Luke, From Its Roots to Today's Issues

Mission of the Messiah: On the Gospel of Luke

by Tim Gray

(Emmaus Road Publishing, 1998,149 pages, $9.95)

When we meditate on Scripture, we generally focus on the more uplifting passages. This is why Psalm 23:1 (“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want”) is more familiar than, say, Luke 23:19 (“Now Barabbas had been imprisoned for a rebellion that had taken place in the city, and for murder”). I suppose this is only human. Still, everything that is recorded in the Scriptures was put there deliberately by the Holy Spirit. It is up to scholars guided by the Holy Spirit, thinking with the mind of the Church (sentire cum ecclesia), to mine the less obvious gems of Biblical teaching and to share them with the rest of us.

One such scholar is Tim Gray, assistant professor of Scripture and catechetics at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. His new book Mission of the Messiah takes an educated and spiritually enlightened look at the Gospel of St. Luke, drawing forth insights highly beneficial for the average layman while remaining readable. For example, he provides the following Lucan tidbit about Barabbas the insurrectionist:

“The choice between Barabbas and Jesus is larger than simply the choice between which individual will go free, and which will be executed. Israel is at a crossroads: There are two different paths before her, two ways of being Israel. Barabbas, an insurrectionist and murderer, represents the way of violent revolution. Barabbas embodies the common belief that the kingdom will come with the violent and vengeful overthrow of the Romans. Here the call is to take up the sword and rally against the Romans. Jesus embodies and offers an altogether different approach. His way is forgiveness and peace. The kingdom will come not through the overthrow of Caesar, but of Satan. Sin, not Roman soldiers, needs to be defeated. Jesus’ call is to take up one's cross and follow the Prince of Peace. Jesus knows that the path of violent revolution, the path of Barabbas, is a dead end.”

In addition to being an important point of Scriptural insight, isn't Gray's observation relevant to the present-day anti-abortionists, faced with the parallel choice of defending life by positive and spiritual means, or by the murder of abortionists?

Mission of the Messiah also considers the Gospel of Luke in light of the Old Testament. In the “Questions for Reflection or Group Discussion” found at the end of the first chapter, our author asks, “Have you ever picked up a book, or started watching a movie, in the middle or towards the end, and had difficulty understanding the plot? How is that comparable to reading the Gospels without any knowledge of the Old Testament?” The relationship between the Testaments is more profound than that, of course. The Old Testament “contains” the New in an embryonic form. The characters that thus foreshadow Christ in prophetic ways are called types, and the study of this foreshadowing is called typology. Gray's book is a useful handbook of essential typology for the lay reader.

Most people are already aware, for instance, that the “Suffering Servant” passages in Isaiah refer to our Lord. But how many people connect the mission of the Messiah with Ezekiel? Gray explains: “The unusual phrase ‘set his face to go to Jerusalem’ (Lk. 9:51) is a Hebrew idiom used to describe the arduous mission of a prophet. …

“The parallels between Jesus and Ezekiel are truly striking. Ezekiel was sent to warn and admonish Israel of impending judgment. Ezekiel set his face to Jerusalem and the Temple and foretold their destruction. Ezekiel was told that the people will ‘hear what you say but they will not do it’ (Ez. 33:31). Jesus too gives prophetic warning to the people and predicts the impending destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. Ezekiel foretold the destruction of the first Temple, Jesus the second.”

In this straightforward style, Gray takes up the main themes of the Gospel of Luke one by one. His topics include “The Baptism and Anointing of Jesus” (Chapter 1), “Signs of the Kingdom of God” (Chapter 3), “Celebrating the New Exodus” (Chapter 7), and “The New Paschal Lamb of the New Exodus” (Chapter 8). What emerges is a cohesive vision of the mission of the Messiah as told by the evangelist Luke, and as it was likely to be understood by its original Jewish audience, steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures.

Even the aforementioned chapter-ending questions make their own contribution to the book's impact. Instead of simply asking for reiteration of points already made, they are thought-provoking — alluding to history, culture, liturgy and other points of connection with the topic at hand, or directing the reader to other sources of information to look into. One of the questions for Chapter 1, for example, says: “George Fredric Handel began his masterpiece Messiah (1742), which tells the story of Jesus from a wide selection of Scripture passages, with the first five verses of Isaiah's fortieth chapter. Given what you have learned about Isaiah, why do you think Handel chose to begin his musical story of the Messiah with those particular verses?”

Gray's book lives up to Jeff Cavins’ billing: “Mission of the Messiah will serve as a tremendous catechetical tool in preparation for the Year of Jubilee.”

Helen Valois writes from Steubenville, Ohio.