Patterns in Luke

Patrick Reardon asks what can be learned from some literary devices

Among the literary features that particularly adorn the Gospel according to St Luke are certain points of symmetry and polish that unite the beginning and ending of that work. Some of these are fairly direct and easy to perceive. For instance, there is the clear parallelism between the two congregations praying at the Temple, one at the beginning of the gospel (1.9, 10, 21) and the other at the end (24.53). Again, most readers will probably note the presence of the angels at both the beginning (1.11, 19, 26; 2.9, 13, 15) and the ending (22.43; 24.4) of Luke's narrative.

Cast of the die

Fewer readers of Luke, perhaps, will observe that there is also a rolling of dice near both the beginning (1.9) and the ending (23.34) of that gospel. However subtle, nonetheless, this symmetry was hardly lost on the refined Schriftsgefühl of St Ambrose, who perceived therein a comparison and contrast between the levitical priesthood of Zachary, chosen by lot to offer the incense, and that new priesthood by which Jesus offered his sacrifice on the Cross while the soldiers cast lots for his clothing. ‘So the priest was chosen by lot,’ he says with respect to Zachary, and then he adds: ‘Perhaps on this account the soldiers cast lots for the Lord's garments. Since the Lord prepared to offer sacrifice for us in his temple, the shaking of the lots around him would also fulfil the precept of the Law.’

In addition to those tropes by which Luke unites the beginning and ending of his gospel, there are also conspicuous lines of parallel between the early part of that gospel and the early part of Luke's second work, the Acts of the Apostles. Both books commence, for example, with an address to ‘most excellent Theophilus,’ followed by the portrait of a congregation at prayer (Luke 1.10; Acts 1.14). And just as there were angels at the outset of Luke's gospel, so we find them again at the beginning of Acts (1.10–11). Moreover, near the front of each book there is the descent of the Holy Spirit, who overshadows the Virgin Mary (Luke 1.35) and anoints the Church (Acts 1.4–8; 2.1–4), which is gathered with the Virgin Mary (1.14).

Once more, also, there is a replicated rolling of dice. Just as Zachary is designated by lot to offer the incense at the beginning of Luke's gospel, Matthias is chosen by lot to be numbered among the apostles at the beginning of Acts (1.24–26). This latter juxtaposition, too, was detected by St Ambrose, who thus commented on the choice of Zachary by speaking of the choice of Matthias: ‘So the lot fell on the apostle Matthias, lest the choice of an apostle should seem to diverge from the command of the Old Law.’

Matthias, the chosen of the Lord

Before their casting of lots, the brethren narrowed their selection to a choice between two men with identical qualifications. Matthias and Joseph Barsabbas both met the technical requirements for being numbered with the original apostles (1.21–23). One remembered, however, that Judas Iscariot too had met those requirements. Clearly something more was needed, as their prayer acknowledged: ‘You, O Lord, know the hearts of all.’ God could read the hearts of both men, and, for reasons best known to himself, he preferred Matthias.

God's preference of Matthias, nonetheless, implied no censure of the other man. Joseph Barsabbas was not chosen for that particular apostolate, but there was no implied criticism of him. All through Holy Scripture, indeed, God continually chooses some individuals over others with a view to the divine purposes in history. While each of those choices necessarily implies a rejection of sorts, such rejections are not necessarily condemnations nor repudiations.

Thus, the Lord was not condemning the other sons of Abijah, years earlier, when he caused the lot to fall on Zachary. It was simply the case that God chose Zachary to offer incense that day, and not one of the other priests. Not because Zachary was worthier than his brethren. It was simply that the all–knowing Lord had some rather specific intention in mind, an intention involving Zachary's meeting, that day, with an archangel. God knew what he was about.

So with Matthias. The Lord had some specific plans for him. And while Matthias perhaps spent the rest of his life discovering what these plans were, he was keenly aware that God was reading his heart.

Patrick Henry Reardon is a Senior Editor of Touchstone Magazine: A Journal of Mere Christianity. Touchstone is produced in the United States. www.touchstonemag.com

 

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