We launch into Luke's gospel by encountering the "rest" of the Christmas story - all those familiar elements that have been missing so far from Matthew's birth story and Mark's lack thereof. Here we find the annunciation, the baby John the Baptist, the trip to Bethlehem, the manger, the shepherds – all the good stuff. We also find some oddities: Zechariah mute for the duration of his wife's pregnancy; Simeon and Anna, the strange old folks who hang around the temple and spontaneously prophesy about the baby Jesus; the holy family that leaves its most famous son behind in the temple as a young boy; and a narrative of John the Baptist that has him in jail by the time Luke gets around to mentioning Jesus' baptism, thus leaving it rather mysterious as to who does the actual baptizing!
The keys while reading this, however, are as follows. First, do whatever you can to render the familiar unfamiliar, so that you don't skim over the Christmas story and miss the details that may not be what you really remember them to be. Second, note that Luke offers such a wide array of reactions to Jesus' birth – amazement, terror, faith – thus asking us, his readers, to decide what our reaction is to this incarnation. Third, pay attention to the pace of Luke in contrast to Mark: while everything in the latter gospel happens "immediately," here Mary ponders things, children are left behind in conversation, John engages in lengthy dialogue with the crowds. Luke wants us to examine, consider, and then choose faith.
Once past the birth narrative, we find ourselves in what appears to be pretty familiar territory after reading two previous gospels. Luke is the last of the three known as the "Synoptic" gospels, having a shared perspective and chronology; John, we will find, is rather different. Yet Luke is different as well: details, shifts, and inclusions in these chapters point to a new and significant emphasis. While Matthew ends with The Great Commission, the resurrected Christ sending his disciples out to baptize all nations, and Mark ends with only the empty tomb (and then perhaps another story), Luke's story does not end with the resurrection but continues on. We need to remember that this gospel is only volume one of a two-volume work - the Book of Acts being volume two. Luke's story continues with the creation of the Church, and particularly with the mission of taking Christianity to the Gentiles, to non-Jews. This larger agenda informs the chapters we are reading now as well.
Notice how much emphasis there is on outsiders, particularly on Gentiles, in these chapters. This begins in chapter 4, in the story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue. Matthew and Mark tell the same story, but with no details at all about what Jesus has to say. Luke, however, shows Jesus not only claiming to fulfill Isaiah's prophecy - an audacious claim that arouses the congregation - but also shows Jesus referring to the times that the prophets Elijah and Elisha each healed a Gentile rather than surrounding Jews! No wonder the crowd becomes enraged - he seems to be suggesting that they are not holding up their end of their relationship with God, and that God is therefore attending to others. Notice also how often Jesus seems to deliberately provoke the Pharisees by healing someone on the sabbath, thereby suggesting to a Gentile audience that faith in Christ matters more than adherence to the commandments. In this context, the parable of the Good Samaritan takes on a very pointed implication.
Where else can we find this emphasis on inclusion, on faith over rules, on bringing all people to God, in these chapters? Does this mean that the commandments are being given short shrift by Luke, or by Jesus? Can we see in Luke's agenda a disparagement of Judaism that still rankles today? Can we also see, however, a desire on Luke's part to show Jesus as calling the whole world to himself, that all might have their lives transformed? To portray Christ promising that if no one is especially deserving then all are blessed by God's love? So much for us to consider!