Reading Luke’s gospel

As we approach Advent, we are coming into the new Liturgical Year, and in the lectionary we will be in Year C. This is the year when we focus on continuous reading of Luke’s gospel, though as in other years there are significant contributions from John.

I have just been teaching about Luke in Hereford Diocese in anticipation of this, and amongst other things making use of John Proctor’s excellent Grove booklet on Luke. I started by doing two quick straw polls: what is your favourite gospel? and What is your favourite story from the gospels? Most said they liked John—but most of their favourite stories came from Luke. John Proctor explains something of Luke’s appeal:

Luke is the longest of the gospels, and for many people its picture of Jesus is the most natural and attractive of the four. This is the gospel of census, stable and shepherds (2.1–20), with Jesus born amid poverty and great ordinariness. Then as we read on, we find him meeting an enormous range of human need and concern. Jesus’ famous manifesto of ‘good news to the poor’ (4.18) beckons people from the margins of society, people burdened and overlooked, to feast with God. His call to Zacchaeus to come to ground and welcome the kingdom (19.5), speaks of a fellowship where evasions and inferiorities fade into the background, and exiles find their way home. This is a gospel about people in all their variety, beset by troubles, divisions and fears, and about joyous good news that comes amid all the complexities and confusions of human living.

There is a down-to-earth quality too about the stories Jesus tells. Many of his best-known parables come in this gospel alone—the Samaritan (10.29–37), the prodigal son (15.11–32) and the persistent widow (18.1–8), for example. Jesus’ keen eye for the realities with which people live, and his unique view of life’s potential and possibility under God, come into light in a couple of dozen quirky and memorable tales.

Luke’s Jesus is a traveller. At many points in the gospel we see him on the move, making his way gradually to the great crisis in Jerusalem. Then finally the little journey out to Emmaus (24.13–32) has seemed to many readers a hint and promise of Jesus’ company in their own lives. When the reading stops, our journey with Jesus goes on. He comes with us, and is known through the Scriptures and the breaking of bread.

Only Luke among the four gospels has a second instalment. Acts takes up where the gospel stops, with Jesus ascending and leaving his friends—yet not leaving them alone, for they will receive the Holy Spirit. Then through Acts the story moves gradually outwards, impelled by the Spirit, spreading the good news, reaching for the ends of the earth. The message that is shared is always the news outlined in the gospel—of Jesus’ time among us, the impact he made, and the hope that his death and resurrection have brought. This is the basis and motive power for the church’s mission, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, from the time of Acts until our own day. When we hear, absorb and follow Luke’s account of this gospel, we are dealing with the source and sustenance of our own faith and service.

Proctor then explores the gospel in order, before looking at key themes and how we might make use of it in preaching. Particularly important for our understanding is Luke’s very deliberate short prologue.

The style of these four verses is formal and a little elaborate—good, educated Greek, as if to say that Luke’s book can bear comparison with the most responsible writing of its day. He is composing serious history (according to the standards of his day), and is open about his concerns and method.

  • This is ‘an orderly account,’ a narrative (1.1). The good news has value because it is history; it tells of real events.
  • The gospel is a ‘fulfilment’ (1.1). God’s promises have come into view. Seeds of hope, planted long ago, have begun to flower.
  • Luke knows the importance of ‘witness’ (1.2). Often in Acts (2.32; 3.15) we hear that the apostles were ‘witnesses’ to the resurrection of Jesus. In the gospel too, Luke is writing a witnessed story. People have seen these things.
  • Luke has been able to check out his material. He has ‘investigated carefully’ (1.3). (This word might even suggest personal involvement in parts of the story; either way the author claims a good basis for his writing.)
  • He values the work of other people, who have written the gospel story before him (1.1). It appears, from the amount of parallel material, that Luke used Mark’s gospel or something very like it, and blended his other source material carefully with this.
  • He writes for a purpose, ‘that you may know the truth’ (1.4). The word translated ‘truth’ really means ‘dependability,’ something to rely on. Luke writes for people who have heard the gospel story. He wants to assure them that there is solid ground beneath it.

My colleague at the University of Nottingham, Tom O’Loughlin, would go further: he has a theory that Luke’s phrase ‘guardians of the word’ is actually a technical phrase referring to those in the community who looked after the community’s scrolls and parchments, and could have retained notes from eyewitnesses about Jesus.

Proctor then highlights the key themes in Luke—things we should be on the look-out for as we preach on individual passages.

Poverty and Property

This gospel speaks frequently about poverty. Poor people matter, in the ministry of Jesus and in the kingdom. Jesus blesses them—not because their situation is good, but because it is going to change (6.20f). He brings them ‘good news’ (4.18), itself a sign that God is at work and that lives are being made new (7.22). He urges the comfortable and rich to share their wealth and well-being (14.13), and those who have too much to give it away (18.22; 19.8). Poverty is a hurt to be challenged and mended. By contrast, material wealth in Luke seems to be something of a danger…

Women and Men

Women appear in a wider range of situations in Luke than they do in other gospels. Elizabeth supports Mary (1.39–45). Anna rejoices alongside Simeon (2.36–38). Jesus helps the widow of Nain (7.11–16). A woman ‘in the city’ anoints him (7.36–50). Women travel with the disciples and help to finance their journey (8.1–3). Martha and Mary open their home (10.38–42). Women in Jerusalem weep as he goes to die (23.27f). Sometimes a parable or miracle involving a man is balanced with one about a woman (13.10–17 with 14.1–6; 13.18–21; 15.3–10; 18.1–14). Most of these references come in Luke alone…

Mission and the Margins

In many ways, then, Luke’s gospel is an inclusive story. We have mentioned Jesus’ concern for the poor, and the prominence of women in this gospel. There are other aspects too, to the inclusiveness of the account. Regularly we find Jesus mixing with people from the wrong side of the tracks, tax-collectors and outcasts (5.27–32; 7.36–50; 15.1f; 19.1–10). He is comprehensive rather than selective, in the company he keeps and the hospitality he accepts. He dines with Pharisees as well (7.36; 11.37; 14.1). But he seems more at ease, less on edge, with outsiders….

[It is also worth here noting Luke’s distinctive emphasis that Jesus ‘calls sinners to repentance‘ (Luke 5.32; the final phrase is absent from Matt 9.13 and Mark 2.17.]

Politics and Empire

Yet the world had a ruler already. The church was born into a colonial society, ruled by an international superpower. A major theme in New Testament study in recent years has been the issue of empire. How did the rule of Rome affect the way that Christians spoke about the power and goodness of God? For Luke especially, whose gospel runs from a Roman census to a Roman cross, and whose second volume ends with Paul witnessing in Rome ‘openly and unhindered’ (Acts 28.31), this issue may not be far beneath the surface…

To John’s observations I would also add (prompted by my friend Steve Walton) a focus on prayer and praise.

  • prayers of Jesus 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18, 28-29; 10:21-22*; 11:1; 22: 31-32, 41-44*; 23:46 (all except starred references are unique to Luke)
  • parables on prayer 11:5-8, 9-13; 18:1-8
  • exhortations to pray 6:28; 11:2; 22:40, 46
  • warning about wrong prayer 20:46-47
  • praise and joy—‘Luke’s is a singing Gospel’ (Leon Morris)
  • hymns of infancy stories Magnificat 1:46-55; Benedictus 1:68-79; Nunc Dimittis 2:30-32
  • rejoicing and joy 1:14, 44, 47; 10:21; 24:52-53; cf. 6:21
  • angelic rejoicing 2:13-14; 15:10 (both distinctively Lukan)
  • the joy of repentance 15:7, 10, 23, 32; 19:6

All this goes to prove what a fascinating gospel Luke is—Year C should be a year to remember

You can buy the booklet from the Grove website and it will be sent post free. You can also subscribe to the Biblical series, or sign up to receive monthly emails about new titles.

For a useful short introduction to Luke, see Paula Gooder’s video on the St John’s Timeline.

My other posts on Luke include:

Jesus wasn’t born in a stable

Did Luke get the date of Jesus’ birth wrong?

Peace in Luke and in Paul

Luke and numerical composition

Preaching on Luke 18

The meaning and significance of Luke 16

Luke’s interest in power

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3 thoughts on “Reading Luke’s gospel”

  1. Thanks, Ian.
    I attended a preaching day in Chippenham last Saturday when we were given a fascinating insight into Luke by Rev. Dr. Tim Gibson. he expanded on the subject of how form and content are equally important when considering Luke and how, together, they help us understand Luke’s theology. He said that ‘we preach Luke through sermons whose form and content embody a narrative of a God who creates, reconciles and redeems.’
    Like you, he made a point of pointing to the fact that Luke adds more details to stories that are shared with the other synoptic gospels and that this is partly for historicity but is also to bring the stories alive.

    I also loved the way he pointed to the poetic structure of the gospel; how revelation and concealment are used effectively by Luke: Christ’s status is constantly being revealed and then concealed. He took me into areas of thinking that I have not entered before – especially when he talked about chiasma and cadence, but he explained it very well, with plenty of illustrations.
    It inspired me try to use poetry – in the workshop period during the afternoon – when we were set the task of preparing an outline for a sermon for advent Sunday.
    Whether I succeeded, I don’t know, but I thank God for people like him, as well as you, who enable and inspire us to really soak ourselves in scripture before we prepare to preach to God’s people.

  2. A book that has helped me in looking at Luke is David Gooding’s “According to Luke” published by IVP, always full of insights and fresh ways of looking at the text, always matching the big picture to the small details.


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