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Relentless Tenderness

November 3, 2013

While I most adamantly contend that one’s theology must encompass the entire Bible, I must admit parts of it are more to my liking than others.  Luke has always been my favourite Gospel, but I am now just beginning to understand how deeply the beloved physician has impacted my life.  I am not sure if my partiality to his Gospel is due to its affinity to who I am or because it has so influenced who I am.  I suspect it is a bit of both.


Many scholars believe that the Gospel of Luke and Acts were originally a two-volume work chronicling the history of Christian origins.  Luke uses Mark’s narrative as an overall framework for his Gospel, abbreviating and rewriting it a bit, and fleshes it out at opportune places with material from other sources, probably both written and oral, collected through his personal research.  The end result is a much more comprehensive and consequently longer Gospel than Mark’s, incorporating much more of Jesus’ teaching.


An educated physician, Luke is a painstaking writer after my own heart.  In a clear, easy to follow style, with great attention to detail, he presents his Gospel in an inspiring and exciting way.  He opens with a dedication and a preface, addressing it to Theophilus (friend of God), acknowledging his awareness of earlier gospels, and stating his purpose for writing his own “orderly account”.  He then carefully chronicles the life of Jesus from the very beginning, anchoring it within history (“in the days of Herod”, “in the days of Caesar Augustus”), highlighting the theological significance of the events he describes.


Luke makes it very clear where he is going with his portrayal of Jesus by placing His agenda-setting reading from Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth at the beginning of His ministry.  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me [God has appointed me as Messiah] to proclaim good news [the Gospel] to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”  Rolling up the scroll, He says: This is being fulfilled now before you as I speak. That’s what I’m doing, that’s my mission.


As in the other Gospels, Jesus is presented as the Son of God, but Luke, perhaps informed by his vocation as a physician, places a special emphasis on His perfect humanity that resonates deeply with my soul. Dante Alighieri dubbed Luke “the scribe of the gentleness of Christ”; it is Luke’s persistent interest in Jesus’ concern for every kind of suffering, His relentless tenderness toward all who suffer, that to me makes his Gospel so engaging.


Luke introduces the richest cast of characters of any of the Gospels.  Disproportionately numerous among the individuals who meet Jesus in his account are ‘the poor’–which doesn’t mean ordinary people living at subsistence level; it means the destitute, people with no secure means of support—sick, blind and disabled people who survived by begging, widows with few means of support. And as well as the poor there were the outcasts—people excluded from society like the lepers and the demon possessed, people who were regarded as notorious sinners like the tax collectors, prostitutes and shepherds, people despised by the Jews, like Samaritans.  Luke’s Jesus gives pride of place to those who are otherwise social rejects, and the Lukan Gospel makes crystal clear that Jesus loves these people and engaged with them, daring to cross and challenge hostile ethnic and religious boundaries for the sole purpose of helping someone who’s suffering. This is the Gospel of the underdog, challenging me to be a more compassionate human being.


Luke was certainly not a feminist, but at a time in which most women were excluded from participating in public life in Rome, and were considered ritually impure for a substantial portion of their life according to Jewish custom, Luke’s special concern for women, evidenced by their prominence in his Gospel, is truly remarkable.  Writing in an age when the mixing of sexes was virtually unheard of,Luke is the only Gospel writer to make it clear that Jesus had women disciples who travelled around with and his male disciples all the time,and some of those he names—Joanna, Susanna and Mary Magdalene.   Although first-century culture usually minimized the importance of women, Luke portrayed women as good examples in the early church, and presents them not only as witnesses to the events surrounding Jesus, but also as active participants in God’s Messianic purposes.


Luke builds into his Gospel a startling amount of material that appears nowhere else in the Bible.  Only Luke lays the foundations of the story of Jesus, the conception and birth of John the Baptist and of Jesus Himself.  Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah is recorded only in Luke.  Only Luke introduces us to Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and the prophetess, Anna.  Only he gives us Mary’s Song, the Magnificat, and many details of the Christmas story.   It is only through him that we learn about the presentation of Jesus at the temple forty days after His birth.  Only Luke tells us about Jesus’ visit to the temple at the age of twelve.  The story of the woman anointing Jesus’ feet with her tears and costly oil is only Luke’s.


Eleven of Jesus’ parables are exclusive to Luke, including some of His most memorable.   In Chapter 15 of his Gospel, considered one of the greatest chapters of the New Testament, Luke records three parables about the way that God’s love patiently seeks for people:  the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and above all—perhaps Jesus’ best-known (and my personal favourite) parable—the Prodigal Son. What a marvellous picture of God our loving Father Jesus offers us in this parable!  And what picture would we have of Jesus without the parable of the Good Samaritan?


The parables of the rich man and Lazarus and the rich fool who plans to store his excess grain, both also peculiar to Luke, are remarkable in their dramatic eschatological reversal, inviting us to God’s holy economy that turns the world’s value system upside-down. 


Another thing that endears me to Luke’s Gospel is its emphasis on joy.  It begins with the angel’s joyful foretelling of the birth of John the Baptist and ends with the disciples’ joy after witnessing Jesus’ ascension. Announcing the birth of Jesus to the shepherds, the angel of the Lord says, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”  The baby John leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb upon hearing Mary’s voice.  Mary responds with her joyful Magnificat

When the seventy-two rejoiced at their power over demons as they returned to Jesus, He tells them to rather rejoice in their salvation.  Later Jesus says, “There is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”  The parables of Luke 15 I mentioned earlier all end in a party. All that joy in the parables represents, says Jesus, not only joy on earth but also joy in heaven. For Luke, the Gospel truly is good news, worthy of celebration.  Accordingly, there are more references in Luke to glorifying, praising and blessing God than in any of the other Gospels.

Thanks to Luke, we know some important things about Jesus’ Passion. Only Luke mentions Jesus sweating blood as He prayed on the Mount of Olives, about his agony, and about the angel sent to strengthen Him.  Only Luke has preserved the deeply disturbing little scene in which Jesus, after Peter’s betrayal. Only Luke refers to the way that Jesus forgives those who crucified Him: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  Only Luke tells us of the thief on the cross.

How much, altogether, would be missing from my picture of Jesus without the Gospel of Luke!  It is to Luke’s alertness to bringing together essential details of Jesus’ and His life and ministry, that I owe much of what gives form to my own image of “The Son of Man” and draws me to Him.  In Luke, I can feel Jesus’ spirit, His heart, and His transforming power at work, shot through with the fire of the Holy Spirit. 


I thank God for Luke and his Gospel that inspires my ministry.

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