Bible Basics: The Distinctive Voice of Luke

“Wisdom is a tree of life to all who hold fast to her, and all who hold fast to her are happy.”  Proverbs 3:18

 March 2, 2011:  We continued our look at the gospels and moved into Luke.  Although Matthew and Luke shared source materials, there are 10 parables unique to Luke.  These are: the good Samaritan, the Rich Fool, the Great Feast, the Lost Coin, the Prodigal Son, the Unjust Steward, the Rich Man and Lazarus, the Unjust Judge, the Pharisee and the Publican, the Pounds.  Obviously some of these are among the best loved and best known  Bible stories.  But Luke is not just a great writer able to tell a vivid story.  His distinctive voice has a distinct agenda.

Luke is first and foremost an advocate for the outsider. Eugene Peterson, in his introduction to Luke in The Message puts it this way:  “Religion has a long history of…reducing the huge mysteries of God to the respectability of club rules, of shrinking the vast human community to a ‘membership’…But with God there are no outsiders.  Luke is a most vigorous champion of the outsider himself, the Gentile in an all Jewish cast of New Testament writers, he shows how Jesus includes those who typically were treated as outsiders by the religious establishment of the day: women, common laborers, the racially different, the poor.  He will not countenance religion as a club.  As Luke tells the story, all of us…now find the doors wide open, found and welcomed by God in Jesus.”

The genealogy of Jesus found in Luke, chapter 3, goes all the way back to Adam, not just to Abraham, as we find in Matthew’s genealogy.  This universal sweep is echoed throughout the pages of Luke in which Gentiles and the racially different find a home.  The concern is for the whole world, which we also see in Acts (particularly Acts 1:8).   Luke is our only record of the great events surrounding the birth of Jesus such as the annunciation to Mary, the birth of John the Baptist, the prophecies of Zechariah and Simeon, and the visitation of the shepherds. (Celia Brewer, A Guide Through the New Testament)

In Luke there is special attention paid to the importance of prayer, as modeled by Jesus.  We can trace that  progression through the passages 3:21, 5:16, 6:12, 9:18, 9:29, 22:41-42, 23:46.  We see Jesus as a man of prayer who withdraws to pray at times of stress and when decisions must be made;  and we see Jesus teaching his disciples to pray.

Luke has a particular gift for pulling the rug out from under us by portraying things that are never quite what they seem.  The despised Samaritan is held up as a model for being good and compassionate.  The tax collector is exalted and the Pharisee is laid low. The prodigal son is given an extravagant welcome home.  The persistent widow is vindicated.  The poor appear to be wretched, as with Lazarus, but are in fact blessed by God.

Eating and hospitality is a major theme in Luke.  One commentator has said that you can eat your way through the gospel of Luke.  Robert Karris (Eating Your Way through Luke’s Gospel) says that Luke is the only gospel writer to have the following food or feast-related parables:  Prodigal Son and The Rich Man and Lazarus. Luke alone of the evangelists tells the resurrection appearance story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, who only recognize Jesus when the bread is broken at table.  Luke also, according to Karris, situates the unexpected around a meal.  Notably, this includes Luke 11:37 where Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees occurs at a meal.  And of course the strongest criticism of Jesus by the Pharisees happens because Jesus frequently ate and drank with sinners.

As an example of this we looked at the “lost and found” parables in chapter 15.  This cycle of teachings are given by Jesus in answer to the grumblings of the Pharisees, “this fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  The parables demonstrate the significance of the most insignificant in the Father’s eyes, and the degree to which grace abounds in the kingdom.  Each parable ends with a party and rejoicing in heaven when the one who was lost is found.  This “dead, now alive” motif emphasizes the importance of the resurrection in Luke’s agenda.  Jesus, as he brings the exiles home, is restoring life and the old creation gives way to the new.

The Good Samaritan took pity on the traveler in need, when the religious authorities passed on by.  Jesus is saying that we must also be moved by pity and compassion which will then set us on a path toward justice and mercy as a way of life.  As Megan McKenna (Parables:  The Arrows of God) says, God had pity on the world and sent us Jesus and we are sent to the world by God to return the favor.  It is then that we love God with our heart, mind, and soul and our neighbors as ourselves. 

For us the story of Luke ends where it begins in our lives.  We are told to “go and do likewise.”   This involves an ongoing relationship with Jesus and scripture, and an ongoing relationship and engagement with the world.   When we, like the Samaritan, are moved to pity, we must also be moved to action.