St. Luke, Evangelist, Physician, Patron of Artists
The Gentile Doctor
St Paul speaks of St Luke – the author of the Third Gospel and of the Acts of the Apostles – in the Letter to the Colossians, referring to him as the “Luke, the beloved physician” (Col 4:14). According to Eusebius, the Church historian, Luke was born in Antioch, and was a Gentile; in fact, in the Letter to the Colossians, when speaking of his companions, Paul always mentions first “those of the circumcision” (that is, the Jews), without including Luke among them (cf. Col 4:10-11). And in his Gospel, Luke shows a particular sensitivity with regard to the evangelization of the Gentiles. The parable of the Good Samaritan is found only in his Gospel; and it is Luke who records Jesus’ appreciation for the faith of the widow of Zarephath, of Naaman the Syrian, and of the Samaritan leper – the only one of the ten lepers who were healed who returned to express his gratitude.
We know nothing of the circumstances of the conversion of St Luke, but from the Acts of the Apostles we can deduce when he joined St Paul. Up to the sixteenth chapter, the Acts are written in the third person; but suddenly, immediately after Paul’s vision of a man from Macedonia (who asked him to join them and help them), it passes to the first person plural: “And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel to them” (Acts 16:9-10). Luke than accompanies Paul, in the year 51, to Samothrace, Neapolis, and Philippi. Then there is a new passage in the third person, which leads us to think that Luke was not arrested with Paul, but rather remained in Philippi after his friend departed. Seven years later, Paul returned to that region, and Luke, who in chapter 20 resumes the first person plural, goes with him to Miletus, Troas, Caesarea, and Jerusalem. When Paul was imprisoned at Rome in the year 61, Luke remained at his side, as we see from the Letters of Paul to Philemon and to Timothy. In fact, after being abandoned by all, in the final phase of his imprisonment, Paul writes to Timothy, “only Luke is with me” (2 Tim 4,11).
From the parables and miracles that are unique to St Luke, we can determine the most characteristic feature of his Gospel. Luke shows in his Gospel a particular concern for the poor, and for victims of injustice, for repentant sinners welcomed by the forgiveness and the mercy of God; it is he who tells the story of Lazarus and the rich man; of the Prodigal Son and the merciful Father who welcomes him back with open arms; and of the sinful woman who was forgiven, and who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears, and dried them with her hair. It is St Luke who gives us the Magnificat, where Mary proclaims the mercy of God, Who “has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree,” Who “has filled the hungry with good things,” and sends the rich away empty (Lk 1:52-53).
The relationship with Mary is the other striking characteristic of St Luke’s Gospel. Thanks to him, and — we might piously believe — thanks to the account Mary gave to him, we know about the words of the Angel at the Annunciation; the visit of Mary to Elizabeth and the Magnificat; the details of the Presentation in the Temple; and the beautiful portrait of the anguish of Mary and Joseph when they could not find the 12-year-old Jesus. It is very probably to this narrative and descriptive sensitivity that we owe the tradition of St Luke as a painter – a tradition that is represented in traditional iconography. Details of St Luke’s death are uncertain. Some sources speak of his martyrdom, while others say he lived to old age. The oldest traditions say he died in Boeotia at age 84, where he had settled to write his Gospel. The relics of his body are to be found in the Abbey of Santa Giustina, in Padua; a rib from his body was sent to his original tomb in Thebes; and his skull is preserved in Prague, in the Cathedral of St Vitus.