story also disrupts clear social structures. Although she is a daughter of Aaron and married to a priest—which would usually confer a high status—her barrenness brings shame upon her and the suspicion of sinfulness. And yet God favours her too and reverses her circumstances.
Her meeting with Mary is an especially significant moment for these women. Both of them are experiencing unexpected pregnancies; both of them recognise God’s presence in the surprising events unfolding in their lives, and both respond with praise and joy. Their two individual stories and experiences are brought together in this moment, and in this instance of shared ‘theological reflection’, we glimpse a community of faith emerging. As Ria tellingly observed, these two women come to share an understanding of God’s action in their lives, not just for their own benefit, but for the salvation of all humanity, presenting us with a rich model for theological reflection within the church. Like Mary and Elizabeth, we are invited to bring our situation into dialogue with others’ and to ‘make sense of this in light of what we know about God and what we expect of God’. It is this kind of encounter that produces the canticles—the distinctive and prophetic songs of praise and joy that punctuate the beginning of Luke’s gospel and that point us towards the compassionate, disruptive, challenging saviour we will encounter as the narrative of Luke’s gospel unfolds.
As the evening concluded and participants put away their notebooks and gathered their umbrellas, there was a buzz in the room: not just of appreciation for a stimulating and insightful presentation, but of anticipation, as they looked forward to journeying with Luke through the new liturgical year, and to encountering the merciful, liberating saviour who brings songs of praise and joy to our lips.