What do we know about S. Luke? All of our knowledge is ultimately a little uncertain, but if we set aside the more esoteric arguments of biblical scholars, we can at least say that he is the only gospel writer who wrote a sequel: the Acts of the Apostles is the follow-up to the Gospel According to S. Luke. Most scholars agree that both books are written by the same writer.
We can also say that he was a well-educated Greek-speaker. His gospel is written in good Greek, and more than that, it shows a literary awareness of the Greek tradition of historical writing. Uniquely among the gospel writers, S. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth situates Jesus in the context of the Roman Empire, and the secular rulers who governed the ancient near east. S. Luke may have been a Greek-speaking gentile, or he may equally have been a Hellenized Jew, that is a Jew who had adapted to the Greek language and culture that dominated the eastern regions of the Roman Empire.
We can also say with some confidence that S. Luke was close to the Apostle Paul. He writes extensively of S. Paul’s missionary journeys in the Acts of the Apostles, and at times the narrative slips into the “we” form, suggesting that the writer was actually present at the episodes he describes. S. Paul’s account of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians is very similar to that found in S. Luke’s gospel; the account found in the gospels according to S. Matthew and S. Mark have certain differences of emphasis. And S. Paul himself in his letters refers to S. Luke, on one occasion describing him as “the beloved physician”. They were clearly close companions.
And S. Paul’s description of S. Luke as “the beloved physician” strongly suggests that S. Luke was trained as a doctor, which fits in quite well with the sense of a well-educated Greek-speaker that we have already established from his style of writing.
S. Luke is also closely associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is a much bigger figure in S. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and life than in any of the other gospels, and she is also present at the birth of the church as described in the Acts of the Apostles. Many have ventured that S. Luke was close to the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that she was the source of some of the stories in his gospel.
There is another tradition that S. Luke was a painter, and that he produced the first icon, a depiction of Mary and the baby Jesus. This is not as far-fetched as it might first appear: archaeological discoveries have shown that the prohibition on images in Judaism may not have been so strict or uniform in the first century as was once thought.
And finally, there is a tradition that S. Luke was one of the seventy sent out in pairs by Jesus in the gospel reading we have just heard.
So we have some clues of a personality: an educated and cultured writer, a gifted story-teller, a doctor, a painter, and a loyal companion, friend and disciple.
This evening’s gospel reading describes the sending out of the seventy in pairs. Jesus teaches both by word and by example: in sending out his disciples in pairs, he shows that those who preach the gospel must also learn to love. Think of the closeness of the relationship between these disciples sent out in pairs. Their existence was precarious, their reception sometimes hostile. How they must have depended upon one another, practically, emotionally, spiritually. How they must have sustained and supported one another. And in learning to love and to be loved by their fellow-disciple, they gained a deeper insight into the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven, and proclaimed the Good News the more effectively.
It may be that S. Luke was among the number of the seventy, it may be that he was among those who had to learn the difficult discipline of carrying and being carried by their brother. In the end we have no certain way of knowing if this was so or not, but S. Luke’s companionship with S. Paul is of much the same nature. There was clearly a profound bond of love between the two men.
Writer, doctor, portrait painter, friend. We have a sense of a sensitive man, someone who was a keen observer, but not with a cool dispassionate eye; someone rather who could be drawn into the inner life of those he observed. Think about those wonderful stories of Jesus’ early life. He doesn’t just tell us the mere facts of what happened; he tells us too that Mary treasured these things in her heart. S. Luke is interested in people in the fullest sense. He is sympathetic, he is empathetic.
And these of course are the qualities we value in a doctor. We do not want a physician who sees the human body merely as a problem to be solved, we do not want a physician who sees the human body in the way that a mechanic sees a car. We want someone who combines a technical medical knowledge with a sense of a person in the fullest sense, someone who is perceptive, sympathetic and empathetic.
And as with the doctor, so with the church.
We do not need or want a church which has a narrow vision of humanity. We do not need or want a church which sees humanity simply as a problem to be solved.
This temptation can take different forms. Sometimes it may be that we see the task of the church in narrow numerical terms, proclaiming the Good News of Our Lord Jesus Christ becomes an exercise in market share, a business of bums on seats.
Sometimes it may be that we see the gospel in a very narrow sense of dealing with the problem of sin, we reduce it down to a forensic sense of justification, stripping away other aspects such as the glory and beauty of creation or the radical call to self-sacrifice or the hope of participation in the divine life of the Trinity and the vision of God. The gospel is a vision of human flourishing in the very fullest sense.
Whenever we feel in danger of narrowing the vision of our Christian faith, whenever we feel that we are looking at humanity as a problem to be solved rather than people to be loved, let us turn to the pages of S. Luke’s gospel and its sequel. Because in the writings of S. Luke we find a vision of Christian faith which is interested in human life in its fullest sense, in the writings of S. Luke we find empathy and sympathy, we find beauty and love, we find the story of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ and His church told through vivid characters, brightly-drawn.
So let us pray that we may have the grace with S. Luke to see people as people, in all the glorious richness and diversity of humanity redeemed by our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory, now and for ever. Amen.