Gospel of Luke Current Hot-Button Issues And Cultural Debates In Practice
Getting Biblical in Daily Life
Protestant and Catholic Perspective
It's no secret that Luke has long been a part of sacred scripture for all Christians. On any given Sunday in any given brand of Christian practice, the Gospel of Luke plays an important role. Its stories are read aloud as part of the common church lectionary, and preachers use it as the basis of their sermons around the world. During the Christmas season, the opening chapters of Luke are even interpreted into physical nativity scenes.
Luke gives special emphasis to issues of social justice—especially to the plight of the poor and other social outcasts—as well as to the proper use of wealth. This has made Luke's gospel a particular favorite in Christian movements like liberation theology, where Luke is viewed as an ally of those Christians committed to reforming society from the bottom up. These people are after more than a little charity here and there. They want to completely reformulate the social structures that keep people marginalized and oppressed. And Luke is definitely there to egg them on.
Bottom line: in Christian practice, the Gospel of Luke is alive and kickin'.
The Gospel of Luke is by no means a sacred text for Jews. In fact, many Jewish people might be downright offended by Luke's major claim that Jesus came as the Jewish Messiah only to be rejected by his own people. Some Jews might also find Luke's portrayal of the Jewish leadership as pure villains to be one-sided or lacking subtlety, to say the least. And finally, Luke's interpretation of the destruction of Jerusalem as God's punishment for rejecting Jesus will surely raise a few suspicious eyebrows among Jewish readers.
However, the Gospel of Luke will be of interest to Jewish readers and scholars as a document that illuminates the history of the Jewish people. Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish, after all, and the earliest groups of Jesus-believers may in fact be best characterized as offshoots of or particular brands of Judaism.
Whether Luke himself was born Jewish isn't clear, but whatever his religious-ethnic background may have been, Luke is very well-versed in Greco-Jewish culture. The Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures (called the Septuagint) shapes the language and narrative-style of Luke's gospel, and contemporary Jewish theology, literary forms, and ethics are everywhere in his story.
Of all of the New Testament gospels, Luke is arguably the most generous toward the Jewish people. The rejection of Jesus among the Jewish leadership and the prospect of Jerusalem's consequent destruction provoke in Luke's Jesus real sorrow (13:34-35; 19:41-44; 23:27-31). It is also in Luke that upon his crucifixion Jesus says, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing" (23:34 NRSV). This ultimately compassionate—or is it condescending?—attitude toward the Jews may be viewed as a natural outgrowth of Luke's tremendous humanity on the whole.
For more on Luke's treatment of the Jews, see the "Figures" section of this guide.
Did you find yourself drawn to Luke's gospel even though you're not even a tiny bit religious? You're not alone. Faith in Jesus is not a prerequisite for reading or being moved by this text, just as faith in the Greek god Dionysus isn't required for jumping into the startling world of Euripides' Bacchae.
Composer John Adams makes this very point. He divulges that he's "in no way a religious person" and he does not go to church (source). Yet in 2012, he wrote an entire opera based on stories in the gospels titled, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary."
Why did Adams choose this theme? "I find in this story an enormous representation of the human condition," he says, "with all kinds of themes I care deeply about, including capital punishment and poverty." Check out the whole interview for more.
While this statement holds true for all of the New Testament gospels, Luke's seems to have the most potential appeal to non-believers like Adams. Take one look at the "Why Should I Care?" or "Themes" sections of this learning guide, and you'll see why: he's all about humanity and social ethics.