The third gospel depicts the life and teaching of Jesus by anchoring him in the prophetic and priestly traditions of the scriptures of Israel. It focuses on compassionate forgiveness as a central feature of the Christian life.
The author of Luke was probably connected in some fashion to the Pauline churches. He is traditionally identified as the “beloved physician” mentioned Col 4:14, although his immediate connection with Paul is disputed. Regardless, he certainly saw Paul’s ministry as a continuation of the work of Jesus.
The author composed a two-volume work: the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. The books are united by the matching literary prefaces that introduce them. The first volume, the Gospel, is structured by time and place. The history of humankind in general, and of Israel in particular, culminates in the life and ministry of Jesus and in the decisive events of his death and resurrection in Jerusalem.
The second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, traces the history of the followers of Jesus from their beginnings in Jerusalem through their expansion to Rome and ultimately to the “ends of the earth.” Luke thus sketches a historical outline with a decidedly theological perspective. The Spirit of God gives history its meaning and shape, and that Spirit was abundantly at work in Jesus and in his followers.
As the preface to the Gospel indicates, the work was not composed from scratch, but had access to sources. Most scholars believe that the major sources available to Luke were the Gospel of Mark, perhaps abbreviated from what we now know, and a collection of sayings of Jesus. (Scholars believe the same collection of sayings was also available to the author of the Gospel of Matthew.) Comparing Luke with parallel passages in the other two “synoptic” gospels (Mark and Matthew) can help us understand what is unique to Luke’s theology.
The author of Luke probably composed his work late in the first century, in the 90s. It was after the composition of Mark, around 70 CE, and the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in that same year. We do not know where he wrote, but the fact that Acts prominently features the Pauline communities in Asia minor, particularly Ephesus, hints that that city may have been the evangelist’s home.
The Jewish revolt cast a shadow over the early Christian movement. It called for a response that would define the movement in relationship to its Jewish and gentile constituents—and to the political power under which it operated. Such concerns are obvious in the book of Acts, and they can also be felt within the gospel, particularly when it treats issues of eschatological expectation.
Luke is concerned above all to tell the story of Jesus and his movement in a way that will instruct and edify his readers. Luke uses his mastery of narrative techniques, which is particularly evident in the beloved opening chapters with their rich poetry and vivid characterization. Luke’s narrative sensitivity is also evident in the fact that he has preserved some of the most important parables attributed to Jesus, including the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, both of which appear only in Luke.
Luke’s accounts of the decisive events of the life of Jesus have distinctive features that have resonated throughout the history of the Church. The shepherds who watch their flocks by night take their place beside the despondent disciples on the road to Emmaus as bookends of the story of the life of Jesus. All herald the joyous good news that through Jesus, the God of Israel has done something new for Israel and for all humankind.
Luke’s gospel also sketches some of the implications of that divine action. He offers a prominent place to women throughout his story. They seem to be the focus of Jesus’ special concern. Is this liberation, or condescension, or some mix of the two?
Luke also raises concerns about what responding to Jesus means for our wealth and earthly goods. The rich and the powerful are subject to prophetic judgment and are called to some decisive action, but what is that supposed to be? Radical transformation of the economic order? Compassion for the widow and orphan? Something in between?
The gospel poses questions to its readers rather than definitive solutions, but it strongly suggests that the answers are to be found in a prayerful appropriation of the example of Jesus, the one anointed to proclaim the good news of God’s forgiving love.