OUR CATHOLIC HERITAGE: Meet St. Luke the doctor

“The angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.’”

These are, perhaps, the most familiar lines from the Gospel according to St. Luke (2:1-14) that we hear at the Christmas Midnight Mass, and of course, every year in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

It is fitting that we continue our series on the first followers of Jesus with a discussion of the great evangelist, a follower and companion of St. Paul.

You will recall that in our previous issue of More Good News it was stated that Paul’s mission was to deliver the word to the Gentiles. Luke may have been one of his greatest protégés.

A.J. Valentini

Little or nothing is known of Luke’s early life. It is assumed by many that he was a Greek and a Gentile. Eusebius tells us he was born in Antioch, Syria. He also might have been born a slave, who by luck or chance was trained to be the family physician to persons of the noble class. Either way, evidence of him being a non-Jew lies in Paul writing in Colossians (4:10-14) of his companions “of the circumcision” (Jews) and then including Luke separately as “the good doctor.”

Being a Gentile colored Luke’s writing. In his account of the Passion he says that one of the thieves — a heathen, crucified with Jesus — obtains salvation. This is a radical statement from a religious tradition that reserves the “glory” for the chosen.

In Luke’s telling of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, he shows how even the ones who lose the righteous path along their way through life may repent and receive the ultimate reward.

In addition, Luke’s background as a doctor gave him unique perspective on human suffering.

In his beloved recounting of the parable of the Good Samaritan (only Luke recorded this), he not only addresses our previous point of Luke’s attention to the non-Jews and outcasts, he describes the suffering of the traveler who is beaten, stripped and robbed and left to die by the side of the road. Luke’s interpretation of Jesus’ story recognizes that even the “uncircumcised” are capable of empathy and good works.

In the recounting of the episode of the cleansing of the lepers, Luke tells us that of all those who were cleansed, it is only the Samaritan, a non-Jew, a Gentile, who comes back to thank Jesus. For this writer, that shows that Luke had no patience for those who expected deliverance just because of their birth into the chosen group.

He shows that deliverance is earned and should be acknowledged gratefully. Luke’s passage says: “Jesus asked, ‘Were not all 10 cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?’Then he said to him, ‘Rise and go; your faith has made you well.’”

Luke was by Paul’s side from about 51 AD to 61 AD when Paul was imprisoned in Rome. Paul recognized his disciple’s loyalty saying: “And after everyone else deserts Paul in his final imprisonment and sufferings, it is Luke who remains with Paul to the end: ‘Only Luke is with me’” (2 Timothy 4:11).

Luke felt an obligation to write for posterity in a way that was accessible, comprehensible and would continue to inspire. He was adamant that facts contained in his writings were accurate. Subsequent study has proven his veracity. He said: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I, too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you.” (Luke 1:1-3).

Like the other evangelists, Luke often is portrayed in art with, or as, an icon. His symbol is an ox or calf, a symbol of sacrifice. He said to also have been a painter, having created various holy images. One legend says he even painted the famous Black Madonna of Czestochowa. Luke is the patron of artists and physicians.