Gospels show four portraits of Jesus,find him in prayer, mercy, care for poor
By Abbot Gregory Polan, OSB
Catholic Key Scripture Columni
AS WE HAVE recently moved out of the Easter season and back into Ordinary Time, we are returning to the cycle of Gospel readings for Year C, from the Gospel according to Luke. When we read any of the four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), we remember that this good news of Jesus Christ was written for a particular community of faith.
In the early Christian era, the Gospels were written to keep alive the words and deeds of Jesus for this new and succeeding generations of Christians. The evangelists, good pastors that they were, recorded the words and deeds of Jesus, and interpreted them in such a way as to fit the needs of the people in their care. From this understanding we can then see how each Gospel paints a portrait of Jesus, grounded in the truth of his life and teaching, that addresses the needs and hopes of a growing community of faith.
We can thus see that with four Gospels, we will have four portraits of Jesus, all possessing certain similar characteristics, while also portraying aspects of his life and teaching unique to each Gospel. Matthew's account of Jesus will differ from John's, and that from Mark's, and that from Luke's. Each evangelist does this so as to depict a model of living for which the Christian can find the perfect example; Jesus is the one Christians are to imitate in word and deed. The evangelists are trying to help us "put on the mind" and heart of Jesus, as St. Paul tells us (Philippians 2:5). As we will be hearing from the Gospel according to Luke for the next five months, let us consider some of the distinct ways in which this evangelist portrays Jesus. Hopefully this will enable us to make those connections important to our own lives, as followers and disciples of Christ Jesus.
1) The parables of mercy - Several parables are specific to Luke's Gospel; they are parables found in the other Gospels as well, but which Luke uses in a unique way. For example, in Chapter 15 there are two parables also found in other Gospels (the wayward sheep, verses 3-7, and the lost coin, verses 8-10); and then there is the famous parable of the father and his two sons, verses 11-32, found only in Luke's Gospel.
The evangelist links these three parables together to bring home a point: if there is such rejoicing over finding a lost sheep or recovering a coin, how much more rejoicing should there be over a person who has found the way back to God. At the outset of the chapter, the Pharisees have been murmuring that Jesus dines with tax collectors and sinners; by the use of the parables, Jesus shows them that God's mercy impels him to go out to the ones who seem lost and to bring them to union with God. As Jesus has given them an example of divine mercy, so should they act in like manner.
Other parables of mercy in Luke's Gospel include the two debts forgiven (7:41-43), the good Samaritan (10:29-37), the barren tree (13:6-9), and the Pharisee and the tax collector (18:9-14). It is mercy God desires more than sacrifice and offerings, and Jesus shows us that in word and deed.
2) God's love for the poor - The poor hold a privileged place in Luke's Gospel. Six passages about the poor in the third Gospel are not found in the other Gospels. Three are well known to all. The first is found in Mary's song of praise, offen referred to as her Magnificat. Upon her visit to her elderly and pregnant cousin Elizabeth, Mary sings of God's goodness exclaiming, "[God] has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant" (1:48). This is not merely a pious expression of humility; rather, Mary places herself among those who stand in utter need of God's help and deliverance.
In versus 52-53, this same hymn speaks of how God will depose the mighty from positions of power and put the poor in their places; these same powerful ones will be sent away empty, while the hungry will be satisfied from the hand of God.
The second passage comes at the outset of Jesus public ministry, where in a Sabbath synagogue service he reads from the prophet Isaiah, speaking of himself, "The spirit of the Lord is upon me ... he has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release for prisoners and sight for the blind" (4:18). Here Jesus characterizes his mission and that of the kingdom as fulfilling the hopes envisioned by Isaiah. Throughout the Old Testament, God has shown care and support of the poor through the person of the king, the anointed one, the Lord's representative. That prophetic word is to be fully expressed, lived out in Jesus and in those who are his followers.
The third passage comes from the beatitudes. We are all familiar with Matthew's opening beatitude, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Luke's opening beatitude reads, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven." There is a clear difference here; while Matthew is speaking about a spiritual poverty, Luke is directing his words to those who live on the margins and experience the fate of the poor; they are blessed because they depend upon and place their sole hope in God as Savior and Redeemer. Other passages bring across this same concern for the poor (see Luke 14:1-24; 16:19-31; 19:1-10; 21:1-4).
3) The withdrawal to prayer - Luke portrays Jesus as one whose strength in life and ministry is drawn from his communion with God in prayer. In all of these significant contexts of his life, the evangelist describes Jesus at prayer: at his baptism (3:21); as he is about to choose his 12 apostles (6:12); as Peter is about to make his confession of faith and Jesus to announce his forthcoming passion (9:18); at the scene of the transfiguration (9:28); as he is about to teach the Twelve the "Our Father" (11:2); when at the Last Supper, Jesus promises to pray for the strengthening of Peter in his leadership of the apostolic band (22:32); during his agony on the Mount of Olives (22:41); and on the cross (23:46). The pivotal and weighty moments of Jesus' life are marked by prayer; he knows himself to be a servant of God and in need of divine help to carry out the mission given him.
There are more themes in Luke's Gospel that we might consider, but these three give us important insights into the Gospel's teaching about Jesus and our own call to follow his example. As we listen to the Gospel in the coming months, let us keep an ear open to the various ways Jesus shows us the mercy of God, so that we might do the same for others.
Let us attend to Jesus' regard and care for the poor, so that we might imitate that divine love for the poor among us. And let us be aware of how the life of the Redeemer was focused on an intimate and trusting relationship with God, so that we might do the same and grow in that way of freedom and joy. When we do this, we acknowledge that the good news of the Gospel is a word of life for us, a living word bearing fruit in our own daily lives.
Benedictine monk Gregory J. Polan is the Abbot of Conception Abbey.