Time for a little thought experiment. People have been reading the Gospel of Luke for about two millennia, but just imagine if today, for the very first time, monks had discovered the gospel in their monastery. What would the headlines be? How would people react? Enter thought experiment.
Two monks charged with cleaning their monastery's cellars have uncovered a shocking manuscript containing an account of the birth, work, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, titled "According to Luke" and written in Greek. Luke clearly knows of Jerusalem's destruction by the Romans at the end of the Jewish War in 70 (19:41-44; 21:6, 20-24), seems to have used the Gospel of Mark as a source, and explicitly places himself in the second or third generation of Christians (1:1-2).
"What this means," says Professor Doodle of Shmoop University, "is that we've discovered a really early gospel written shortly before the close of the 1st century. That makes this text almost as early as Matthew and not much later than Mark. This is a big deal. It's like finding out that Abraham Lincoln really was a vampire slayer. By the way, the jury's still out on that one."
Significantly, Luke dedicates his story to a certain "Theophilus" (1:3). People familiar with the New Testament will recognize that this is the very name of the addressee of the Book of Acts, too (Acts 1:1). What's more, a great many of Luke's themes and issues are also treated in Acts. "These facts," says Doodle, "indicate that Luke is the long-lost first volume to Acts. This is as exciting as when all of the prequels to Star Wars first came out. Don't get me wrong. Luke-Acts is not sci-fi. But it is in keeping with ancient history-writing, which means that with Luke we're dealing with the first installment of a two-volume history of Christian origins."
The discovery is not only making waves among those who are redrawing the story of Christian origins. What truly has the potential to challenge everyone (believers and non-believers alike) is the emphasis that Luke's Jesus places on a social ethic—something that only over-achievers will even try to live out.
Luke's Jesus gives pride of place to those who are otherwise social rejects, such as widows, the poor, the blind, the lost, and "sinners" (4:18-19; 5:27-32; 14:13, 21; 15:1-32). Jesus also argues that an excessive attachment to possessions leaves the wealthy unprepared for death and/or the sudden arrival of God's kingdom. A big pill for the wealthy to swallow is that they're supposed to sell all their things and work on behalf of the poor and society's other outcasts (12:16-40; 16:13-15, 19-31; 18:18-30).
"The ideals of this text put even Gandhi to shame," says Doodle. "Rare is the person, Christian or not, who has or will put what Luke's Jesus demands into practice." Doodle points out that Luke offers many other valuable gems, even startling new details about what happened at the first Christmas (1-2) and about Jesus's first female followers (8:2-3; 23:49-24:12). One thing is for certain. This discovery will be shocking and challenging the world for years to come.
Let's face it: a lot of Luke's concepts are going to land us with a pretty healthy dose of skepticism. After all, what can revived corpses, miraculous healings, demons, exorcisms, supernatural impregnations, and fulfilled prophecies mean to us after Darwin and Einstein? Sure, it makes for great TV (can someone get on that?), but can we really relate?
The good news is that Luke's gospel is the gospel for those of us who are the biggest skeptics of all. It's the gospel that open-minded atheists, agnostics, humanists, and non-believers of all stripes should read first, and we're here to tell you why.
Luke's demand that people love their neighbors—even the ones they don't like—doesn't just mean dropping a few nickels in the Salvation Army's buckets during the holidays. He's talking about the good Samaritan, for example, who dares to cross and challenge hostile ethnic and religious boundaries for the sole purpose of helping someone who's suffering (10:30-36). Or he's talking about the father who forgives his "prodigal" son, who returns home in poverty after squandering his entire inheritance on some R-rated activities (15:11-32).
Think about enjoying next year's Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of "sinners" instead of friends and family. The cast of The Usual Suspects? Yeah, that's what your party will look like if you take Jesus's instructions for issuing party-invitations seriously (14:12-24).
So even if you're feeling a little cynical, we're guessing the Gospel of Luke will challenge you to be a more compassionate human being.