3d Sunday in Ordinary TimeJan. 27, 2013
Luke 1: 1-4; 4: 14-21
St. Vincent Hospital, Harrison, N.Y.
“I too have decided … to write everything down in an orderly sequence … so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received” (Luke 1: 3-4).
Back on the 1st Sunday of Advent we began a new church year. In this year 2012-2013 our Sunday gospel readings come primarily from St. Luke. During the 33 weeks of Ordinary Time, which started last Sunday and go until Lent, then resume after Pentecost and go until next Advent, we’ll read selections from St. Luke in sequence—not the entire gospel, but significant portions of it. During Advent, Lent, and Easter seasons, instead, we heard or will hear thematic sections rather than sequential ones.
So today we begin where Luke himself begins, with a prolog that precedes his stories about the conception and birth of John the Baptist and Jesus—stories that we heard in Advent and Christmas. In these 4 verses, Luke tells us what he’s planning to do and why.
He addresses his gospel particularly to someone named Theophilus, “most excellent Theophilus” (1:3), someone important, someone who would be addressed as “Your Excellency.” We don’t know whether that was an actual person or a literary fiction. In Greek Theophilus means “lover of God.” Since every authentic Christian is a lover of God, Luke could be addressing every Christian and not just one individual —every Christian in his own time, around 70 or 80 A.D., and by God’s grace, in all times since, including you and me.
Luke says he wants to make an orderly presentation of “the events that have been fulfilled among us” (1:1), viz., all the things that Jesus did and taught, based on “those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word,” i.e., based on all the evidence or testimony that he has been able to gather from the men and women who knew Jesus and were sent by him to spread his teachings.
Luke himself didn’t know Jesus. He wasn’t an eyewitness himself, the way St. John was (cf. John 21:24-25). According to tradition, he was a Greek from Antioch in northern Syria—in fact, now it’s in southern Turkey and is called Antakya. He became a Christian when some of the earliest followers of Jesus came to Antioch to preach the Gospel. We know that Luke became a travel companion of St. Paul, presumably hooking up with him at Antioch, which Paul used as his base. Since Antioch was a very important city in the 1st century, Luke probably heard and saw many people with stories about Jesus, and some early writings about him probably were available too—St. Paul’s letters presumably, St. Mark’s gospel, and various collections of Jesus’ words and deeds, especially the stories of his passion, death, and resurrection.
Furthermore, according to tradition again, Luke was a physician (Col 4:14): a man of science, a man trained to evaluate evidence. So we’d expect him to collect and pass along credible reports and not just any old thing he came across, the way so many people today do on the Web. Luke intends to collect and synthesize the most reliable information there is about Jesus. And we have to say he did a very good job of it, which you can see just by reading his gospel.
Why’s Luke doing this? So that Theophilus (and we) may realize that the teachings he (and we) have received are certain; they’re reliable; they’re true; they’re life-giving; they’re the word of salvation. They’re not just a bunch of rumors circulating on the Net or some National Inquirer gossip. Luke is presenting historical events, facts, not mythology (with which pagan Greeks and Romans were quite familiar). Luke the doctor, a man who relies upon evidence, has “investigated everything accurately anew” and is passing along what he finds credible about Jesus so that we might place our faith in him: in his words, in his resurrection.
After the 4 verses of the prolog, our reading today leaps to the middle of ch. 4, to the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. After his baptism by John, which we celebrated 2 weeks ago, and after his temptations by the devil, which we’ll recall on the 1st Sunday of Lent, Jesus returns to his home country, to Galilee: “returns in the power of the Spirit,” Luke says (4:14). That’s the Spirit who descended upon him when he was baptized—you remember the gospel 2 weeks ago—the Spirit who accompanied him into the desert for 40 days and nites and during his temptations, the Spirit who now guides his teaching “in their synagogs” (4:15), teaching that makes him famous and earns him praise (4:14-15).
Apparently he makes a circuit of some sort thru Galilee before he gets to his hometown of Nazareth, which was a little out of the way, off the beaten track. It seems that he no longer made his home there, for Luke describes the town as “where he had grown up” (4:16), and we know from Matthew (4:13) and Mark (2:1) that he had settled in Capernaum, which was on the beaten track along the Sea of Galilee, and thus was a good place to practice the carpenter’s trade, if Jesus himself was a carpenter like his foster father, and a good place to meet a lot of people: merchants, rabbis, soldiers, farmers coming to market, fishermen, and pilgrims on their way to or from Jerusalem.
Anyhow, he goes back to Nazareth, perhaps to visit his mother and his cousins, perhaps to preach there as he has elsewhere. In the synagog on the Sabbath, “according to his custom” (4:16)—when you go faithfully to church every weekend, you’re imitating Jesus—he’s asked to do the Scripture reading and then to comment on it, to preach. He chooses a passage from the prophet Isaiah and announces to the congregation, to the world, to us 20 centuries later, that he’s the one who fulfills that passage. He’s the one anointed by “the Spirit of the Lord to bring glad tidings (‘gospel’ in old English) to the poor,” to liberate people, to heal people, to lead people “to the Lord” (4:18-19,21).In the rest of his gospel Luke is going to describe just how Jesus does all that in his deeds and his words.
Luke doesn’t do that only so that we might know about Jesus. We can go to Barnes and Noble or Amazon and get big, fat books that will tell us about all manner of historical persons—statesmen and writers, artists and movie stars, explorers and feminists, saints and criminals. Such biographies, or narrative histories about the great events of human history (wars and discoveries, the Renaissance and industrialization, the spread of the Gospel) may inspire us or teach us, or at least satisfy our curiosity.
But Luke aims at something else: “so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.” What does it mean to “receive” a teaching, in this case the teachings of the apostles about Jesus? It means to take them to heart, to put our faith in them, to own them and make them part of ourselves, to live by them—so that we might be among those who find in them “glad tidings,” so that we might be given sight by Jesus, be filled with that same Holy Spirit who filled Jesus, and be set free (from sin and from eternal death) by Jesus’ life and teachings.