P.J. O’Rourke once said, “Always read something that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it.” I have several books that fit this description (and maybe even a few that serve that purpose!). One of my favorite books that I will never read cover-to-cover is called, Synopsis of the Four Gospels. Now, it is a great book, and I am very happy I have it (you can have it, too! Amazon has it for only $113.85; tell them Dane sent you!). Here’s what is so good about it. It divides all the stories found in all four gospels into 367 separate accounts and then puts them in order (from introductions to ascension). Then it places all the parallel accounts next to each other so you can see how each gospel compares to the other three (graphically comparing words, sentence structure and verb tenses). And if there is only one-telling of a story, it gets its own space. And here’s the big prize. It does this in English (RSV) and in Greek (now you know why I’ll never read it cover-to-cover; half of it is in Greek!).
Let me give a random example of what this might look like from the account of John the Baptizer (the parallel lines are marked). I’m not trying to make any point or posit any theology. I just want you to see the differences and the similarities because we don’t often see these things clearly.
But after me comes one who is more powerful than I,
whose sandals I am not worthy to carry.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
“After me comes the one more powerful than I,
the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie.
I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
“But one who is more powerful than I will come,
the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
“I baptize with water,” John replied,
“But among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me,
the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.”
Here’s the big take-away: All four accounts are different. In fact, quite different. And that calls for a few general observations. Mark is wordy; so, Matthew and Luke condense what he says. However, they condense Mark differently (Matthew “carries,” Luke “unties”). Matthew and Luke both add that Jesus will baptize with fire. John rearranges the order (he starts with John’s comment that he baptizes with water) and leaves out the whole discussion of Jesus’ baptism. Now, none of these differences change the overall meaning of the story. They are just different. But the question must be asked, “Why?” And here is the answer: As each author penned their gospel, they were making choices. They had to choose what to include, what to leave out, in what order to put things, what to emphasize, how to say things and so forth. Some of these differences reflect style; some reflect personality; some reflect emphases; some reflect different sources; and some reflect nothing at all. But some reflect major theological themes.
Consider Luke’s gospel for a second. Read Luke’s gospel (go ahead and read it; I’ll wait) and you will see certain themes constantly coming to the forefront. Five examples will help. First, Luke emphasizes salvation more than the other gospel writers (side fact: Luke uses the verb “to save” more than any other book in the New Testament). Second, Luke stresses the role of women way more than his gospel buddies. Third, he also emphasizes that the gospel is for outsiders (people you wouldn’t expect to be included are included). Fourth, Luke underscores the cause of justice and champions the poor. Fifth, Luke also accents the work of the Holy Spirit, the power of prayer and the expression of joy more than the other authors. (fun assignment: read the first two chapters of Luke and underline every reference to salvation, to a woman, to an ‘outsider,’ to the cause of justice, to the poor, to the Holy Spirit, to prayer and to joy – underline in different colors and get extra points!). Bottom line: These themes dominate Luke’s gospel, but they do more than that. They also shape how Luke tells the story of Jesus.
Think about the two sets of visitors who came to see the infant Jesus. In Matthew, the Magi come. In Luke, it is the shepherds. There is a reason why these two are not reversed and why both are not in one account. See, Matthew writes for a Jewish audience that is struggling to understand why Gentiles are flocking to the church while their own people are hesitant. So, when Matthew tells the story of Jesus, the Messiah, he needs to explain that from the very beginning we saw this dynamic at work. And so, as a type of foreshadowing, he points a finger at the people of Jerusalem who choose to stay in Jerusalem, while Gentiles (the Magi) go and worship the newborn king. From day one, we might say, Jesus was rejected by his own, but welcomed by Gentiles. Now, certainly, Matthew is not anti-Semitic or criticizing every single Jew here (after all, he’s Jewish, and all of his oldest friends are Jewish), but he is pointing out that chief priests and teachers of the Law are guilty of a terrible sin. As John will say, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (Jn. 1:11). This rejection theme is a major emphasis in Matthew, but it is not in Luke. Luke has his own themes. For instance, one of Luke’s major purposes is to show how Jesus welcomes sinners and outcasts and the scandalous into his kingdom. That’s why Luke gives extended coverage (compared to Matthew, Mark and John) of the sinful woman who anointed Jesus (see Luke 7:36-50). That’s why, when Jesus is eating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus responds to the Pharisees’ fiery criticism with added force saying, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (see Luke 5:30). That’s why Luke is the only one to tell the story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector (see Luke 19:1-10), with its great last line: “For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (there’s that word “save” again!). And that is why there are shepherds at the manger. Right from the very beginning, Luke wanted his readers to know Jesus came to save sinners, even those who people thought beyond the pale of redemption; and shepherds definitely were considered beyond hope.
And as I said earlier, Luke is the gospel of salvation. You can easily trace that theme through his 24 chapters, but look at how predominant it is in Luke’s Christmas story. It is spoken of in Mary’s song (1:46-47 – “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior”). It is front and center in Zechariah’s song where it is mentioned three times (1:69 – “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David;” 1:71 – “Salvation for our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us;” and 1:77 – “To give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins.”). When Simeon takes the baby Jesus into his arms, he gives thanks to God saying, “For my eyes have seen your salvation” (2:30). But the most famous of all reference to salvation in the birth narrative is when the angels announce to the shepherds, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah the Lord.” Why all these references to God’s salvation right in the beginning of Luke? Because Luke chose stories that would alert his readers, right from the beginning of his gospel, that Jesus is the savior. And the stories he tells (and the stories he doesn’t tell) clearly lead us to understand his intent for us, his readers.
The question posed to me a few weeks ago was this, “Why are Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ birth so different?” Here’s the simple answer. Both authors presented the stories of Jesus’ life, ministry and passion that best serve their overarching themes and purposes. In Luke, we see that Jesus is the Savior who comes to seek and to save, not only the lost, but those who everyone believed were beyond redemption, outsiders, sinners, and even shepherds! Let me say it again: The author’s purpose and themes drive his decision as to what to include, where to include it and what not to include. And all of this is done with the Spirit’s full endorsement so that the authors can build the best case possible for presenting Jesus to their audiences.
Next week, it will be Matthew’s turn to shine! But since we started off with a quote about books, let me close with a quote about books. Our good friend, Dr. Seuss, wisely said: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” May the Gospels continually take us to new places inhabited by God’s goodness, truth, grace and love!
More next week!