The following is the introduction to the Gospel of Luke from The Word on Fire Bible (Volume I): The Gospels, the first installment of the forthcoming collection. You can find the Bible in three different styles here in the bookstore: https://bookstore.wordonfire.org/collections/bible
What are we to make of the Gospel of Luke—a Gospel traditionally believed to have come from the hand of a Greek physician (the same man who wrote the Acts of the Apostles) and whose words comprise nearly a quarter of the New Testament? We could do the usual research and access plenty of information about how and where it is sourced, but if we approach Luke and his “Good News” simply as curious readers and thinkers, then it is self-evident that the writer is intelligent. It is also clear that he is deeply read, because what Luke delivers is the sort of highly engaging and lasting chronicle that can only come from someone who understands how to build a story and sustain interest, someone who knows what a strong narrative requires: background, compelling details, a steady and reasonable build-up within time frames, logic (where mystery does not confound it), and most emphatically, the human element through which generations of readers can envision, imagine, and identify.
The great strength of Luke’s Gospel, as with Acts, is how accessibly, rationally, and convincingly he presents a narrative that must necessarily challenge, even defy, reason. In comparison with the other Gospel writers, Luke is the one who gives us a distinct, richly-detailed account of the ongoing interplay between God and humanity, heaven and earth—one that we can and do believe because, in this Gospel in particular, belief is grounded in plausible and subtle human reactions and responses.
A mere four verses into Luke’s first chapter, he sets the stage and shows us the first instance of earthbound reason responding to heavenly mystery. The archangel Gabriel brings some surprising news to the aged priest Zechariah: “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John” (Luke 1:13). He responds, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years” (Luke 1:18). Zechariah’s question to Gabriel seems like one we ourselves might ask in the same situation. In today’s parlance, we might say, “Get out! That’s impossible!”
Meanwhile, in the very same chapter, we read of Gabriel making another visit, this time to Nazareth, where he greets an adolescent virgin, Mary, with similarly shocking news (Luke 1:26-37). On first consideration, Mary’s reply to Gabriel’s news doesn’t seem so different from Zechariah’s, and yet she is not “punished” as we perceive the priest to be. Both asked an apparently rational question of the heavenly messenger—“How?”—yet one questioner is struck dumb for the asking while the other is not. That seems confusing. How could God seem so inconsistent, or Gabriel so capricious?
All of these details are meant to give us a sense not of God’s duality but of the justice that heaven applies to each of us individually. The questions Zechariah and Mary ask seem similar, and yet they are very different, particularly when one takes experience and youth into consideration, which justice would demand. Zechariah was a priest; he’d served within the holy place for many years. And yet, in the face of an angel’s proclamation, his first reaction is a skeptical one. “How will I know?” he asks, which is the same as saying, “How can I believe this? How can I trust this?” Mary too asks a rational question, but it is really quite different from her elder cousin’s. “How can this be,” she asks, “since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). She is not asking “How can I trust this?” but rather, “By what means?” It’s a perfectly reasonable question for any woman to ask, at any age. And because Mary’s question is constructively curious rather than skeptical, she is given the answer her openness deserves—one that is still mysterious but, because her faith is strong, that allows her to give her fiat (her assent in Luke 1:38), and thus begin our ongoing pageant of salvation. She may not understand, but Mary knows God’s “got this”—and that is enough for her.
Zechariah is struck mute, but far from being a punishment, it should be perceived as a gift. This lifelong priest from an exalted class has been given a chance to still his too-ready, too-presumptuous tongue in order to re-engage mind, heart, and soul toward God. He is given time to feed his interior life—to rediscover and resubmerge himself into the fathomless depths of faith that first called to him—and thus prepare for the new life about to be thrust into his care.
Mary, meanwhile, who never doubted what she’d been told, found her way to Elizabeth and Zechariah. What might Zechariah have thought when she arrived at their house, telling her relatives the unthinkable news (even as Elizabeth intuited it)? We imagine the old priest—who should have known better than to doubt—watching this girl serenely consenting to it all. Zechariah had to have recognized how short he had fallen in the face of a heavenly outreach and been humbled by it. No wonder, when his tongue was finally loosed, Zechariah’s first prayer evidenced the fruit of his silence, contemplation, and discernment: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel!” (Luke 1:68).
The two great and praise-filled offerings by Mary (Luke 1:46-55) and Zechariah (Luke 1:68-79) have, for more than sixteen hundred years, formed the backbone of the liturgical offices of Lauds and Vespers—the morning and evening praise the Church offers toward the Creator. Although by two different people, of two different sexes and generations and with two different personal experiences of an encounter with heaven, their words ultimately echo each other in a shared understanding that God is holy and that God is faithful.
And Luke is just getting started!
Another important aspect of the Gospel writer and how to read him is this: a good writer is a good reader; a good storyteller is a good observer; and a good doctor is a good listener. We find all of this in Luke, who not only relates events as they have been shared with him but always brings us a lesson as well. As a doctor he may have told his patients to pay attention to every little clue their body gives them so as to sustain homeostasis—to observe the rapidity of their breathing, the moisture of eye and mouth, or the smell of their breath for signs of dehydration. In a similar way, his Gospel writing encourages us not just to take an overview of his words but to pay attention to every line. In Scripture, everything matters, and not a single line is set in place for mere dressing. What we learn from Luke is how to listen, attend, observe, and even use our imaginations in order to—like Zechariah—internalize a lesson meant distinctly for us.
To offer just one example, in Jesus’ telling of the parable of the prodigal son, we read: “So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him” (Luke 15:20). It’s a wonderful and reassuring description of how God waits for us to return to him in order to shower us with his mercy and forgiveness. And yet, there are six words within the message that bring us further into that mystery of mercy and give us an additional—and instructive—reason to hope: “While he was still far off . . . ”
If there is a particular Christian message that sometimes skews our understanding or dashes our hope for salvation, it is the notion that faith is an instant event and an all-in proposition—one is either converted immediately and accepts every doctrine instantly and without question, or one is “doing it wrong.” But as we see with Zechariah and Mary, it is human to wonder, and not everyone is at all times emotionally, intellectually, or spiritually in the perfect place for insta-conversion. Nevertheless, God is eagerly looking for us—so eagerly that he will, like the father of the prodigal, run toward us with open arms, even when we are “still far off.” What a hopeful and helpful reality this is to contemplate! All of our conversions are ongoing—we are always “still far off” in one respect or another—and yet God is so anxious for our reunion with him that he will come to us, even when we are mere specks on his horizon.
There are no unimportant parts in Scripture, no “skippable” verses not worth reading. Read Luke’s words with a careful eye, an open heart, and a soul begging to be informed. And keep a notebook handy, because this physician is telling stories within the stories, providing medicine within the medicine—all “to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).
The Word on Fire Bible (Volume II): Acts, Letters, and Revelation will be available to order in 2022.