On the surface of things, we do not know very much about the author of the biblical books we have come to call The Gospel According to Luke and The Acts of the Apostles. Tradition tells us that the author is the physician Luke that Paul refers to in some of his letters. But like the other three gospels, the content of the text itself is largely anonymous. In this sermon help, our focus will be on the author of the gospel, without relying on whatever we know or have inferred from tradition about the physician named Luke. Whoever this person was, the Holy Spirit put him to remarkable use. While we are not given the name in the text itself, we will continue to call the author “Luke” for ease of recognition, “Evangelist” for the author of a Gospel, and “Saint” for the continued gift that his/her work is to the church universal.
The above preface is for you, the preacher! Depending upon the group, it may be appropriate to get into all of these uncertainties in a Bible study, but generally not in a sermon, both because of the diversity of the hearers and the relative shortness of a sermon. That said, as the preacher, it is important for you to be aware that this sermon help will be drawing only on what we can learn about the author from the text of the Gospel of Luke itself. And from this text, we can learn a great deal!
Luke’s gospel is unusual in that it does tell us a little about the author in the preface. First, it tells us that Luke had read other gospels before writing his own. Second, it tells us that he saw these accounts as arising out of an oral tradition that was still available in his own time: the words of those who were witnesses to Jesus’ life. Third, it tells us that that Luke set about investigating the truth of these claims. It appears he had a skeptical or scientific mind that required more than hearing a story at third hand. And fourth, Luke tells us that his investigations inspired him to write a mospel himself, which a reasonable person would do only if he had a sense that he had something to add – something important to say that was not yet being said by any of the other gospels.
From all of the above, we can infer that Luke was a person of great privilege and self-confidence. Luke was learned – he was able to write well enough to undertake writing a book. And he had the leisure time to make independent investigations, which would likely require travel.
But this privilege and self-confidence was not, for Luke, an invitation to hold himself higher than others. On the contrary, what is perhaps most notable about Luke’s gospel is his emphasis on the place of women, the poor, and outcasts (including lepers and Samaritans) in Jesus’ ministry and in the early church.
Here, we are using the word “privilege” to mean, “having significantly more than another, to the point of – perhaps undesiredly, but always undeservedly – benefiting from the unjust suppression of another.” In most United Methodist congregations, the majority of the congregation is privileged in at least one, if not in many ways. Be gentle with yourself and your congregation, reminding them that benefiting from a system in which they have more than others does not imply that they desire to perpetuate a system in which they have more (money, freedom, safety, opportunity, or whatever else) than others. We live in a society in which being white, being male, being a native English speaker, being a citizen of the United States, and being an adult are all unearned qualities that give certain people privileges at the expense of others. Which of these qualities are most likely to resonate with your congregation? Can you think of others?
This sermon help identifies the mode of stewardship associated with Luke to be “The Way of Generosity.” Generosity is giving freely without anxiety or thought for your own or another’s deserving; sharing what the world would call “yours” because you cannot conceive of behaving another way. Luke is generous in his inclusion – in sharing the Jesus story as one that is for all people, without regard to financial status, nationality, gender, or relative contagion. Not only are all welcome at the table, but anyone might turn out to be the hero of a story in Luke. There are many unique examples of this in Luke, including Luke 8:2-3, 10:25-37, 10:38-42, Luke 15, 17:11-19, and many others.
Luke’s generosity grows out of Luke’s privilege in a two-fold way. On the one hand, Luke is only able to write the gospel at all because of the education and opportunities he has had. However, at the same time, in his writing of the gospel, Luke skewers the very idea of privilege, making it clear that Jesus did not value people of privilege any more highly. On the contrary, Jesus held up a child (perhaps the least privileged sort of person in most societies) as an example of what we were called to become as Christians.
In order to figure out what this has to do with stewardship, we turn to another story found only in Luke: The story of Zacchaeus. My Harper Collins Study Bible tells me that Zacchaeus means “Innocent.” Luke was likely aware of the irony. This man whose name was “Innocent” had been stealing from his own people. He was colluding with the occupying enemy forces, and for his help in raising money for the continued support of their army, Zacchaeus was given the privilege of collecting as much extra as he thought he could get away with in order to enrich himself. Zacchaeus, then, was not only a man of “privilege,” he was a man who had elected to exercise this privilege in hurtful ways. What a contrast with Luke, who used his privilege to make it clear that God’s grace and God’s church was open to all people!
Or perhaps there is no such contrast – after all, we do not know how Luke used his privilege before he became a follower of Jesus! We do not have a “before” picture of Luke. On the other hand, the before and after pictures Luke gives us of Zacchaeus demonstrates quite a contrast in Zacchaeus’ own person. The conversion of Zacchaeus was swift and thorough: all it took was for him to be aware of Jesus, and he turned from his old way of living, committing to return his fraudulent earnings four-fold, and furthermore to give to the poor. It is hard to say for certain, but this may well have entailed giving everything he had.
Jesus noticed Zacchaeus, not because he was wealthy or powerful, though he was both. Jesus noticed Zacchaeus up in a tree – a man who had made himself an outcast in his community by giving into his greed; a man wanting so badly to see Jesus that he couldn’t help making a fool of himself. This man was ripe for repentance.
It is difficult to admit that what we have is ours because we have benefited from an unjust system.span>
Zacchaeus would not have been in a position to give so much if he had not taken so much. Better for us not to take in the first place than to have much to give! And yet, what an act of courage it takes to release our hold on what is not rightfully ours. This may especially be true for the majority of us who never asked to be given an unfair advantage – it is difficult simply to admit that what we have is not our own, or not even necessarily ours because God gave it to us, but sometimes what we have is ours because we benefited from an unjust system.
This is a difficult thing for a congregation to hear. Pray and consider: Have you yourself been freed from the grip of “entitlement”? And are you both equipped and called this Sunday to offer this freedom to your congregation in the name of Jesus?
Like in the Zacchaeus story, it is important for your congregation to hear that Jesus holds them in high regard – Jesus notices them, loves them, and invites himself to table with them before they have made any commitment of their own. God’s love is not contingent upon our generosity. On the contrary, it is God’s abundant love that makes generosity possible.
Further preparation notes:
- If you are celebrating Communion this Sunday, you might draw a parallel between the congregation and Zacchaeus – “just as Jesus sat at table with Zacchaeus, and received his change of heart with forgiveness and compassion, so Jesus invites you now…”
- If you use visual aids in your service, there are many illustrations, from humorous to Old Masters art, of Zacchaeus in his tree. You may also choose an illustration of Luke’s traditional symbol: a winged ox.
- Zacchaeus was shorter than every grown up around him. Kids can relate to that! (Hence the popularity of the song, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man.”) Consider telling the story from this perspective: Jesus noticed Zacchaeus because Zacchaeus needed Jesus most of all that day. Jesus always notices when we need him, no matter how short (or young!) we are.
- Possible hymns include:
Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior (United Methodist Hymnal, 351)
I Come With Joy (United Methodist Hymnal, 617)
Out of the Depths (The Faith We Sing, 2136)
A Place At the Table (Worship & Song, 3149)
Sarah McGiverin is a writer, worship consultant, and public speaker.