In her Sunday worship, the Church follows a three-year cycle for the Scripture readings. The rotation follows the three synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with the turnover from one year to another at Advent.
Of course, once there’s a switch to a different gospel, we enter all the holy days and the transition could be missed by the average believer.
Now with the holidays past us, as we enter into Ordinary Time, the new gospel becomes more apparent. And so, this Sunday we are taken to the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel. In fact, we hear the very rare announcement: “A reading from the beginning of the holy Gospel…”.
Saint Luke does not disappoint us, as he tells us: “Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us, I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.”
What is Luke telling us? In summary, others have given us testimony (perhaps this is a reference to Mark’s Gospel, and perhaps even Matthew’s), but he’s done some extra research. He is telling us indirectly that he was not an eyewitness, since he does not include himself in that number as he speaks of them: “…just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning…”.
By contrast, he includes himself among the recipients of the eyewitness testimony: “…have handed down to us…”. This shows us that Luke received his knowledge of Jesus Christ from others (like us), and that he most likely never met Jesus in this life.
Luke explains that he wants to give a chronology of the Lord’s life. This is significant, since Mark and Matthew were not as worried about historical sequence. They drew from the oral tradition in order to address concerns or problems within their specific audiences. Rather than a biography, they wrote something more akin to a contemporary catechism. Luke, however, wants to give a more focused, point-by-point account.
Luke addresses “most excellent Theophilus” in his introduction. Within the cultural practice of that time of dedicating works to a benefactor, it’s suspected that this “most excellent” person is Luke’s donor. The name might be a proper name or a greeting of affection since the term “theophilus” simply means “God lover.” Luke was, therefore, well-supported in the research, interviews, writing, and journeys that were conducted in order for him to write his gospel book.
Beyond these biblical verses, however, are there other things we can know about Luke that can help us to appreciate our reading of the Third Gospel? Is there any backstory that can humanize the Evangelist from whom we’ll be reading, and from whom we’ll be hearing throughout the next liturgical year?
We know from the Scriptures that Luke is a doctor, he’s addressed as the “beloved physician” by Saint Paul, to whom he was a friend and disciple. Luke’s medical background plays out in his descriptions of the various bodily miracles and the compassion (the bedside manner) of the Lord Jesus to those who suffered.
Luke is from the Greek world. He was not raised under the Jewish ceremonial law, or within a Judeo culture, or by instruction in the prophecies of Israel. He was a Gentile, a non-Jew, and for all intents and purposes, he seemed pretty comfortable with that identity. He doesn’t indicate any insecurity or any sense that he was somehow a secondary Christian because he was not of Israel.
Being a Gentile, Luke gives us a perspective that the other gospel writers do not. For example, only Luke tells us about the holy women who were an active part of the Lord’s public ministry. He is less concerned with the prophecies of old as he is with sharing the heartfelt stories of the Lord’s compassion and kindness.
For example, only Luke tells us about the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, Martha and Mary, the raising of the son of the Widow of Nain, the Good Thief, and other such stories that have become the most beloved and endearing stories of the New Testament.
And so, the opening lines of Luke’s gospel book, and the above perspectives, can help each of us to understand and appreciate the person of our gospel writer – who he was and where he came from – as well as the driving spirit behind his narrative.
As we walk through this next liturgical year and hear his testimony, all of us – believer and inquirer alike – can benefit from his life, his research, and his faith.