By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
The gospel marches along, as if pulled by a thread, moving inexorably from Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem to his death in Jerusalem.
It’s a movement both literal and figurative, and Luke uses a phrase like a mantra to drive it home.
He who wishes to follow must take up his cross every day, Jesus says in chapter 9, verse 23. Daily bread is the first petition in the prayer the Nazarene gives his followers in chapter 11.
Time and again, according to the writer of Luke’s gospel, Jesus sets his face toward Jerusalem (9:51).
Through his lyrical prose Luke conveys the inescapability of God’s plan as well as the holy tedium that will ensue as the new Christian movement emerges.
The church of which Luke speaks awaits the return of its savior still. Time marches along, and the faithful read the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts, two conjoining works by the same author, as a testament of their beginnings.
Luke begins by saying to Theophilus (“God-lover” in Greek) that he means to give an accurate, orderly account. One might expect that precision from a man whom tradition identified as a physician, said the Rev. Chris McAlilly.
“Luke’s going to meticulously show coherence between the life of Christ and the spread of the early church,” said McAlilly, pastor of Shannon United Methodist Church and Brewer United Methodist Church.
Luke is thinking big picture, writing to a Gentile audience some of whom are unfamiliar with the Jewish traditions that undergird the Gospel of Matthew.
Luke’s Greek is tighter and cleaner said McAlilly. He’s crafting a literary masterpiece.
“He’s taken the accounts of eye witnesses and sat with them, pored over them,” said the Rev. Landon Dowden, pastor of The Church at Trace Crossing, a Southern Baptist congregation in Tupelo.
The beauty of Luke’s infancy narrative is the very scenery of Christmas. His “Magnificat,” found in no other gospel, sets the stage for Jesus’ entry into the world.
“My soul magnifies the Lord,” says Mary, the mother of Jesus. “My spirit rejoices in God, my savior.”
“Whew!” said McAlilly.
Later, in the second chapter of Acts, Luke records the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, but the Spirit is also clearly present when Mary recites her intoxicatingly beautiful canticle, said the Rev. Tommy Galloway.
“Deep calls unto deep,” said Galloway, pastor of Word of Life Church in Tupelo, quoting Psalm 42:8. Luke’s intent, Galloway said, is to illustrate the similar experience had by Mary and Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, under the prompting of the Spirit.
Luke is broadening his gospel to a universal scope. The gift of the Spirit demonstrates that Gentiles are included in the messianic blessing.
It’s a wide world into which Jesus has sent his disciples with the gospel, and Luke says that being a follower of Christ and a good citizen, even a Roman citizen, are not antithetical aspirations.
To emphasize this, Luke casts Pilate in a less menacing role. Three times Luke has the Roman procurator declare Jesus innocent of wrongdoing, in Acts 23: 29, 25:25 and 26:31.
Barabbas, however, Luke identifies as a murderer and insurrectionist, a serious violator of the social order.
Matthew’s gospel, as Landon of Trace Crossing pointed out, hangs on Barabbas only the vaguely undesirable epithet of “notorious criminal.” Luke’s insistence on detail, Landon said, always serves his purpose.
When the father spotted his son coming up the road, Luke says the he was filled with compassion.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son is perhaps the most poignant of Jesus’ lessons to his followers, and it’s found only in Luke.
Chapter 15 begins, however, with two other stories of lost things, the Parable of the Lost Sheep, found also in Matthew, and the Parable of the Lost Coin, another Luke exclusive.
“The woman loses the coin in the house,” said Galloway. “Perhaps it’s possible, Luke is saying, to be lost even within the church. Religion alone won’t save you.”
The shepherd, as Dowden noted, goes out after the sheep and puts it on his shoulders.
“These stories, taken together with the prodigal, are about God pursuing the lost,” said Dowden. “They’re about God coming after us when we’re in the pig slop and sharing the inheritance.”
As McAlilly noted, no gospel writer is more concerned than Luke with the mercy and compassion of Jesus. This is demonstrated in stories like the healing of the centurion’s slave in chapter 7, and the Parable of the Good Samaritan, yet another Luke exclusive, in chapter 10.
Perhaps, said Dowden, the most remarkable characteristic of the Gospel of Luke is the different example it demonstrates of divine inspiration.
It isn’t a manic possession of the author, he said, but a studied process of compilation undertaken by a devoted follower of Christ.
“We see Paul’s sarcasm sometimes, and John’s personality, too,” said Dowden of other New Testament authors.
“This the way God inspired Luke,” said Dowden. “Verse by verse. Luke is saying, ‘Let me tell you a story,’ and this, Theophilus, is how I’m going to do it.”