The gospel of Luke relates the story of Jesus telling Simon (Peter) where to fish in order to fill his nets. The astonishing catch leads Simon to exclaim, "Go, Lord, leave me, sinner that I am." James and John, the sons of Zebedee, are also amazed, but Jesus tells them they will soon be "catching people." Then the fishermen leave their boats and follow him. This great fish story does not appear in the other three gospels, but it serves in the gospel of Luke as the occasion for Jesus to call Simon (Peter), James, and John to be his disciples.
Jesus heals a leper and tells him not to tell others, but he does. Then Jesus heals the paralyzed man, who is let down through the roof (as in the gospel of Mark). Jesus calls a tax collector named Levi (known as Matthew in the gospel of Mathew) to follow him, and he does. Jesus eats with Levi, tells Pharisees and scribes that he has come to call sinners to repentance, and explains that his disciples do not fast as John's disciples do because the bridegroom is still with them. They will fast "when the bridegroom will be taken away from them." This story may imply that fasting is respected in the life of the early church, even though during his ministry Jesus and his disciples were not known to have fasted. The Jesus of the gospel of Luke (and of the gospels of Mark and Matthew) then says that an old garment should not be repaired with a patch torn from a new garment and that new wine requires a new wineskin.
Next Jesus picks and eats corn on the sabbath and says, as the gospel of Matthew reports, "The Son of Man is master of the sabbath." The gospel of Luke does not, however, report the saying in the gospel of Mark: "The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath." This saying about the sabbath must have been particularly disturbing to Jewish Christians, as the command to observe a day of rest on the sabbath was not only in the law of Moses but was related back to the story of creation in Genesis 1. The author of the gospel of Matthew deletes the offensive statement in the gospel of Mark, because he is writing to convince Jews that Jesus is the Messiah. The gospel of Luke was written for Gentile and Jewish Christians who are very much a part of Greek culture, but the author of the gospel is careful not to give offense to Jewish Christians who continue to observe the sabbath. As in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus in the gospel of Luke is Lord of the sabbath. But the sabbath, nonetheless, belongs to God. The sabbath was not, as Jesus in the gospel of Mark claims, "made for man."
The issue of how Christians are to observe the sabbath must have been very controversial in the early church. Paul argued that the gospel replaced Jewish law, but other Jewish Christians felt they could not ignore the sabbath and at the same time claim that Jesus was the Messiah promised by the prophets. This division in the church would not be resolved until Constantine, the Roman Emperor, was converted at the beginning of the fourth century. He decreed that Sunday was the weekly religious holiday and thus also the Christian day of rest. (Jews continued to celebrate the sabbath on Saturday, as they do to this day.)
On another sabbath Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, and then he spends a night outside praying to God. When he returns to his disciples, he names them his "apostles." (This kind of anachronism is evidence that the gospel is not simply an historical account.) The gospel of John never uses this word for the disciples, but in the gospels of Mark and Matthew Jesus refers to his disciples as apostles once in each account. In the gospel of Mark it is when the disciples return to Jesus and report the success of their mission. (Mk. 6:30) In the gospel of Matthew this comes when Jesus gives them authority. (Mt. 10:2) The gospel of Luke will use the word "apostles" six times in its narrative. Because the same author wrote the Acts of the Apostles, it may not be surprising that he has identified the disciples as apostles at several points in his gospel account.
The gospel of Luke has Jesus give a much shorter sermon than the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. Also, in contrast to the gospel of Matthew's "Blessed are the poor in spirit," the first blessing in the gospel of Luke is "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." Most likely, this is the older layer of tradition, which the author of the gospel of Matthew has "spiritualized" to make it more acceptable to those who are not poor. Also, the blessings in the gospel of Luke are followed by "woes" that are unique among the New Testament gospels. (Lk. 6:24-26) The rich are said to have already received their consolation, the well fed are told they will hunger, those now laughing are warned that they will mourn and weep, and those receiving praise are reminded that the false prophets were also popular. Should we assume that these are the words of Jesus, or a construction by the author attributed to Jesus?
Concern for Gentiles
Jesus then teaches his disciples to love their enemies, to observe the Golden Rule, and not to judge others. The author of the gospel of Luke spreads the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount throughout his gospel account. Unlike the gospel of Matthew, in the gospel of Luke Jesus does not warn against setting aside commandments of the Jewish law, nor does he say he has come to complete Jewish law. Instead, Jesus in the gospel of Luke presents Jewish law simply as moral laws that everyone should obey.
Three times in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus contrasts his teachings with conduct that is no better than that of the Gentiles. (Mt. 5:47, 6:07, 6:32) In the gospel of Luke, however, Jesus never refers to the Gentiles. The concern of the author of the gospel of Luke for his Gentile audience could not be clearer. In the gospel of Luke the "Sermon on the Plain" as it is sometimes called, is intended not only for Jews but also for Gentiles. It represents the moral teachings that both Jews and Gentiles are to follow, as members of the church. Perhaps that is why the author of the gospel of Luke has Jesus give his teachings on level ground. He does not want to evoke memories of Moses receiving the law on Mt. Sinai. On the contrary, the author of the gospel of Luke wants his readers to know this teaching from Jesus is for them all, whether they are Jews or Gentiles.
As in the gospel of Matthew, the sermon concludes with a saying about those who call Jesus "Lord, Lord" but do not do what he asks. They will come to the same end, Jesus says, as the man who built his house on sand. Then the gospel of Luke reports the story of the centurion who asks that his slave be healed. Unlike the version in the gospel of Matthew, here the centurion does not come to Jesus but only sends a messenger. In addition, he is described as a benefactor of the Jews, because he built their synagogue for them. Jesus commends the centurion, as he does in the gospel of Matthew, by saying, "not even in Israel have I found such faith."
It is very hard to see this story as historically factual. Roman soldiers, we will remember from the gospel of Matthew, are reported as brutally killing all the young boys around Bethlehem at the time of the birth of Jesus. Even if this is just a story, we know that Roman soldiers during the time of Jesus were ruthless in suppressing dissent among the Jews. The gospels seem to write back into the story of Jesus the fact that Roman soldiers and other Roman officials have become Christians in Greek-speaking congregations. Most likely the faith of centurions, Samaritans, and other Gentiles in the early church is being presented in this gospel and elsewhere in the gospels as part of the story of Jesus.
In the gospel of Luke, Jesus then raises from the dead the only son of a widow. This miracle appears only in Luke's gospel and may remind the reader of Elijah's feat in 1 Kings 17:17-24. Then disciples of John come to Jesus to ask if he is the one "who is to come." His answer is almost the same as in the gospel of Matthew. This dialogue does not occur in the gospel of Mark, so either the author of the gospel of Luke had a copy of the gospel of Matthew or he had the same material that the author of the gospel of Matthew used to fill out the account in the gospel of Mark. The author of the gospel of Luke deletes from the passage the words about men of violence bringing in the kingdom of heaven, perhaps to avoid any suggestion that the church is involved with rebels or terrorists.
Next Jesus is invited for a meal at the house of Simon the Pharisee. A woman, "who was living an immoral life in the town" comes with a flask of myrrh and sits behind Jesus, weeping on his feet and wiping her tears with her hair. The author of the gospel tells us that Simon is silently critical of Jesus for allowing the sinful woman to touch him. Then Jesus tells Simon of two men in debt to a moneylender, one owing five hundred silver pieces and a second owing him fifty. When the moneylender cancels their debts, Jesus asks which of the two men "will love him more?" Simon answers, the one 'who was let off more." Jesus responds by contrasting the failure of Simon to give him water for his feet, or a kiss of greeting, or myrrh for his head with the tears, kisses, and myrrh that the sinful woman has bestowed upon his feet. Jesus says, "her great love proves that her many sins have been forgiven," and so he says to the woman, "your sins are forgiven." When the other guests murmur among themselves, "Who is this, that he can forgive sins?" Jesus tells the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."
We will remember that near the end of the gospels of Mark (14:3-9) and Matthew (26:6-13) a woman comes to Jesus when he is dining at the home of Simon the leper and pours an expensive oil on his head. In these gospels her waste of the precious oil angers the disciples of Jesus, but Jesus says she is preparing him for burial. In the gospel of Luke, Simon is identified as a Pharisee, not a leper, and the woman does not pour oil on the head of Jesus but on his feet, after weeping on them and wiping them with her hair. Moreover, the story does not come at the end of the ministry of Jesus, and there is nothing said about preparing Jesus for burial. Rather, the gospel of Luke uses the story to demonstrate, as Paul has preached, that faith is saving.
Jesus says her sins are forgiven because of her great love. The Pharisees at the dinner suggest that he is forgiving sins, but to clarify that her sins have been forgiven because of her love, Jesus says her faith has saved her. In 1 Corinthains 13 Paul says that faith, hope, and love are the greatest gifts of the Spirit. The gospel of Luke reaffirms this teaching. Love and faith are saving, even when one has sinned. A story in the gospels of Mark and Matthew pointing to the coming death of Jesus is used by the author of the gospel of Luke to reinforce Paul's teaching that we are saved through faith by grace, which is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Chapter eight of the gospel of Luke begins with a summary that is unique in the New Testament. We know, of course, that Jesus is preaching the good news of the kingdom of God in towns and villages in Galilee. Furthermore, in the gospels of Mark and Matthew we saw that Mary of Magdala (Mary Magdalene) was watching at the cross and came to the tomb of Jesus after the sabbath. But in the gospel of Luke we hear that Jesus cast seven demons out of her. We also meet two women, Joanna and Susanna, who along with many others have provided for Jesus and his followers. This confirms the statement at the end of the gospel of Mark that women were traveling with Jesus in Galilee and caring for him. It is surprising to hear, however, that Joanna is the wife of a steward of Herod Antipas. It would be interesting to know more about Joanna and Susanna, but this is the only reference in the New Testament to Susanna, and Joanna is only mentioned in the gospel of Luke on two occasions — here and as a witness to the empty tomb (24:10).
Then the gospel of Luke relates the parable of the sower and the explanation that appears in the gospels of Mark and Matthew, followed by sayings about putting a lamp on a stand and how those who have will be given more. The author also reports the story of his mother and brothers seeking Jesus and his teaching that, "My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and act upon it." In the gospels of Mark and Matthew this statement comes immediately before the telling of the parable of the sower, as the gospel of Matthew generally follows the order of the gospel of Mark. However, the author of the gospel of Luke freely rearranges material in the gospel of Mark.
Jesus crosses the Sea of Galilee, calms the turbulent waters, and asks the disciples, "Where is your faith?" In the country of the Gerasenes he casts a demon named "Legion" out of a possessed man and sends it into a herd of pigs that rushes over a cliff and drown in the Sea of Galilee. Then Jesus raises from the dead the daughter of Jairus and heals a woman who has been bleeding for twelve years. These stories are also in the gospels of Mark and Matthew in almost identical accounts. In the gospel of Luke, however, Jesus explicitly says to those mourning the death of the daughter of Jairus, "have faith and she will be well again." This statement reminds us that the stories of Jesus are not simply about healing, but about the power of faith.