Why did “Luke” write his Gospel? And what purpose did he have, in depicting Jesus in the particular ways that he did, throughout this work?
The opening verses offer some clues. This book, that we know as “the Gospel of Luke”, actually describes itself, in these verses, as an “orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us”, written to a person named “lover of God” (in Greek, Theophilus). The book was written so that he might “know the certainty concerning the things about which you have been instructed”.
The author, “Luke”, has a clear agenda. He writes this work only “after investigating everything carefully from the very first”, and he underlines the claim that this is “an orderly account” by repeating the phrase (v.1, v.3). The term he uses (taxis, in Greek), was the term used to describe the schematic ordering of works of literature and public orations, in the ancient Greek-speaking world. From this ancient Greek word we get the term taxonomy, the branch of science concerned with classification. (See https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/an-orderly-account-a-quick-guide-to-luke-and-acts/)
Although we know the author as “Luke” (based on ancient Christian tradition) and identify him as the “beloved physician” referred to by Paul (Col 4:14), there is actually nothing within the Gospel itself, or in its companion volume, Acts, to support this tradition. It is only the recipient, Theophilus, who is named in the work itself.
The symbolism of the name, “lover of God”, is striking. Was Theophilus already one who sought to live his life under the guidance of the God of Israel, to whom Jesus regularly pointed in his parables and teachings?
But he bore a Greek name. Might Theophilus actually have been a Gentile who had already encountered the God of Israel through a connection with a synagogue and its people? that is, one known as a Godfearer, a Gentile attracted to Judaism and intent on following its ethical teachings?
Sure, the name Theophilus, is Greek, but there is evidence that Jews were using Greek names from some centuries before the time of Jesus—back to the time when their land was invaded and conquered by the troops of Alexander the Great, who brought their Greek language and culture with them.
[In fact, one of the High Priests in the first century was known as Theophilus! He was the son of Ananus, who had been appointed as High Priest by Quirinius, and who served in that role for ten years (6–15 CE). The High Priest Theophilus ben Ananus had four brothers, each of whom also served as High Priests (Eleazar, Jonathan, Matthias and Ananus) over the ensuing few decades. He was also brother-in-law to another High Priest, Joseph Caiaphas—the same high priest whom we know from the Gospel accounts, which implicate him as a ringleader in the plot to attest Jesus (Matt 26:3, 57; John 18:14, 24, 28). So a Greek name in the midst of a Jewish family is not unknown. But note: I am not suggesting that the Theophilus of Luke 1:3 was this particular person.]
Furthermore, the recipient, Theophilus, is described in these opening verses as “most excellent”. That term provides a clear signal about the relative status of the two individuals; it was regularly used by an inferior when addressing a superior, such as when a slave addressed his master, or a freedman addressed a government official. We can see this usage later in Acts, when Paul addresses the governor, Marcus Antonius Felix (Acts 24:3) and then, some years later, the next governor, Porcius Festus (Acts 26:25). The term clearly denotes that “Luke” was addressing his social superior, Theophilus.
And Theophilus, in this sense, is a symbol for the powerful, privileged, well-to-do, upper class of person to whom “Luke” orients his “orderly account”. Indeed, it has been noted that, within the parables found only in Luke’s Gospel, there is a concentration of upper-class people: a rich man who built larger barns for his (12:13– 21), a tower builder (14:28–30), a king at war (14:31–32), a rich father of two sons (15:11–32), a steward of a wealthy man (16:1–13), a rich man who dressed in purple and feasted daily (16:19–31), a farmer with slaves (17:7–10), and a judge (18:1–8).
This Gospel also contains reports of Jesus encountering a centurion who was wealthy enough to contribute to the building fund of a synagogue in Capernaum (7:1–10); a synagogue leader in Galilee (8:40–42, 49–56); and a chief tax collector who had grown rich from his business dealings (19:1–10).
This interest in people towards the apex of the social pyramid continues in Acts. Converts to the movement included “devout women of high standing” in Antioch (Acts 13:50), “not a few leading women” in Thessalonica (17:4), “not a few Greek women of high standing” in Beroea (17:12) and Damaris in Athens (17:34). Such people, it would seem, are his target audience as he writes his two-volume work.
All of which means that, when we come to read what Luke reports as the teachings of Jesus, we need to bear in mind that this author is addressing his social superior with a series of exhortations and directions that call such people, from their position of privilege and superiority, to demonstrate an empathy for those lower down the scale.
Indeed, Luke’s account makes it clear that Jesus has come down from the mountain, where he was praying (6:12), and that he gives his teachings standing “on a level place” (6:17) at the foot of the mountain, rather than at its top (where the parallel scene is placed in Matthew’s account). This location seems to have a potent symbolism, all of its own. Here, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd of people looking for help, seeking healing, calling out for their unclean spirits to be cast out (6:18). This places Jesus right in the midst of ordinary, everyday people, in the midst of their ordinary, everyday lives. (See also https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/02/12/on-a-level-place-with-a-great-crowd-luke-6/)
And there, on the level place, those listening to Jesus are exhorted, not just to “love your neighbour” (Luke 10:27, clearly drawing on Lev 19:18), but to “love your enemies” (Luke 6:27, 35). Further, in contrast to the Gospel we attribute to Matthew, where Jesus exhorts his disciples to “be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” (Matt 5:48—advocating scrupulous adherence to the Jewish Torah), the Lukan account has Jesus instructing the crowds to “be merciful, just as your father is merciful” (Luke 6:36, in the NRSV translation).
Or, to be more precise, to “show deep, empathic compassion, just as your father shows this deep, empathic compassion” (my own translation). For the Greek word employed at 6:36 is an unusual word. It is not the regular word for “mercy”, eleos, which appears 26 times in the New Testament (along with 29 occurrences of its cognate verb, eleew), which is the usual NT translation for the Hebrew word for “mercy” (see Matt 9:13, quoting Hosea 6:6). This word has a sense of care for the other, as reflected in the Torah provisions of Lev 19:33-34, for instance.
Here, the word is oiktirmwn, a word which is rare in the NT but used regularly in the Septuagint to translate that quality of God which demonstrates deep, compassionate, empathic concern for the other. And this quality of relating in a way that attempts to “get right inside the skin” of the other person, is to behave in a way that is entirely and thoroughly counter-cultural.
People in the first century Mediterranean world were governed by the cultural patterns of patron-client relationships, where benefaction by the greater to the lesser was balanced by obligations that the lesser had towards the greater. Not here, in the Lukan account of teachings spoken by Jesus. Here, the expectation is for giving without expectation of return. Acting without anticipation of the obligatory response. Compassionate care, offered and given wholly for the sake of the other, not with any expectation of gaining something in response.
So, in this collection of teachings (6:20-49), Jesus indicates that God blesses, not the powerful, but those without power. God blesses those who lament and mourn, rather than those engulfed by celebratory joy. God blesses, not the rich, but the poor—again, there is an unusual word used here, ptwchoi, and the sense conveyed by this unusual word is of those who are absolutely, desperately without any means at all. That stands at the heart of the teachings of Jesus in this account. (See https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/02/14/the-plain-the-synagogue-and-the-village-luke-6-4-and-1-k/)
As we follow the ways of God, we are to give without expecting anything in return. We are to bless those who curse us and pray for those who abuse us. We are to turn the other cheek, and give beyond what is comfortable. We are to love our enemies. That is the Gospel.
All of this, to the upper-class Theophilus and others who hear the teachings of Jesus, is counter-cultural. It is radical. It is a call to deep, compassionate, empathic identification with “the other”, to a life lived with gracious concern for all those we encounter.
How do we hear this, today? These words are short, sharp, and direct. There is no hedging, no qualifying, no softening of the direct challenge posed by these teachings. We need to listen to these words in their unvarnished simplicity and unfettered directness. They poke us and prod us. They rebuke us and remonstrate with us. They challenge us and call us to deeper discipleship, wider love, fuller obedience, as we seek to follow Jesus in the world today.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.
Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.
Give to everyone who begs from you.
Do to others as you would have them do to you.
Be deeply, compassionately empathic,
just as your Father is deeply, compassionately empathic.
Love. Bless. Give. Three simple actions, easy to imagine, difficult to implement.
Love. Bless. Give. That’s what it takes. That’s all it takes.