The Gospel according to Luke is the first of two works by the author, its companion volume being the Acts of Apostles. Tradition from the second century has given the name of Luke to the author. There is no certainty that this was the author’s name. It may have been the Luke mentioned in the Acts of Apostles and the Letters of Paul. (The use of ‘we’ on several occasions in Acts implies that the author was a companion of Paul on some of his missionary journeys.) According to the tradition Luke may have been a Syrian from Antioch which may have been the location of the community for whom the author wrote.
Scholars generally agree that the Gospel was written in elegant Greek some 50 years after the death of Jesus. The Gospels incorporates about 65 percent of Mark’s Gospel and so was written after it. The author seems to know that Jerusalem has been destroyed (Lk 19:41-44 and Lk 21:20-24), an event that happened in 70. Scholars generally date it in the 80s.
Most scholars conclude from elements in the Gospel that the author was a Gentile writing for a community predominantly made up of Gentile Christians. This is evident from one of his main themes – salvation is for all, not just Jews. He also omits material overly reliant on knowledge of Jewish religion and culture. For example, at times Jesus is called ‘saviour’ instead of messiah.
Luke – Acts is well designed as a literary work. Jerusalem has a central place and the idea of journey is a paradigm. The Gospel begins and ends in Jerusalem. While Jesus’ preaching begins in Galilee, much of the Gospel (9.51 – 19.28) is one long journey to Jerusalem. The Risen Lord shows himself only in Jerusalem, including in a journey to nearby Emmaus. The second volume, Acts is one long journey from Jerusalem as the disciples bear witness to Jesus to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Key themes in Luke
Universality of salvation
Jesus is the saviour of all people. Luke traces Jesus’ genealogy back to Adam, the parent of all. Jesus is “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:29-32) and “all people will see the salvation of God”. (Lk 3:4-6). A Samaritan, an ethnic and religious outcast, is the hero of a parable and a model of mercy (Lk 10: 25-37). A Gentile Roman centurion is praised for his faith (Lk 7:1-10). The Risen Lord commands that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Lk 24: 45-47).
Concern for the poor and marginalised
The Gospel is full of Jesus’ preference for the poor and the oppressed. Mary’s song praises God who lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things, scatters the proud, brings down the powerful and sends the rich away empty (Luke 1:46-55). After Jesus’ birth he is laid in a feeding trough for animals. The first witnesses are the lowest class of shepherds who live in the fields (Lk 2:1-20). In the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus proclaims his mission to bring good news to the poor (Luke 4:18-18). In Lk 6: 20-26 he teaches that God’s blessing is on the poor, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” and the rich are condemned. Luke is the only Gospel that recounts the parable of the rich man who is eternally condemned for his neglect of poor man, Lazarus (Lk 16: 19-31). Women, marginalised in that society, play prominent roles in showing faith and witnessing to Jesus (see below).
Compassion and forgiveness
In the key sermon in Luke 6 Jesus urges his disciples to be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Lk 6:36). Some translations use ‘be compassionate’ but the message is the same: Jesus displays acts of mercy and forgiveness throughout the Gospel. Examples include the pardon of a sinful woman (Lk 7:36-50), the story of Zacchaeus (Lk 19:1-10), forgiveness of his executioners (Lk 23:34) and the promise of immediate Paradise for the good thief (Lk 23:39-43).
The Holy Spirit
The Spirit is a key player in the Gospel. The Spirit comes upon John [the Baptist] even before he is born (Lk 1:15), and Mary in the annunciation (Lk 1: 35), Simeon (Lk 2:27) and upon Jesus himself at his baptism (Lk 3:22), leading him into the desert (Lk 4:1) and to begin his public ministry (Lk 4:14). He proclaims his ‘mission statement’ in the synagogue with “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. Jesus rejoices in the Spirit (Lk 10:21) and tells his disciples to pray for the Spirit (Lk 11:9-13). The Holy Spirit, given at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-12) empowers the spread of the Gospel throughout the Acts of the Apostles, which is sometimes referred to as the gospel of the Holy Spirit.
The power of prayer
Jesus is constantly seen at prayer, especially at critical moments of his ministry such as when his reputation spreads (Lk 5:15-16), before he chose his apostles, heals and gives his principal teaching (Lk 6:12-13), and on the cross (Lk:23:34 and Lk 23:46). The Gospel also has parables about prayer (Lk 18: 1-14).
The place of women
Women play key roles in the Gospel. Mary, Jesus’ mother assents to God’s will, sings God’s praise, identifies with the poor and ponders things deeply in her heart (Lk 1:26-56; Lk 2:19; Lk 2:51). Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-45) and Anna (Lk 2: 36-38) proclaim Jesus’ true identity; women disciples are faithful to his death and Mary Magdalene and other women announce his resurrection (Lk 24:1-12). Women feature in other settings as well: the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11-17), a sinful woman (Lk 7:36-50), Mary and Martha (Lk 10:38-42), a crippled woman (Lk 13:10-17), and the parables of the lost coin (Lk 15:8-10) and the widow and unjust judge (Lk 18: 1-8).
A Gospel of Joy
The Gospel radiates joy. The promised birth of John [the Baptist] will bring great joy (Lk 1:14) and the baby leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb (Lk 1:44). Mary proclaims, “my spirit rejoices” (Lk 1:47). Jesus’ birth is “good news of great joy” (Lk 2:10-11). Those who are persecuted should “rejoice and leap for joy” because of their reward in heaven (Lk 6:20-23). Jesus rejoices in the Holy Spirit (Lk 10:21). The disciples are joyous at the appearance of the Risen Jesus (Lk 24:41).