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Luke: Physician and Apostle


Luke 1:1-4

I: — Luke never saw a crowd; he never saw a mob or a group or an audience. Luke never saw a faceless man or woman. He saw only an individual, an individual with a specific affliction or problem or perplexity. Luke saw only a suffering individual whom Jesus Christ graced and whom Luke himself thereafter loved. Luke’s gospel is easily the warmest of the four. He describes people with such realism and yet also with such empathy that our hearts go out to them, even though they lived in so very different a time and place.

Luke was a physician. He used a medical vocabulary instinctively. In the incident where the boy is said to be “thrown down” (English text) by his affliction, the Greek word Luke uses was the current medical term for convulsions. In the incident where the distraught father cries to Jesus, “Look upon my son!”, the word Luke uses for “look upon” is the current medical term used of a physician seeing a patient. Like most physicians Luke was understandably defensive of the medical profession. When the menorrhagic woman approaches Jesus, Matthew and Mark tell us she had exhausted all her savings on physicians but was no better. Dr. Luke tells us the same story, but chooses to omit the part about costly medical treatment that has proved ineffective.

As a travel companion of Paul, Luke got to meet the leaders of the young church: Peter, Barnabas, Stephen , Lydia . But Paul was his special friend, his bosom friend, and to his friend Luke remained undeflectably loyal. How loyal? When Paul was imprisoned in Rome and his execution was imminent, Paul wrote young Timothy, “Luke alone is with me.” He couldn’t have been more loyal. If Luke stood by Paul, a man on death row, then did Luke meet the same violent end as Paul? We don’t know. We shall have to wait until the beloved physician tells us himself — if we’ll even bother to ask such questions on the Great Day.

Luke was a Gentile, the only Gentile writer in the New Testament. There’s nothing in his gospel that a Gentile can’t grasp. He habitually gives Hebrew words in their Greek equivalent so that a Gentile can understand. “Simon the Cananaean” becomes “Simon the Zealot.” Calvary isn’t called by its Hebrew name, ” Golgotha “, but by its Greek name, “Kranion.” (” Golgotha ” and “Kranion” both mean “the place of a skull.”) Luke never uses the Jewish term “Rabbi” of Jesus, but always a Greek term meaning “Master.” In tracing the descent of Jesus he follows it back not to Abraham, the foreparent of Jews (as Matthew does), but to Adam, the foreparent of all humans.

Luke’s writings are the single largest contribution to the New Testament. His written gospel is the longest book in the NT; when we add his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, we have over one-quarter of the NT. Luke wrote excellent Greek; in fact his Greek is the best in all of scripture.

Luke was well-educated and widely travelled. He is the only gospel-writer to speak of the Sea of Galilee as a “lake”; for Luke had been to the Mediterranean, and he knew that compared to the Mediterranean, Galilee was only a lake!

Plainly it was Luke’s intention to describe in his written gospel God’s activity in the ministry of Jesus, and to describe in the Acts God’s activity in the church. Luke never intended to write about himself. Nevertheless what he wrote about his Lord accidentally tells us much about Luke himself. In learning what it was about Jesus that intrigued Luke, we learn eversomuch about the apostle himself.

II(i) — Think of children, for instance. Luke says more about children than any other gospel writer. He knew how anguished parents are when a child, especially an only child, is gravely ill. Three times he mentions distraught parents who cry, “She’s my only child, and she’s dying!”, or “He’s my only child, and he convulses and foams at the mouth!” When Matthew and Mark speak of the children who are brought to Jesus, they use a Greek word that means a youngster of any age. Luke uses a different word, one that means infant. In Greek, Luke’s word also means unborn child or fetus. It’s the word Luke uses for the infants who are brought to Jesus for blessing and for the unborn John the Baptist who stirred in the womb of Elizabeth when Mary told Elizabeth she was pregnant too. Luke loved children, and “children”, for him, included the not-yet-born. Luke, Gentile though he was, knew that God had said to Jeremiah centuries earlier, “I knew you even before I formed you in the womb; I consecrated you a prophet even before you were born.”

Several times I have been asked to conduct living-room services for a couple that has miscarried. In every case the couple wants — and receives from me — recognition of the fact that what they have just lost isn’t of the same order as resected tonsils or gall bladder or appendix.

Luke’s witness needs to be heard, for I think there is less room than ever for children in our society. Whereas Israel regarded childlessness as the greatest misfortune that could befall anyone (worse even than leprosy or blindness), many couples today elect never to have children. They tell us they don’t need children to be “complete” themselves. (Did anyone ever say they did?) They tell us too that children interfere with career plans, travel plans, research plans, financial plans, cultural plans. I think that a society that has little room for children finally has little room for life. The Hebrew greeting, “le chaim, to life”, is finally impossible unless we are also saying, “to children”. No society can finally be life-affirming and child-denying at the same time.

(ii) Luke noted not only our Lord’s love of children; he noted as well our Lord’s love of misfits, outcasts, submerged citizens, losers, call them what you will. Like his master Luke too loved the non-winners in the race to the top, the losers in the games so many of us play so well.

This is why Luke relates the Master’s parable of the two men who go to the temple to pray. One man glories in his virtue. He doesn’t merely appear virtuous; he is virtuous. When he thanks God that he’s “not like other men” he’s telling the truth: he isn’t like other men. He’s devout, he tithes, he keeps his sex-life squeaky clean. The publican, on the other hand, possesses no such virtue in which to glory. He can only say, “Lord, be merciful to me a sinner.” And this fellow, says Jesus, goes home “justified”, set right with God.

]Any congregation sees only part of the minister’s work, the part that pertains to preaching, teaching, pastoring, administering. The other part of the minister’s work no one sees (except perhaps the secretary). This part is the minister’s work with “losers”. They come to the minister for help. They are out of money and they want a few dollars for this or that. They are chronically mentally ill, and with the insight of the mentally ill and the unguardedness of the mentally ill, they don’t understand why they are in trouble every time they say “The emperor has no clothes” when it’s perfectly plain that the emperor has no clothes and all the sane people around them know it too – even as sane people won’t say it.

The women who come to the minister for a few dollars want money for two items, 90% of the time: paper diapers and drugs for yeast infections. For a long time I have known that the people who have drug plans are those with jobs good enough that they don’t need drug plans, while the people without drug plans are those with jobs poor enough that they do need drug plans. (I trust no one here today is going to begrudge these poor women money for paper diapers, even though most women here washed cloth diapers for years.)

And then there’s the family whose son or husband has hanged himself and the family needs a funeral that “won’t last very long.” Anguished families from the other side of the tracks have one question only concerning the funeral: “Will it last long?”

These people sidle up to me as unobtrusively as they can. Either they have no inclination to join us at worship on Sunday morning, or else they don’t feel comfortable here. They likely think (quite mistakenly) that we don’t hurt as they do, that life is rosy for us all the time, that we aren’t caught in the same suffering. For years now I have been haunted by their non-appearance on Sunday mornings.

I’m haunted because Luke keeps telling us that a woman whose life was a moral mess-up found in Jesus what she had found nowhere else. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was intrigued enough by Jesus to come as close as he could while remaining unnoticed. And then there was the dying convict who gasped to his gallows-mate whom he was seeing for the first time, “Won’t you remember me when you come into your kingdom?” — and received a word that let him die relieved. I’ve asked myself a thousand times why these people aren’t found here.

And then one day I realized that Jesus didn’t meet them in the synagogue. He met the woman in a man’s home. He met Zacchaeus at a shopping centre. He met the dying convict at the local garbage dump. He didn’t meet any of them in the synagogue.

Not so long ago I had to drive home from the hospital a woman and her two young children. Her third child had just been admitted on account of stomach trouble. Three children, no husband. A fellow who was fond of her (inappropriately fond) got into an argument with another fellow (also inappropriately fond) over her; the first fellow stabbed the second fellow to death on a Sunday night. Bob Rumball, the minister of the deaf congregation in Toronto , buried him. The next day the manager of an IGA store phoned me: the woman, needing food for her children, had written a rubber cheque. I’m not pretending the woman is virtuous; she isn’t. While she has no doubt been victimized by much in her life, I’m not pretending that she isn’t also self-victimized; she is. I’m not pretending that she possesses the homemaking skills needed to raise her family; she doesn’t. Her children’s material future is as bleak as hers. She is a loser. When Luke came upon stories like hers in the oral traditions about Jesus, he fastened on them. Luke says that these people, not often found in the synagogue, welcomed Jesus as warmly as he welcomed them.

(iii) Also important to Luke, because important first to his Lord, were women. Luke mentions thirteen women mentioned nowhere else in the gospels. All of the gospel writers recognized that Jesus elevated women and gave them a status and honour they had received nowhere else. Oddly enough, Mark momentarily slipped back into the old way of thinking. Mark tells us that Jesus had four brothers, and Mark names them. Then Mark adds that Jesus also had sisters — without stating how many or what their names were! But Luke tells us that the first European convert to the Christian faith was a woman, Lydia by name. Luke tells us that it was wealthy women who financed the band of disciples when those men had renounced gainful employment. Luke knew much of the degradation of women, and he was determined to overturn it.

Several years ago, when the Anglican and United Churches were discussing church union, some Anglicans objected strenuously to women clergy. “Why”, they said, “if a woman presides at Holy Communion and says, `This is my body’, she will fan something in male worshippers better left unfanned.” Odd, isn’t it, that the same critics of church union never objected that when I, a male, preside at Holy Communion I send women wild with surges of libido.

For years most Christian denominations have forbidden women to speak in public worship. But Luke tells us that when the Spirit of God moved the four daughters of Phillip, those women stood up and spoke.

We must remember that only a few years ago women were not allowed to vote. In 1929 the government of Canada maintained that documents using the word “person” didn’t pertain to women, since women were non-persons. It was only two decades ago that Flora MacDonald, a Member of Parliament, found herself excluded from a state function in Europe : the organizers had assumed that no woman would be representing a nation. (What did they think of Margaret Thatcher? that she was a freak of some sort?) Today, right now, in four-fifths of Christendom, women are denied access to ordination — despite the fact that women were the first eyewitnesses of the resurrection, and being such an eyewitness was a condition of being an apostle, no less. (How is it that women qualify as apostles but not as ministers?) Luke faithfully reflected his Lord’s elevation of women.

II: — We shouldn’t think that this is all there is to Dr. Luke. There’s a great deal more to him. There are three emphases in Luke’s mind and heart that receive more attention than anywhere else in the NT. The three emphases are joy, the Holy Spirit, and prayer. All three are related; all three flow into and out of each other. In Luke’s writings Jesus prays more, and Christians pray more, than in any other NT writings. Luke also says more about the Spirit, God’s intimate, effectual work in and among Christian people. And Luke’s writings throb with joy.

Luke knows that as we are brought to faith in Jesus Christ we are lifted up out of ourselves, up to the One who rejoices himself. There is joy in heaven, says Luke, when someone finally unclutters her life and welcomes the bread of life. “Joy before the angels of God”, he adds, when someone who is meandering blindly is made to see and steps out on the Way. There is merriment, dancing, a party when the wayward and the foolish “wisen up” and come home.

In describing the growth of the young church in Acts Luke speaks again and again of the Spirit, God’s unique effectiveness in vivifying the witness of the disciples, in supplying encouragement to believers in the face of resistance, and in causing love to triumph within the congregation amidst disagreement and suspicion. When missioners announce the good news of the gospel and some who have never heard it before take their stand with the apostles, Luke writes, “There was much joy in that city.” When persecution flays the missioners themselves Luke tells us that these men and women were “filled with the Holy Spirit and with joy.” Luke knows that people turned in on themselves never find the happiness they seek; he knows just as certainly that as people are moved to look away from themselves to that kingdom and its Lord now filling the horizon of their lives, their discontent gives way to joy. Luke begins his gospel with the note of joy: Zechariah and Elizabeth are told they will find joy in their old-age fertility as their son, John the Baptist, is born to herald the Messiah. Luke ends his gospel on a note of joy with the resurrection story of Jesus, as witnesses to it “returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”

In telling the Christian story as he has, and specifically in speaking of Jesus as he has, Luke has told us much about himself. Plainly Luke has enormous confidence in the Spirit or effectiveness of God; plainly Luke’s own heart pulsates; plainly all of this is nourished by the time Luke himself spends on his knees — as was the case with his Lord before him.

As for Luke’s attention to children, women, the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the suffering — Luke’s attention here reflects the sensitive observation of the physician who sees the wounded of the world every day.

And as for Luke’s provision of a written gospel that is Gentile-friendly, we can only thank God for this one Gentile who knew that the Jew from Nazareth had other sheep of another fold, and knew that you and I, Gentiles that we are, are just these sheep.


Victor Shepherd

June 2005