Reading through the Gospel of Saint Luke

We’re seeing some New Testament characters appearing frequently in the Church calendar in these months. Three of these from this week have been from the Gospel of S. Luke, so I thought we’d have a quick run-through that gospel narrative. But first, let’s look at some calendar entries. First, on Thursday last, we had the memorial of the parents of Saint John the Baptist:

“Commemoration of Saints Zacharias and Elisabeth, parents of Blessed John the Baptist, the Precursor of the Lord. Elisabeth having received her relative Mary into her home and filled with the Holy Spirit, saluted the Mother of the Lord as Blessed among women. Whereas Zacharias, a priest who was filled with the spirit of prophecy, and having received a son, praised God as Redeemer and prophesied the imminent advent of Christ from on High.”

Roman martyrology, September the 23rd

That was two days ago. Today, we have the memorial of Saint Cleophas, one of the disciples who were walking to Emmaus on Easter Sunday, when they were visited by the Risen Christ – a famous episode from the end of the Gospel of S. Luke (chapter twenty-four):

“Commemoration of Saint Cleophas, disciple of the Lord, whose heart burned within him, when during a trip made with another disciple on the afternoon of Easter Sunday, Christ appeared on the way to open the Scriptures to them, and who at the town of Emmaus recognised the Saviour in the breaking of the bread.”

Roman martyrology, September the 25th

So, let’s set out through the Gospel of Saint Luke, which is particularly interesting for the way it is arranged, with much of the material in the Gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Mark, but reordered to form a different narrative. At the same time, Luke added new material the other two Gospels don’t contain, such as the infancy narratives of Christ, and his source (because of the detail provided) can be none other than the Blessed Virgin herself, who was certainly well known to the early Church, and probably from the beginning honoured as the Queen Mother. Consequently, this post ends with a picture depicting the legend of Saint Luke, known to have been a Greek physician, but also a painter and the creator of the first icon or image of the Blessed Virgin. On with the summary…

I’ve already mentioned the infancy narratives, and Luke gives us some of the great early hymns of the early Church, the Benedictus, the Magnificat and the Nunc Dimittis. The first is the song of Zachary, and is recited every morning in the Divine Office:

“‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; He has visited His people, and wrought their redemption. He has raised up a sceptre of salvation for us among the posterity of His servant David, according to the promise which He made by the lips of holy men that have been His prophets from the beginning; salvation from our enemies, and from the hand of all those who hate us. So He would carry out His merciful design towards our fathers, by remembering His holy Covenant…

Gospel of S. Luke, 1: 68-72

And covenant/testament is the strong idea throughout the Gospels. The new covenant in the Blood of Christ is founded on the old covenant mentioned here – the covenant made with the people through the Law-giver Moses. The second, the Magnificat, is the song of the bride of the Lord, here Mary and through twenty centuries, Holy Church, as given by the prophet Isaias (61: 10-11). It is recited every evening in the Divine Office:

“And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord; my spirit has found joy in God, who is my Saviour, because He has looked graciously upon the lowliness of His handmaid. Behold, from this day forward all generations will count me blessed; because He who is mighty, He whose name is holy, has wrought for me His wonders… He has protected His servant Israel, keeping His merciful design in remembrance, according to the promise which He made to our forefathers, Abraham and his posterity for evermore.”

Gospel of S. Luke, 1: 46-49, 54-55

Again that covenant, that promise made by God with Abraham and solemnised with Moses at mount Horeb. As Christians, we must be very concerned with this heritage of ours from the early Christian Church, which was a Jewish community and adopted the rest of us as non-Jewish converts to Christ. The last of the great hymns in this first part of Luke’s Gospel is the Nunc dimittis, which is the cry of joy of the old man Simeon, who had been awaiting his union with God and had been told that he must first witness the arrival of the Messias:

“Simeon too was able to take him in his arms. And he said, blessing God: ‘Ruler of all, now dost thou let thy servant go in peace, according to thy word; for my own eyes have seen that saving power of thine which thou hast prepared in the sight of all nations. This is the light which shall give revelation to the Gentiles, this is the glory of thy people Israel.’ The father and mother of the child were still wondering over all that was said of him, when Simeon blessed them, and said to His mother Mary, ‘Behold, this child is destined to bring about the fall of many and the rise of many in Israel; to be a sign which men will refuse to acknowledge…'”

Gospel of S. Luke, 2: 28-34

Already, a prediction of the incoming of the Gentiles into the inheritance of the Hebrew people. The speech to Mary continues, and it is obviously something that only she could have recited to Luke. Luke is different from Matthew and Mark in that he provides more of what we call historical information, wishing to tie his narratives to particular personalities and events. So, we get the precise moment of the commencement of the ministry of Saint John the Baptist:

“It was in the fifteenth year of the emperor Tiberius’ reign, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, when Herod was prince in Galilee, his brother Philip in the Ituraean and Trachonitid region, and Lysanias in Abilina, in the high priesthood of Annas and Caiphas, that the word of God came upon John, the son of Zachary, in the desert. And he went all over the country round Jordan, announcing a baptism whereby men repented, to have their sins forgiven…”

Gospel of S. Luke, 3: 1-3

Chapter three is then all about Saint John, and then chapter four about the the beginning of Christ’s ministry, the multiple exorcisms and other miracles, all of this before He called the Apostles to Him. This happens in chapter five, where the challenges from the religious authorities begin, as they complain to Him that His followers do not fast and pray like the followers of John the Baptist and those of the Pharisees. No, He replied, for He was right there and they would fast and pray when he had left them. Here we find the hints of a renewal of the ancient religion, for Christ says that new structures would have to replace the old ones, or the old ones would burst apart:

“And He told them this parable; ‘Nobody uses a piece taken from a new cloak to patch an old one; if that is done, he will have torn the new cloak, and the piece taken from the new will not match the old. Nor does anybody put new wine into old wine-skins; if that is done, the new wine bursts the skins, and there is the wine spilt and the skins spoiled. If the wine is new, it must be put into fresh wine-skins, and so both are kept safe. Nobody who has been drinking old wine calls all at once for new; he will tell you, The old is better.”

Gospel of S. Luke, 5: 36-39

The old religious observance had become a stricture, and the focus had become on fulfilling it to the letter, without quite understanding the heart of it – detailed observance of the Law had come to precede acts of charity in some cases. New wine-skins were required to contain the new wine of the Gospel message – a new Church to replace the old church of the Hebrew nation. As these arguments, about such things as the Sabbath observance continued, Christ gained more followers and He now appoints the rest of the Apostles, in chapter six. Where Matthew had presented the Sermon on the Mount with Christ sitting on a high place (Gospel of S. Matthew, chapters five through seven), Luke now presents much of the same material in a Sermon on the Plain, with Christ standing on a level place:

“With them He went down and stood on a level place; a multitude of His disciples was there, and a great gathering of the people from all Judaea, and Jerusalem, and the sea-coast of Tyre and Sidon. These had come there to listen to Him, and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled by unclean spirits were also cured; so that all the multitude was eager to touch Him, because power went out from Him, and healed them all. Then He lifted up His eyes towards His disciples, and said; ‘Blessed are you who are poor; the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are hungry now; you will have your fill. Blessed are you who weep now; you will laugh for joy. Blessed are you, when men hate you and cast you off and revile you, when they reject your name as something evil, for the Son of Man’s sake…”

Gospel of S. Luke, 6: 17-22

Chapter seven sees Christ making His headquarters at Capharnaum, His centre while in Galilee, probably at the house of Saint Peter. In chapter seven, He validates Saint John’s ministry and condemns the hard-heartedness of the religious leaders of the time. They would not be pleased with John’s asceticism and they would not be pleased with His own pastoral charm:

“‘I tell you, there is no greater than John the Baptist among all the sons of women; and yet to be least in the kingdom of heaven is to be greater than he.’ It was the common folk who listened to him, and the publicans, that had given God his due, by receiving John’s baptism, whereas the Pharisees and lawyers, by refusing it, had frustrated God’s plan for them. And the Lord said, ‘To what, then, shall I compare the men of this generation? What are they like? They put me in mind of those children who call out to their companions as they sit in the market-place and say, You would not dance when we piped to you, you would not mourn when we wept to you. When John came, he would neither eat nor drink, and you say, He is possessed. When the Son of Man came, He ate and drank with you, and of Him you say, Here is a glutton; He loves wine; He is a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is vindicated by all her children.”

Gospel of S. Luke, 7: 28-35

The hinge moment of Christ’s ministry in the Gospel of S. Luke, the Transfiguration, takes place very early on, compared to the Gospel of S. Matthew, here in chapter nine. Just before it and ever after, Christ is bent upon His self-sacrifice and is continuously moving toward Jerusalem. He first begins to talk about His suffering and death to His Apostles here:

“There was a time when He had gone apart to pray, and His disciples were with Him; and He asked them, ‘Who do the multitude say that I am?’ They answered, ‘John the Baptist; others say Elias; others, that one of the old prophets has returned to life.’ Then He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ And Peter answered, ‘Thou art the Christ whom God has anointed.’ And He laid a strict charge upon them, bidding them tell no one of it; ‘The Son of Man,’ He said, ‘is to be much ill-used, and rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be put to death, and rise again on the third day.’ And He said to all alike, ‘If any man has a mind to come my way, let him renounce self, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. He who tries to save his life will lose it; it is the man who loses his life for My sake, that will save it. How is a man the better for gaining the whole world, if he loses himself, if he pays the forfeit of himself? If anyone is ashamed of acknowledging me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed to acknowledge him, when He comes in His glory, with His Father and the holy angels to glorify Him. Believe me, there are those standing here who will not taste of death before they have seen the kingdom of God.’ It was about a week after all this was said, that He took Peter and John and James with Him, and went up on to the mountain-side to pray. And even as He prayed, the fashion of His face was altered, and His garments became white and dazzling; and two men appeared conversing with him, Moses and Elias, seen now in glory; and they spoke of the death which He was to achieve at Jerusalem.”

Gospel of S. Luke, 9: 18-31

It’s now all about the great Sacrifice to crown all the sacrifices of old. So bent is He upon Jerusalem that his Samaritan friends refuse to host him, simply because of their old enmity towards the Jews and Jerusalem. The healing and exorcising ministry of the seventy-two missionaries is introduced by Luke late, in chapter ten, and his final condemnation of Galilee for its bad reception of the Gospel is given here. In chapters eleven and twelve, the condemnations of the rigid religious observances of the Pharisees multiply, and the words of encouragement for the Christians who would face the hostility of these religionists follow: 

“‘I will tell you who it is you must fear; fear Him who has power not only to kill but to cast a man into hell; Him you must fear indeed. Are not sparrows sold five for two pence? And yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight. As for you, He takes every hair of your head into His reckoning; do not be afraid, then; you count for more than a host of sparrows. And I tell you this; whoever acknowledges Me before men, will be acknowledged by the Son of Man in the presence of God’s angels; he who disowns Me before men, will be disowned before God’s angels. There is no one who speaks a word against the Son of Man but may find forgiveness; there will be no forgiveness for the man who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit. When they bring you to trial before synagogues, and magistrates, and officers, do not consider anxiously what you are to say, what defence to make or how to make it; the Holy Spirit will instruct you when the time comes, what words to use.‘”

Gospel of S. Luke, 12: 5-12

Christ had not, after all, come to make peace with the spirit of the world, but rather to restore all things to God; and this would require a brutal dissension or rebellion against that spirit of the world, which is opposed to the reign of God. His ardent desire for His self-sacrifice is again evident here, and he calls it a new baptism which he would be given. This is made abundantly clear when He declares that those who know what is required by God will have more expected of them by God. That I take to mean as saying that more will be expected of Christians than of anybody else, and more of the priests and bishops than of the laity. For to those to whom more has been given, much more will be required.

“‘Yet it is the servant who knew his Lord’s will, and did not make ready for him, or do his will, that will have many strokes of the lash; he who did not know of it, yet earned a beating, will have only a few. Much will be asked of the man to whom much has been given; more will be expected of him, because he was entrusted with more. It is fire that I have come to spread over the earth, and what better wish can I have than that it should be kindled? There is a baptism I must needs be baptized with, and how impatient am I for its accomplishment! Do you think that I have come to bring peace on the earth? No, believe me, I have come to bring dissension.”

Gospel of S. Luke, 12: 47-53

Chapters thirteen and fourteen are full of classical Christian teaching and fiery criticisms against the rigidity of Jewish observances such as that of the Sabbath, which was placed before the practical observance of charity. Then, His determination for His upcoming Passion and a terrible condemnation on Jerusalem:

“And He said to them, ‘Go and tell that fox [Herod], Behold, to-day and to-morrow I am to continue casting out devils, and doing works of healing; it is on the third day that I am to reach My consummation. But to-day and to-morrow and the next day I must go on my journeys; there is no room for a prophet to meet his death, except at Jerusalem. Jerusalem, Jerusalem, still murdering the prophets, and stoning the messengers that are sent to thee, how often have I been ready to gather thy children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and thou didst refuse it! Behold, your house is left to you, a house uninhabited. I tell you, you shall see nothing of me until the time comes, when you will be saying, Blessed is He that comes in the Name of the Lord.'”

Gospel of S. Luke, 13: 32-35

The goody-goody Pharisees keep getting upbraided for the superficiality of their religion in these chapters. In chapter fifteen, when they challenge Christ’s familiarity with sinners, He serves them the parable of the lost sheep and, in quick succession, the parable of the prodigal son. The Pharisees who were fond of material riches are served the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in chapter sixteen. The Pharisees who felt that they were particularly close to God for being more observant of the Law of Moses were served the parable of the Pharisee and the publican:

“‘Two men went up into the temple to pray; one was a Pharisee, the other a publican. The Pharisee stood upright, and made this prayer in his heart, I thank thee, God, that I am not like the rest of men, who steal and cheat and commit adultery, or like this publican here; for myself, I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess. And the publican stood far off; he would not even lift up his eyes towards heaven; he only beat his breast, and said, God, be merciful to me; I am a sinner. I tell you, this man went back home higher in God’s favour than the other; everyone who exalts himself shall be humbled, and the man who humbles himself shall be exalted.'”

Gospel of S. Luke, 18: 10-14

Utter humility then, and the heart of a child, are requisites for the Saint. On the journey in earnest into Jerusalem, Christ passes through Jericho and there makes two disciples who were likely still known in the early Church, and told their stories to Luke. These were the former blind man, Bar-Timaeus, and the tax-collector Zacchaeus. Now, Christ arranges his entry into Jerusalem and thereafter is based on the mount of olives, just east of the Holy City, whose distant fate he could already see, for she would be entirely destroyed by the Romans within a few decades:

“And as He drew near, and caught sight of the city, He wept over it, and said: ‘Ah, if thou too couldst understand, above all in this day that is granted thee, the ways that can bring thee peace! As it is, they are hidden from thy sight. The days will come upon thee when thy enemies will fence thee round about, and encircle thee, and press thee hard on every side, and bring down in ruin both thee and thy children that are in thee, not leaving one stone of thee upon another; and all because thou didst not recognize the time of My visiting thee.'”

Gospel of S. Luke, 19: 41-44

Now, the antagonism between Christ and the Sadducees, who were the Temple priests, and the scribes intensifies, as He first cleanses the Temple of money-lenders and animal-sellers, and then tells them the parable of the vine-dressers who would not honour the lord of the vineyard, when he sent servants after servants and finally his own son. They try to find fault with His theology and His knowledge of the Law, but are unsuccessful. Chapter twenty-one provides more information about the destruction of Jerusalem and also of the end of all things. The rest of this gospel book is about the arrangements for the so-called Last Supper, and the following Passion of Christ, His burial and Resurrection. Here is the finale, an abbreviation of the forty days between Resurrection and Ascension, to which Luke would eventually add what we call the Acts of the Apostles:

“‘So it was written,’ He told them, ‘and so it was fitting that Christ should suffer, and should rise again from the dead on the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. Of this, you are the witnesses. And behold, I am sending down upon you the gift which was promised by My Father; you must wait in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’ When He had led them out as far as Bethany, He lifted up His hands and blessed them; and even as He blessed them He parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. So they bowed down to worship Him, and went back full of joy to Jerusalem, where they spent their time continually in the temple, praising and blessing God.”

Gospel of S. Luke, 24: 46-53
S. Luke paints the Virgin
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