ACTA LECTIONARY COMMENTARY
Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Year of Luke
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A reading from the prophet Isaiah 6:1-8
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 138:1-5. 7-8. R/. v.1
A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 5:1-11
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How come prophets always claimed to speak God’s words? Isaiah begins by announcing “the vision of Isaiah …which he saw” (Isaiah 1:1), and boldly demands,
Hear, O heavens and give ear, O earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
And notice how strange this is:
The word that Isaiah, the son of Amoz,
saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
The Book of Jeremiah begins in a similar vein. “The words of Jeremiah” are “the word of the Lord” that “came to him in the days of Josiah … the king of Judah” (Jeremiah 1:1-2). In his first couple of pages he repeats again and again that “the word of the Lord came to me” and that coming of the word mandated him to shout to “the house of Jacob and to all the clans of the house of Israel”,
Hear the word of the Lord …
“Thus says the Lord”.
Again and again, he repeats “And the Lord said to me” (Jeremiah 3:11) or “Thus says the Lord” (Jeremiah 6:16), words to be found in almost every chapter of the 52 chapters in this, the longest book in the Old Testament.
Turn over the page from Jeremiah to the Book of Ezekiel and you will read this:
In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. On the fifth day of the month (it was the fifth year of the exile of King Jehoiachin), the word of the Lord came to Ezekiel the priest, the son of Buzi, in the land of the Chaldeans by the Chebar canal, and the hand of the Lord was upon him there.
Almost every chapter in the Book of Ezekiel opens with “The word of the Lord came to me” (see, for example, 6:1; 7:1; 12:1; 13:1; 17:1; 18:1). It is this coming of the word of the Lord that empowers Ezekiel to command the people in God’s name. His vocation is perfectly clear:
Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me, again and again …
How does God speak to prophets? How do prophets know that God is speaking to them? How do people distinguish between true and false prophets? What gives the prophets we listen to almost every Sunday a right to be heard so that “the word of the Lord” becomes a word we welcome and live by? There’s a story in the First Book of Kings that answers most of our questions.
Some things never change. Just as in our time, so in the days of King Jehoshaphat there was uneasy peace and frequent war between the kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the mighty empire of Assyria to the northeast. The time is around 850 B.C. King Ahab of Israel sought the help of King Jehoshaphat in a war against Syria to reclaim some lost territory. Jehoshaphat agreed but decided that it would be a good idea to consult prophets to determine “the word of the Lord” (1 Kings 22:5) in such a risky venture. So prophets, numbering about 400 men (it does say men), were assembled and were asked a straight question:
Shall I go to battle against Ramoth-gilead,
or shall I refrain? 1 Kings 22:6
We need to understand that kings, then as now, engage wise men and prophets to add weight to their deliberations and, hopefully, wisdom to their decisions. Of course, such professional prophets tended to tell the king what he wanted to hear. So their advice will not surprise you:
Go up, for the Lord will give it into the hand of the king. 1 Kings 22:6
But King Jehoshaphat was a cautious man and he asked his ally in this proposed military adventure if there were not another “prophet of the Lord of whom we may inquire”. The king of Israel replied:
There is yet one man by whom we may inquire of the Lord, Micaiah, the son of Imlah, but I hate him, for he never prophesies good concerning me, but evil. 1 Kings 22:8
But Jehoshaphat insisted that he be sent for and, while they waiting, the 400 court prophets assured the kings that the Lord has guaranteed success. The messenger sent to Micaiah leaned on “the prophet of the Lord”, saying,
Behold, the words of the prophets with one accord are favourable to the king. Let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favourably. 1 Kings 22:13
Now Micaiah did not belong to the “Yes-men” in the royal courts. He was one of the awkward squad who spoke truth unto power:
As the Lord lives, what the Lord says to me, that I will speak. 1 Kings 22:14
The upshot of the matter was that he went before the kings and mockingly advised them to go ahead. Knowing that this prophet of the Lord was mocking them, King Ahab demanded that he speak the truth and Micaiah did so:
I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, as sheep that have no shepherd. And the Lord said, “These have no master; let each return to his home in safety”. 1 Kings 22:17
Then Micaiah boldly explains the true position:
Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead? ’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him’. And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets. ’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so. ’ Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.
1 Kings 22:19-23
Of course the expedition was a disaster. King Ahab was killed and his troops fled the field. But the part of the story that we need to understand is the above account Micaiah gives of the process by which he, a true prophet of the Lord, comes to know the mind of God.
Now we know God does not sit on a throne and does not have a right or left hand to facilitate all the host of heaven standing around. What we have here is human imagination imagining God according to the royal court of a great earthly king. So there is a throne, a counsel of advisors with whom the heavenly King discusses policy decisions and there are lowly angels to run the messages.
Prophets hear the word and obediently relay what they hear to God’s people. But this is an imaginary account to try to explain how the Spirit of the Lord instructs and empowers prophets. It is how prophets articulated their authority and licensed them to proclaim “Hear the word of the Lord” or “Thus says the Lord”. This is how Micaiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah (in today’s first reading) and all the prophets understood the mysterious processes by which the Holy Spirit empowered them to speak in the name of the Lord. How do the prophets amongst us understand their ministry? St Paul tells us that we must always have prophets amongst us but how can we know the true from the false?
At the end of the day there is the very human and very wise advice of the authors of the Book of Deuteronomy:
And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him.
In other words, the proof is in the pudding. Or, to put it another way, tradition, in Christian understanding, has the duty to listen to the word, to be aware of the signs of the times, and to pray for discernment.
Perhaps our most profound prayer can enlighten us as to the significance of the image of the prophet as a member of the imaginary court of the King of heaven. Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. The prayer to “Our Father” is the prayer of Jesus to his Father and our prayer too. Together we pray that God’s will be done in our earthily home “as it is in heaven”. That is, with Jesus we pray that our world be as God intends it to be. As God in heaven is our creator so our God is the one who sustains creation. The image of the prophet standing in the court of heaven, hearing what God counsels, and coming amongst us to proclaim God’s will, is a profound expression of God’s steadfast love. For it is that love, a love that endures forever, that is forever present and forever concerned for humanity’s safety. The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) can clarify the rather difficult, even fanciful, notion of the prophet as a member of the heavenly court. We pray,
Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
It is Jesus and the prophets who know the mind of God and lovingly invite us to live in the wisdom of their good counsel.
A reading from the prophet Isaiah 6:1-8
In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for”.
And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me”.
The word of the Lord.
Isaiah paints a picture of the heavenly court into which he is about to be co-opted. The heavenly choir is in good voice. Over-awed, Isaiah’s expression of unworthiness is met by absolution. A man “of unclean lips” is cleansed and so he is fit to be sent.
Again, the calling of Isaiah is a heavenly affair, conducted in the court of the King in solemn session. The train of “the Lord of hosts” fills the Temple where Isaiah is experiencing his vision. Thus, like Micaiah, Isaiah’s calling confirms him as a member of the heavenly court who hears what is said and thus can declare to the world, “Thus says the Lord”.
This extraordinary call of Isaiah is in today’s readings linked to the calling of the fishermen so unsuccessfully fishing on the lake of Gennesaret (Sea of Galilee). Like Isaiah, Simon Peter declares that he is “a sinful man”. Yet he is called to become “a catcher of people”.
Responsorial Psalm Psalm 138:1-5. 7-8. R/. v.1
R/. Above all the gods I will bless you, O Lord.
I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple. R/.
I give thanks to your name for your steadfast love
and your faithfulness,
for you have exalted above all things
your name and your word.
On the day I called, you answered me;
my strength of soul you increased. R/.
All the kings of the earth shall give you thanks, O Lord,
for they have heard the words of your mouth,
and they shall sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the glory of the Lord. R/.
You stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
and your right hand delivers me.
The Lord will fulfil his purpose for me.
Your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
R/. Above all the gods I will bless you, O Lord.
Psalm 138 is the first of a group of hymns that bring the Psalter to a conclusion. The Book of Psalms opens with psalms contrasting the righteous and the wicked and with cries for deliverance and forgiveness. The ending of this collection of prayers is given over to hymns of praise.
A point of clarification. Psalm 138 sings its hymn “before the gods”. The translation “before the angels”, as found in many translations including the Jerusalem Bible, is misleading. The Greek Septuagint uses the word angeloi, angels, but the Hebrew has the word elohim which means “gods”. Psalm 138 may be using “before the gods” in reference to the heavenly court. Or it may be a very ancient psalm that comes from a time when God’s people believed that their God was the most powerful of all the gods but not the only god. What is clear is that there is no God so full of blessings, no God whose presence is so near his people, no God whose love is so steadfast, so utterly faithful, and whose hand is forever stretched out to save.
It is important to try to grasp the path of the psalm. It begins as it ends in praise of God’s steadfast love and God’s utter faithfulness to the individual who is singing the song. The true word of God has answered prayers and inspired courage in the face of human tragedies. All the kings of the earth who “have heard the words of your mouth” will join in the song of praise.
This is a prayer of great depth. It sings of the greatness of God before all other heavenly and earthly beings. But it rejoices that God’s majesty is devoted to the weak and the lowly. In the face of life’s uncertainties God gives “strength of soul”, the courage to face what must be faced. For the miracle is that what must be faced is never faced without the right hand of deliverance. The glory of the Lord consists in this: God concern is for the lowly.
A reading from the first letter of St Paul to the Corinthians
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain.
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me. For I am the least of the apostles, unworthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. Whether then it was I or they, so we preach and so you believed.
The word of the Lord.
At the beginning of his letter, in his first chapter, Paul made a plain statement of the content of what he preached: We preach Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 1:23). This was wisdom beyond all wisdom. The sign of the cross was a sign beyond all other signs that might come from God:
For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and
the discernment of the discerning I will thwart”.
Indeed Paul explains the very heart of the gospel he proclaims:
For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power …
1 Corinthians 1:17
He underlines the point:
And I, when I came to you, brothers and sisters, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified’
1 Corinthians 2:2
Indeed when he writes what turned out to be the very first written account of the Lord’s Supper (and Paul is the first to use that name), it is the death of Jesus that he underlines:
For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
So, says St Paul, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together,
we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
Where in all this is the resurrection of Jesus? Where is the hope that our future belongs to God? Where is the hope that all will be well, all manner of thing will be well?
The answer is in Paul’s chapter 15. For this is how one of the greatest Christian scholars of the twentieth century judged Paul’s reflections of the resurrection of Jesus. He wrote that this chapter “forms not only the close and crown of the whole epistle, but also provides the key to its meaning from which light is shed onto the whole, and it becomes intelligible”. Paul’s final reflections begin today in our readings and continue on the next two Sundays, with however some unfortunate omissions. It is not a laudable practice to skip bits when dealing with God’s holy words.
The Resurrection of Jesus
Paul begins with a cautionary reminder to his brothers and sisters that what they learned from him, the gospel that they received, is a gospel of salvation. It is a gospel about their destiny, about God’s determination to bring humanity safely home. Then he provides a long review of what God has done to ensure that all will be well.
Eugene H. Peterson is his book entitled The Message did not set out “to render a word-for-word conversion of Greek into English, but rather to convert the tone and rhythm, the events, the ideas, into the way we actually think and speak”. He manages to catch the feel of the New Testament. His presentation of the long first sentence of Paul’s chapter 15 of Corinthians seems to me to convey the true sense of what Paul declares to be his intention in a chapter that “forms not only the close and crown of the whole epistle but also provides the key to its meaning”. Peterson catches the heart of the matter:
Friends, let me go over the Message with you one more time—this Message that I proclaimed and that you made your own; this Message on which you took your stand and by which your life has been saved. (I’m assuming, now, that your belief was the real thing and not a passing fancy, that you’re in this for good and holding fast.)
When Paul declared at the beginning that “we preach Christ crucified” (1 Corinthians 1:23), we must not think that Jesus and the death of Jesus was at the heart of his teaching. At the heart of his teaching is the resurrection of Jesus and at the heart of that teaching is God. The story of the cross is part of the story of the resurrection and it is God who speaks to us through the cross and resurrection. We may have missed how much Paul has been emphasising God’s determination to save humanity as we made our way through the whole of Paul’s letter. There is so much to chastise in Paul’s wayward Corinthian Christians. Some are getting drunk while celebrating the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:21-22) and a man is sleeping with his father’s wife (1 Corinthians 5:1-8). Amidst all this we might easily miss the strong current of God’s concerns. A quick review is necessary lest we miss what is at the heart of Paul’s gospel of God.
Paul constantly reminds his troublesome Corinthian Christians of who they are. They have received God’s grace, that is, God’s loving attention, God’s concern:
I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that was given you in Christ Jesus.
1 Corinthians 1:4
It is God who called these not very wise people to live in the presence of God:
For consider your calling, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Read that passage again and count the number of times the word “God” occurs.
Paul refers frequently throughout this letter to ‘”The Day of the Lord”, meaning the time of the return, of the second coming to Jesus. In 1:8 he mentions “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ”. Reflect on this verse:
God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. 1 Corinthians 6:14
Corinthian Christians were warned by Paul that,
… the present form of this world is passing away.
1 Corinthians 8:31
In his wonderful reflection on love, Paul reminds everyone that at present we live in a glass darkly, a dim reflection of the glory to come:
For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
1 Corinthians 13:12
Paul thought that the Day of the Lord, the return of Jesus, and the fulfilment of God’s intentions for humanity, was near. He believed that what we somewhat carelessly call “the end of the world” was imminent. In this he was wrong; rather, his timing was wrong. But what he insists on is that God is not only the creator on humanity. God is the destiny of humanity. The scattered references to God’s determination to fulfil humanity’s future—a destiny begun in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus—are clarified in Paul’s chapter 15. The chapter is Paul’s summing up of all that has gone before; it is “the crown of the whole epistle and the key to its meaning”.
For Paul the first things were the last things. God’s purpose is to save humanity, to bring creation to glory, to its perfection. In sending Jesus into our world, God presented humanity’s destiny. To be sure, “he came unto his own and his own received him not” (John 1:11). But his life and his death were not a defeat. For God raised him up. Paul sets out to explain the resurrection of the dead by beginning at the beginning: the resurrection of Jesus. What Paul sets out is our creed;
Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures … 1 Corinthians 15:3
The important emphasis in this sentence is this: in accordance with the Scriptures. The death of Jesus may have satisfied the whims of Pontius Pilate and the contempt of the Temple chief priests and their bloodthirsty scribes. But what was happening in that dark day was happening by God’s design. Human beings might reject and kill God’s Son but this death is a revelation of God’s forgiveness. For, as Luke and Luke alone says, Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). God has an answer to humanity’s sin:
Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
God’s servant suffers and in that suffering the face of God is revealed. Mercy endures beyond humanity’s sinfulness. Isaiah’s portrait of the Suffering Servant, though couched in the past tense, is an assurance that one would come in God’s good time to carry the grief of the world:
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
God has endured the death of his Son and watched his broken body laid in a tomb, a solid and very permanent tomb, one hewn out of a rock. But his death was really a prayer to humanity, a cry of God’s broken heart, to awaken men and women to their capacity for evil. God insists that death can be turned to life.
… was raised on the third day
in accordance with the scriptures …
Again note “in accordance with the Scriptures”. The exact words of Paul are important. When he wrote in Greek “he has been raised”, he expresses this is what is called the “perfect tense” (see verses 12, 13, 14, 16, 17, 20). Paul stresses that the “has been raised” is an action of God. It has lasting effect. Everything in Christian living is determined by God in raising Jesus from the dead. Our coming together in a community of brothers and sisters, our gathering at the Lord’s Supper, breaking the words of God, and our hope and our vocation “to proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes”—all this is expressed in our Eucharistic Proclamation:
Christ has died.
Christ is risen.
Christ will come again.
Suffering, death, burial, and resurrection happen, not because of human design, but because God willed it to be so. In our Creed we declare that Jesus was “crucified, died, and was buried according to the scriptures”. The mind of God, revealed in the Scriptures to be directed by steadfast love, is universally displayed on the cross. “According to the Scriptures” need not send us scrambling for texts in the Old Testament. The phrase means that God’s eternal will, God’s constant determination, is fully displayed on the cross. But the cross is not a defeat of love. It is as Jesus declares the fulfilment of love. For in his dying words Jesus proclaims to the world,
It is completed
and bowing his head he gave up his spirit.
Some translations, including the English Standard Version, the Revised Standard Version and the New Revised Standard Version translate the Greek of this sentence as “It is finished”. Much better is the JB “It is accomplished”. The New Jerusalem Bible has “”It is fulfilled”. The Revised New Jerusalem Bible has “It is completed”. What is fulfilled, what is completed, is God’s will. Jesus has truly done on earth what was determined in heaven. Or, as he said in his prayer on the Mount of Olives, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42).
… and he appeared to Cephas …
That he appeared first to Cephas, that is, to St Peter, may reflect the leadership Peter gave to the earliest of Christians. It may also hint that the one who denied him three times was in most need of convincing. Then there is an appearance to the Twelve and then to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters that may recall the appearance recorded in Acts 1. Then there is an appearance to James, the brother of the Lord, and finally to “all the apostles”, that is, to all who set our to proclaim the Lord Jesus to the world. Finally, in the Damascus Road experience, he appeared to Paul, a persecutor turned apostle.
These appearances are a part of our faith. The Risen Lord was seen by our fathers and mothers and their witness has been passed down to us. But this is not simply to shore up an historical fact. It is to confirm that the gospel of God, proclaimed by those early pioneers, is handed down in order to be proclaimed by brothers and sisters everywhere. The faith of these men and women, the first apostles, is the faith we have received from them and the faith we pass on in our time and in our place.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke 5:1-11
On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon's, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him
The Gospel of the Lord.
This where it gets seriously difficult. For here one of the oldest problems that beset the understanding of our Gospels raises its perplexing head. The problem is this: Who wrote first?
For two thousand years answers have been sought but as yet no solution acceptable to all scholars has been found. For many years St Matthew’s Gospel was regarded as the first to be written. The Catholic Church up to the middle of the last century insisted that this was historically true and the Vatican sacked any Catholic scholar thinking differently. Nowadays most scholars and most Catholic scholars believe that Mark was the first Gospel to be written, followed by Matthew, and then Luke. John was always in fourth place.
Would that matters were that simple. It is clear that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source book. Equally clear is the fact that Matthew and Luke had another source, oral or written, that they both used. And, of course, if you wonder why Matthew has wise men and no shepherds, and Luke has shepherds but no wise men, you will realise that these two gospel-makers went their own way when it suited them.
I have attached a page and invite you to read it carefully. All of us know that St Mark has Jesus come to the Sea of Galilee and invite four fishermen to follow him in order to become fishers of people. There is no conversation. The fishermen are silent. All they did was leave their nets and “followed him”.
Clearly Luke copied Mark. He expands the brief story in Mark, adding material that comes from other stories. Names are changed, conversations are introduced, there is a miraculous catch of fish, Simon Peter calls the stranger “Lord” and confesses that he is a sinful person and all four “partners” are utterly astonished. Jesus speaks to them the words that are always given to those about to be called to a new vocation: Do not be afraid. The vocation is named: You will be catching people.
Why is all this important?
It is important to realise that our Gospels are not history. They are not concerned with precise historical research. Each is written to meet needs and concerns in the community for which they were written. Each Gospel is a selection from what the author knew of the story of Jesus, what each learned when they themselves became Christian. They will have absorbed what had been passed on by word of mouth and anything that had been written down and served their purposes in writing. The purposes for which each wrote will have determined what they selected from whatever was available to them. They will have arranged their material in the most effective way to meet the concerns they wished to address. Informing, sustaining and increasing Christian faith was their purpose.
Luke had his concerns. He was not a Jew. Of the 27 pieces of writings that make up the New Testament, only two were written by a non-Jew. They were written by Luke, his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Luke was a pagan who came to Christianity, perhaps passing through Judaism along the way. But the thing to grasp about Luke is that he was an outsider.
Is it any surprise then to see Luke championing outsiders? Women, shepherds, Samaritans, lost sheep, lost sons, lost widows, lost tax collectors, those on the outside looking in—these are the people who fill Luke’s pages. Above all, the poor lying at the gates of the rich, the poor who have no hope of sitting at a rich man’s table—these are invited to sit and eat. Luke opens God’s doors to the rejected, the discarded, the ne’er-do-wells and the has-beens. What Luke does is to bless us with a Jesus who in God’s name welcomes people, a Jesus who declares that the lost are always found. What Luke’s Gospel demands of all who have been baptised to be proclaimers is to fill the hungry with good things.