|Commentaries on Luke
Luke, a Syrian doctor, was converted to Christianity when the first missionaries left the Jerusalem and Caesarea communities to take the Gospel beyond the borders of the Jewish country. Luke then left his homeland to accompany the Apostle Paul.
He arrived in Rome, the capital of the then known world, where he stayed for at least two years. There he met Peter and Mark who were preaching among the Christians in Rome.
When he wrote his Gospel, various texts containing deeds and miracles of Jesus were available to him, the same texts which Mark and Matthew had used. In his travels, he had also picked up other stories that came from Jesus’ first disciples. These stories were preserved in the oldest churches of Jerusalem and Caesarea.
On this we have the witness of his first paragraph (1:1-4): he was concerned with finding the testimonies of the first ministers of the Word, this is the apostles.
Then it would be wrong to think that Luke wrote long after the events, as some people say, and elaborates on things he doesn’t know. Though the last corrections to his gospel were done about the year 70, the bulk is much older. This is the case specially for the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel telling us about Jesus’ infancy. They are the translations almost word to the word of a Hebrew or Aramaic writing from the first Christian generation based on information which his mother Mary must have supplied.
Luke’s cultural background was Greek and he was writing for Greek people. He omitted several Marcan details, dealing with Jewish laws and customs which would have been hard for his readers to understand.
Luke saw in the Gospel the power reconciling people with God and with one another. Therefore, he was concerned about giving us the parables of mercy and the words condemning money – a divisive factor between people. Likewise, Luke showed the very natural way Jesus treated women, who were completely marginalized by the world.
The Gospel of Luke has three sections (see Introduction to the New Testament):
– Jesus’ ministry in Galilee, 3:1–9:56;
– the journey to Jerusalem, 9:57–18:17;
– the arrival in Jerusalem and the passion, 18:18–23.
The last chapter on the apparitions of the risen Jesus will serve as an invitation to read the Book of Acts, which is a continuation of Luke’s Gospel.
• 1.1 Luke dedicates his work to Theophilus, who may have been a well-to-do Christian. According to the custom of the times (printing did not exist), Luke gave him his manuscript with the expectation that several copies would be made at his expense for the use of Christian communities. Luke would also dedicate the Acts of the Apostles to Theophilus.
• 5. In the days of Herod. This Herod was the father of “Tetrarch Herod” who is recorded in 3:1 and whom Jesus knew. He was the last king of the Jews. When he died, Judea lost its autonomy. This Gospel begins in the Temple, and will end in the Temple. This first book of Luke will take place in a setting that is strictly Jewish. Only in his second book, the Acts, shall we find the extension of the Gospel to all the nations. God’s work begins with simple believers – there were many of them in Israel, those who in the Psalms are called “the poor of Yahweh.”
Among the Jews, there were a number of priestly families called Aaron’s descendants. All the men from these families were priests from generation to generation. From time to time they had the privilege and duty to fulfill priestly functions in the Jerusalem temple, but the rest of the time they worked in their towns and villages as ordinary citizens.
Elizabeth could not have children (v. 7). As with Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel (famous ancestors of the Jewish people), and Hannah (mother of the prophet Samuel) this occurred so that God’s goodness and power shown to the humble and despised would be made more obvious (1 S 1).
Your prayer has been heard (v. 13). Zechariah wanted to have a son, but no longer hoped for one. However, in the temple he prayed for the salvation God would grant his people and is promised both salvation and a son.
He shall never drink wine (v. 15). In Israel many men consecrated themselves to God in this way: they neither cut their hair nor drank alcoholic drinks and withdrew from the world for a while (Num 6). They were called Nazirites.
Zechariah’s son was to be a Nazirite from his mother’s womb until his death, as Samson had been (Jdg 13:5). The one who would be known as John the Baptist receives the mission to preach repentance, and his very life was to be a model of austerity (Mk 1:6). In that he will be the opposite of Jesus who, but for exceptional times such as his fasting in the desert, would live like everyone else and not request special fasts of his disciples (Lk 7:33-34).
Then, the angel indicates what John, Zechariah’s son, will be: He will go in the spirit and power of Elijah (v. 17). In Scripture we see that after Elijah disappeared, having been taken to heaven in a flaming chariot (2 K 2:11), the community of believers kept wondering about the meaning of such an unusual event. They even thought that just as Elijah had worked during a time of religious crisis to bring his people back to faith, so he would also return from heaven before the coming of the Messiah to restore his people’s faithfulness.
The text here refers to this Israelite expectation: one should not think that Elijah would return from heaven in person as Malachi 3:23 seemed to say. Rather John the Baptist would operate with the spirit of Elijah to obtain reconciliation for all, through justice and faithfulness to God’s law.
So, in this remote corner of the world, the Good News begins with an elderly and childless couple, because nothing is impossible with God.
THE VIRGIN MARY
• 26. The first two chapters of this Gospel are, like the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, an account of the infancy of Jesus. The spirit, however, is entirely different. Matthew uses without scruple stories that were not authenticated, but were in the tradition of “infancies of saints” that circulated among Jews and he used them to show what the mission of Jesus would be. Luke also gives us an account that is first of all theological but based on facts. In doing that he uses a very ancient document familiar to the Christian communities of Palestine. We find seven tableaux in the first two chapters:
– Annunciation of John, annunciation of Jesus;
– the visitation;
– birth of John;
– birth of Jesus;
– the presentation;
– Jesus in the Temple.
The account of the annunciation of Jesus marks the difference from John in his person and in his mission.
How considerate God is toward humans! He does not save them without their consent. The Savior is expected and welcomed by a mother: a young girl accepts to be the servant of the Lord and becomes the mother of God.
The virgin’s name was Mary (v. 27). Luke uses the word virgin. Why did he not say a young girl or a woman? Simply because he was referring to the words of the prophets stating that God would be received by the virgin of Israel. For centuries God endured thousands of infidelities from his people, and had forgiven their sins. At his coming, the Savior was to be welcomed by a “virgin” people, that is, a people fully consecrated to him. In Jesus’ time many people concluded that the Messiah would be born of a virgin mother when they read the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. Now then, the Gospel says: Mary is The Virgin.
The one who, from the beginning, was chosen by God to welcome his only Son through an act of perfect faith, had to be a virgin. She, who was to give Jesus his blood, his hereditary traits, his character, his first education, must have grown under the shadow of the Almighty like a secret flower belonging to no one else, who had made of her whole life a gift to God.
How can this be? (v. 34). The angel states that the baby will be born of Mary without Joseph’s intervention. The one to be born of Mary in time is the same one who exists in God, born of God, Son of the Father (see Jn 1:1).
The power of the Most High will overshadow you. The sacred books spoke of a cloud or shadow filling the temple (1 K 8:10) as a sign of the divine presence over the holy city, protecting it (Sir 24:4). By using this image the Gospel conveys that Mary becomes God’s dwelling place, through whom he works out his mysteries. The Holy Spirit comes, not over the Son first, but over Mary so that she may conceive through the power of the Spirit, since a man’s intervention is excluded. The conception of Jesus in Mary is the result and the biological expression of her total surrender to the unique and eternal Word of the Father.
It is thus that the Alliance between God and humankind is finally realized. It will not only be the “work” of Jesus. He, himself, is already the eternal Alliance. A child born into a family belongs entirely to the family of its father and to that of its mother: he is the alliance between two families until then strangers to one another. So it is that Jesus, born of the Father and of Mary, is the Alliance between God and the human family, and it is there that the faith of the Church is rooted: Jesus is truly God and truly man.
Before the angel came, had Mary thought of consecrating her virginity to God? The Gospel gives no indication to this effect other than Mary’s word: I do not know man. Let us recall that Mary was about to be married and was engaged to Joseph, which, according to Jewish law, gave them the rights of marriage (Mt 1:20). It is possible that this question is merely meant to invite a response from the angel on the intervention of the Spirit. The whole text however becomes more transparent if Mary had already kept herself for God alone.
“Mary ever-virgin” affirms the Christian tradition that never fails to expand the scriptural statement. As for Mary having thought of virginity before the angel’s visit, that is a different matter. Such a decision was foreign to Jewish mentality, but it is also certain that the Gospel becomes alive with new and surprising decisions. Such an unusual decision born of an unusual relationship with God is not surprising for those who have an inner experience of the Spirit.
Only Mary could make known the mystery of Jesus’ conception to the primitive church. How could she express such an inner experience and how would it be reported?
Therefore, in writing, Luke had to use biblical words and forms that would allow us to understand the mysterious encounter of Mary with God.
The angel Gabriel (v. 26). For the Jews Gabriel was the name of an angel of the highest rank who appears in the book of Daniel to announce the hour of salvation (Dn 8:16 and 9:21). So, in speaking of Gabriel, the Gospel implies that, for Mary, everything began with the assurance that this was the moment when the destiny of the world was being decided.
Rejoice. This was the joyful way in which prophets addressed the daughter of Zion, that is to say, the community of the humble, who looked forward to the coming of the Savior (Zep 3:14; Zec 9:9).
Full of grace (v. 28). The word used in the Gospel means specifically: beloved and favored. Other people had been loved, chosen, favored; but in this instance it becomes the very name of Mary.
She was troubled at these words. The text does not speak of fear as it did in the case of Zechariah (1:12). From the first moment that Mary’s spirit was awakened, she was aware of the presence of God inspiring her every decision, and so the divine revelation does not cause fear in her. The divine words, revealing her unique vocation, do trouble her.
You shall conceive (v. 31). Here the Gospel makes use of several biblical texts, of which some foretell the future of a child, and in some others God entrusts a mission. See Gen 16:1; Ex 3:11; Jdg 6:11. We have already mentioned Isaiah’s prophecy (7:14) announcing the one who would be Emmanuel, meaning God-with-us. Mary will name him Jesus, which means savior.
He will rule over the people of Jacob forever (i.e., the Israelites). This is a way of saying that Jesus is the Savior, the son of David, announced by the prophets: 2 S 7:16; Is 9:6.
He will be great (v. 32), but not in the way that John the Baptist would be great before God, for John was only a human being (1:15). Jesus was to be son of the Most High, and son of David: these two attributes pointed to the expected Messiah or Savior (2 S 7:14; Ps 2:7). See also Rom 1:3-4. This is why it was made clear that Joseph was from the family of David: see commentary on Matthew 1:20.
THE SERVANT OF THE LORD
I am the handmaid of the Lord (v. 38). In saying this, Mary does not lower herself with false humility; instead she expresses her faith and her surrender. From her will be born the one who will be both the servant announced by the prophets (Is 42:1; 50:4; 52:13) and the only Son (Heb 1).
Many persons are mistaken about the word “servant” in that they view almighty God as using his servants to his own ends without taking time to look at them and love them. For them God would lose his greatness if he were to give Mary authentic responsibility in the incarnation of her Son.
This is quite contrary to the spirit of the Bible. God loves people, he wishes, he who is God, to experience human friendship (Dt 4:7; Pro 8:31). God had no need of a woman to make a human body, but he wanted to have a mother for his Son; and for Mary to really be that mother, it was necessary that God looked upon her with greater love than he had for any other creature. Thus, Mary is called full of grace.
Grace is what we call the power God has to heal our spirit, to instill in us the disposition to believe, and to make us resonate with the truth so that the expression of real love comes from us in a spontaneous way. We call grace that which came from the living God to blossom on earth: Isaiah 45:8; Psalm 85:11.
Mary is really full of grace because Jesus was born of her as he is born of the Father. This is why the Church believes that Mary has a unique role in the work of our salvation. She is the marvel that God achieved at the outset of transforming humankind into his image.
THE HUMBLE PEOPLE
• 39. The angel’s message has not left Mary alone with her problems. The angel spoke of her elderly cousin, Elizabeth. With her Mary will share her joy and her secret. Mary, quite young (was she more than fifteen?), will learn from her many things that Joseph could not tell her. What had been foretold to Zechariah will now be fulfilled: “Your son will be filled with the Holy Spirit while in the womb of his mother.”
What is most important in history is not what is spectacular. The Gospel prefers to draw our attention to life-filled events.
A few years later, Jewish crowds would go to John the Baptist looking for the word of God. No one would wonder how he received the Spirit of God, and no one would know that a humble girl, Mary, put God’s plan in motion on that Visitation day.
Blessed are you who believed! (v. 45). What is important is not that Mary is the mother of Jesus in the flesh, and this, Jesus will repeat (11:27).
Mary, who has become the Temple of God, communicates the Spirit – the Spirit of Jesus.
About Mary’s canticle. Mary, so unobtrusive in the Gospel, having no part in Jesus’ ministry, is the one who proclaims the historical revolution begun with the coming of the Savior.
– the mercy of God who always keeps his promises,
– the change that is to take place in the human condition.
This is what Martin Luther King, the emancipator of the Blacks, recalled: “Despite the fact that all too often people see in the church a power opposed to any change, in fact, the church preserves a powerful ideal which urges people toward the summits and opens their eyes as to their own destiny. From the hot spots of Africa to the black areas of Alabama, I have seen men and women rising and shaking off their chains. They had just discovered they were God’s children, and that, as God’s children, it was impossible to enslave them.”
The song of Mary also expresses the deepest feeling of the Christian soul. There is a time for us to seek truth, to discover what our major duties are and to become truly and essentially human. There is a time for asking from and serving God. In the long run, we come to understand that divine love seeks out what is poorer and weaker to fill it and make it great. Then our only prayer becomes thanks giving to God for his understanding and merciful designs.
• 57. What was circumcision? (See Gen 17).
The child lived in the desert (v. 80), that is, the desert of Judea by the Dead Sea, where some large communities of which the well-known Qumran community had settled. These communities, called the Essenes, devoted themselves to prayer and meditation on Scripture. And took part in the education of children.
• 2.1 The emperor issued a decree. The Jews formed a small nation under the rule of the Roman empire, which included diverse peoples. The precision given by Luke presents a difficulty because Quirinus was appointed governor of Syria in the year 6 A.C. and Jesus was twelve at that time. Several explanations have been built, but very possibly Luke used a mistaken chronology in that place like in Acts 5:36. Luke is infallible as a witness of salvation, not as an historian.
Because of the census, Joseph and Mary had to leave their Nazareth home at the time the child was to be born. Joseph, a descendant of David, must have had relatives in Bethlehem, the city of David and of his family. Jesus may have been born in the house of one of those relatives.
The chalk hill on which the village of Bethlehem was built had many natural caves used as dwelling places by the not so rich. The cave where Jesus was born consisted of two rooms separated by a rock formation. The innermost room was probably used as a shed and stable. Since there was not enough room or privacy in the common room, Joseph and Mary settled in the area where the animals were kept.
Thus, it was foreseen by the Father that Jesus would be educated in a real home, where neither work nor bread would be lacking. In his birth, however, as in his death, Jesus would resemble the most abandoned.
She gave birth to her firstborn (v. 7). This term was used then to designate an only son, underscoring that this first son was consecrated to God (Ex 13:1). See also Rom 8:29; Col 1:15.
The liturgy of Christmas sings: “Happy mother of God! Today you gave birth to the Savior of all times, and giving birth, you remained a virgin.” In fact God was not too great for Mary: “From on high he sees the proud, but he becomes weak with the humble.”
• 8. With the necessary stages in the religious formation of humankind being over, God sent his Son on earth to introduce us to true religion. Now the angel proclaims peace and graciousness to humankind. See how much God loves us! Let yourselves be caught up in his love! Why continue to fear? Have you not understood that God became a child and that from now on he will be among us as a silent and defenseless child?
Let this be a sign to you (v. 12). They will recognize God who became poor for us in order to communicate his treasures to us.
They returned giving glory to God (v. 20). While the world was in darkness, some shepherds saw God. Why were they called to the manger? God delights in revealing himself to the poor, and Mary and Joseph had the joy to share with them a part of their secret.
With the birth of Jesus a new age begins (the final age as the apostles will say) in which, on one hand, people hope for the salvation of the world, and on the other they already enjoy this salvation. The shepherds are models for those dedicated to contemplation. Following them, the Church will never be totally involved in works of mercy or human development, but instead, with its truest spirit, will continue to look upon Christ present in its midst, giving thanks and rejoicing in God.
• 19. Mary treasured all these messages (v. 19), because every event of her life was for her the way God revealed his plans to her, and all the more so now that she was living with Jesus. She wondered, marveled but was not confused, because her faith was beyond wavering. However, she too had to discover the ways of salvation slowly and painfully. She pondered on these things until the time of the Resurrection and Pentecost when all the words and deeds of Jesus became clear.
• 22. Mary and Joseph went to the temple to fulfill a ritual of the Jewish religion (Lev 12:8). Jesus being a firstborn male must be consecrated to God (Ex 13:1).
Simeon and Anna like Mary and Joseph belong to the “small remnant of Israel,” This minority of God’s people live their faith in humility and faithfulness to the prophets’ teaching: God knows how to make himself known to them.
What is the meaning of the sword that will pierce Mary’s soul? It indicates Mary’s grief upon seeing her Son die on the cross. It also signifies that Mary will suffer because she will not always understand what her Son does. The best-shared love will not prevent each from remaining a mystery to the other, and more so for God than for anyone else. God does not watch our fidelity from heaven, but rather seeks us (he tries us in the sense of asking us to reveal ourselves). The love of the Father will be Mary’s cross just as it would be for Jesus.
Christ is God’s light which enlightens people, but which also blinds and confuses them at times. He is a sign that is opposed, but this is a mystery – those who oppose him are not always the worst. There are some people who believe in Christ, but do not follow him. Unable to see his light they do not know that it condemns them. There are good people who do not believe because God wills that they seek the light their whole life long.
NAZARETH – ACHIEVING FREEDOM
• 41. During his Nazareth years Jesus discovers life as any child or youth of his age. He does not receive special education. Nor does he manifest extraordinary talents, other than perfect judgment to assess and evaluate everything according to God’s criteria.
Joseph passes on to him the faith of Israel; the Nazareth community, however insignificant, makes him a practicing Jew, subject to the Law. What was the deep experience of Jesus, how did the Son of God place himself in this world of humans, step by step, as he discovered it? Luke has given us but one instance that to him was significant as it had been for Mary herself.
At twelve an adolescent was to observe religious prescriptions, among them the pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feasts. Seated in the shade of the Temple galleries, the teachers of the law used to teach groups of pilgrims and to dialogue with them.
It is on this occasion for the first time that Jesus disconcerts his entourage. Why have you done this? The Gospel highlights this misunderstanding: Mary reproaches Jesus and Jesus reproaches his parents. It then emphasizes the awareness Jesus has of his privileged relationship with the Father and his total availability for his mission. If the discovery of the Temple, heart of the nation, center of Israel’s religion, stirred new feelings in him, he could have asked permission or forewarned his parents. How could he remain two days without thinking his parents would be anxiously searching for him? He must have thought this suffering was necessary and conquered his liberty in a radical way before returning home with them. Jesus had to experience all of human life, sin excepted; in his own way he passed through the stages of psychological development. Instead of speaking of the lost child it would be more exact to say that the youthful Jesus found himself.
It might seem strange that Mary did not think to tell Jesus one day of his origin and who Joseph was for him. If we hold to this account, it is Jesus who takes the lead over Mary and Joseph and tells them himself whose son he is: I must be in my Father’s house.
They did not understand that answer (v. 50). Mary had heard the message of the annunciation and knew that Jesus was the Son of God. She undoubtedly never thought that being Son of God would be what Jesus had just done. In the same way God oftentimes disconcerts us even if we know very well what he wants.
• 52. Luke does not mention anything more about the life of Jesus in Nazareth until he reaches the age of thirty, when he begins to preach. He was Joseph’s apprentice, and after Joseph’s death became the carpenter of Nazareth. Joseph must have died before Jesus revealed himself, otherwise, when Jesus left home, Mary would have remained with Joseph (see Mk 3:31). Mary’s son was a man among people and later the Christian community of Nazareth would treasure things made by the carpenter Son of God.
Too often we read the Gospel as a “life of Jesus” and are astonished to find great blanks such as the thirty years of Nazareth. We forget that the written Gospel intended first of all to build a catechesis with the actions and words of Jesus, and not reconstitute his whole life.