I last read The Gospel According to Luke six years ago. Then, I read it as part of an effort to read and think about the entire Bible. In the post I wrote after, I referenced Judges and Genesis and the intertextual references to other Scriptures. This time, my experience was different. I was reading aloud, a chapter a day, to someone who had not read the Bible before.
Three things struck me: the attention Luke gives to the Sermon on the Mount, how re-reading is required by the writing style, and how Luke describes miracles.
To say “the Sermon on the Mount” seems essential may be an understatement, but it feels like the most sustained teaching of Christ in the text. Phrases with deeper meanings are common, as are people calling Jesus “teacher,” but it’s the most sustained teaching in Luke. The Sermon itself comprises categorical blessings, categorical “woes,” and parables, but the commandments given by Christ all refer to physical actions, one might say works, in the world:
“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.”
Also striking is how the author uses references to force you to re-read passages. One example of this is near the end, where a normal parsing implies that the “two of them” are surviving members of the Twelve Disciples:
It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, who told these things to the apostles. And their words seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them. But Peter arose and ran to the tomb; and stooping down, he saw the linen cloths lying by themselves; and he departed, marveling to himself at what had happened.
Now behold, two of them were traveling that same day to a village called Emmaus, which was seven miles from Jerusalem.
Another example is how Simon’s mother-in-law is healed (in chapter 4), before the calling of the twelve (in chapter 5), so the new reader has no idea who Simon is.
Now He arose from the synagogue and entered Simon’s house. But Simon’s wife’s mother was sick with a high fever, and they made request of Him concerning her. So He stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. And immediately she arose and served them.
So it was, as the multitude pressed about Him to hear the word of God, that He stood by the Lake of Gennesaret, and saw two boats standing by the lake; but the fishermen had gone from them and were washing their nets. Then He got into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, and asked him to put out a little from the land. And He sat down and taught the multitudes from the boat.
When He had stopped speaking, He said to Simon, “Launch out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”
But Simon answered and said to Him, “Master, we have toiled all night and caught nothing; nevertheless at Your word I will let down the net.” And when they had done this, they caught a great number of fish, and their net was breaking. So they signaled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”
Luke 4:38-39, 5:1-8
I mentioned Luke’s descriptions of miracles are striking. The Sermon on the Mount is a good example of it. While the chapter divisions in the Bible date from the middle ages, the sixth chapter of Luke is still a good example. Miracles of healing on the Sabbath occur after Christ declaring himself Lord of the Sabbath:
One Sabbath while Jesus was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked some heads of grain, rubbed them in their hands, and ate them. But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Jesus answered, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and gave some to his companions?” Then he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”
On another sabbath he entered the synagogue and taught, and there was a man there whose right hand was withered. The scribes and the Pharisees watched him to see whether he would cure on the Sabbath, so that they might find an accusation against him. Even though he knew what they were thinking, he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” He got up and stood there. Then Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to destroy it?” After looking around at all of them, he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” He did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.
Immediately after this, the healing of the great multitude occurs after the enumeration of the apostles in a crowd that also contained his apostles.
Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.
Luke uses the miracles to illustrate a theme or point of the narrative.
Likewise, the healing of the Centurion’s servant and the raising of the son of the widow of Nain (chapter 7), echo Christ’s speech, three chapters earlier, when he said:
He said to them, “You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done in Capernaum, do also here in Your country.’” Then He said, “Assuredly, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. But I tell you truly, many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a great famine throughout all the land; but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, in the region of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
The experience of reading Luke aloud to an audience was different than reading quietly and individually. From paying attention to what an audience without the same background would gather, to even decisions about intonation and pacing, the experience was richer than these words can convey.
I read The Gospel according to Luke aloud, using both the texts in The Word on Fire Bible (New Revised Standard Version: Catholic Edition translation) and Mark Wauck’s The New Testament: St. Paul Catholic Edition (which I had used in my previous reading of Luke).