The Feast of St. Luke the Evangelist
Today, we observe the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. There are two biographical bits of information that I think are important to understanding Luke’s theology.
First, Luke was likely a Gentile convert to belief in the Israelite God. He rejected his surrounding culture of Greek paganism, but probably had not fully adopted Israelite religion as a convert Jew. Instead, Luke was probably a God-fearer, a class of participants in Israelite religion that was not bound by the law of Moses, but was bound by the much simpler law given to Noah after the flood for all humanity. God-fearers were, then, on the margins: not quite Gentile, not quite Jew. In other words, Luke knew what it meant to be an outsider.
The second fact about Luke is that he was a physician. In this line of work, he would have treated patients from a wide variety of cultures, social standings, ethnic backgrounds, economic circumstances, and religions. Everyone gets sick. Everyone dies. The frailty of human bodies is a universal experience, something Luke would have been intimately familiar with. In other words, Luke knew that, when it comes to universal human experiences, there are no outsiders.
These two facts, Luke’s status as a social and religious outsider, and his work with universal human sufferings, seem to have worked together to craft a particular theological outlook. In his account of the Gospel, Luke focuses very much on outsiders, those ranking low in the social hierarchy. Maybe the best example of this is Mary, a young woman in a patriarchal society who acts as a direct, even priestly, mediator between God and humanity and a virgin who gives birth. This is not simply Luke expressing social concerns; he paints a picture of Mary bearing Christ in the world, and, in doing so, from her position of social weakness, encountering God more fundamentally than those in positions of high social status, and wielding great power and authority in doing so.
This interest in the socially weak is informed by Luke’s concern for universal human experience, which he would have encountered in his work healing the sick and dying. Luke’s concern for the poor is not simply social theory or political conviction; it is underpinned by an insistence that it is worldly weakness, not worldly strength, that enables us to encounter God. The structures of human hierarchy, whether social, economic, political, sexual, or religious, are worldly things, passing away, because it is the universal order established by God, and that has its being in God, that persists eternally. The variety of nations and worldly rulers is, like the variety of idols, shown false, because there is one God, one Creation, one humanity. By rejecting worldly power and ambition, we may be open to the guidance of God’s Spirit, and be led to encounter God face-to-face in the person of Christ.
This basic idea is the foundation of many stories in Luke’s Gospel, as well as its companion text, the Acts of the Apostles. Simeon, after a long life of waiting, beholds the infant Christ in the Temple, and rejoices that he may now, finally, die in the peace of God. The early Church ordains its first deacons to relieve the suffering of poverty and ethnic strife among the faithful. Among these is Stephen, who, at his martyrdom, beholds heaven opened and Christ enthroned with the Father. Saul, later Paul, on his way to persecute the Church, is cast into the dependent weakness of blindness, but in doing so, beholds Christ directly, and converts. Luke was an associate of Paul, working with him in his evangelism, and these trials demonstrate a clear sense of Christ breaking through in situations where one is weak, vulnerable, near death.
In all honesty, this should chasten us. It should chasten us as individuals, in our own ambitions for wealth, power, education, and social status. It should chasten us, this community gathered here, to live into the spirit of weakness intrinsic to our vows. It should chasten us a church body, we Episcopalians who have spent centuries as the church of the institutional elite.
But, more than just chastening, Luke’s gospel is, indeed, good news. So in the experience of remembering these errors, we should also be assured and encouraged that God can do such wonders with just our weakness. We should know that, when we relinquish the quest for ever more wealth, or fame, or prestige, we begin to shun our idols, and we may enter the real weakness and vulnerability that allows for encounter with the one, true, and living God.
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