Each of the Gospels has features about it I love. Like many Christians my idea of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a mixed-upped conflation in my mind of all four Gospels.
When I started studying the Bible as a young man I began noticing how each Gospel tells the story in a somewhat different way, and something about that bothered me. I wondered, “Where they differ what is the truth of the story?”
One of my teachers helped me with this by having me imagine a beloved mother with four children, and upon her death each child wrote a remembrance of her. Each child’s remembrance of their mother would be different, but they would all be true.
Another helpful analogy I heard was that the Gospel is like a diamond, when you turn the diamond the light catches different facets of the precious stone. Each of the four Gospels is a different facet of the one Gospel of Jesus Christ.
It was in the Christmas story where I first noticed the differences in the several Gospels. Mark and John say nothing about the birth of Jesus. Only in Matthew do we hear about the visit of the Magi, their meeting with Herod and his slaughter of the innocents, and Mary and Joseph’s flight to Egypt.
But it is especially Luke we think of most often at Christmas time. Only Luke has the annunciations to Elizabeth and Mary, Mary’s Magnificat, and only in Luke do we have the choir of angels addressing the shepherds.
And so these early chapters of Luke might be a good place for me to start to tell you what I especially love about Luke.
First, in Chapter 1, when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary, Luke emphasizes Mary’s humility and lowly origins. To this person of no consequence in the eyes of the world the messenger of God comes with startling news.
Mary acknowledges as much saying, “(God) has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” This is a major theme in the way Luke tells his story, that the vast love of God is not only for the well-born and privileged of this world, but for those with little social standing.
In fact, in Luke Jesus warns that being rich and powerful is a hindrance to knowing God and experiencing the kingdom. Luke’s Gospel is full of reversals. His version of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (in Luke on a plain) is the only one with both “blessings” and “woes.” And one of his targets for woe is the rich.
Again in Mary’s song we see this kind of holy reversal. She says, “God has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”
So it is that when the child promised by the angel is born, the very first to hear the news are neither kings nor wise men, but in Luke’s telling they are “shepherds abiding in a field.” (2.8)
Why shepherds? Shepherds were nobodies! In those days, with the rise of the cultivation of crops, shepherds were looked down upon, and the job was often relegated to slaves or youngest sons (like David), people with no status. That the Good News of the Nativity first came to shepherds is typical of Luke and reminds the reader that the Gospel comes to all sorts and conditions of people without prejudice.
Again, we see this theme in some of the parables of Jesus that are unique to Luke. For example, in the parable of the Good Samaritan (10.3-35), which is found only in Luke, Jesus tells of the good, respectable religious people (a priest and a Levite) passing by the wounded man on the other side of the Jericho road, while it is a Samaritan, who would have been despised by the good people, who showed compassion, stopped and tended to the poor man’s wounds. “Compassion” is a big word in Luke.
The parable of the Good Samaritan reflects Luke’s universalism, his conviction that the Good News of Jesus Christ is for all people. Last week when we looked at Matthew you saw the genealogy of Jesus going back to David. In the New Testament genealogy is not about biology, but theology. Matthew is showing Jesus’ ancestry going back to King David, who was always the prototype for the expected Messiah. But Luke takes his genealogy of Jesus all the way to Adam, to show that Jesus is not only the Jewish Messiah, but also the Savior of the whole world.
This expansive inclusivity is seen also in the parable of the Prodigal Son (15.11-32), which we heard today. In Luke, Jesus is saying that even those who are unable to reach out to God discover that God is reaching out to them, just as the waiting father in the parable ran out to his son.
There is a telling phrase in the Parable of the Prodigal Son that I think captures what Luke believes about the Gospel. The prodigal has resolved to return home and beg for his father’s forgiveness. In vs. 20 it says, “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.” It is worth noting that the father ran out to him and embraced him before the son made his little repentance speech.
But what I really want to focus on in this verse is the phrase “while he was still far off.” The phrase has been variously translated as “far away” or “at a distance.” For Luke, this is who God is, the one who waits for the return of those who are “far off.” And not only waits, but also watches and reaches out.
This God, the God revealed in Jesus Christ, is the God of everyone, male or female, Greek or Jew, those keeping the law at home or running away to a far country. This God loves lepers, sinners, Samaritans and Romans, both the clean and the unclean, the righteous and the unrighteous.
It is interesting to me how Luke later picks up this thread about those who are “far off.” In the second part of Luke’s work, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke gives an account of Peter’s sermon to the crowd on the Day of Pentecost. He tells them all about Jesus, and says, “‘Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what should we do?’ Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2.36-39)
Nobody is too far off for the loving embrace of God. That’s what I love about Luke!
(I presented this on March 15, 2015 at the First Congregational Church (UCC) of Stockbridge, MA)