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Biblical Themes :
Luke's Story

Cuthbert cross

Luke's Story

Read : Philemon 22-25, Colossians 4: 10-18, 2 Timothy 4:7-11, 22 

Whose writings would you guess make up most of the New Testament ? If you're thinking St Paul, then you'd be right - his writings make up about 28% But who do you think is second ? Would it surprise you to know that it's Luke - and that his writings make up about 26% of the New Testament ? (…and in case you're interested, St John is third with about 16%) 

To learn more about Luke we could see what the Bible has to say about him, and you just read the only three passages where he is mentioned by name. All three were written by Paul, and from them we learn that Luke was a doctor, he was not a Jew, and he was a friend of Paul's. But that is not much information is it !!  

As so often happens, when hard facts are scare about someone, myths and legends proliferate, and Luke is no exception.  

One well known story is of the Black Madonna which is an Icon of Mary and the baby Jesus. The story goes that this was painted by St. Luke who painted it on a tabletop taken from a table built by the carpenter Jesus. The story also says that while Luke was painting it, Mary told him about the events in the life of Jesus that Luke eventually incorporated in his gospel.  

But while we can appreciate that Luke painted the most beautiful word-picture of Mary, and that his graphic descriptions of the Annunciation, Visitation, Nativity, Shepherds, the presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple, the parable of the Shepherd and lost sheep, etc., have become the inspiring and favourite themes of Christian painters through the centuries, we have no direct evidence for Luke being a painter. Then again, legends sometimes some factual basis, so maybe he was ! This is why Luke is the patron saint of Christian art, but you might be interested to know that he is also the patron saint of many other professions. These include : bookbinders, brewers, butchers, glassworkers, goldsmiths, lace-makers, notaries, physicians, sculptors, stained glass workers, and surgeons. So Luke is very much in demand ! 


In pictures of St Luke, you will often see symbols associated with him. These may include : a picture of Mary (as in ours); or a palette, brushes and easel, (all referring to him being a painter), or a winged ox or calf, which you can see there at his feet. These are sacrificial animals, and seem to be included either because Luke's Gospel begins with the account of Zacharias the priest who was the father of John the Baptist, or because of the sacrifice that Jesus made for the whole world. You may also see Luke depicted with phials of medicine, or physician's robes (referring to him being a doctor)., or books and pens, or books referring to his Gospel and Acts. In our picture, you may be able to make out a red brass-bound book at his feet.  

So what can we learn about Luke by reading what he wrote : 

Well, his Gospel was written by a Gentile Christian for Gentile Christians. Although Jesus lived and worked almost entirely among Jews, He reached out to many other peoples. So whenever Jesus has dealings with, for example, Syrians, or he praises a Roman centurion, Luke tells us about it.  

Luke's is the gospel of the poor and of social justice. He shows Jesus' special friendship with the outcasts of society and his love of the poor, while stressing God's mercy and love for everyone. In the Beatitudes, Luke records "Blessed are the poor" not "Blessed are the poor in spirit".  

Luke's unique perspective on Jesus is seen in the six miracles and eighteen parables not found in the other gospels. Luke is the only one who tells the parable of the beggar Lazarus and the Rich Man who ignored him, or the parable of the lost sheep, or the Good Samaritan, or the prodigal son, or the Pharisee and the publican in the temple. Only Luke tells us about Jesus raising of the widow of Nain's son, or healing the 10 lepers, or restoring Malchus' ear after Peter cut it off in the Garden of Gethsemane. 

Only in Luke's gospel do we find the stories of the Annunciation, or Mary's visit to Elizabeth, or the Presentation of the baby Jesus in the temple, or Jesus' disappearance in Jerusalem. Mary 's Magnificat, Zechariah's Benedictus and Simeon's Nunc Dimittis are only recorded by Luke. 

Forgiveness and God's mercy to sinners are also prominent themes, throughout Luke's gospel, Jesus takes the side of sinners who want to return to God's mercy. Only from Luke do we hear of Jesus' forgiveness of Mary Magdalene, or the forgiven woman disrupting the feast by washing Jesus' feet with her tears, or Jesus' promise on the cross to the penitent thief.  

Reading Luke's gospel we gain the impression that he was someone who loved the poor, who wanted the door to God's kingdom open to all, who respected women, and who saw hope for everyone in God's mercy.  

So is Luke's Gospel his own eyewitness account of Jesus ? Well, no-one knows for sure. But I feel that although he wasn't one of the twelve, he may well have been one of the larger group of disciples who followed Jesus during at least some of his ministry. For instance, when Luke tells us about Jesus healing Peter's mother-in-law, he tells us she had a "high fever". That sounds like a medical opinion to me, and suggests that he witnessed her illness, or her healing, or maybe both. 

However, if Luke's gospel is not an eyewitness account, where else might he have got his information from ? Well, some of it may have come from the other disciples with whom Luke would have come into contact as he travelled. But I think the stories of Mary, and of Jesus' birth and childhood, almost certainly came from Mary herself.  

I can imagine Luke, as a kindly doctor who, after Jesus', ascension visited Mary, and spent long evenings listening to her talk about her first born Son. Remember, Mary had seen Jesus crucified, and she had seen him resurrected, but then he was gone again. Yes, Jesus ascended to heaven, triumphant in his victory over sin and death, but for Mary as Jesus mother, it meant that she had lost her son for a second time, and knew she wouldn't see him again. I can't imagine that was easy to live with, and I would think that a kindly visit and a sympathetic ear from Doctor Luke might have helped her a lot.  

So what else do we know about Luke? Well we know he was with Paul on his missionary journeys, and when we read Acts, we can tell when Luke was present because the passages change from saying "they did" something , to "we did" something. It is thought that between Paul's first two journeys, Luke may have stayed in Philippi as a leader of the Christian community. Later he met Paul in Macedonia and together they went to Jerusalem. From then on Luke seems to have been Paul's constant companion. He was there when Paul was arrested in the Temple, and during the two years that Paul was imprisoned at Caesarea. When Paul appealed to Caesar and was sent to Rome, Luke went with him, and it was during that journey that they were shipwrecked on the coast of Malta.  

We don't know for sure whether Luke was there simply as a friend and companion to Paul, or if he was also his doctor. We know of Paul's "thorn in the flesh" which he asked God to remove, but we don't know what that was. It may have been physical, mental, or spiritual, some people even think it may have been another person - a first century stalker perhaps. But, if Paul's problem was physical or possibly even mental, then perhaps God provided Paul with a doctor in Luke, who could use his skill and expertise to help Paul. Perhaps that is why Paul calls Luke "beloved physician". 

We know that Luke was a loyal companion who stayed with Paul in Rome, even after everyone else seems to have deserted him, because Paul wrote to Timothy : "Only Luke is with me". Luke remained with Paul until he was executed.  

I can imagine Luke writing the letters that we now know as his gospel and Acts, to help pass the time in Rome during Paul's imprisonment. I wonder whether Luke finished writing Acts and sent it off to Theophilus before Rome passed judgement on Paul. Perhaps that is why Acts contains no account of Paul's death. 

While little is known of Luke before Paul's death, even less is known of what happened to him afterwards. Some stories say that Luke was martyred soon after Paul, while others say that he lived a long life, dying peacefully in his old age. However, nothing definite is known and the details of his death, like most of his life, have been lost in the mists of time. 

I do wonder whether Luke ever looked at Paul and thought that, unlike Paul, he had never done anything remarkable. I wonder whether Luke thought he just tried to go where God sent him, and did his best to stay faithful in the little things. We know Luke was a good friend to Paul. We know he wrote letters to Theophilus, telling him about Jesus, and the mission of the church. But I wonder whether Luke thought none of these were very big or difficult things, and that anyone else would have done just the same. Maybe being a good friend and writing letters are the sort of simple little things that even we can do ?  

And yet, Luke's two books are invaluable for telling us about the life and ministry of Jesus, the life of the early church, and of Paul's missionary journeys. What a remarkable legacy that is, especially from someone about whom we know almost nothing. We don't know how Luke came to faith, or if he ever met Jesus. We don't know if Luke ever preached to crowds, or taught in the synagogue, or performed miracles. We don't know whether he had any sort of ministry, because everything Luke wrote was designed to tell his readers nothing about Luke, but everything about Jesus, his Lord and master. Everything Luke wrote was designed to tell his readers about Jesus' love, care and concern for everyone, and about how to follow him in their lives.  

What a remarkable man Luke must have been to be content to remain virtually anonymous, because telling his readers about Jesus was the most important thing to him..  

And how fortunate we are, that the two books of his writings have been preserved for us.  

Ruth Gillett, Reflective Worship