The doctor I go to – not so often, I hasten to add – is one of about 25 doctors working out of one of those mass-production mega-clinics. My doctor is always run off his feet – surrounded by gizmos, he spends more of his time looking at his computer than at me, and every other time he forgets my name. He gets right to the point, which is one of the things I like about him, and he doesn’t waste my time so I don’t waste his. It’s an arrangement that seems to work for both of us. But every now and then I find myself marvelling at how much the whole idea of a doctor has changed.
When I was a boy – living in Narrogin – that was when we had a real doctor. This doctor always smelled of ether, and he gave us kids a lolly after every needle – of which if memory is anything to go by we seemed to be lining up for one every other week, and he told us stories. Dr Francis also used to visit us at home when we were sick in bed with the mumps, which happened most weeks when we weren’t getting needles. He was scary and reassuring and grave and friendly and sometimes cross, and clearly he knew everything there was to know. No doctor ever since has come even close to measuring up.
The traditional view of St Luke, of course, is that he was a doctor, in fact the doctor St Paul describes in his letter to the Colossian Church as a beloved physician. This actually comes down to us from Irenaeus, late in the second century, who also tells us St Luke was born in Antioch and died in Boeotia at the age of 84, without ever having married. It’s Irenaeus who tells us that Luke wrote the Gospel that nowadays bears his name (even though it’s not actually in there anywhere), and the Acts of the Apostles. We actually don’t know any of this for sure, and some Bible scholars find reason to doubt that the writer of Luke’s Gospel had ever even met St Paul, given that the portrait of St Paul we find in the Acts of the Apostles is pretty much the opposite of the St Paul we get to know in his own letters. But if Irenaeus is right, and my New Testament professor is wrong, which is always a possibility, then St Luke would have been a proper doctor like Dr Francis, for sure.
This image of Dr Luke is very attractive indeed. Like Dr Francis, he is urbane and well-educated, writing in the very best literary Greek. Dr Luke is equally at home in the Judaism of his day and the wider cosmopolitan world of the Roman Empire. He is sensitive to the political dimensions of Jesus’ ministry, unique in presenting Jesus as good news to the poor and the oppressed, and in including as full partners in Jesus ministry and the life of the early Church the one-half of the population most Jewish writers of his time generally pretended didn’t exist – women. Luke also presents the Good News of Jesus’ Gospel primarily in terms of healing.
Next year – next Church year, that is, which begins in about six week’s time – we begin the year of Luke. So it’s wonderful good fortune to have the feast day of St Luke, who for my money we might just continue to think of as a beloved physician, fall on a Sunday. We get a sneak preview and an introduction.
What’s so special about Luke? As a storyteller, Luke knows how to paint a picture in words that we want to hear over and over again, that we want to be surprised and delighted by, that we remember and understand as good news in a human context – where St John in his prologue tells us what the Incarnation of the Word of God means in profound and cosmic terms, St Luke gives us the story of a baby born in a town with a name that means “bread-basket”- a baby placed in an animal’s feed-trough as though to say “look! This is food!” – a story of faithful men and women that connects us with the stories of the Old Testament and so promises us that the faithfulness of God is both radically new and at the same time utterly continuous with what God has done for God’s people in the past.
Luke has got a copy of Mark’s Gospel in front of him, the earliest Gospel ever written. We know this because like Matthew, he uses great big chunks of Mark. And like Matthew, Luke has got access to a pre-existing collection of sayings that scholars call ‘Q’ – from the German word for ‘source’ – a collection of stuff that Mark doesn’t have but we read in both Luke and Matthew’s Gospels – and then Luke comes up with some other stuff that we don’t read anywhere else, and these are the best-loved stories of all - stories like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal son that we connect with at a deep level because we know they are deeply true – life, we know, is like that – and leave us asking ourselves uncomfortable questions like “which of the characters in that story is like me? Am I like the selfish son? Or am I like the self-righteous brother?”
I think it’s as a storyteller that Luke presents the Gospel in a way that most challenges us today. Stories are how we tell ourselves, consciously or sub-consciously, who we are and what we stand for. What we are about. The stories that float around within families connect us to one another and give us a sense of continuity. The loss of stories leads to social dislocation – we know this because we live in an age, and in a culture, that has lost contact with the stories of its own past. Luke’s stories reconnect us, re-situating us in the context of family life and human frailty and goodness, challenging us to recognise the possibility of holiness in our own lives and our own society.
Luke sets out his agenda at the beginning of his Gospel, like a good ancient historian. He makes no claim to being an eyewitness, he’s not one of the original disciples and he’s writing to a generation to whom all this has already receded into tradition. Maybe to many Jewish Christians towards the end of the first century it was no longer quite clear how or even if their own brand of Judaism could claim to be the authentic strand And so Luke writes in verse four of the first chapter that he decided to write the definitive account of all these things so that his readers might have the truth, and here he uses the Greek word, aspháleia, the same Greek word that gives us asphalt, in other words, Luke’s agenda is to give us something firm to walk on. Because Luke is addressing an identity crisis in the early Church, he connects the radical good news of Jesus with the solid faith of Old Testament figures, through characters like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Anna and Simeon whose lives are focused on the temple.
But Luke doesn’t just show us a picture of Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s ancient yearning for wholeness – Luke’s special agenda is to show us Jesus as the compassion of God for the weakest and the poorest and the least powerful. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount is subtly different in Luke’s Gospel – in his beatitudes he has Jesus pronouncing God’s blessing not on those who are poor in spirit but on the literally poor – not on those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, but on those who are literally hungry – not on the merciful but on those who weep. If Luke is a physician, then he observes Jesus’ ministry with an physician’s eye attuned to human suffering and a theology that says God’s promise in Jesus is the transformation of suffering into joy.
In celebrating Luke, physician, companion of Paul or maybe not – we need to remember his Gospel has a sequel. That’s another thing that makes this Gospel writer unique. He doesn’t just write about Jesus, he also writes about the Church. Why? Because according to St Luke the Church itself is also a part of God’s action in history, it’s being led by God, and the same pattern of healing and transformation we saw in Jesus is also being enacted in the Church. That was good news for the tired and dispirited Church of the late first century, and it’s good news for us.
Luke has a schema, a theory of history that he says is being fulfilled in the Church – in his Gospel everything moves towards Jerusalem as the centre, and in the Acts of the Apostles the action moves outwards again, from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. The Church as St Luke describes it is not just grounded in the past, it is also on the move, encountering new cultures and new contexts for the Gospel. And it’s the Holy Spirit who speaks a fresh word at every turn not just to reassure but to reignite, to inspire with fresh perspectives, new insight and rekindled passion. St Luke, in other words, encourages us to reflect on where we’ve been, as a template for where we’re going.
In our culture, medical doctors are women and men with great power, possessors of knowledge and technology that can make the difference between life and death. We go to the doctor, sometimes, acutely aware of our own powerlessness and dependence. What difference does it make, then, if we reflect that St Luke, of all the Evangelists, might have been a doctor?
I think, for a start, it reminds us that the everyday world of human physical existence, food and shelter, families and work, are the context in which we experience the holy mysteries of transformation and grace. It’s a reminder of the holiness of the physical, the sacramentality of bone and corpuscles and nerve-fibres. It’s a reminder that the Jesus of the Gospels challenges us to live lives of healing and hope - not just in the promise of heaven, but in the particular contexts of our lives on earth, where the hope of heaven makes sense - to confront injustice just as we confront disease, and to declare that God’s intention for creation is for flourishing and wholeness.
Now if only I could find a doctor like that.