In chapter four of the Acts there is an account of a speech of St Peter before a gathering of the chief priests and elders of the Jews. Peter and John had been arrested for healing a lame man at the Beautiful Gate of the temple and making use of the occasion to address a crowd in Solomon's Porch. In his defence before the chief priests, Peter went quickly to the point:
You crucified Jesus Christ, the Nazarene, and God raised him from the dead; it is through his name that this man stands before you restored. He is that stone, rejected by you, the builders, that has become the chief stone at the corner. Salvation is not to be found elsewhere; this alone of all the names under heaven has been appointed to men as the one by which we must needs be saved (Acts 4:10-12).
In this speech, after stating the facts of Crucifixion and Resurrection, Peter interprets them by means of the Old Testament text which we already know so well; his use of it here is a reminder that it became at once a fundamental passage for early Christian theology.It could be used to illustrate the chief theme of this book. 'Jesus Christ, the Nazarene' was the subject of chapters 5 and 6; 'that stone, rejected by you the builders', chapter 7; while the phrase 'has become the chief stone at the corner' might sum up the argument of chapters 8 and 9. St Peter's final comment remains for the present chapter: 'Salvation is not to be found elsewhere.' The gospel that Peter and Paul and the whole Church preached was the good news of salvation, and salvation through Jesus. As the idea of salvation is very much to the fore in St Luke's work, and as it gives point to everything else, it is well to end with it: for St Luke, as for the Creed, the explanation of Jesus' life and death lies here'—it was all 'propter nos, et nostram salutem'. This salvation comes from Jesus; he is the salvation of God, and it is in his name, and in it only, that sins may be forgiven, the gospel preached, new life offered to men. 'This alone of all the names under heaven has been appointed to men as the one by which we must needs be saved' (Acts 4:12). 'It was fitting that Christ should suffer, and should rise again from the dead on the third day; and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem' (Lk.24:46-7). The gospel of merciful salvation is the burden of Luke's writing from end to end; repentance and the forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus is its central theme. At the beginning Simeon takes Jesus in his arms and prophesies that his eyes have seen the salvation of God prepared for all nations, and at the end Paul declares to the Jews of Rome that the message of salvation has been sent by God to the nations, and they at least will not reject it (Lk. 2:30; Acts 28 :28); already in the mouth of Zachary (Lk.1:77) this salvation means the forgiveness of sins; the call to repentance and forgiveness is the message of his son John preparing men for the approaching moment when they are 'to see the salvation of God'; it is the primary note of the kingdom in Jesus' preaching, and it is the constant theme of the apostles who followed him.
The prime activity of the apostles was to witness to the Resurrection as proof that Jesus was the Messiah sent by God to redeem his people. This witnessing was destined to produce faith and repentance in its hearers, and those who thus accepted the gospel of salvation had their sins forgiven in the name of Jesus and by the power of the Spirit. So on one occasion Peter told the high priests that God 'has raised him [Jesus] up to his right hand, as the prince and saviour who is to bring Israel repentance, and remission of sins. Of this, we are witnesses; we and the Holy Spirit God gives to all those who obey him' (Acts 5:31-2), or again he told Cornelius that 'all the prophets bear him [Jesus] this testimony, that everyone who has faith in him is to find remission of sins through his name' (Acts 10:43). This remark followed immediately after an affirmation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and St Paul drew exactly the same practical conclusion from his preaching of the Passion and Resurrection at Pisidian Antioch: 'Here is news for you, then, brethren; remission of your sins is offered to you through him. There are claims from which you could not be acquitted by the law of Moses, and whoever believes in Jesus is quit of all these' (Acts 13:38-9). The Resurrection and glorification of Jesus was not seen as the end but rather as the means whereby the saviour of the world has brought salvation to all men who will turn from their sins to faith in his name.
Salvation through faith in Jesus is not a purely inward conversion, but a total and manifest change of life. Hence its condition is a visible rite—baptism, at once the sacrament of repentance and of incorporation into the Church, given to those who believe in Jesus.
And the eunuch said, See, there is water here; why may I not be baptised ? Philip said, if thou dost believe with all thy heart, thou mayest. And he answered, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. So he had the chariot stopped, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptised him there (Acts 8:36-8).
Baptism is the visible and efficacious sign of faith, salvation, repentance and the forgiveness of sins. 'Repent, Peter said to them, and be baptised, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ, to have your sins forgiven' (Acts 2:38). So if repentance and forgiveness of sins through the name of Jesus is the gospel which the apostles have to preach throughout the whole world, it is baptism in the name of Jesus which is the means whereby the repentant receive this forgiveness. The relation of this baptism to that of John was clearly a problem for some,as John's was also a 'baptism whereby men repented to have their sins forgiven' (Lk.3:3). But that forgiveness is now given 'in the name of Jesus Christ': this in fact is the point—the forgiveness offered by Peter to the assembled people at Pentecost derived immediately from the events about which he had just spoken to them, the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus and the consequent bestowal of the Holy Spirit. The new baptism is not only a baptism of forgiveness but also one of the Spirit, dependent on the death of Jesus; hence St Paul could say, appealing to the common knowledge of his readers, 'You know well enough that we who were taken up into Christ by baptism have been taken up, all of us, into his death' (Rom.6:3), and St Peter, having told his hearers to be baptized, could continue, 'then you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit' (Acts 2:38); hence, too, John the Baptist had prophesied that Jesus would 'baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire' (Lk.3:16) and Jesus himself before the Ascension had promised the apostles 'a baptism with the Holy Spirit' which he contrasted with 'John's baptism with water' (Acts 1:5, compare 11:16).
If Christian baptism is baptism into the death of Jesus, Jesus' death was itself a baptism:' There is a baptism I must needs be baptised with, and how impatient am I for its accomplishment!' (Lk.12:50). This again links Jesus' death with its prefiguration—his own messianic baptism in the Jordan when he went down into the waters of death and came up to receive the Holy Spirit descending upon him (Lk.3:22); and as the Spirit's descent upon Jesus followed his baptism in the Jordan so the Spirit's baptismal descent upon Jesus' disciples follows his baptism of death. Without this link it would be difficult to explain the importance that Jesus' baptism had for the early Church. But once it is understood, we see how much more our Spirit baptism produces than forgiveness of sins—it gives us the whole life dependent upon Christ's death and Resurrection and symbolized in the events of his Jordan baptism—a sharing of his Spirit, and sonship of his Father within the fold of his Church. The Father is Jesus' Father, and He becomes ours in so far as we are Jesus' disciples and members of his kingdom. 'Do not be afraid, you, my little flock. Your Father has determined to give you his kingdom' (Lk.12:32) and this kingdom is given to the disciples precisely through the gift of the Spirit (Acts 1:6-8) in baptism.
The immediate consequence of baptism was entry into the Church, the community of those faithful to the name of Jesus and guided by his Spirit. The Church is the new Israel, taking the place of Jerusalem and the old Israel rejected for their infidelity; or, rather, she is the faithful remnant of the first Israel which has survived, as the prophets foretold, scattered among the peoples. In chapter 6 we saw how the Church received her founder's character—the guidance of the Spirit, constancy in prayer, prophetic inspiration. In these qualities she was faithful to her master, but faithful also to her position as the new Israel, successor to the old. The first Israel, shown to us in chapters 1 and 2 of the third gospel, had the same characteristics; doubtless the unprecedented outburst of spiritual and prophetic activity there recorded could be explained only as the sign of the Messiah's coming; nevertheless it took place within the community of those faithful to the old Israel and was fully in keeping with her character. This character now passed from her, through Jesus, to the new Israel, the Church. Within this Church dwelt the Spirit-led disciples of Jesus. They shared a common life, which is nowhere better described than in the few words Luke used to sum up the effect of Peter's Pentecostal exhortation: 'All those who had taken his words to heart were baptised, and about three thousand souls were won for the Lord that day. These occupied themselves continually with the apostles' teaching, their fellowship in the breaking of bread and the fixed times of prayer' (Acts 2:41-2). The Christian Church was a fellowship, entered into by baptism, controlled by the apostolic preaching, manifested in the breaking of bread and in prayer. It was a fellowship, a spiritual communion (κοινωνία); this is a key word for the understanding of early Christian life and for St Paul's thought, but it is the only time St Luke uses it. Christian life is a sharing with God, with Christ, with one another'—a sharing of the Spirit, of the body of Christ, of material possessions. 'There was one heart and soul in all the company of believers; none of them called any of his possessions his own, everything was shared in common' (4:32). It was a fellowship pre-eminently in the Spirit, but manifested in the flesh, in earthly goods: 'All those who owned farms or houses used to sell them, and bring the price of what they had sold to lay it at the apostles' feet, so that each could have what share of it he needed' (4:34-5). Thus within the Church of Jerusalem they could provide for the widows and the needy, as later the Gentile churches provided for the needy Church of Jerusalem herself (11:29; 24:17).
This fellowship was guaranteed by unity of faith in Christ through 'the apostles' teaching', for this society full of the spirit of brotherhood and of spontaneous sharing yet had its hierarchy'—the Twelve, and others chosen in subordination to them: the presbyters and deacons on whom hands had been laid. The Church was a society where freedom grew up with authority, both being gifts of one Spirit. She had begun with that first group of the hundred and twenty centred on 'Peter and John, James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the brother of James' (1:13). All Christians witnessed to Christ, but primarily the apostles; all received the Spirit, but pre-eminently the apostles. The apostles were able to speak in the name of the Spirit (5:1-3), and the failure of Ananias and Sapphira to lay all the money at the apostles' feet was not merely to deceive them but to defraud the Spirit. So close was this union with the Spirit that' We and the Holy Spirit' could become an apostolic formula (5:32; 15:28). The Twelve stood at the heart of the Church, and at the centre of the Twelve stood Peter. His unique position was given him by Jesus and no other: 'I have prayed for thee, that thy faith may not fail; when, after a while, thou hast come back to me, it is for thee to be the support of thy brethren' (Lk.22:32). He was the 'support of his brethren', and he became so even before the Ascension. His authority already guaranteed the Resurrection—' The Lord has indeed risen, and has appeared to Simon' (Lk.24:34). Afterwards he takes the initiative with a sense of assurance. ' Peter stood up and spoke before all the brethren' (Acts 1:15), and a new apostle was appointed. It is he who addresses the crowds and the Sanhedrin, he who works miracles in the name of Jesus Christ, he who suffers in prison. Luke is careful to point out that Peter was not only the apostle for the circumcised, but also of the Gentiles: ' Brethren, you know well enough how from early days it has been God's choice that the Gentiles should hear the message of the gospel from my lips, and so learn to believe' (15:7). It was through Peter that, in the person of Cornelius, the first Gentile had been baptized. Luke could afterwards concern himself exclusively with the Gentile missions of Paul, but no careful reader would conclude from this that the movement of the apostolate from Jerusalem to the pagan world meant the superseding of St Peter. He was and remained the ' support of his brethren', of St Paul no less than of the others, for the justification of Paul's works could be found in Peter's words in the assembly at Jerusalem.
Just as the fellowship of the Church was entered into by the sacrament of baptism, so its life was centred around 'the breaking of bread'. It was the most moving of moments, inserted within the traditional Jewish rite, at once prayer and meal, when an apostle or presbyter taking bread in his hands as Jesus had taken it at that last unforgettable supper before his Passion 'blessed and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, This is my body, given for you . . . , And so with the cup, when supper was ended, This cup, he said, is the new testament in my blood which is to be shed for you' (Lk.22:19-20). Jesus had done it, and what he had done he commanded that his disciples should do, a memorial of his dying for them, of the sacrifice of this new alliance:' Do this for a commemoration of me.' It was the commemoration at once of Jesus' last supper, his death, and above all of his Resurrection: that was why it was held on the first day of the week. The early Christians gathered together on the day of the Resurrection to break bread in the house of one or another of their company, and the sacramental commemoration of Jesus' death and Resurrection became the centre of the new liturgy. Dispersed from Jerusalem, little communities scattered in the great Gentile world, their members came together for the Sunday communion: prayer, reading, and the act of thanksgiving. Gatherings like that of Troas, when Paul was there, were the very soul of the new Christian life. 'When the new week began, we had met for the breaking of bread, and Paul was preaching to them; he meant to leave them next day, and he continued speaking till midnight. . . . And so he broke bread and ate; afterwards he talked with them for some time until dawn came, when he left' (Acts 20:7,11). Luke's linking of the Christian fellowship (κοινωνία) with the breaking of bread (2:42) was not fortuitous. From their union at the one table came the union of Christians in their whole common life. 'The bread, that we break, is it not a sharing (κοινωνία) in the body of the Lord?' (1 Cor.10:16).
With the Eucharistic breaking of bread was joined prayer, at first in the temple and the synagogues, but then as the gap between the Old Israel and the New became ever wider, increasingly in the private houses of Christians. With it was often united fasting, and at these times of fast and prayer the Holy Spirit was especially close to his own. At Jerusalem 'When they had finished praying, they were all filled with the Holy Spirit' (4:31), while at Antioch 'The Church had as its prophets and teachers Barnabas, and Simon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manahen, foster-brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. These were offering worship to God and fastingwhen the Holy Spirit said, I must have Barnabas and Saul dedicated to the work to which I have called them. Thereupon they fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, and so took leave of them. And they, sent on their travels by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia' (13:1-4). The Spirit was the unifying principle in Church life: in the primary gifts of faith and repentance, and the subsequent life of prayer and action, apostolate and prophecy, in persecution and the working of miracles, in witnessing and speaking with tongues, it was always the same Spirit—that 'Holy Spirit God gives to all those who obey him' (5132), the very 'Spirit of Jesus' (16:7).
Among other characteristics of the new Christian order, we may consider that of peace. 'Peace on earth' was what the angels promised the shepherds on Christmas night, and 'the way of peace' was what Zachary prophesied would be the fruit of Jesus' coming (Lk.2:14; 1:79). Jesus on his triumphal entry into Jerusalem was hailed as one bringing peace (19:38) and Peter told Cornelius that it is news of peace which God has sent to Israel through Jesus Christ (Acts 10:36). Yet Jesus prophesied persecution not tranquillity for his disciples, and conflict with those who refused to acknowledge him: 'Do you think that I have come to bring peace on the earth ? No, believe me, I have come to bring dissension' (Luke 12:51). Hence it is a record of constant persecution which Luke gives us in Acts. Clearly the peace which Jesus had come to give was not the world's kind; it was that inner spirit of joy which no persecution could diminish. Joy is for Luke the natural concomitant to the gifts of faith and repentance. 'The Gentiles were rejoiced to hear this, and praised the word of the Lord, and they found faith' (Acts 13:48). Joy, not sorrow, was the apostles' reaction to Jesus' departure at the Ascension, and it remained a constant characteristic of the Christian life (Lk.24:52; Acts 2:46). Its presence was especially noticeable in times of persecution (Acts 5:4i) and this appears natural when we see that it was closely connected with the Spirit's presence both in Jesus and in his disciples (Lk. 10:21; Acts 13:52), and remember as well that the Spirit was to be present to the disciples above all in time of persecution (Lk.12 :11-12). Hence joy in persecution follows of itself. Those were times of especial blessedness:
Blessed are you, when men hate you and cast you off and revile you, when they reject your name as something evil, for the Son of Man's sake. When that day comes, rejoice and exult over it; for behold, a rich reward awaits you in heaven; their fathers treated the prophets no better. . . . Woe upon you, when all men speak well of you; their fathers treated the false prophets no worse (Lk. 6:22-3, 26).
Persecution was to be the continual lot of the Christian community (see also Lk.21:12-18) and a thing full of fruitfulness: it is a reason for exultation, an opportunity for witnessing, an occasion of prophecy. Moreover this beatitude puts the persecuted Church, like Jesus himself, within the perspective of the prophets of old: heirs of the prophets, Christians, like their master, can expect only the treatment of a prophet. Thus the Holy Spirit's presence, persecution, joy, and the Church's prophetic character went hand in hand, and were all marks of the true disciples of Jesus.
Another and fundamental mark was poverty. If there is one basic virtue or characteristic of the blessed in the thought of St Luke, it is to be poor, materially poor. It is the profound meaning of the beatitudes, as he records them.'Blessed are you who are poor, the kingdom of God is yours' (Lk.6:20). Luke's change in the form of these sayings, from the third to the second person, gives them a particularly ec-clesiological character: the disciples themselves are addressed by Jesus, and their title to blessedness is proclaimed. It is merit to be poor, as it is near-condemnation to be rich. The first beatitude and its attendant curse—'Woe upon you who are rich; you have your comfort already' (Lk.6:24)—find their practical application in the parable of Dives and Lazarus. 'There was a rich man once, that was clothed in purple and lawn, and feasted sumptuously every day. And there was a beggar, called Lazarus, who lay at his gate, covered with sores, wishing that he could be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man's table, but none was ready to give them to him; the very dogs came and licked his sores' (Lk.16:19-21). Luke is fond of these sharp contrasts—Blessed are you, woe upon you—rich and poor, pharisees and publicans, Jews and Gentiles. Dives was not a bad man, only a rich one who used his riches to gain earthly happiness. Again, Luke does not tell us of Lazarus' virtue, only of his poverty; yet he dies, and is carried to Abraham's bosom: he is the blessed poor one, 'the kingdom of God is yours'. And the rich man? He found his grave in hell. Why ? Because he had had his fortune on earth, he had nothing more to come to him: 'Woe upon you who are rich; you have your comfort already.' On earth Lazarus had only discomfort; in heaven the roles are reversed. This reversal is typical of Luke's moral teaching: 'Abraham said, My Son, remember that thou didst receive thy good fortune in thy lifetime, and Lazarus, no less, his ill-fortune; now he is in comfort, thou in torment' (16:25). The other beatitudes are only confirmation of this principle. 'Blessed are you who are hungry now; you will have your fill' (6:21), Lazarus the hungry one is now fed. 'Woe upon you who are filled full; you shall be hungry' (6:25), good eating is the mark of the rich man: ' Come, soul, thou hast goods in plenty laid up for many years to come; take thy rest now, eat, drink, and make merry' (12:19). It is all cut short, the rich man dies—'this night thou must render up thy soul'—and is buried in hell and, begging only for a drop of water, it is refused him.
This is without any doubt a basic element in Christian teaching—the complete upturning of this world's order of things. The rich and the well-fed and the well-spoken of, all those blessed with the goods of this world, come indeed into a very sorry plight, while all the unfortunate are loaded with the true blessings. It is the consequence of the coming of Jesus, 'Sign of contradiction'. God 'has put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed' (1:52-3). If this is common Christian teaching, it was an idea particularly dear to St Luke. He was constantly returning to it, and he stressed the character of the first Christian community as a fellowship of the poor, of people who made a really good use of what they had. That was the fault of Dives, he simply feasted, spent his money on earth and not on heaven. 'My counsel to you is, make use of your base wealth to win yourselves friends, who, when you leave it behind, will welcome you into eternal habitations' (16:9). That is just what the rich man did not do, ' Thou fool, this night thou must render up thy soul; and who will be master of all thou hast laid up ? Thus it is with the man who lays up treasure for himself, and has no credit with God' (12:20-1).
If we have riches we must use them for the other world and for others. At the very least a radical generosity is required: 'When thou givest hospitality, invite poor men to come, the cripples, the lame, the blind: so thou shalt win a blessing, for these cannot make thee any return; thy reward will come when the just shall rise again' (14:13-14). Zacchaeus was saved, but only by a drastic treatment of his possessions: 'Here and now, Lord, I give half of what I have to the poor; and if I have wronged anyone in any way, I make restitution of it fourfold' (19:8). Even better, however, was to give not half but all, to leave all that one has and follow Jesus. It was the way, not obligatory but encouraged, of the early Church: 'All those who owned farms or houses used to sell them, and bring the price of what they had sold to lay it at the apostles' feet, so that each could have what share of it he needed' (Acts 4:34-5). What Luke continually stressed was the completeness of the renunciation of one's goods which was required; this is most striking. In Mark we read that Jesus told the rich young man to 'sell what belongs to thee; give it to the poor, and so the treasure thou hast shall be in heaven'; Luke follows Mark's text but adds the one word 'all' (μάντα): 'Sell all that belongs to thee'.Exactly the same addition is to be found in Luke's accounts of the calling of the first apostles and of Levi; where Mark says of the latter 'he rose up and followed Jesus', Luke writes 'he rose up, and left all behind, and followed him' (Mk.2:14; Lk.5 :28). Luke insists on complete renouncement; his is an exacting gospel: 'None of you can be my disciple, if he does not take leave of all that he possesses' (14:33). This insistence on the uncompromising character of the poverty required for the kingdom of heaven and of Christian mortification is paralleled by another little addition of Luke to Mark's text:' If any man has a mind to come my way, let him renounce self, and take up his cross, and follow me' which Luke adapts to 'take up his cross daily, and follow me' (Mk. 8:34; Lk. 9:23). This may be linked again with another saying of Jesus recorded by Luke: 'Keep watch, then, praying at all times' (21:36). For Luke the Christian life means total renunciation, daily mortification, uninterrupted prayer.
In the beatitudes Luke contrasts present poverty and present sorrow with riches and joy in the kingdom of God. His preoccupation is with the individual fate of souls beyond the grave, individual eschatology.'Blessed are you who are hungry now; blessed are you who weep now; woe upon you who laugh now.' These 'nows' are additions of St Luke, and they bring out his way of seeing the beatitudes. Whereas in their primitive meaning the contrast in the beatitudes lay rather between the condition of the world and the new messianic age already inaugurated by Jesus, the contrast for St Luke is between earth and heaven. In the original sense the poor are already in process of receiving the blessing, for Jesus is among them; in Luke's sense the blessing is still to come—reward after death, the reward of Lazarus. These senses are not in the least contradictory, one is rather the follow-through of the other; but their stress is different. Luke's interest in individual eschatology, individual salvation or damnation, is unique among the synoptics; but it is very important for his own thought. Though the great themes of classical eschatology are to be found in the third gospel, yet the second coming of Jesus appears there as something more distant, less imminent than it seemed earlier on. It would happen at the end of time but not yet, and it plays a far less dominant role in Luke's thought as a whole. Thus it has been suggested that St Luke does not consider the salvific aspect of the second coming; he leaves out the Markan reference to the gathering together of the elect. The second coming is for Luke the end of the world, of sufferings and persecution, and the manifestation of Jesus' glory, but it is not the effective moment of man's salvation. Whereas Mark thinks of salvation in collective terms as linked with the glorious Parousia, Luke thinks of it individually, the fate of each man following death. Salvation will come to the elect, as it came to Stephen who 'fell asleep in the Lord' (Acts 7:59), while condemnation will come to those who reject Jesus, as it came to Judas who went 'to the place which belonged to him' (Acts 1:25). Individual beatitude consequent upon death is the promise of Jesus' preaching and the term of the Christian life, as they are described by Luke in gospel and Acts.
The chief characteristics of that Christian life we have now seen: it was life founded upon faith in the name of Jesus and guided by the Holy Spirit; a life of poverty, prayer, mortification and persecution, of simple joy and generous sharing; it was life within the community of the Church and under the guidance of its leaders, entered into by baptism and centred upon the Eucharist; and because the Church was the sole ark and means of salvation, the universal witness, it was essentially missionary and apostolic; in the period intervening before Jesus' glorious return on the clouds of heaven it had the obligation of preaching the good news and spreading forth to the ends of the earth (Acts 1 :8-11). Like Paul, the Church herself had been sent upon a mission 'afar unto the Gentiles'.
If all this new life of salvation within the Christian community derived from the events of Jesus' story on earth, it derived also and even more fundamentally from something else manifested within those events: the mercy of God. Time and again the third gospel has been called the gospel of mercy; and if for St Luke the gift of salvation is the reason for the whole drama depicted in his two works, the reason for the gift of salvation itself is this loving mercy of God. ' Such is the merciful kindness of our God' (Lk.1:78) is the constant message he is proclaiming: 'He has mercy upon those who fear him, from generation to generation' (Lk.1:50). It is mercy which Jesus has come to teach men, ' Be merciful, then, as your Father is merciful' (Lk.6:36); it is the meaning of the parable of the good Samaritan with its conclusion: ' Which of these, thinkest thou, proved himself a neighbour to the man who had fallen in with robbers ? And he said, He that shewed mercy on him. Then Jesus said, Go thy way, and do thou likewise' (Lk.10:36-7). If Christians must be merciful, it is in order to imitate their master and their Father. The third gospel delights to show Jesus manifesting his mercy to sinners, living with sinners and teaching to others the way of mercy and compassion, the way of the good Samaritan. He has come to earth in search of sinners like the shepherd of the parable.
If any of you owns a hundred sheep, and has lost one of them, does he not leave the other ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? And when he does find it, he sets it on his shoulders, rejoicing, and so goes home, and calls his friends and his neighbours together; Rejoice with me, he says to them, I have found my sheep that was lost. So it is, I tell you, in heaven; there will be more rejoicing over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine souls that are justified, and have no need of repentance (Lk.15:4-7).
The same parable is told in Matthew 18:12-14, but without the mention of the heavenly rejoicing over the one sinner's repentance, and without, too, that touching detail that 'he sets it on his shoulders and so goes home'. In Luke this parable is followed by the similar one of the groats, which is not found elsewhere. In his gospel Jesus is shown with especial emphasis as the searcher out of the lost sheep and lost groats, of publicans and sinners and Samaritans, dear Zacchaeus of Jericho, for example, who gladly made him welcome in his house.
When they saw it, all took it amiss; he has gone in to lodge, they said, with one who is a sinner. But Zacchaeus stood upright and said to the Lord, Here and now, Lord, I give half of what I have to the poor; and if I have wronged anyone in any way, I make restitution of it fourfold. Jesus turned to him and said, Today, salvation has been brought to this house; he too is a son of Abraham. That is what the Son of Man has come for, to search out and to save what was lost (Lk.19:7-10).
Right to the end of his life it is the mercy of Jesus which appears most strikingly in our gospel with two of those sayings from the cross which Luke alone records, 'Father, forgive them; they do not know what it is they are doing' (Lk.23:34), and then to the repentant thief, just another sinner like those he had sought all through his ministry, 'I promise thee, this day thou shalt be with me in Paradise' (Lk.23:43).
'Father, forgive them', 'As your Father is merciful'—behind the mercy of the Son is that of the Father. The mercy of God comes from the Father, but is expressed in the life of the Son, for 'My Father has entrusted everything into my hands' (Lk.10:22). Of the Father's mercy too there is a parable, perhaps the loveliest of all, the parable of the prodigal son. In this parable the merciful heart of the Father is for ever revealed. The younger son, his money spent, his heritage wasted, repented of his fault
And he arose, and went on his way to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him, and took pity on him; running up, he threw his arms round his neck and kissed him. And when the son said, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee; I am not worthy, now, to be called thy son, the father gave orders to his servants, Bring out the best robe, and clothe him in it; put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. Then bring out the calf that has been fattened, and kill it; let us eat, and make merry; for ray son here was dead, and has come to life again, was lost, and is found (Lk.15:20-4).
The theme of the sinner, of the outcast who has been mercifully found and brought into the communion of the kingdom is, in the last analysis, the central idea of the third gospel and the Acts. There is a chorus of joy, first in heaven, and then also on earth: 'Rejoice with me, I have found my sheep that was lost; Rejoice with me, I have found the silver piece which I lost; for this merry-making and rejoicing there was good reason; thy brother here was dead, and has come to life again; was lost, and is found; that is what the Son of Man has come for, to search out and save what was lost.' Rejoice because the merciful kindness of the Father has sent the Son to die for us and the Holy Spirit into our hearts for repentance and the forgiveness of sins. This is the thread which runs through the whole texture of Luke's work and makes sense of it all; it is the reason for his writing and for the truthfulness of his authorities; it is the reason of Jesus' anointing with the Spirit and his prophetical messiahship, for his journey to Jerusalem, his Passion, death and Resurrection, for the Pentecostal descent of the Spirit and the growth of the Church, for Paul's mission 'afar unto the Gentiles', for the glorification of Jesus from Transfiguration to second coming—the end, purpose and meaning of it all is no other than this, that in Jesus Christ salvation has been offered to all men and to all peoples by the loving mercy of their God.