Continuing my summer reading challenge, I’ve just finished Michael Patella’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke. This is part of the New Collegeville Bible Commentary, published by the Liturgical Press out of Saint John’s (Benedictine) Abbey in Collegeville, MN. Patella is a Benedictine monk and New Testament professor at Saint John’s University. This series provides very brief commentary on the English text, useful for parish study groups or general readers looking for basic exegesis. Here I have a few thoughts on Luke and a few thoughts on the commentary.
One of the difficulties of studying the Bible is that everything looks so familiar. It’s hard to step back and really read the text, really notice something new, because we think we know it so well already. This is especially an issue with the gospels. I’ve read Luke a few times now, and my New Testament Greek class last spring spent the entire quarter reading it in Greek. Still, a few things surprised me.
- The stereotype of Luke is that he is the likeable gospel, the one that is most open to women and Gentiles, most interested in the poor. Supposedly, he is more readable than Mark, less eschatological than Matthew, and less cosmic than John. So one thing that really surprised me and sunk in for me this time reading Luke was just how often Jesus encounters demons, evil spirits, and Satan himself, from the temptation in the desert (4:1-13) to various cures of people infested with demons (4:31-37, 8:26-39, 9:35-50), to Satan himself pushing Judas to betray Jesus (22:1-6). Jesus is so good at dealing with demons that at one point, people accuse him of being one (11:14-23). Whether or not one believes that demons and evil spirits exist outside our imaginations, it is a commonly accepted fact that in the ancient world people ascribed many things to supernatural forces which we would give medical diagnoses to today. These many mentions of demons remind me that this is indeed a first-century text, not written with modern ideas of mental illness in mind.
- In his introduction, Patella lists reversal as a main theme of Luke’s gospel. Luke often shows reversals of power or privilege taking place in Jesus’ ministry, or has Jesus speaking about future reversals. For example, the centurion comes to Jesus to have his daughter healed, upsetting the colonizing relationship this man has over Judean peasants (7:1-10). Jesus gives his famous “suffer unto me the children” line, reversing his disciples’ devaluation of the child. And many of his teachings describe reversals, whether in the sermon on the mount (6:20-49), the “first shall be last” speech (13:22-30), or him telling his disciples that the first among them is servant of all (22:24-30). To me, these reversals are all part of the kingdom ethics, meant to be lived out in the here and now. This time around reading Luke, I saw this theme more than in the past.
I liked Patella’s commentary. At 158 pages, he gives neither too little nor too much. Most of it is exegetical, but he also gives cultural background in Greek and Palestinian daily life and customs, nuances of the Greek, and comparisons to the other synoptics. At the end of the book he includes questions for reflection appropriate to a bible study. For someone wanting to read Luke with some basic commentary, from a Roman Catholic but mainly from a historical-critical-literary perspective, this is a useful book in a useful series.
Also, an added bonus: the cover (seen above) features the “Parables Anthology” from the Gospel of Luke in the Saint John’s Bible. Starting from the upper left and moving to the lower right, this illumination depicts the parables of the lost coin (15:8-10), the lost sheep (15:4-7), the good Samaritan (10:29-37), the prodigal son (15:11-32), Lazarus and the rich man (16:19-31), and Mary and Martha (10:38-42). This illumination is a powerful meditation on forgiveness — below is a (not very good, sorry) image of it.