In the fifth episode of this series “The Words that Make the World“, Archbishop Mark Coleridge looks into how Luke becomes one of history’s most influential authors with his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.
Episode 5 – Luke becomes one of the most influential authors – is available here:
Subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts or Spotify streaming platforms to receive each episode directly to your device. You can now also tune into each episode of this podcast on our YouTube channel.
- Episode 5: Luke becomes one of the most influential authors - Transcript
Episode 5: Luke becomes one of the most influential authors - TranscriptAuthor: Archdiocese of Brisbane
Welcome back to these podcasts, which are seeking to explore the way in which the New Testament came to be. The New Testament, which is the text that made the world. Which provides us with the theme for these podcasts, words that make the world, not once upon a time back there, but still the words of this text that we call the New Testament have that power to create worlds.
Because in the Bible generally words create worlds. It’s how God created in the beginning, and it’s how God creates now. In giving us the gift that keeps on giving, the New Testament that continues to make worlds today. We’ve seen how that the early texts of the New Testament, the first of them from Paul, were letters. And we’ve seen how the letters eventually became the stories that we know as the Gospels. We have four so-called canonical gospels, and we’ll see later on why some texts were chosen to be part of the New Testament canon, as we call it. And why other texts, other Gospels, in fact, were not chosen to be part of the canon of the New Testament.
So, we’ve seen how Mark was the first to turn to narrative as his preferred form, not to write a letter, but to write a story. And we’ve seen why. Then we’ve looked at Matthew briefly. And now we have turned to Luke, the so-called third Gospel. Keeping in mind that Luke, whoever Luke was, wrote not only the so-called third Gospel, but also the Acts of the Apostles. So, it’s a two-part work that in fact constitutes about one quarter of the New Testament. So, whoever Luke was, he or perhaps she, but I think he. Is one of the most potent and influential authors ever to put pen to papyrus, or paper, or even finger to keyboard.
Now, at the end of the last podcast, we were looking at the purpose of Luke’s gospel because these were not texts, and the Gospels were not texts written in some ivory tower just for the sake of theological output. They were essentially pastoral texts written for a community or communities in need. And often it was a need that went to the very heart of the community in the sense that it was dealing with its survival. Not just its flourishing, but its survival.
And the question, why did Matthew and Luke in about the mid-eighties, after the catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70, why did they write their own gospels rather than simply repeat Mark’s gospel? The answer to that question is that they faced very different pastoral situations. In a sense, everything changed after 70. But by the time you get to the mid-eighties, the community or communities for which Matthew and Luke are writing are facing a very different set of challenges. And often to do with the expulsion from the synagogue. So, what we’re dealing with is the painful birth of Christianity from the womb of the synagogue.
And that was a crucial part of the experience of the church in this first century. Now, Luke. Luke, I have suggested, writes for a community which has lost confidence in what it has been taught and needs reassurance. Needs to know the trustworthiness, the well foundedness, of what they have been taught.
So, the question now is, what had they been taught? And again, we see, we have clues in the very first verses of the gospel, often called the prologue. Where Luke says, inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been fulfiled among us. Now, I underline that word fulfiled. Because I think it’s a critical word in the Lukan vocabulary and gives us a clue as to what they had been taught and about which they needed reassurance.
Luke sets into his story a dynamic of prophecy and fulfilment. Because what Luke and his community, the reader, he calls Theophilus in this prologue. What they have been taught is that in Jesus and the Church, all the prophecies made to ancient Israel either have been fulfiled, are being fulfiled, or will be fulfiled. That God is faithful to His promise.
But the prophecies and the promises are not fulfiled in any very obvious way. In fact, very often the way in which God fulfils the prophecies and the promises is very strange. So strange at times that in fact you could miss the fulfilment altogether. I mean, if you think of the ultimately strange moment of Jesus hanging on the cross in the darkness of Calvary, nothing could have foreseen that. It is the full, the great fulfilment of prophecy and promise. But it was very strange.
So, Luke sets out to tell a story which says to Theophilus and to anyone who reads his gospel. I know the claim seems strange. It’s not at all obvious that the prophecies and promises are in fact fulfiled. You do need reassurance on that point. All of us do. So that we can deal with the strangeness and come to that perception of the utter fidelity of God to the prophecies and promises.
So, what Luke does deliberately in telling his tale, is set into the story the strangeness. The promises and prophecies are made clear. But then, as Luke recounts the fulfilment, it’s made to seem very strange. And this happens right from the beginning of the story. You see, Mary, for instance, is promised that she will be the mother of the royal Messiah. Now this was a magnificent promise to a girl who was absolutely no one from nowhere. So, there is the promise. It could hardly be clearer on the lips of Gabriel.
But when the promise is actually fulfiled, it’s all very strange. Because this royal baby or supposedly royal baby is born in a, well, we’re not sure where exactly, but it’s certainly not a royal palace. It’s out in the fields in the middle of the night and the baby is laid not in some kind of royal crib or placed on a throne, but in fact is laid in a manger. And Mary would have been entitled to say, well, that wasn’t the deal. This baby is supposed to be the royal messiah. Where’s the palace?
So that’s, then when they take the baby, the newborn child to the temple, to dedicate the child to God. Simeon, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, pops out from behind a pillar and begins to prophesy. And what does he say? This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel. That bit’s okay. But then Simeon says he will be a sign that is misinterpreted. And a sword, he says to Mary, will pierce your own soul as well.
Now again, Gabriel had said nothing of this. So, Mary would have been again, entitled to say, that wasn’t the deal. That the child will be misinterpreted, so much so that he ends up hanging on a cross. And that a sword, the sword of judgment, will pierce the soul of the mother of the Messiah as well.
So, you see, right from the start, that element of strangeness is built into the story. And then when Jesus appears, acting in his own name or on his own behalf, in the story that concludes Chapter 2. Which is the finding of the child Jesus in the temple. Very important story, much more important than often recognised. Because it is the first time that Jesus acts in his own name, takes the initiative. Up until then, others have done things to Jesus. But here he acts in his own name. Now what the first thing that he does and says in the narrative of his own bat, is unusually important. So, what does he do? He goes missing. And we’re not told why. Now that you see again is that element of strangeness. Why on earth would he have gone missing, stayed back in Jerusalem and not gone with the caravan back home?
And then when eventually Mary and Joseph find him in the temple among the teachers of the law, the Mosaic Law. Mary asks the most predictable question from a mother. My son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking anxiously for you. That’s exactly what you’d expect a mother to say. Why have you done this?
And here’s his answer, the first time he speaks in the whole gospel. Why were you looking for me? Well, what kind of an answer is that? Mary could have said, because you’re our son, that’s why. And then Jesus goes on. Didn’t you know that I have to be in the things of my Father, is what the Greek says. And again, Mary could have looked at him, puzzled and replied, well, no, I didn’t. And I’m not even sure what you mean. So again, the first thing he does is strange. The first thing he says is equally strange. And all of that is deliberate because this is a community that has to deal with the strangeness of fulfilment. Now, that’s the beginning of the gospel.
At the very end of Luke’s gospel, in chapter 24, we have another famous episode which really, again summarises the whole of the third Gospel in many, many ways. So, in those early chapters, you have a foreshadowing of what is to come. And at the end of the gospel, you have a summation of all that has happened on the journey of discovery that the gospel has proposed. Keeping in mind that the whole gospel is a school of witness. It is to learn how to be and to be empowered to become witnesses to the risen Christ. Now, the famous story of the end of the Gospel is the story of the two disciples on the way to Emmaus.
Now, again, they have seen something. They’ve seen a sign. What is the sign they’ve seen? The horrific sign of Jesus dying as an executed criminal in the most atrocious way known to the ancient world. Crucifixion. They had seen it happen and they have misinterpreted the sign that they have seen. Why? Because they see it as defeat, devastation, disaster. All of those D words leading to death. So, they are walking away from the city of death. And why wouldn’t they?
So, as they journey away from what they think is the city of death. Jesus walks with them, but they don’t recognise him. See here again, they see him, but they don’t see him. And this journey of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus isn’t just a physical journey. It is the journey of faith. Which, by which I mean, the journey from the closed eye to the open eye. That’s the real journey. So, if we just follow them, because this is your life, by the way. This is not just once upon a time, it’s you and me.
So, Jesus says to them, what are you talking about as you walk along? And we’re told they stopped still and they looked sad, depressed, why wouldn’t they? Given what they’ve seen. And then we have one of those marvellously ironic moments that you get in the Bible where Cleopas, one of the two says, you must be the only visitor to Jerusalem who doesn’t know what’s happened there in these days.
The irony, of course, is that Jesus is the only one who does know. They think they know, but they know nothing. They think he doesn’t know. Well, he’s the only one who does know. So, if they’re going to come from ignorance to knowledge. From blindness to sight. He’s the only one who can help them at that point.
What things? Says Jesus. And they go through the whole thing, poor Jesus. Our hope had been that he would be the one to redeem Israel. So, what you’re listening to is the voice of devastated, destroyed hope. No wonder they’re looking sad. And then they talk about these crazy women who went to the tomb and said they saw angels and so on. But him, they did not see. The word see is a crucial word. One of the Lukan buzz words. What do you see? Is your eye closed or is it open?
Now Jesus, then eventually, having listened to them, or put up with them. Says, you foolish men, so slow of heart to believe what the prophets have spoken. In other words, we’re dealing now again with prophecy and promise. Wasn’t it necessary that the Christ should suffer for this, should suffer these things and enter into His glory?
When you hear those words, wasn’t it necessary, in Luke. What he means is, wasn’t it part of God’s plan? You’re not seeing the way in which the plan of God has, in fact, unfolded. And then we’re told, beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted them in all the scriptures, the things concerning himself. So, he takes, they start listening. He starts speaking and interpreting the scripture for them in a way that begins to, we learn later, to make their heart burn and their eye to open.
Now, they draw near to the village. And Jesus makes as if to go on. Why? Because up until now, he’s taken the initiative at every point. So, what he does in making is if to go on is say without saying it, now it’s up to you. Do you want to invite me to go further with you on this journey of discovery? It’s up to you. They said to him, Stay with us. So, for the first time, they take the initiative. Stay with us because it’s very late. So, he went into stay with them and then we’re told, and you know the story. He took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. Now, this is clearly Eucharistic. So, in a Eucharistic moment where the breaking of the bread interprets the truth of what they have seen without seeing it. And then we’re told their eyes were opened and they recognised Him, finally, they see. They see.
But then he vanished out of their sight. Why? Because once your eye is open, you don’t need Jesus sitting physically across a table. You see him everywhere. You drown in Jesus. So, you don’t need him physically. So, he vanishes. But he doesn’t vanish at all. Because you have the open eye. Did not our hearts burn within us, they say, this is the fire on the earth that Jesus came to bring. The burning heart.
So, what they do is they turn around. And it’s nighttime remember, it’s dark. They turn around, and they return to Jerusalem. Why not? Because Jerusalem is different, but because they’re seeing things differently. And they see that the city of death, in fact, is the city of life. And at that point, they are equipped to become the kind of witnesses that Luke is seeking to produce in telling his story. So that eventually, when they’re all regathered, the community that had been scattered by the closed eye is gathered together once the eye is opened.
And Jesus appears among them finally and says, you are witnesses of these things, there’s the punchline of the whole of the third gospel. You are now equipped because you’ve got the open eye. But if you haven’t got the open eye, you can’t be a witness. And you’ll never have the open eye unless you have the open ear, that becomes the burning heart. So, there’s the grammar of witness, if you like. That is at the heart of the third gospel.
Now, the second part of Luke’s story is the Acts of the Apostles as I have said. Now, it is a story of that witness actually happening. The gospel equips the witnesses. And then in the Acts of the Apostles, you have the story of them actually going out into the world in the most unlikely fashion. And doing the witnessing. Now, in fact, we talk about it being the Acts of the Apostles. But it’s chiefly the story of Peter and Paul. Peter is unquestionably the star of the first half of Acts. And Paul is unquestionably the star of the second part of Acts.
Now, when I say Peter and Paul, they are Lukan interpretations of the figures of the Great Apostles. Because when you look at the way in which Peter in the first part and Paul in the second part are presented, they look very like Jesus in the gospels. Miracle workers, for instance.
Now, and in other ways too. That they are made deliberately to look like Jesus in the Gospel, which is Luke’s way of saying in Acts, that the Apostles don’t just talk about a Jesus who is once upon a time. They actually come to embody, incarnate, Jesus. In other words, the risen Christ and His power live in the Apostles in a way that makes Jesus present here and now. And this again, I think, relates to Paul’s extraordinary words in the letter to the Galatians. Where, as we’ve seen, he says early on in the letter, when God was pleased to reveal his son in me, in other words, Paul becomes the revelation. Luke, in his own way, says much the same thing. That Jesus is in the Apostles, not just through them, but actually in them. They embody the Jesus whom they are sent forth to proclaim.
So, a church that is sent out to witness to the Lord, which is true of the church in every time and age. Came to see that you can’t witness unless you are empowered in a new way. And this is important at a time when we speak sometimes of the new evangelisation. Where is the empowerment going to come? Because if it doesn’t come, phrases like new evangelisation just become a kind of vapid mantra. But if there is this new empowerment that becomes a new evangelisation, a new surge of gospel energy. And if the power of the risen Christ is moving through us in word and sign. Then of course you are dealing with much more than a vapid mantra. You are dealing with the presence and the power of the risen Christ now. So, we’ll leave it there for this podcast. We’ll turn from the Synoptic Gospels, as they’re called. To the fascinating fourth gospel, the Gospel of John, as we call it, in the next podcast.