Today is the feast day of St. Luke, the Evangelist, “the beloved physician,” as St. Paul calls him in our reading today from the Letter to the Colossians.
Luke wrote one of the three ‘Synoptic Gospels” and one can easily see it is the most artfully and best written of the three! It is a work of literature in addition to being a gospel. He even wrote a sequel. Tradition also says that he ‘wrote’ the first icon, an icon of Mary. There’s no doubt that he had close contact with the mother of Jesus, as evidenced by the various episodes of Mary and Jesus’ childhood that only he wrote about. So Luke was a painter of words and images. And indeed, his gospel has more memorable images than any of the other gospels.
Luke was very creative in his arrangement of the actions and sayings of Jesus. One good example is the incident of the sinful woman who anointed his feet (Luke 7:36-50). All four Gospels have this incident in one form or another (Matthew 26:6-13; Mark 14:3-9; John 12:1-8); but in Matthew, Mark and John the incident is part of the passion week narrative and Jesus takes the anointing as a preparation for his burial. Luke transfers the incident to a much earlier time where it has no connection with Passion Week. And instead of a preparation for his burial, Jesus calls it an act of love, because “she loved much” (verse 47).
In Luke’s version, the story is less about Jesus and more about the woman! Luke showed greater sensitivity to women than the other Gospel writers, and he showed women playing a significant role in the life and ministry of Jesus.
Luke’s greatest literary innovation comes in chapters 9-19, the journey to Jerusalem; a true literary unit into which he also integrated various scattered sayings which Matthew had collected together in the Sermon on the Mount. This was the freedom of the gospel writers, to mix and match and reorganize the material that had been handed down about Jesus. Fundamentalists worry about finding an explanation for every little discrepancy among the four Gospels; but the gospel writers were not fundamentalists! They were artists of faith, and we are called to be likewise.
Luke’s narrative of the journey to Jerusalem begins with an amazing phrase: καὶ αὐτὸς τὸ πρόσωπον ἐστήρισεν τοῦ πορεύεσθαι εἰς Ἰερουσαλήμ (9:51). This is a Semitic expression, meaning Jesus “fixed his face to go to Jerusalem” – a determined move, with a sense of finality. And into this determined final journey to Jerusalem, Luke inserted several parables that the other three Gospels do not have and all of which are brilliant short stories with characters that stay in the mind for a lifetime: the Good Samaritan (10:25-37); the Rich Fool (12:13-21); the Prodigal Son (15:11-32); the Rich Man and Lazarus (16:19-31); the Pharisee and Tax Collector (18:9-14).
Luke did not hesitate to use parables that featured questionable characters and motives, for example the parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (18:1-8). But the most remarkable example of this type of parable is the one of the Dishonest Manager (16:1-13). Talk about mixed messages in a parable told by Jesus! No wonder the other Gospel writers did not include it. But Luke did, and it shows his deeper experience with business and the ways of the world. He was a professional man, after all. It’s a fearless move on his part, to include a parable with such an unconventional message – unconventional for Jesus, that is. But note the other remarkable thing that Luke did: he closed the parable with the famous words of Jesus, “You cannot serve God and mammon” (verse 13). Matthew included these words as part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:24). Instead of Matthew’s moralizing use, Luke places this statement in a much more nuanced, even ambivalent context – another example of Luke’s literary qualities and more complex ambitions.
Near the end of the journey to Jerusalem Luke tells us about Zacchaeus in the tree (19:1-10), a living parable, so to speak, that brought to a focus all the teaching that came before. And like an iconographer, Luke gave us vivid images of why Christ is on earth, who God is, and who and how we human beings are. The meal with Zacchaeus was one last opportunity for Jesus to show his openness to be with everyone; one last opportunity to shock people who are offended by God’s open love – something Pope Francis has experienced in the last two weeks from the harsh criticism he has received from cardinals who have no use for Jesus and his love for Zacchaeus.
After the meal with Zacchaeus, Luke tells the familiar story of what we call Holy Week. But then comes the Emmaus incident after the resurrection (Luke 24:13-35), and the Ascension which closes the Gospel (Luke 24:50-53) but leads directly to the beginning of the Book of Acts.
Luke tells us about three meals that sum up the impact of Jesus in our lives: (1) the meal in Zacchaeus’ home, which I see as Jesus’ last meal with the humanity that he came to seek and to love; (2) the last supper with his own disciples, which completed his fellowship with those who would bring his message to the world; (3) and the Emmaus meal, that opens up to all eternity and embraces us every time we gather for the eucharist in the Liturgy and we see the risen Christ. I had never before seen the importance of these three meals in the Gospel of Luke. My respect and admiration for this Gospel today is deeper than ever.
Luke is a man for today and for all seasons, a man who used every artistic and literary means at his disposal to give us the fullest and most engaging picture of Jesus. This is what the church is called to be. This is how we are called to be: artists of the Christ-like life, artists of faith!