Each of the four gospels gives us a different portrait of Jesus. It is as if we asked four great artists - say Raphael, Renoir, Picasso and Lucian Freud - to portray the same person - say Napoleon. We would be very disappointed if what we received were four portraits exactly the same in all details. We would expect that Raphael's Napoleon would tell us something not just about Napoleon but also about the artistry of Raphael. And the same for the others. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are four portraits, produced by four accomplished writers. Each of them teaches us about Jesus but we can also say that each of them introduces us to 'his' Jesus. We are blessed with the four portraits of Jesus that we have in the four gospels.
What is distinctive about Luke? What are we taught by Luke that we don’t learn from the others? How is Jesus seen through the eyes of Luke? Some things are certain. He wrote two of the books of the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. Together they form a diptych, a journey beginning in Roman Palestine and ending in Jerusalem, and a journey beginning in Jerusalem and ending in Rome itself. The letter to the Colossians 4:14 speaks of Luke as ‘the beloved physician’. (Luke is referred to also in Philemon 23f and 2 Timothy 4:11.) Luke’s accounts of healing miracles are more informative and attentive to detail than those of the other gospels. Traditionally this is taken to confirm the fact that he was a medical doctor of some kind.
Luke seems to have been a Greek-speaking convert to Judaism and Christianity. He writes very good Greek and writes for other Greek-speaking people. He explains Jewish customs presumably because his intended audience is not Jewish and so will need such explanations. There are no doctrines found in Luke that are not found elsewhere. At the same time we find things emphasised in particular ways so that Luke’s presentation of them has a distinctive flavour.
PRAYER AND PRAYERS
There is a particular emphasis on prayer in the gospel of Luke who says more about prayer, and speaks more often of Jesus praying, than do the other gospels. Jesus speaks often about the necessity of prayer: 11:5-8; 11:13; 18:1-8; 18:13; 21:36 (most of these texts are proper to Luke’s gospel). Luke often tells us about Jesus’s prayer: 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28-29; 11:1; 22:32, 41; 23:34, 46. It is not that Matthew and Mark do not also offer profound teaching about prayer (Mark 1 and Mark 8, for example). They tell us that Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, after the first multiplication of loaves, and in Capernaum after curing many people. But in Luke prayer seems to suffuse the public ministry and surround the person of Jesus in a way that is not as clear in the other gospels.
Luke has contributed hugely to the prayer life of the Church, in particular to its repertoire of praise. Prayers such as ‘Hail Mary’ and the 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ originate in this gospel. The great canticles of praise used every day in the Church’s liturgy are all from Luke, the Benedictus of Zechariah, the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon, and above all the Magnificat of Mary. (Praise is spoken of also in Luke 5:25; 18:43; 19:37; 23:47.) Jesus’s ministry begins and ends with prayer, and at the beginning of Acts the Holy Spirit comes on the primitive community while it is at prayer.
GENTLENESS AND COMPASSION
Dante described Saint Luke as scriba mansuetudinis Christi, the scribe of the gentleness of Christ. Luke’s Jesus is particularly gentle, compassionate and tender. He is greatly moved by human suffering. He is kind towards enemies. Often Luke tells us that the children who have suffered or, more often, died, are ‘only children’. This heightens the sadness of their situation and that of their families. Of course we believe that Jesus himself was sensitive and warm but Luke reveals also his own personality in the way he presents the portrait.
Some major parables and miracles are recorded only in Luke’s gospel. Imagine how impoverished our knowledge of the teaching of Jesus would be without the two great parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son. Note that each of these turns on a moment of compassion, of the Samaritan for the injured man and that of the father for the returning son. Other great parables we find only in Luke’s gospel are those of the Rich Man and Lazarus, and of the Pharisee and the Publican.
Miracles recorded only in Luke include the healing of the woman bent over and the man with dropsy, the raising of the widow’s only son at Nain, and the conversion of Zaccheus. Luke alone tells us that the daughter of Jairus was his only daugher and so too the epileptic boy whom the disciples could not heal was an only son. The conditions of the woman bent over and the man with dropsy are particularly painful, not just physically but socially. They are people likely to be mocked, just like Zaccheus. In Luke’s gospel Jesus has an eye for those who are particularly vulnerable, excluded, or likely to be ridiculed.
Time for a story. Once upon a time, in the town of Kiltimagh, County Mayo, there was a parish priest who preached every Sunday on the Pharisee and the Publican (Lord, be merciful to me a sinner). It did not matter what the gospel reading was, this was, sooner or later, what he turned to in his homily. Two long-suffering members of the parish were returning home one Sunday having heard yet again about the Pharisee and the Publican. One turned to the other and said, ‘Seamus, it was a sad day for Kiltimagh that those two fellows ever went up to that temple’.
Jesus’s words from the cross in Luke’s gospel are characterised by the same features as we find in his account of Jesus' pastoral ministry and teaching. The crucified Jesus of Luke’s gospel is serene. We do not find here the anguished Jesus of Matthew and Mark, but neither do we find the powerful Jesus of John’s passion narrative, who seems to be the director of the drama rather than its victim. So, Luke tells us, Jesus said three things from the cross. ‘Father, forgive them for they know not what they do’: Jesus practises what he had preached by forgiving his enemies. ‘Today you will be with me in Paradise’: even on the cross Jesus is aware of the needs of those around him and brings the saving power of God to them. ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit’: Jesus seals the sacrifice of his life and death entrusting himself into the loving hands of his Father.
Finally, the sensitivity and compassion of Luke’s account is seen in what he omits: anything offensive, anything derogatory to the dignity of the apostles, anything about Jesus likely to cause misunderstanding or offence.
PAIRS AND WOMEN
Luke’s gospel is full of pairs. Very often in this gospel Jesus teaches through stories about two contrasting figures. Pairs found only in Luke are the Pharisee and the Publican (Luke 18), the Prodigal Son and the Elder Brother (Luke 15), Dives and Lazarus (Luke 16), Martha and Mary (Luke 10), the unjust judge and importunate widow (Luke 18), the good thief and the bad thief (Luke 23), Simon the Pharisee and the woman who was a sinner (Luke 7). In the infancy narratives of Luke we find contrasts between the annunciation to Zechariah and the annunciation to Mary, the situation of Elizabeth and the situation of Mary, and the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus. It is a way of teaching familiar from ancient storytelling and still a basic structure in teaching: ‘compare and contrast’.
Luke also seems to have a particular interest in women. There are not only more references to women in his gospel than there are in the others but many of these women play important roles in the revelation of who Jesus is, in the unfolding of his ministry, and in the events of his passion. Besides those already mentioned among the pairs – Mary and Elizabeth, Mary and Martha, the persistent widow and the woman who was a sinner – Luke tells us about old Anna in the Temple (Luke 2), the widow of Nain (Luke 17), the women of Galilee, especially Mary Magdalene, Joanna and Susanna (Luke 8; 23), the woman in the crowd who praises Jesus’mother (Luke 11), the crippled woman of Luke 13, and the women of Jerusalem who lament the fate of Jesus (Luke 23). Two of the parables we find in Luke have women at their centre, the lost coin (Luke 15) and the importunate widow (Luke 18).
Where Matthew’s infancy narrative tells the story from the point of view of Joseph, Luke tells the story from the point of view of Mary: disturbed by the angel’s greeting, accepting his message in faith, going speedily to help her cousin Elizabeth, pondering all these things in her heart, wondering about the visit of the shepherds, perplexed at the words of Simeon, anxious at the loss of Jesus when he was twelve years old. It is to Luke that we owe the richest biblical and theological material for our contemplation of the role of Mary not just in the birth and education of Jesus but in the mystery of salvation.
It is to Luke’s gospel that we owe this great prayer:
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you!
Blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb.