Readings: 2 Timothy 4:10-17b; Psalm 145: Luke 10:1-9
St Paul mentions Luke, one of his co-workers, a few times — Philemon 23-24, 2 Timothy 4.11 and Colossians 4.14 where he refers to Luke as ‘the beloved physician’. There is no good reason to doubt the early Church’s attribution of the third gospel to Luke. And the Acts of the Apostles as well of course, since the Gospel of Luke and the Acts go together.
Luke seems to have been a person of particular sensitivity and gentleness. The picture of Jesus we gain from Luke is correspondingly sensitive and compassionate, with an eye always to the unfortunate and the afflicted.
Luke has been described (by Dante) as ‘the recorder of the tenderness of Christ’ and this comes through in a number of ways. Think, for example, of parables which are found only in Luke’s gospel: the good Samaritan (Luke 10), the prodigal son (Luke 15), the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16), the Pharisee and the publican (Luke 18) to name just four of them. If asked to pick out stories that best summarise the good news of Christianity I bet we would all include at least the first two.
In both parables the turning point is when one human being is moved with compassion at the distress of another and does something to help. The good Samaritan, unlike the priest and Levite who passed by, is ‘moved with compassion’ to help the unfortunate man he sees on the Jericho road. The prodigal son is on his way home, and is still a good way off, when his father sees him, is ‘moved with compassion’ and rushes out to embrace him.
Luke uses the same Greek word in both places. And he uses it again in telling how Jesus encountered a funeral procession in the town of Nain, that of a man who was the only son of his widowed mother (Luke 7: it is typical of Luke to note things which deepen the sadness of situations: the ‘only’ son and she a ‘widow’.) Here, Luke tells us, Jesus himself is ‘moved with compassion’ and restores the man to life.
The miracles recorded only by Luke often have some added reason for compassion. The woman bent over (Luke 13), the man with dropsy (Luke 14), and Zaccheus the tax-collector too small to see Jesus (Luke 19), are all afflicted in ways that might well have led to them being laughed at and jeered.
Some have suggested that Luke’s medical background explains his interest in the details of various conditions. Perhaps it is enough that his sensitivity drew him to relate events which best illustrate the compassion of our Lord.
A further illustration of this compassion is in the words from the cross which Luke records (Luke 23). The first is ‘Father forgive them for they know not what they do’. The concern of Jesus for the plight of others remains to the very end. In the same spirit is his assurance to the good thief, ‘today you will be with me in paradise’. And his final word is a prayer, ‘Father into your hands I commend my spirit’.
Luke, recorder of Christ’s gentleness, is symbolised by a bull or ox. This is the biblical symbol (Apocalypse 4) traditionally assigned to him, because his gospel begins with Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, offering incense in the temple at Jerusalem, the place of sacrifice. The compassion which permeates Luke’s gospel may seem fragile and vulnerable before the powers of this world but we believe that this kind love which comes from God is stronger than anything in creation. The ox is a symbol of this strength.
It is always good to read the gospel of Luke, to make it our spiritual reading — if only to realise how much our appreciation and love of Jesus of Nazareth have been shaped by what we learn from this gentle physician.