An overview of the key themes and messages of the book of Luke are offered in this Bible study, Luke: The Good News of God's Mercy. The overriding message of the book of Luke, that God has acted through Jesus Christ to meet our deepest needs, encourages us to welcome God's actions throughout our lives and, in turn, to go out and offer God's mercy to the world around us.
A Guided Discovery of the Bible
The Bible invites us to explore God’s word and reflect on how we might respond to it. To do this, we need guidance and the right tools for discovery. The Six Weeks with the Bible series of Bible discussion guides offers both in a concise six-week format. Whether focusing on a specific biblical book or exploring a theme that runs throughout the Bible, these practical guides in this series provide meaningful insights that explain Scripture while helping readers make connections to their own lives. Each guide
• is faithful to Church teaching and is guided by sound biblical scholarship
• presents the insights of Church fathers and saints
• includes questions for discussion and reflection
• delivers information in a reader-friendly format
• gives suggestions for prayer that help readers respond to God’s word
• appeals to beginners as well as to advanced students of the Bible
By reading Scripture, reflecting on its deeper meanings, and incorporating it into our daily life, we can grow not only in our understanding of God’s word, but also in our relationship with God.
About the Author
Kevin Perrotta is an award-winning Catholic journalist and a former editor of God’s Word Today. In addition to the Six Weeks with the Bible series, he is the author of Invitation to Scripture and Your One-Stop Guide to the Bible. Perrotta lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Guide
You might compare this booklet to a short visit to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing in the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this booklet we’ll drive through the Gospel of Luke, making half a dozen stops along the way. At those points we’ll proceed on foot, taking a leisurely walk through the selected passages. The readings have been chosen to give a representative sample of Luke’s telling of the good news of Jesus Christ. These passages will bring us to the heart of the Christian message.
After each discussion we’ll get back in the car and take the highway to the next stop. “Between Discussions” pages summarize the portions of Luke that we will pass along the way.
This guide provides everything you need to explore the Gospel of Luke in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of Luke’s Gospel. The weekly sections feature key passages from Luke, with explanations that highlight what his words mean for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch you into fruitful discussion, helping you both to explore Luke for yourself and to learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves, but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in and with the church. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp Luke’s message. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with Luke’s Gospel—and with Jesus, whom Luke describes. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the Gospel and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what the Gospel means for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s Word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present in order to show you what the Gospel has meant to others—so that you can consider what it might mean for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of the discussions if you read the weekly material in advance of each meeting. But if participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “What’s Happened” and “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud to the group at the points where they occur in the weekly material.
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. But in the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished biblical amateurs, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to be facilitators, and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” before beginning (page 92).
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this booklet. It contains the sections of Luke that are discussed, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussion.
How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 92) and individuals (page 95).
The Purpose of Luke’s Gospel—and How to Connect with It
My daughter Virginia called from college recently and told me she had made an important discovery. “I’m coming to realize I don’t know myself very well,” she said. The school year had been difficult for her in many ways—the worst of it being her roommate’s death in a tragic accident. Virginia is a robust, spirited person, but events shook her. By spring she found herself unexpectedly sunk in sorrow and confusion.
I think Virginia’s realization may in the long run be more valuable to her than anything she learned in class this year. She is asking new questions about herself and life and God. I don’t know if she is planning to read the Gospel of Luke anytime soon, but she might be especially well prepared for it now, since her insight is closely related to an issue we face as we read the Gospel.
The issue is this: Do I see myself as able to make a success of my life through a determined use of my talents and resources? Or do I recognize within myself sources of failure as well as success? Do I, for example, see my tendency to use my talents egotistically, to focus my attention on my own ambitions rather than on the needs of other people? Am I conscious only of my achievements, or am I also aware of my failures to love? Do I focus my attention solely on what I can do in this world, or do I also reflect on the eventual decline of my abilities and the inevitability of my death? In other words, do I see myself as a creature who, along with wonderful gifts, has flaws and limitations?
It is uncomfortable to recognize my weaknesses, my tendencies to evil, my oncoming death, because I cannot fundamentally change these realities. But the central message of the Gospel of Luke is that God has acted to meet my needs. In biblical language, God has brought me salvation: he has come to heal me in the depths of my being, to rescue me from the evils that assail me—to rescue me even from the final disintegration of death. Yet the realization my daughter has been coming to is crucial for me to have as well if I am to receive this divine action. I will be receptive to it only if I recognize my need for it.
The issue of receptivity runs throughout Luke’s Gospel. He shows us that God has made salvation available through Jesus of Nazareth—through Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection. In many ways God’s action through Jesus was unexpected, even for the Jewish people of the time. As we will see, the salvation Jesus brings goes far beyond what people were looking for—and makes demands on those who accept it. Not surprisingly, then, we meet people in Luke’s Gospel who are astonished by Jesus. We see people struggling to understand what exactly is the salvation that he offers—and to decide how to respond.
A crucial determinant of people’s responsiveness to Jesus is their awareness—or lack of awareness—of any need for God to intervene in their lives. Some people in the Gospel feel no need for what Jesus offers. They think they know where they stand with God, where they are going in life, and how they are going to get there. They think they know themselves.
Others who meet Jesus are not so sure they have it all together. They recognize that they need something from Jesus, although they do not fully grasp what it is. Consequently they are open to the possibility of God’s intervening in their lives through Jesus, however unexpected and challenging that may be.
In the sections of Luke that we will be discussing, we read about religious leaders who are satisfied that they are all right even though they suffer a dangerous deficiency of compassion, a kind of malnutrition of the spirit (Weeks 2 and 3). Jesus says to them sharply, “If you’re so healthy, you don’t need my medical services.” If only they had made the discovery about themselves that my daughter has been making, they might have examined God’s action through Jesus more open mindedly than they do.
Then there are physically sick people who come—or are brought—to Jesus (Week 2). They know they need something and are hopeful that Jesus can provide it. While they may have a lot to learn about the nature of their deepest needs, and about Jesus, at least they come.
Among those we will be reading about, the person most realistic about himself is a man who is executed on a cross next to Jesus (Week 5). He has relinquished all illusions about himself. He knows his crimes and acknowledges his total need for God’s mercy. Paradoxically, it is this man alone in the Gospel who reaches out to accept the whole rescue from sin and death that God, in his unlimited mercy, offers human beings in Jesus.
This booklet is entitled Luke: The Good News of God’s Mercy. Presumably, if you have selected it as a discussion guide, you want to experience God’s mercy. All of us, I suppose, take up the reading of Luke with at least some awareness of a “presenting problem,” as doctors refer to symptoms as the patient experiences them. We know that something in our life, something in ourselves, needs to be set right, forgiven, healed.
At the outset we might ask ourselves whether we are prepared to hear a diagnosis of our condition that is different—perhaps more serious—than our own. Can we suspend for a while our own ideas about who we are, where our life should be going, and what our needs truly are? Are we willing to admit that perhaps we do not thoroughly know ourselves?
We find it prudent to make this admission with regard to physical ailments. We often know where it hurts but not exactly what is wrong or what the remedy might be. That is why we go to a physician, who may be able to determine the underlying problem and do something about it. What happens when our reading brings us in contact with Jesus, the Physician par excellence?
In Luke’s Gospel, we will see that the greatest need of some who meet Jesus is to have their eyes opened to their real need. Their lack of compassion, their lack of willingness to put themselves at the service of other people’s needs, is a sickness they have not yet recognized. Indeed, their religious behavior serves to hide the problem from themselves. Do we see anything of this in ourselves?
As with the diagnosis, God’s remedy may also be different from our expectations. Certainly Jesus meets us at our point of need. When a person with a skin disease comes to Jesus, Jesus heals his skin disease. When a paralyzed man is brought to Jesus, Jesus restores his ability to walk. Jesus is deeply concerned about our “presenting problems.” But our deepest needs will be filled not by getting God to do favors for us but by reorienting ourselves toward serving him and the people around us. God’s mercy comes to take hold of us and fit us into his plans, which may be different from the plans we have fashioned for ourselves. His idea of how he will heal and set us right exceeds what we would have envisioned. Are we willing to have our expectations exceeded?
In the Gospel of Luke we make contact with a will other than our own. God demonstrates that he is not a passive spectator-god who slid a cosmic videocassette into the VCR billions of years ago and now sits back to watch. God is a person who is pursuing a plan, a person who loves, a person who takes the initiative. It is this resolute, initiative-taking God who addresses Mary and reveals his plan for her in Luke’s Gospel. As we begin reading the Gospel of Luke, are we prepared to meet this God?
So far we have been focusing on our angle of approach to Luke’s Gospel. The foregoing statements have been like the suggestion of a tour guide about the best position from which to look at a site: “Stand over here to get the best view!” But let us also take a few minutes to focus on Luke’s Gospel itself. Assuming we have gotten ourselves into an appropriate position from which to view Luke’s Gospel, what do we see?
Luke’s Gospel is an account in eight parts. Luke has not marked the sections with subheads or chapter titles; the headings (and even the chapter and verse numbers) have been added by translators and editors to help us find our way through the text. Ancient authors had other ways of indicating where the sections of their writings began and ended. Following clues in the text, scholars discern this order:
1. Prologue (1:1–4). Luke supplies a brief note on his purpose and method. We won’t discuss the prologue, but it takes just a few seconds to read.
2. Birth (1:5–2:52). Luke relates the coming of Jesus in tandem with the coming of John the Baptist, who played an important role in launching Jesus’ ministry. By telling the stories of their births in parallel, Luke makes it easy for us to see both similarities and differences between them. A similarity is that the conception of both boys is announced by the angel Gabriel; clearly these two are part of a single divine plan to rescue and restore humanity. A difference is that the angel makes the announcement to John’s father but to Jesus’ mother—underlining the fact that Jesus does not have a human father. God is Jesus’ Father; thus Jesus is God’s Son. The text for Week 1 comes from this section.
3. Preparation (3:1–4:13). John’s summons to repentance sets the scene for Jesus’ appearance. Jesus is baptized by John and filled with God’s Spirit; then his trust and obedience toward God are tested. In its own way this section also carries the message that Jesus is really God’s Son. We won’t be discussing anything from this section, but the “Between Discussions” pages will say more about it.
4. Ministry in Galilee (4:14–9:50). Jesus walks from village to village, announcing that God’s plan for meeting humanity’s deepest needs is reaching its fulfillment. His healings demonstrate the truth of his message and indicate the life-giving nature of this plan that God is unfolding. These remarkable works also point to Jesus as the crucial agent of God’s action.
Jesus instructs people in how to respond to what God is doing, gathers a group of followers, and makes some enemies. The reading for Week 2 gives a taste of this period of Jesus’ life—a time when his words and works are making people wonder, “Who is this man?” The section ends in a double climax. Jesus’ followers recognize that Jesus is indeed God’s designated agent of salvation, and they see a vision in which God himself declares regarding Jesus, “This is my Son, my chosen. Listen to him!”
5. A long trip (9:50–19:27). Once Jesus’ followers recognize who he is, he begins a long, meandering journey to Jerusalem. There, he knows, he will enter into glory and authority with God by a route that seems unimaginable to his followers—death on a cross. While heading toward this suffering, Jesus spends his time teaching people about God’s mercy and about the response of mercy that God wishes to awaken in their hearts. Weeks 3 and 4 offer samples of this teaching.
The travel setting of Jesus’ teaching is significant. By giving his instructions as he walks along the road, Jesus shows that putting his teaching into practice is not merely a matter of following directions; it involves following him personally, as his disciples are literally following him on the road he has chosen.
6. Ministry in Jerusalem (19:28–21:38). Jesus enters the city like a king and takes his stand as a teacher in the temple. As he does throughout the Gospel, Luke helps us see that Jesus’ actions and teaching demonstrate that Jesus is God’s Son, his fully authorized agent of salvation.
7. Death (22:1–23:56). Having come to Jerusalem expecting to die, Jesus allows a plot to develop against him, and on the night his enemies have chosen, he deliberately waits for them to come and seize him. He is convinced that his death must happen; it is the way designated by God for him to enter into eternal kingship and thus to bring God’s salvation into the world. Before his death, he and his followers eat a meal that is heavy with meaning. As he dies, he brings the purpose of his death into sharp focus in a conversation with a fellow dying man. We will read about these moving and profound episodes in Week 5.
8. Resurrection (23:56–24:53). Shortly after Jesus’ death, his friends discover that his tomb is empty. Then, from his new position of eternal kingship and glory, Jesus appears to his followers. He helps them understand how he will continue to be among them (Week 6). In a final appearance Jesus guides his followers toward the next stage of God’s plan for them—the subject of the second volume of Luke’s work, called the Acts of the Apostles.
So much for introduction. After the tour bus has arrived at a historical site, and the guide has suggested a suitable vantage point, and we have heard an explanation of the place’s significance, then comes the part we made the journey for: we get to see for ourselves. With care and attention, then, let us begin to read Luke, asking the Holy Spirit to bring Luke’s words alive as God’s words to us.
Surprised by God
Questions to Begin
Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 How open are you to a major change in your life?
? Right now, I really need stability.
? Hmm. Depends on what it is.
? I’m ready for a change!
2 How do you deal with the unexpected? What is your usual response to change?
3 How has God enriched your life through surprising interventions?
4 In what areas of your life would you most like to see God intervene?
Opening the Bible
Have someone in the group read “The Reading” aloud. (If participants have not already read “What’s Happened,” read that aloud also. Otherwise skip it.)
In the Gospel’s first episode (1:5–25; all citations in this booklet are to Luke unless otherwise noted), Luke relates an incident involving an elderly priest named Zechariah who worked at the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. God sent an angel to Zechariah to tell him that his wife, Elizabeth, who was also no longer young, would soon bear a child—her first. When this child grows up, he will become known as John the Baptist and will prepare people to follow Jesus.
The Reading: Luke 1:26–55
A Very Unexpected Announcement
26?The angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27?to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28?And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” 29?But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be.
30?The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31?And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32?He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. 33?He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34?Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?”
35?The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. 36?And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. 37?For nothing will be impossible with God.”
38?Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.
A Joyful Visit
39?In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, 40?where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41?When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit 42?and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. 43?And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? 44?For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. 45?And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”
Mary Declares God’s Greatness
46?And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47?and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48?for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49?for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50?His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51?He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52?He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53?he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54?He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55?according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Questions for Careful Reading
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 What does afraid mean in verse 30? What does fear mean in verse 50?
2 Locate the points where the Spirit of God is mentioned.
What kinds of things does the Spirit do?
3 According to Mary’s prayer, who is going to benefit from the coming of God’s Son? What kinds of benefits will they experience?
4 List the words that describe God’s actions in Mary’s prayer. Added together, what picture of God do these actions create?
5 In a sentence or two, how would you sum up the central message of this week’s reading?
A Guide to the Reading
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”
Our reading begins in Nazareth—today a sprawling working-class town of some seventy thousand residents, but in Mary’s day a mere cluster of stone houses, home to perhaps a couple of hundred people. A young woman is indoors, apparently alone, when suddenly an angel appears and addresses her (verses 26–28). There follows a brief but pivotal conversation. By the time the angel leaves, the most important event in history is under way, launched in a village too obscure to be mentioned in any records of the time, through a seemingly insignificant young woman who was probably still in her early teens.
The angel does not spell out in detail the mission God has assigned to Mary’s child. But clearly this Jesus will play a decisive part in God’s plan. Through Jesus, God will make a permanent change in his relationship with the human race, for Jesus will reign “forever” (verse 33). In previous ages God acted on behalf of human beings in various, somewhat indirect, ways (see Hebrews 1:1). Now he is sending a “special agent” to deal face-to-face with the ills that afflict human beings. The language of kingship indicates that authority will be conferred on Jesus (verses 32–33). As God’s Son, conceived by the Spirit, he will be God’s personal representative. Indeed, in Jesus, God is coming in person.
The child is the center of attention, but we cannot help noticing the mother also. The disparity between the magnitude of the divine plan and Mary’s humble situation makes her a poignant figure. The door to a new era turns on a delicate hinge!
Yet God does not overwhelm this young woman. Gabriel’s words show how highly God respects her. As Origen, the Church’s first great biblical scholar, pointed out centuries ago, “favored one”—the greeting in verse 28—was granted by God to no one in the entire Old Testament. This simple greeting, marking the person most favored by God, was reserved for Mary. On other occasions when an angel announced the birth of a child, the dialogue would end after the heavenly messenger gave a final reassurance (for example, 1:20). In Mary’s case alone, the messenger waits for a sign of consent (verse 38).
All this demonstrates that God is not using Mary; he is commissioning her for a crucial service: raising his Son. He has chosen her for this responsibility (preserving her from sin from her conception, as the Church believes), and he seeks her cooperation. Mary thinks, questions, and then gives herself freely to God’s plan. She acknowledges that she is God’s servant—literally, in the Greek, his slave—a person who belongs to him fully.
After Gabriel leaves, Mary goes to visit her older relative Elizabeth, who, the angel has told her, has unexpectedly become pregnant. Elizabeth will be a confidante with whom Mary can share her extraordinary experience.
Elizabeth lived roughly ninety miles south of Nazareth, and the trip would have taken Mary four days or more. When Mary arrives, God inspires Elizabeth to recognize the child that Mary is now carrying (verses 41–43). Notice that Elizabeth congratulates Mary not only for being chosen to bear the savior (verse 42) but also for cooperating with God’s plan (verse 45). In response, Mary sings God’s praises (verses 46–55).
These events present us, like Mary (verse 29), with much to ponder. She experienced God as a person who had an entirely unexpected plan for her life, who intervened at the moment of his choosing, who valued her immensely. Granted, God’s plan for Mary was unique; still, we too are in a relationship with this God of the unexpected. What does this mean for us? To Mary, God revealed his intention to make himself present in the midst of ordinary human circumstances. Do we live with an awareness of God’s presence in the mundane and seemingly trivial stretches of our lives?
Elizabeth and Mary rejoice (verses 41–55). Not many of us, perhaps, would say our lives are characterized by joy. We may even cringe a little when a homilist takes us to task for not bearing joyful witness to Christ. Where can we find joy? This reading suggests that the source of joy is experiencing God’s loving action toward us. The question we need to ask ourselves, then, is whether we grasp that these events in Luke’s Gospel are God’s actions for us.
Questions for Application
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Was Mary taking a risk in saying yes to God’s plan? How much of what lay ahead could she have known? When have you taken a significant risk in order to respond to God’s invitation? How did you grow spiritually from the outcome?
2 How would you define humility? In her prayer Mary speaks not only about God but also about herself. Is this, then, a humble prayer? Is Mary a humble person?
3 How have you experienced God’s plans for your life to be different from your expectations? What have you learned from this?
4 What does today’s reading teach about what God values? about what God wants to accomplish? about how God relates to people? How does this differ from your picture of God when you talk with him in prayer? How might this picture of God help you deal with some difficulty in your life right now?
5 What roles of service (major or minor, formal or informal, long-term or short-term) has God commissioned you for? How could you serve him with greater trust that he is with you? (See verse 28.) Do you need to renew your own “let it be with me according to your word” attitude?
6 What is meant by God’s mercy? In what way does Mary experience God’s mercy (verse 50)? What does her experience indicate about the mercy that God wishes to show us?
“One set of rules I like is the ‘list of listens’: We will listen carefully to God, to the text, and to one another as we do each study.”
Dan Williams, Starting (& Ending) a Small Group
Approach to Prayer
Use this approach—or create your own!
♦ Pray the first two joyful mysteries of the rosary, which focus on the annunciation (Gabriel’s announcement to Mary) and the visitation (Mary’s visit to Elizabeth).
Then give each person the opportunity to mention to God a blessing they are especially grateful for and an area of life where they feel the need of his help and mercy (verse 54). Keep it brief! If you like, continue with a few minutes of conversational prayer for one another’s and other people’s needs.
Tie it all together by praying Mary’s prayer (verses 46–55).
A Living Tradition
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
From our reading in Luke comes one of the Church’s most popular prayers.
Gabriel’s greeting (as it was rendered in an old Latin translation) gives us “Hail, Mary, full of grace! The Lord is with you!” (verse 28).
Elizabeth’s congratulations to Mary supply the addition “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (verse 42).
In the Middle Ages, Christians linked these words, used them as a prayer, and added the name of the fruit of Mary’s womb: “Jesus.”
Eventually the practice developed of linking fifty Hail Marys into a rosarium, or rose garden, the rose being a symbol of joy, and the prayer being a celebration of Mary’s joy.
The reading in Luke also supplies us with a warrant for continuing to greet and congratulate Mary in our prayers. Mary declares, “From now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me” (verses 48–49). In effect, Mary was saying, “From now on people will remark about me, ‘The Lord made her truly happy!’”
When we “hail” Mary and declare her truly happy, we remind ourselves where true happiness lies. Mary’s happiness, and ours, lies in the God who revealed himself to her—the God who takes the initiative to intervene in human lives and save us.
With Elizabeth, we congratulate Mary not only for her motherhood but also for her response to God (verse 45). This implies a willingness on our part to imitate her. When we go on to say, “Holy Mary, mother of God, pray for us sinners,” we are seeking the grace to be able to respond as she did to the God who makes himself present in our lives through Jesus: “Let it be with me according to your word” (verse 38).
After a lengthy visit, Mary leaves Elizabeth, and Elizabeth has her baby. Zechariah prays a prophetic thanksgiving over their infant son (Luke 1:57–80).
Six months later, now with Joseph, Mary again travels south to the district where Zechariah and Elizabeth live, this time in compliance with a government census requirement. Mary and Joseph arrive in the town of Bethlehem (today a twenty-minute drive from Jerusalem) in time for Mary to give birth. Over this child a prophetic song is also prayed—but not by Joseph. At Jesus’ birth, it is not an earthly father but angels who sing (2:8–14)—reminding us that Jesus’ Father is in heaven.
From the years between Jesus’ infancy and his public life, Luke relates only a single incident (2:41–52). By now it will come as no surprise that this boyhood episode underlines Jesus’ relationship with God. Jesus speaks his first recorded words, and they affirm that he must be busy with his divine Father’s business (or in his Father’s house—the Greek text can be read either way).
Except for that incident, Luke passes over Jesus’ life until age thirty. We know only that Jesus grew up in Nazareth, presumably in a small house built on the dry hillside overlooking the green Jezreel Valley. Joseph was a “carpenter”—the Greek word includes someone who worked with stone as well as wood—and Jesus followed him in that line of work. The two of them must have spent many days together, sweating under the potent Mediterranean sun, building and repairing the houses of Nazareth. On occasion they may have climbed north over the hill and walked to the regional capital, Sepphoris, about four miles away, where more jobs might have been waiting.
Suddenly, in the wilderness along the Jordan River, John the Baptist begins to preach. His preaching attracts large crowds (3:1–18). John announces that Israel’s history is approaching its climax. God’s people have gone astray in sin and are shortly headed toward a final showdown with God’s justice. Only by turning their minds and hearts around can they avoid the sentence God is about to pass on their lives. The Judge is already on the way!
Jesus seems to have taken John’s preaching as the signal to bring his time in Nazareth to a close. He sets out southward to the place where John is preaching and is baptized by John (3:21). Afterward as Jesus prays, God speaks to him, affirming his unique relationship with the Father: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (3:22).
A period of prayer, fasting, and testing in the wilderness follow this event (4:1–13). The testing revolves around the question of whether Jesus will continue to act as God’s Son, trusting and obeying his Father. Jesus passes the test and returns to Galilee, although not to a settled life in Nazareth.
By accepting John’s baptism, Jesus signaled his basic agreement with John’s message. Yet Jesus will now give the message a different thrust. John proclaimed that God’s kingdom was about to arrive. Jesus will proclaim that it is arriving.
In his inaugural homily, Jesus quotes an Old Testament prophecy that foretells the coming of God’s kingdom and judgment—but Jesus omits the line about judgment (compare Isaiah 61:2 and Luke 4:19). Like John, Jesus believes that God’s judgment is coming. But at present, Jesus declares, God’s kingdom is breaking into the world with mercy. To demonstrate the nearness of the divine mercy, Jesus accompanies his preaching with healing.
Like John, Jesus is keenly aware that sin cuts people off from God. But Jesus’ approach to the problem is different from John’s. John called people to repent so that they would be ready for God’s coming kingdom. Jesus brings God’s kingdom in order to lead people to repentance. The difference is seen in the way John and Jesus conduct themselves. John remains in the wilderness; those who repent go out to him to be baptized. Jesus comes to the towns and homes of people who have not yet repented, demonstrating God’s love for them in order to lead them to repentance.
Just as Mary experienced God’s intervention in her life when he blessed her with the gift of bearing and raising his Son, so now the people who live in the small towns of Galilee experience God’s initiative through Jesus.
Table of Contents
4 How to Use This Guide
6 The Purpose of Luke’s Gospel—and How to Connect with It
12 Week 1
Surprised by God
24 Week 2
An Argument about Dinner
36 Week 3
A Man Had Two Sons
Luke 15:1–3, 11–32
48 Week 4
No Servant Can Serve Two Masters
Luke 16:13–15, 19–31
60 Week 5
You Will Be with Me in Paradise
Luke 22:14–20, 24–30; 23:32–43
72 Week 6
The Lord Has Risen Indeed
82 After Words
84 Mercy and More Mercy
88 The Only Limit to God’s Mercy
92 Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups
95 Suggestions for Individuals