As noted in last week’s Quiet Corner, most of the Scriptural readings at Mass this liturgical year will be taken from St. Luke’s account of Christ’s Good News. Mentioned by St. Paul three times, St. Luke was possibly a Syrian from Antioch. He was not an apostle and probably not even a disciple of Christ but rather a second generation Christian dependent upon the eye-witness accounts of senior believers. Since St. Luke’s writings indicate that he knew of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D., his account may possibly be dated around 80 A.D. His writing style indicates he was quite familiar with the Greek Old Testament and with pagan Greek writers. St. Luke often substitutes Greek names for Hebrew names, regularly omits details about Jewish customs, is vague about Palestinian geography, and frequently highlights Christ’s interaction with Gentiles. Hence Scripture scholars suggest that St. Luke was a non-Palestinian writing to a non-Palestinian audience that was largely made up of Gentile Christians.
This coming Sunday’s Gospel highlights one of St. Luke’s favorite themes and one that clearly put him at odds with traditional Jewish thought of the day. Universal salvation, at the heart of Catholic Christianity, was far from the minds of the Jewish congregation to whom Christ preached in his home town of Nazareth. “There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah…It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon…Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” Jesus’ hometown audience was not at all thrilled with Jesus’ extension of God’s mercy to a wider world: “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill…to hurl him down headlong.”
The wideness of God’s mercy was not only extended by St. Luke to foreigners, but also toward sinners, the poor and women. St. Luke uniquely records the celebrated parable of the prodigal son and his merciful father as well as the parables of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine sheep to seek the one and the woman who is not content with her precious coins until she restored the one lost. Along the same line, other parables unique to St. Luke feature the Good Samaritan and the one thankful Samaritan leper. Both tales highlight the place of even foreigners, hated foreigners, in Christ’s ministry. Also not to be omitted from the scope of God’s mercy according to St. Luke are the poor. The Lucan account has poor shepherds be the first to worship the new born Christ in contrast to the well-to-do Matthean Magi. He also recalls the widow who dropped her last two cents into the Temple collection plate.
Women were not usually the stuff of heroic tales in the ancient world yet St. Luke has abundant references to women in his writing, clearly illustrating that women too are the subjects of God’s broad mercy. Jesus’ mother Mary, the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth, the Temple prophetess Anna are all mentioned by name as are the close friends Marth and Mary. Peter’s mother-in-law, a 12 year-old girl, a woman infirm for 12 years and another for 18 years as well as the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet are all remembered. St. Luke also recalls the women who provided for Jesus and his disciples “out of their means.” The death and resurrection of Jesus found women playing lead roles according to St. Luke. He notes, “A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him.” And again, “But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” Still again, “The women who had come with Jesus from Galilee followed Joseph and saw the tomb and how his body was laid in it. Then they went home and prepared spices and perfumes.” Women were the first to find Jesus’ tomb empty; women were first to be told by the angel that Jesus had risen; and women were the first to tell the other disciples of Jesus’ victory over death.
St. Luke’s stress on inclusivity should appeal greatly to contemporary society. And Father Faber’s nineteenth century hymn summarizes St. Luke’s open-mindedness quite well: “But we make God’s love too narrow by false limits of our own, and we magnify its strictness with a zeal God will not own. For the love of God is broader than the measures of the mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind.” Everyone stands as chance at salvation. No one is to be excluded from the Kingdom of God ahead of time. On this St. Luke rightly insists.