Luke makes it pretty easy for us. Right in the preface (1:1-4), he prompts readers to expect that a history will follow. And sure enough, Luke and its second volume Acts are together widely considered a work of Greco-Roman historiography (or history-writing).
Other ancient historians wrote similar, but usually longer, prefaces, which are dedicated to various figures just like Luke dedicates his work to Theophilus. Luke also mention a few important standards for successful history-writing: reliance on eye-witnesses and other early sources, thorough research, accuracy, order, and "truth" (1:4 NRSV) or "certainty" (KJV). Luke even uses the key term "narrative" (1:1) to describe his account (the NRSV and the KJV translate the Greek word here somewhat misleadingly as "account" and "declaration," respectively). This term was used in ancient literary criticism to describe narrative-genres, one of which was—you guessed it—history.
Checking off another box, a lot of Luke's content overlaps with ancient histories, which include accounts of dinners, lengthy speeches, genealogies, and super dramatic events.
But before we get ahead of ourselves, we have to remember that Luke-Acts being an example of ancient history-writing does not mean that Luke-Acts is an accurate representation of history itself. There are in fact some downright errors, and there's definitely an effort to shape the story of events so that it communicates specific meanings and conveys theological insights.
So we can say that Luke's history is history with an agenda. And hey, that's actually in keeping with the nature of ancient history-writing in general. Some thinkers go so far as to argue that all history-writing is history with an agenda, even when objectivity is emphasized—then and now. But we'll let you duke that one out with your friends.
You thought you were going to get off easy here, but no such luck. There's more to "Luke" than you might think.
The Greek manuscripts that we have today record two options for the title of Luke: a longer title, "The Gospel [or Good News] According to Luke;" and a shorter one, "According to Luke." How about some fun facts to help you think about these titles?
What do these facts add up to? Well, there's a great deal of debate about the whole thing. One compelling option is that the longer title is more ancient than the shorter one. But it is possible that the longer title originated in the early 100s after Luke began to circulate along with at least one of the other gospels—that would have helped distinguish the two, since each of the other three New Testament gospels are likewise titled, "The Gospel According to X" or "According to X". What do you think, Shmoopers?
First things first. The book of Acts is Luke's second volume. That means the ending of Luke is like the ending of any good book for which sequels are planned: think Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, or The Fellowship of the Ring.
These endings do two things at once: they round out and complete the first major sequence and they anticipate the opening of the second. Check and check for Luke's ending.
The resurrected Jesus appears to his disciples and then checks out of earth, headed toward heaven (24:50-51). We definitely get closure to the Jesus-is-alive portion of the story. But we also get some foreshadowing for Acts, in which the disciples will proclaim their message "beginning from Jerusalem" (24:47). And that's exactly where they are when Acts begins.
All roads lead to Jerusalem.
This is where the story begins, with Gabriel's appearance to Zechariah in Jerusalem's temple (1:8-20); and this is where the story ends, with the disciples praising God in the temple after Jesus's departure to heaven (24:52-53). And, if we look forward to the sequel (the Book of Acts), Jerusalem is where the disciples will begin their work of communicating the good news of Jesus.
Just think of all of the major events of cosmic significance that occur in Jerusalem:
Whew. It's not surprising then, that even when Jesus isn't in Jerusalem, the focus is on getting there.
Not only is Jerusalem the sacred city for Jews, but it's also the place where Jesus's fated death is supposed to occur. Jesus himself tells us that the prophets wrote long ago about his suffering, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem (18:31-34; also, 9:31). The city draws Jesus in like a magnet and holds him in its grip with the force of an inescapable destiny. Intense, right?
Jerusalem actually has a pretty sad destiny of its own. The city's rejection of Jesus will have consequences—as Jesus tells us again and again—in the form of its eventual destruction by the Romans (13:34-35; 19:43-44; 21:20-24). This historical event went down in the year 70 at the end of the Jewish War, and Luke is clearly writing after the fact.
On the whole, Jerusalem gives out a sad vibe, even leading Jesus to tears (19:41). Considering he's a pretty unemotional guy, that's sure saying something.
Luke also takes pains to position his story in the wider context of Roman imperial power and international politics. He's writing a story that belongs in the World News section of the newspaper—not the Locals.
Already in 1:1 and 2:1-2, Luke begins to transfix his story onto the wider imperial-political map. John and Jesus are born during the reign of Augustus, who's the first of a long line of emperors, at the time when Herod the Great is king of Judea and neighboring regions and Quirinius is governor of Syria. In 3:1-4, Luke adds that John and Jesus start their work when Tiberius Caesar is in the fifteenth year of his long reign as emperor. Pontius Pilate is currently governor of Judea, and Herod is tetrarch of Galilee. Other tetrarchs in neighboring regions are mentioned as are two Jewish priests. (For more details about all of these rulers, their dates, and problems with Luke's chronology, check out the "Detailed Summary.")
And that, folks, is where John and Jesus start their work. A tough act to follow, sure, but they make it happen.
Luke also superimposes on his story a cosmic map. Translation: otherworldly regions beyond the earth make their way into the story, too. Luke doesn't give us any coherent description of these realms or where they are with respect to one another, but it's a fun challenge to try to map them as closely as possible on the basis of this text alone. Here at least are a few of the building blocks of Luke's extraterrestrial cosmos.
Heaven is the most prominent of the otherworldly spheres. It is the place where angels (2:13; 15:7; 16:22), the Holy Spirit (11:13), God (3:22; 11:2), the whole heavenly army (2:13), and even Abraham (16:22) hang out. Jesus also goes there after his resurrection-appearances (24:51) and will someday return from there (21:27). Mortals will also have access under certain future conditions to the rewards that are there (6:23; 12:33; 18:22). Location? Unclear, but definitely upwards toward the sky (4:25; 9:16, 54; 10:15, 18; 18:13).
Gehenna and Hades are both translated as "hell" in the KJV (10:15; 12:5; 16:23). Their location is downwards (from earth or from heaven?) (10:15; 16:23). We do know that when the Rich Man is in hell and Lazarus in heaven, the Rich Man can see Lazarus. So are the two super close together? Or did they just have better contact lenses back then? Either way, a "great chasm" or "great gulf" (16:26) lies between heaven and Hades, so no passage between the two is possible.
There's also the abyss (NRSV) or deep (KJV), which the Legion of demons is afraid to enter in 8:31. We're not quite sure what it's relationship is to Gehenna and Hades, but the brood of demons begs Jesus not to send them there, so we're guessing it's pretty nasty.
For extra credit, we dare you to make a visual depiction of Luke's otherworldly geography. And then send it to us.
Everyone loves a good origin story—or a bad one, for that matter—and boy does Jesus get his.
It's called Christmas. Ever heard of it?
Origin stories were maybe even a bigger deal back in the day. Who your dad was and any crazy stuff that happened at your birth were signs of who you were destined to become. So the attention Luke gives to all of the details of Jesus's birth is in keeping with other ancient literature.
Examples? How about Alexander the Great or Romulus and Remus? Oh, and in one story a fiery penis floats through the air and impregnates the mother of a son destined to be king. But we'll talk about that that some other time.
But Luke is still responsible for a lot of what we consider Christmasy today.
His focus falls on a particular set of Christmastime symbols: Mary, the inn that has no available rooms, the manger, swaddling clothes, the shepherds, Simeon, and Anna. No doubt you've seen a manger at Christmastime, and guess what? It's distinctively and exclusively Lukan. Although, full disclosure: Matthew's wise men are usually woven in along with other good-sense embellishments—sheep, anyone?—just for kicks.
We dare you to count how many Christmas cards you get this year that declare peace on earth. Guess what? Luke is responsible for that one, too. These words are part of the announcement delivered to the shepherds by a whole army of heavenly beings: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace" (2:14 KJV).
Some of your cards might add the second part of this same verse: "good will toward men" (KJV). Those of you who've got your trusty NRSV, though, will instead get "and on earth peace among those whom he favors" (2:14). Yowza—that's quite a discrepancy.
The difference comes down to the presence or absence of a single letter in Greek in the different manuscripts. Here are a few good arguments for accepting the text followed by the NRSV:
Moral of the story? Choose your Christmas cards carefully.
Happiness is what we all want, right?
But there are a couple pesky little questions we have to answer: what is happiness anyway? And what do we have to have in order to obtain it?
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus has an answer:
"Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven." (6:20-22)
We call this the Beatitudes (check out Matthew's longer version in Matthew 5:3-11). Strictly speaking, a beatitude is any statement that begins with the words "blessed are" or "blessed is." But wait! There's more! The Greek word for "blessed" may also be translated as "happy." So replace "happy" for "blessed" and get yourself a fresh reading of these little ditties.
So let's recap. For Jesus, happiness consists of
Well that kind of stinks.
But Jesus does give us a reason: God is the one who's erasing these negativities, which will give way to God's kingdom, full bellies, laughter, and one big heavenly payday.
That means that for Luke's Jesus, happiness is possible even in the direst circumstances because it's rooted in the fact that God acts on behalf of those who are afflicted. It's entirely what we may call an "other-powered" happiness—not sure modern day psychologists would be too psyched about that.
Beatitudes are actually pretty common in both Jewish and Greco-Roman literature. Happiness may consist of pleasure for Epicurean philosophers, life in accordance with nature for Stoics, the wisdom of God for Jews, or knowledge of Dionysus or Orpheus for initiates of their mysteries. That means that the definition that Jesus gives in 6:20-22 is just one option among many for people living in the Greco-Roman world.
In Luke alone, there are tons of 'em: 1:45; 7:23; 10:23; 11:27, 28; 12:37, 38, 43; 14:14, 15; 23:29. In one case, a woman exclaims to Jesus, "Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!" (11:27). Jesus doesn't like this statement and corrects her, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it" (11:28). Touché. Looks like Luke is not entirely bereft of the "self-power" side of the happiness-concept.
"Do to others as you would have them do to you." (6:31)
Sound familiar? Yeah, that's the golden rule.
We've all heard something like this since our kindergarten days: "Bad boy! How would you like it if she took your crayon!" It's pretty convincing, even for six-year-olds, and really is a good rule of thumb to live by.
While their influence cannot be underestimated, Luke and Matthew (he says it in Matthew 7:12) don't get all the credit for the major cultural importance of this rule. A similar ethical principle appears in several of the world's religions or philosophies, including versions of Stoicism, the Bahá'í Faith, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Humanism, Islam, Jainism, Judaism, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism. So yeah, it's kind of all over the place.
In Luke, the saying occurs as one tiny part of a lengthy sermon sometimes called "The Sermon on the Plain" (6:20-49). Before and after the saying, Jesus says that people should love even the people that don't love them back (6:27-30, 32-35).
Yeah. This was as counter-cultural in antiquity as it is in our modern capitalist economies. Reciprocity was, after all, the rule, and relationships flourished on the principle of mutually beneficial exchange. But Jesus argues that it's not good enough to love those who love you back, to do good to those who do good to you, and to loan money to those who can pay you back later. Everybody does that—even criminals. The real challenge is to do all of that with no hope of return until your heavenly payday comes.
Luke is all about ethical standards of compassion, love, and radical charity toward all, and The Golden Rule is no exception.
They're both vampire hunters, obviously. Oh wait, no. They both wear top hats. Shoot—not that, either.
It was on June 16, 1858 that Abraham Lincoln delivered his now famous "House Divided" speech while he was running for a seat in the Senate. Against the advice of a political ally he stated very clearly, "A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free."
Lincoln lost the election. But he knew his position would be a hard sell to his contemporaries. So he purposely reached for language that already had some authority: the Bible. Jesus himself says, "Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house" (11:17). And Jesus, too, knew it was a hard sell.
Of course, Luke can't take all of the credit, since Matthew and Mark record the words, too.
In all three gospels, the house divided principle is part of Jesus's defense speech against people who say that he exorcizes demons by the power of Beelzebul, one of the higher-ups of the demonic orders. Jesus points out their failure of logic: a kingdom or house at loggerheads with itself cannot stand. So if the demonic order is at war with itself it too will fall. The assumption is that this is an unlikely scenario.
While he may have been well aware of this context, Lincoln lifts the key principle out and brilliantly re-applies it in his analysis of the mounting crisis in pre-Civil War America. Read all of Lincoln's speech and all of Jesus's (Luke 11:17-26 ) and tell us: who said it better?
No doubt you've met a Good Samaritan in your day. They're the ones who rescue people from burning homes, stop for a stray kitten, or pull a child out of an overturned vehicle. No doubt these people are good—but are they Samaritans?
We owe the concept of the Good Samaritan to Luke and to Luke alone. Sure, he never uses the exact words "good Samaritan," that's what we nowadays people like to call the story that is found exclusively in his gospel (10:30-36).
Quick recap: a guy is traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he's brutally waylaid by a gang of thieves. As he lies dying along the side of the road, two Jews past by him on the other side and intentionally ignore him. Then a Samaritan comes by and stops for the injured guy. He dresses his wounds, transports him on his donkey, and pays for a place for him to recover.
Jesus tells this story in response to a lawyer who quizzes Jesus about what he has to do to live forever. His answer: love both God and neighbor (10:25-28). The lawyer tacks on a snotty question: "And who is my neighbor?" (10:29). The story of the good Samaritan is Jesus's answer. Everyone, snotty lawyer—everyone is your neighbor.
But the story is much more than a little ditty about a guy who does something nice even though he doesn't have to do anything at all. And the frequent news articles about so-called "Good Samaritans" far too often totally miss the story's more profound point.
To really understand what's going on, we first need to understand that the relationship between the Jews and Samaritans was not good. In fact, it was terrible: they were hostile toward and always suspicious of one another (for a typical example, see 9:52-55). The origin of these tensions is a matter of debate, but they had long been in the making by the time of Jesus.
Samaritans were both religiously and ethnically distinct from Jews. They recognized the authority of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible alone and considered Mt. Gerizim in Samaria to be their sacred center, not Jerusalem.
So when Jesus tells the story of a Samaritan who gives aid to the injured person, while two Jews pass right by the guy, he's challenging people to rethink deeply ingrained ethnic hostilities. He's telling us to love everyone, even the people we consider "other."
In contemporary terms, we have a few thoughts on who might be Samaritan worthy:
In short, it's the Martin Luther King, Jr.s, Gandhis, and Skeeters of the world who deserve to be called Good Samaritans. The guy who rescues a cat or a baby is good, absolutely, but he's not quite a Samaritan.
Also known as the "Our Father," the Lord's Prayer has become the quintessential Christian prayer, and it is still spoken each week in many churches across the U.S. In Luke, it reads like this:
"Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial." (11:2-4)
You might wondering where "our Father in heaven," "your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," and "deliver us from evil" all went. Well, those are from Matthew 6:9-13, so don't look too hard.
Jesus recites this prayer to show the disciples the value of "short and sweet." In one passage, Jesus actually mocks a Pharisee's defunct prayer, in which he uses twenty-nine Greek words to thank God for making him better than everyone else (18:11-12). On the other end of the spectrum, he commends the six-word prayer of a tax collector who simply asks God to forgive him for being a sinner (8:13).
Bottom line: next time you pray, remember that it's quality over quantity.
If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again.
Jesus may not have said as much, but it's definitely his Prayer Rule #1. Bug God till he gives you what you want.
Human examples? Jesus has plenty: it's like an annoying friend who knocks on his neighbor's door in the middle of the night until the neighbor gets up and gives his friend what he wants (11:5-8). Or a widow who pesters a judge so much that he grants her justice so that she'll stop nagging him (18:1-7). If these people—mere mortals—give the askers what they want, God will clearly do the same.
Luke's Jesus is pretty confident about all of this, actually:
"So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened." (11:9-10)
How's that for clear?
There's no doubt you've heard of it, but let's dig deep.
The word "prodigal" is an adjective that means wasteful or spendthrift or wanton (sorry, the SAT is coming up). Luke doesn't actually call his character the "prodigal son," but we modern peeps just love us some titles.
Here's a quick recap: a father gives his two sons their inheritance. One of them takes his newly found fortune to a far-away country and spends every single dime living it up. But there's a severe famine, and the son is forced to tend pigs, which are unclean animals for Jews—kind of double blow to this son who's already sunk pretty low. Eventually, the son decides to return to his father, who is overjoyed to see him and welcomes him home with a big party.
Meanwhile, the second son, who's been at home working hard for his father this whole time, is kind of perturbed at all of this hullabaloo. His father's never thrown a big party for him and here this brother of his is feasting on the juiciest steaks after squandering all of his inheritance on liquor and prostitutes. How is that fair?
The father's response resounds with intense humanity: "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found" (15:31-32).
The story of the Prodigal Son is only found in Luke (15:11-32)—none of the other gospels give it a go. And it's not surprising, because the parable picks up several important Lukan themes. Let's take a look.
Jesus tells the story in response to scribes and Pharisees who are "murmuring" or "grumbling" because Jesus welcomes and even eats with the "tax collectors and sinners" who are coming out in droves to listen to his teaching (15:1-2). Hanging with the wrong crowd is a common criticism of Jesus (5:29-32; 7:37-39; 19:7), who repeatedly insists that he has come precisely for such "sinners" as well as other social outcasts.
As a way of explaining the logic of this mission, Jesus tells two little parables right before he launches into the story of the prodigal son. In one, a shepherd leaves ninety-nine sheep in order to search for "the one that is lost" and rejoices when he finds it (15:3-7). In another, a woman searches her whole house for a single lost coin and when she finds it, she throws a party for her friends (15:8-10). Jesus explains that this is the joy the otherworldly beings feel when a single person who's in really bad shape turns his or her life around (15:7, 10).
Now think back to the prodigal son. You can probably see why his father throws a big party for him after he gets back. Luke insists that "sins" or past errors or crimes may by erased by "forgiveness," a central feature of Jesus's work at several important junctures (4:18; 5:20; 7:48).
The brother's response to all of this is also worth checking out, especially in terms of Luke's attempt to come to terms with the negative response of the Jewish leaders to Jesus in general.
Like the Jewish leaders, the brother claims to have been faithful to his father's every "command" (15:29) and is pretty resentful of the prodigal son's second chance; sounds like the Jewish leaders in 5:29-32, 7:37-39, 15:1, and 19:7, right? But the brother's concern is voiced sympathetically here (15:28-32), and the father levels honestly—even tenderly—with his faithful son. Does that mean the grumbling of Jewish leaders also has substance? Will they join the Jesus party? Will the other brother?
Everyone loves a second chance, right? That might just be why this particular parable has such staying power.
A PG-13 rating might come as a surprise in light of all of those Luke-based G-rated Christmas pageants and Sunday school lessons out there. But read carefully and you'll see that Luke is full of references to violence and raises many very complicated, mature, and adult-oriented themes.
Without parental guidance, children and younger teenagers might not be able to properly process, for example, the nobleman's order to bring forth his enemies and slaughter them while he watches in the Parable of the Ten Pounds (19:27) or the rich man's agony in Hades, where he is tormented in flames (16:24-25). Add this to the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jewish rejection of Jesus, the necessity of the crucifixion, divine punishment… and you've got yourself a PG-13.
Fyodor Dostoevsky's Devils
Fyodor Dostoevsky uses Luke 8:32-35 as an epigraph to his novel the Devils, an exposé of political evil in a small provincial Russian town. In Luke's verses, a gang of demons begs Jesus to allow them to enter a nearby herd of swine. Once they do it, the swine rush off a cliff and drown in the lake. For Dostoevsky, the devils are a metaphor for a brand of contemporary radicals whose crimes leave all sorts of disarray in their wake.
Barbara Robinson's The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
No kids are badder or meaner than the Herdmans, who show up in Sunday school for the snacks and end up playing the leading roles in the yearly Christmas pageant. Read Robinson's novel to see how these poor little ruffians rewrite, reinterpret, subvert, and controvert the major events and characters in Luke's story of Jesus's birth, but in a way that restores the more profound meanings of Christmas. No mama's going to let her baby play baby Jesus with the Herdmans in the roles of Mary and Joseph.
"Herod's Song" in Jesus Christ Superstar
Luke is the only New Testament gospel writer to say that Jesus stood trial before Herod (23:8-12). In keeping with Herod's villainous nature throughout the story, Herod asks Jesus to perform a miracle and then ridicules Jesus by dressing him up in royal attire before sending him back to Pilate, who appreciates Herod's joke. Jesus says nothing the entire scene.
Andrew Lloyd Weber based "Herod's Song" in his rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar on this story. Herod is portrayed quite comically as he tells a silent Jesus to "walk across my swimming pool." To be sure, an extravagant and even grotesque humor runs throughout the song, in keeping with Luke's overall negative image of Herod throughout the story.
Kimberly Reed's The Prodigal Sons
Kimberly Reed's award-winning documentary The Prodigal Sons tells the story of two brothers who reunite after ten years of separation. One is now a woman, and the other, who was adopted, has suffered a devastating accident. Themes of reconciliation, reunion, forgiveness, and other familial drama of all kinds abound. It's no wonder Reed too her title from Luke's story of the Prodigal Son (15:11-32).
Justin Roberts's "Shh Shh Shh"
In "Shh Shh Shh," Grammy-nominated musician Justin Roberts turns Luke's story of Martha and Mary (10:28-42) into a real catchy and fun-loving kiddy-rock song. It's of course Mary who's telling Martha, Shh Shh Shh, so that she can listen to Jesus's teachings. Luke's gospel appears to be a favorite for Roberts, who also sings of Zacchaeus (19:1-10) in "What's He Doing Up There?" as well as the Parable of the Great Dinner (14:16-24) in "Guess Who's." These songs and others are on Roberts' CD, Why Not Sea Monsters?: Songs From the New Testament.