A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path, and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up.
The final editors of the New Testament separated the Gospel According to Luke and Acts of the Apostles, which were originally written by the same author in a single two-volume work. The Gospel of Luke is the unit’s first half and narrates the birth, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The second half, which contains Acts of the Apostles, is one of the first works to chronicle church history, tracing events from the resurrection of Jesus to the time when the apostle Paul is traveling and proclaiming the Gospel “with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31). Luke’s Gospel features an introductory prologue typical of a historian in antiquity. He writes, “I too, decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed” (1:3–4). Luke’s orderly account relies on eyewitnesses of Jesus and the earliest disciples, though he could not have been an eyewitness himself. The Gospel of Luke dates from between 75 and 85 a.d., around the same time as Matthew. The author relies most likely on the Gospel of Mark and other stories circulating orally during his lifetime. Luke’s Greek is the polished work of a gifted literary artist, indicating that Luke was a cultivated, well-educated man.
After his introduction, Luke lays out, in two chapters, the parallel miraculous births of Jesus of Nazareth and the man who becomes his prophet, John the Baptist. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, telling him that his wife Elizabeth, formerly barren, is pregnant. Soon afterward, Gabriel appears to Elizabeth’s relative, the virgin Mary, who is betrothed to Joseph, telling her that she too is going to give birth to a child by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Mary visits Elizabeth, and Elizabeth prophesies that Mary will be “the mother of my Lord” (1:43). Mary, rejoicing, utters the prayer now known as the Magnificat: “My soul magnifies the Lord” (1:46). John is born, and his father, Zechariah—who had been struck mute for the duration of the pregnancy as a punishment for his lack of belief in Gabriel’s prophecy—utters a prayer, the Benedictus: “Blessed be the Lord, God of Israel . . .” (1:68). Mary and Joseph travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem to partake in a census, and there, in a manger, Jesus is born. When Jesus is presented at the temple, where all firstborn males are brought, two Jewish prophets, Simeon and Anna, recognize the sanctity of the child. As yet, however, nobody realizes his true significance. When Mary finds the adolescent Jesus sitting in the temple among the sages, she does not understand his remark, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” (2:49).
Jesus grows to maturity and is baptized in the desert of Judea by John the Baptist, who has begun his advocacy of baptismal repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and prophesies the advent of Jesus. John, however, is soon imprisoned by Herod Antipas, the ruler of the northern Galilee region. After Jesus’s baptism, Luke gives Jesus’s genealogy, stretching back to the first man, Adam, who is said to be “son of God” (3:38). We are told of Satan unsuccessfully testing Jesus for forty days in the wilderness. Returning from the wilderness, Jesus begins his ministry. He is rejected in his hometown of Nazareth and takes to wandering throughout Galilee, where he works many miracles, including the exorcism of a demoniac and many other cures. He works a miracle enabling Simon Peter, a fisherman, to catch many fish, and thereby attracts Simon Peter, as well as James and John, the sons of Zebedee, as his first apostles. Later, these three apostles are joined by nine others. In this first stage of his ministry, Jesus also begins to encounter opposition from the Pharisees, who question his adherence to traditional Jewish laws governing Sabbath observance, fasting, and consorting with sinners. Despite this opposition, his fame grows, and he attracts a great crowd to whom he delivers a shorter version of Matthew’s great Sermon on the Mount, telling his followers to “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (6:27).
Jesus goes to Capernaum, where he cures the servant of a Roman centurion and restores the son of a widow to life. When John the Baptist, imprisoned, sends messengers to ask Jesus who he is, Jesus responds only by pointing out the many miracles he has worked. Jesus commends John the Baptist’s ministry and laments the fact that his contemporaries have refused to listen to John and to Jesus himself. Jesus’s travels continue as he preaches and works miracles. Accepting the ministrations of a wicked woman, Jesus shows that he forgives even the most wretched of sinners. He explains in a parable that the seed of the word of God will only sprout in noble and generous hearts, and that the true family of Jesus is not his mother and siblings, but those who hear the word of God. Among his miracles, he calms a storm; cures a man possessed by a demon, and a woman with a hemorrhage; and revives the daughter of Jairus. Jesus sends the Twelve Apostles out to preach the Gospel and to cure illness. On their return, Jesus is swarmed by people eager to hear his preaching. He works the miracle of the loaves and fish for them, multiplying scant food to feed 5,000 people. When he questions the faith of his apostles, asking, “Who do you say that I am?”, Peter replies, “The Messiah of God” (9:20). Immediately after this event, Jesus gives the first of his three prophecies of the Passion, during which he predicts that he will be executed and resurrected. A set of brief spiritual messages ensues: following Christ means a total abnegation of the self; the kingdom of God is imminent; and humility is crucial, as “the least among all of you is the greatest” (9:48).
Jesus begins to travel toward Jerusalem. His journey is punctuated by a number of brief episodes. He appoints seventy missionaries to spread his word among all the nations, reminds a lawyer that love toward God and one’s neighbors is the most important virtue, and explains that all those who act kindly, regardless of whether they are Jew or Gentile, are neighbors. He tells his disciples how they should pray, teaching them the Lord’s Prayer and telling them that any sincere request will be granted by God. Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you” (11:9). He cautions extensively against ostentation and against the accumulation of wealth. Responding to attacks from the Pharisees, he accuses them of hypocrisy, for caring more about the letter of the law than about “justice and the love of God” (11:42). Perhaps anticipating further attacks by disbelievers, he tells his followers to be bold in asserting the Gospel’s truth, and to be prepared for the unexpected final judgment. He works his way toward Jerusalem, delivering parables and lessons whose morals center around faith in God: the importance of repentance; the virtues of humility and kindness; the dangers of riches; the reward of total renunciation of the worldly in favor of the divine; and the ruin that will come to those who fail to listen to God’s word.
Arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus foresees the destruction of the great city as a punishment for its failure to recognize him. Driving away the merchants, Jesus begins to preach in the temple and wins the allegiance of the common people. He refuses to justify his authority to the chief priests and elders who oppose him. Chastising them, he compares them to wicked tenants, who will be evicted and punished by the Lord, the true owner of the temple. The Jewish leaders attempt to entrap Jesus verbally, but he subverts them while asserting the importance of obedience to secular authority and belief in the resurrection of the dead. Jesus prophesies that the mighty temple will be destroyed and speaks of the great torment that will accompany the Apocalypse, preceding the End of Days and the return of the Son of man, one of Christ’s titles.
Passover arrives, and Jesus celebrates the traditional Seder meal with his disciples. At the Seder, he institutes the Eucharist, the ritual consumption of wine and bread as symbols of Jesus’s blood and body, signs of the new covenant. Jesus cautions his disciples not to fight about who among them is greatest, and reminds them that serving is greater than being served. He promises them rewards for their faithfulness. He also foretells that Simon Peter will falter in his faith. This prophecy proves true when, soon afterward, the chief priests and elders arrest Jesus, who has been betrayed by Judas Iscariot, one of the apostles. Peter, frightened, thrice denies all knowledge of Jesus. Brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, Jesus neither affirms nor denies his identity as God’s son, answering questions with the simple statement, “You say that I am” (22:70). The court considers this statement a confession and brings him before the Roman prefect, Pilate. Pilate hesitates to convict Jesus, but the chief priests and elders eventually convince Pilate to sentence Jesus to death. Jesus is crucified, going to his death with the words, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing,” and is viciously mocked by the Roman guards (23:34). Joseph of Arimathea buries him.
On Sunday, the third day after Jesus’s Friday crucifixion, some female followers of Jesus, including Mary Magdalene, go to his gravesite but find him gone. Angels appear and tell them that Jesus has been resurrected from the dead. The women tell the apostles what they have seen, but the apostles do not believe them. Peter goes to check the grave himself, and is amazed at not finding Jesus’s body. Finally, Jesus appears to the dumbfounded disciples and gives them his last instructions: “in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things” (24:47–48).
Although the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke tell basically the same story, there are important differences between the Gospels that help identify the special interests of each author. A comparison of the different genealogies of Jesus offers a good example. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus’s family lineage is traced back through important Jewish families, culminating with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. This line of descent fits well with Matthew’s emphasis on Jesus’s continuity with the Old Testament and the Jewish people. In contrast, Luke’s genealogy downplays Judaic roots and traces Jesus’s parentage to Adam, the universal man of the Old Testament. Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’s common humanity gives scholars reason to think that Luke could have been a learned Gentile speaking to a largely Gentile audience. Although he may have been in a non-Jewish community, Luke was a meticulous historian and a learned man, who would have known some of the more widely circulating stories of the Jews, such as the story of Adam and Eve. Luke had to make sense of the fact that Jesus was indeed a Jew, and he would have been compelled to take into account some kind of Jewish heritage, so he chose to emphasize that which would be the most universal and inclusive of Gentiles. Likewise, other characteristics of Luke’s account make comparatively few references to the Old Testament, which would have been strange and perhaps even unknown to his largely Gentile audience.
In the earliest parts of his Gospel, Luke tells many of the same miracle and healing stories contained in Mark, describing Jesus healing a leper, announcing the forgiveness of sins, and restoring life to the widow’s son. Like Matthew, Luke deviates from Mark’s Gospel and includes what he calls the Sermon on the Plain, which is Luke’s equivalent to Matthew’s description of the Sermon on the Mount. Luke is persistently concerned for the poor and the outcast, and his description of Jesus’s sermon includes a series of warnings to the rich, fat, and mirthful (6:24–26). Chapter 7 introduces further incidents of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee that are distinct from both Matthew and Mark and give us an indication of Luke’s special interests: the faith of the Centurion’s slave emphasizes and encourages the faith of a Gentile (7:1–10); the healing of the Widow’s Son demonstrates Jesus’s concern for a widow (7:11–17); the Ministering Woman in Chapter 8 stresses Jesus readiness to help and be helped by women. Luke returns to Mark’s Gospel for the subsequent miracles and healing stories.
The next Lucan section, “The Journey to Jerusalem,” is the Gospel’s longest, most loosely organized section (9.51–19:27). In this section, the narrative begins to move toward Jerusalem for the crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension—the ascension being the central event of Luke’s Gospel. Contained in this section are some of the most well known parables in the entire New Testament, found only in Luke. These include the story of the Good Samaritan, a parable that reflects Luke’s interest in Jesus’s boundary-breaking behavior in associating with outcasts such as the Samaritans, a community once despised by Jews. Luke also includes a unique parable about Mary and Martha in which Jesus praises Mary, the female disciple who neglects her chores to listen to Jesus, and gently reproaches Martha, who is preoccupied by the traditional domestic duties of a woman. Also included are other well-known parables, such as those about the mustard seed and the rich fool storing his excess grain, and lessons on prayer, discipleship, and devotion—all of which stress the dangers of wealth and the importance of devotion to Jesus’s way.
Chapter 15 is considered one of the greatest chapters of the New Testament. In it, Luke depicts three separate parables about being lost. The parable about the lost sheep among the ninety-nine found shows God’s unending concern for the lost. The parable of the lost coin is similar, as is the famous story of the prodigal son, who is lost from his family and the standards of his father. The sheep, coin, and son are all found and returned to loving hands in their rightful places, which Luke uses to represent God’s love and concern for the lost and forgotten. The loving concern exhibited toward these characters reflects the concern shown by Jesus, which the disciple must strive to emulate.
At a time in which most women were excluded from participating in public life in Rome, and were considered ritually impure for a substantial portion of their life according to Jewish custom, Luke’s special concern for women and other outcasts of society is truly remarkable. His concern gives historians reason to think that there must have been a significant number of prominent female converts in Luke’s community. Luke praises the courage of Mary, who rejoices over her fate to conceive the Son of God. From Luke, we also learn a bit more about Mary Magdalene, one of Jesus’s closest disciples, who follows him to the tomb and is among the first to see that Jesus’s body is missing. Luke tells us that Mary Magdalene was just one of many woman who travels with Jesus and his male disciples in an age when the mixing of sexes was virtually unheard of. Luke also tells us that these courageous women “provided for them out of their resources” (8:3). In other words, women in the Gospel of Luke are largely responsible for the finances of Jesus’s followers. In Acts, Luke describes Lydia, the wealthy merchant who provides for Paul, along with Pricilla, Aquila, and Philip’s four daughters, who are prophetesses (21:9).
Along with his concern and esteem for women, Luke also shows preferential concern for the poor and the outcast. He repeatedly insists on the dangers of wealth and “abundance of possessions,” but blesses and esteems those who are in fact impoverished (12:15). These words must have been shocking to urban Gentile ears in a society in which the overwhelming majority of the population was destitute, impoverished, and enslaved—but now, suddenly, according to Jesus, blessed. While Luke takes great risks in his patriarchal, hierarchical, and divisive society with his shocking words of inclusion and universalism, he also makes concessions. Luke’s Gospel and Acts of the Apostles are the most pro-Roman works of the New Testament. Luke is insistent on maintaining Pontius Pilate’s innocence in the crucifixion of the Jews and places all guilt in the hands of the Jewish leaders. In Acts, during the stoning of Stephen, Stephen says to a violent Jewish mob in Jerusalem, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers” (Acts 7:51–52).
Such loaded rhetoric is generally viewed as Luke’s attempt to persuade the Roman officials that the Christian Church, rapidly growing in Gentile converts, was no threat to the Roman Empire. This minority community wanted to appear on the side of the Romans so as to give the empire, whose disregard for human life has been nearly unrivaled in world history, no reason to pay them any heed or to regard them as a threat. The stories in Luke and Acts are politically structured to put all blame on the Jews, who were already a suspicious group with an alternative lifestyle to that of the Greco-Roman Empire, with its Greek philosophy and Roman Gods. This finger-pointing has indicated to historians that by the time of Luke, Christianity had become much more Gentile and less Jewish in its identity.
This is a great place to start in the bible!
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