The Revised Common Lectionary takes most of its Gospel readings in Year C from the Gospel According to Luke. Thus some introduction to that work may be appropriate, even after the year is well along.
[Other postings in this blog that are relevant here are Luke 24: theRisen Jesus, and Luke 12: Life-styles of an Apocalyptic Commune.]
For eighteen hundred years, the Gospel According to Luke was something of a step-daughter within the Christian Scriptures. Of the four Gospels, the going-away favorites through the ages were Matthew and John. Luke was valued alongside the others because of a number of outstanding gems found only in this Gospel, such as,
- the peaceful Christmas stories (to balance Matthew’s fearful nativity cycle),
- some magnificent parables (such as the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son),
- Jesus’ saying on the cross, “Father, forgive them...,” and
- Jesus’ walk to Emmaus with two disciples on Easter day.
Otherwise, Luke was used to supplement (harmonize) the total Gospel story presented mainly in Matthew, or to provide a little compassion for the poor to balance the super-high Christ doctrine of the Gospel of John.
By the beginning of the twentieth century, the first three Gospels had been sorted out into two early documents – the Gospel of Mark and the Sayings Source Q – and other materials contained only in either Matthew (M) or Luke (L). Matthew and Luke themselves were composite documents, of historical value only for the later development of the Jesus tradition and of the early church.
(This later development included, of course, everything about Jesus’ birth and the more graphic post-resurrection appearances of Jesus.)
The Sources of Luke’s Gospel.
The consensus of critical scholars about how Luke was composed is as follows:
1. The overall narrative structure is based on Mark’s Gospel.
2. Luke prefixed, from sources of his own, the Birth and Childhood stories of John the Baptist and Jesus, Luke 1-2.
3. Mark’s ministry of Jesus in Galilee was expanded by additions from the Sayings Source Q and a few items of Luke’s own, Luke 3-9:50. (Luke also omitted a big hunk of Mark [Mark ] between Luke and 18, skipping straight from the feeding of the 5,000 to Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah.)
4. Luke created a large section, often called the “Travel Narrative,” which sits between the Galilean ministry and the Jerusalem ministry, Luke . These ten chapters contain rather miscellaneous materials from Q and L, the latter especially rich in parables. Near the end, Mark is drawn on again for his journey to Jerusalem, Luke 18:15-43. While theoretically this is a “travel” narrative, the journey never makes any progress (except in the section taken from Mark). The “journey” is a device for depositing a great conglomeration of teachings of Jesus not included in the Galilean ministry.
5. Luke follows Mark’s account of Jesus’ debates in the Temple, though with small variations (e.g., no cursed fig tree; the apocalyptic discourse is in the temple, not on the Mount of Olives), Luke .
6. The Passion narrative follows Mark, but with major distinctive touches (omitting the anointing in Bethany; having a symposium of speeches at the last supper; Jesus sweating in Gethsemane [a later addition]; Herod Antipas included in the Trial of Jesus; the Father forgive them saying [also a later addition]; the penitent thief on the cross), Luke 22-23.
7. The Empty Tomb is taken from Mark, though Luke (as often) needs two angels where one is sufficient for Mark and Matthew, Luke 24:1-11.
8. In post-resurrection appearances there is no Mark to follow, and Luke goes his own way (the walk to Emmaus, the appearance in the closed room, and especially the ascension), Luke 24:13-53. (The Gospel of John also knows the closed room episode, John 20:19-29.)
When the Gospel was Composed.
Luke compiled his two-volume work after the developing Jesus tradition had passed a significant landmark: the deaths of the first generation of prominent Jesus followers.
All three major leaders mentioned by Paul in I Corinthians 15:3-8 – Peter, James the Brother, and Paul – had been martyred in the early 60’s of the Christian Era. James the disciple, elder brother of John son of Zebedee, had already gone the same route around the year 41 (Acts 12:1-2). Of the early group, the only known survivor was John the younger Zebedee brother, who migrated from
to the Roman province of Palestine Asia ( ), probably sometime after James the Brother was executed in Ephesus in 62 CE. Jerusalem
None of the deaths in the 60’s is recorded by Luke in Acts – not because he did not know of them but because he is a disciplined writer and the scope of his work was to get Paul to Rome, still freely proclaiming the Gospel (Acts 28; see 1:8). The persecution of the Christians in
by Nero in 64 had come and gone, but carrying the narrative through that dark episode did not fit Luke’s objectives as shaped in the 80’s or 90’s. Rome
On Jesus’ Return in Glory
Attributed to Alfred Loisy around 1906: “Jesus announced the coming of the
, and what showed up was the Church.” Kingdom of God
Luke retained the apocalyptic tradition... When Luke wrote, one whole generation was gone and another was well along. Yet in his Gospel, Luke preserved those passages from Mark which predicted that the Son of Man (the risen Jesus) would return in glory before that first generation had died.
Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. But truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the
. (Luke 9:26-27.) kingdom of God
Luke has modified the last sentence of Mark’s version. In Mark, that generation would not taste death “until they see that the
has come with power” (Mark 9:1). Mark preserved more thoroughly the truly apocalyptic orientation of Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. That coming of the kingdom would culminate (after Jesus’ death) in the spectacular coming of the Son of Man on the clouds (Mark -27), an event Mark also asserted would happen before “this generation” passed away (Mark ). kingdom of God
...but Luke varied that tradition. Luke modified Mark’s saying by dropping out the phrase “with power” from the coming of the kingdom. This creates an important ambiguity. The “kingdom” may not necessarily be the apocalyptic climax with the Son of Man on the clouds; the kingdom might be something less spectacular, like a charismatic movement that advanced steadily and impressively across the
Luke also adapted other traditional sayings about the coming kingdom.
Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the
was coming, and he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you [alternative translation, “within you”].” (Luke 17:20-21.) kingdom of God
Luke has Jesus go from this statement to the Pharisees to a long disquisition to the disciples about the suddenness of the Day of the Son of Man (-37). This discourse (mostly from the Sayings Source Q) says that Day will be like Noah’s flood or
and Sodom – like lightning across the heavens. There will be no time for preparation; two women grinding, one gone, one left. Gomorrah
Thus Luke and his communities still expect the sudden time of judgment, but it cannot be predicted. In the MEANTIME – “the
is among you.” kingdom of God
As Luke reads the apocalyptic tradition of Jesus, the great judgment – first announced by John the Baptist (or Malachi) and declared more emphatically by Jesus – is sure. Sure – but still in the future. Given that certainty, Luke in both the Gospel and Acts tells how Jesus prepared for, and the apostles’ worked within, that great MEANTIME, a time during which many vigorous and faithful assemblies (churches) came into being.
How the kingdom was announced. Luke’s different take on Jesus’ announcement of the kingdom is seen in the contrast between Mark’s introduction of Jesus and Luke’s. Here is Jesus’ first proclamation according to Mark:
“The time is fulfilled, and the
has come near [or “is at hand’]; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark .) kingdom of God
Though he follows Mark for most of the actions in the
Galilee period, Luke omits this opening proclamation. Instead, Luke has Jesus go to and preach his first sermon to the home folks (Luke -30). Instead of announcing that the Nazareth is at hand, Jesus announces that HE is at hand. And who he is is given in the prophet Isaiah: he is the one Anointed by the Spirit of God, not to execute a great judgment, but to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, and freedom to the oppressed. kingdom of God
This is a new definition – at least a new formulation – of the
. This is the kind of activity the disciples (later apostles) will be engaged in. It is the kind of activity the chains of assemblies (“churches”) will be engaged in. This is the coming of the kingdom of God – as Jesus first announced it, according to Luke. kingdom of God
On the Challenge of the “Meantime.”
John the Baptist’s reform program. Luke and his referent communities knew they lived in the “meantime.” The character and importance of that time between Jesus and the end is very much a concern of Luke’s writings. Mark and Matthew present John the Baptist as a preacher of repentance and conversion before the judgment. Only Luke has John present a program of social reform to guide conduct in that waiting time.
And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even the tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3:10-15, NRSV.)
When Luke is moved to expand on the inherited tradition, he does so in the direction of the poor and the oppressed. Here is a program for (1) a social safety net, for (2) an honest internal revenue service, and for (3) a non-corrupt police and military establishment. When Luke focused on the MEANTIME, these are the needs he saw.
Wealth. On the same lines, the era of waiting – between the times – must inevitably raise the problem of the have-mores and have-nots. Wealth is a major preoccupation in Luke’s Gospel: In contrast to Matthew, Luke’s beatitudes for the poor, the hungry, the mourning, and the persecuted are balanced by woes on the rich, the satisfied, the joyful, and the well-esteemed (Luke 6:20-26). The parable of the “Rich Fool” condemns an exemplar of capitalism (Luke -21), and a whole chapter is given to miscellaneous (and ambiguous) parables and sayings, generally devoted to condemning wealth (Luke 16).
More than the other Gospels, Luke shows us Jesus paying attention to the poor, the sick, women, the despised, and in general the marginalized. No nearness of the great judgment is an excuse for ignoring suffering, injustice, and neglect. Jesus is constantly finding and ministering to such folks around him – whether Luke takes the reports from Mark, Q, or his own informants (L). Luke conveys to his circuit of assemblies (churches) that those things are what the Meantime – the waiting for Jesus time – is about.
Into the World. What particularly shows the nature of the MEANTIME is the book of Acts. Pentecost, the great irruption into the world of God’s Spirit, does not cause the disciples to simply cultivate their spiritual community in
. Pentecost sends them out – thus the great emphasis on all the foreigners who hear the gospel proclaimed. Acts portrays how the waiting time allowed believers to be sought in Jerusalem , Samaria , the provinces of Caesarea, Syria , Galatia Asia, , and Achaia as well as finally reaching Macedonia . The world of the kingdom in Luke is not only the Rome Galilee and Judea of the Gospel but the extended world of the apostles Peter and Paul.
On the Church: Luke thinks of churches – not the Church.
Allowing for some exaggeration, the following is roughly true of the church in the Gospels:
- Mark has no church; only discipleship, those following Jesus toward martyrdom or his return in power.
- John has no church; only a mystic communion of disciples, exemplified in the Disciple that Jesus Loved. (The appendix in John 21 does have a church, fed by Peter.)
- Matthew has a Church – with Authority. Only Matthew has the word “church,” ekklesia, assembly (Matthew ; ). “...you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19, NRSV).
- Luke has no “church” in the Gospel, but in Acts Luke presents the Courage to be the churches.
In Acts 1-5 Luke presents an idealized picture of the “original” church of Jerusalem. That church had ceased to exist around 66 CE and was no longer, if ever, relevant to Luke’s situation in
Asia Minor and . Greece
The churches of Luke’s world are reflected in the many people of the churches Paul founds in
, Galatia Asia, and . The names of many of these local believers are included in Acts – Lydia in Philippi, Jason in Thessalonica, Sopater in Beroea, Dionysius and Damaris in Athens, Titius Justus and Crispus in Corinth, Eutychus in Troas, and the elders of Ephesus to whom Paul made his farewell speech (Acts 20:17-38). Greece
The church for Luke was all these local assemblies, particularly those who traced an origin to the missionary work of Paul. The book of Acts preserves the founding story of those assemblies for the next generation. Luke knew these assemblies over a period of time, as well as others not mentioned in Acts. As a young man he had accompanied Paul on some of his trips – especially the one to
and Jerusalem (Acts 21-28). Rome
As a more mature leader of the movement, Luke knew these churches more as they appear in the book of Revelation than as they were in Paul’s missionary days. In Revelation, chapters 2-3, the visionary receives letters from the heavenly Lord to seven of the churches of the province of
Asia. These churches are a mixed bag, hot, cold, and luke-warm, but they almost certainly represent the state that the Jesus movement had reached at the time Luke wrote his two-scroll work, Luke-Acts.
In the perspective of Luke’s Gospel, these churches were that “kingdom” that Jesus’ generation would see before it died. These were the congregations caught up by the Spirit and directed to the work of that kingdom that, Jesus said, was “among you.”
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