This post is in the series Rite Reading. The first of three posts on Luke.
If (as I noted yesterday) Mark feels rushed, Luke feels well-paced. Unlike Matthew he does not collect Jesus’ teaching into long sections, but intersperses it with stories. He describes his work as an “orderly account” and implies that he knows of others which aren’t! Perhaps because he is such an accomplished story-teller himself, he makes a point of including more parables than the other gospels, including two which usually number among people’s favourites: the Good Samaritan, and the parable often referred to as the Prodigal Son.
Luke includes quite a wide range of material, and seems to be aiming for a rounded picture. Perhaps sometimes he includes a story because he thinks it’s too good to leave out. But this wealth of Jesus-tradition means that it is sometimes harder to detect his key themes than it is with Matthew and Mark. Because of this wealth of material, I’m going to break this section on Luke into three blog posts, over three days.
There are some characteristic emphases which Luke stresses. These include the importance of stories of women in the gospel, Jesus as someone who regularly gives time to prayer, and the role of the Spirit. Luke seems to offer a very particular take on the concept of repentance, and he stresses the divine initiative more than the human response. He also throws up a number of signals about the future inclusion of the Gentiles in the Jesus movement, beginning with Simeon’s prophecy over the infant Jesus that he will be “a light to lighten the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32).
However, the emphasis that comes closest to being an organising theme is Jesus and Jerusalem. The story begins in Jerusalem with Zechariah’s temple service, and ends there too with the disciples in the temple praising God. From the time of the transfiguration, Luke has Jesus journeying to Jerusalem as a leitmotif, which seems to carry subtle hints of his belonging as king in the royal city.
Most of the familiar Christmas story comes from Luke. Matthew really only contributes the wise men and the massacre of the infants. Luke’s opening chapters on Jesus’ birth deliberately echo the language and stories of the Greek bible. He is signalling to his readers that this is a continuation of the same story. He uses these opening chapters to underline Jesus’ identity and destiny. From the beginning Jesus is the one who will sit on the throne of his ancestor David (Luke 1:32).
Joseph’s lineage as a descendant of David is stressed further in the story of the journey to Bethlehem, and angels announce the birth of a saviour in David’s town (Luke 2:1-7). The language of saviour may pass a modern reader by as a conventional title for Jesus. It was, however, also a title claimed by emperors. When combined with the titles Lord and Christ in the same angelic announcement, it seems that we should see this clearly as a proclamation of royal, even imperial, birth.
The very earliest stages of Jesus’ ministry also hint at both the rejection he will suffer, and the universal scope of the mission that will spring from his ministry. Although Luke refers to Jesus preaching throughout Galilee and gaining a good reputation, he chooses to begin the story of Jesus’s ministry not with one of these, but a story about his relatively unsuccessful return to Nazareth.
Luke shows Jesus reading the scripture in the synagogue1 but then going on to (metaphorically) shake the dust of his hometown off his feet. As he begins his sermon, Jesus emphasises that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:24). He goes onto remind his listeners that Elijah was sent to a foreign widow rather than helping an Israelite one, and Elisha healed a Syrian leper but not a Jewish one.2 Unsurprisingly they dislike this message, and reject the messenger. Luke seems to have one eye on encouraging churches that may be attacked by fellow Jews for accepting Gentiles. They should know that Jesus too has a similar experience.
In fact, much more than the other gospels, if they do it at all, Luke stresses Jesus as a model for Christians. Even his death is portrayed as a model martyrdom, and in Acts, Luke will show Stephen imitating Jesus. It is part of this idea of the imitation of Jesus, I suspect, that lies behind the stress Luke puts on Jesus at prayer throughout his ministry. If this is how much prayer matters to Jesus, he implies, how much more does it matter for the Christian.
When he edits Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism, he moves the vision Jesus is given of the Spirit descending like a dove. In Mark it happened while Jesus was coming up out of the water. In Luke it happens immediately afterwards when Jesus was praying (Luke 3:21). The theme of Jesus as a person of prayer continues through the gospel.
Jesus spends a night in prayer before choosing the Twelve (Luke 6:12) He is praying alone before he asks Peter and the others who people think he is (Luke 9:18), and in Luke’s gospel the reason he takes Peter, James and John up the mountain (before the transfiguration) is to pray. (Luke 9:28) Luke keeps this theme going, and it is on one such occasion, when his disciples see him praying, that they ask him to teach them. That is the context for Luke’s Jesus to teach them the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4). They want to learn to pray because they see him praying.
In the next post, coming next week, I want to look at how Luke handles one very specific theme: repentance.
- I looked at this story in some detail earlier in this series.
- The story about Elijah is in 1 Kings 17, and about Elisha in 2 Kings 5
- Luke’s version, perhaps for literary effect, is somewhat briefer than Matthew’s, included in the sermon on the mount. It is Matthew’s version (more or less) that the church uses in liturgical prayer.