It’s difficult for some Christians to admit that our four gospels are not four biographies of Jesus. The first gospel (Mark) wasn’t written until at least 40 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. By that time eye and ear witnesses of the historical Jesus were rare. And no one who personally saw or heard that itinerant carpenter/preacher from Capernaum wrote anything about him which has come down to us. All our Christian Scriptures were composed by people who knew only the risen Jesus. The raw material for their gospels consisted not in personal experiences of the historical Jesus, but in the Jesus stories, sayings and anecdotes which they heard early Christian preachers deliver.
Each evangelist, sometimes copying from one another and a hypothetical collection of Jesus sayings (which modern scholars have labeled the “Q”), redacted his sources into a unique document to help his readers understand both the significance of the risen Jesus in their lives and how they were to imitate his death and resurrection in those same lives.
We have four gospels and not just one because there wasn’t just one way to surface that significance or do that imitation. Our earliest Semitic-thinking, biblical church understood the need for this diversity far better than our Greek-thinking, catechism-formed church does today. In one of his frequent asides during St. Louis University’s 1969 Bellarmine lecture, the late Cardinal Avery Dulles pointed out that, had there been a Holy Office in the first century church, we Catholics would have just one gospel in our bibles (Mark); but in our history books we’d have mention of three notorious early Christian heretics named Matthew, Luke and John!
To say the least, many of us aren’t comfortable dealing with different theologies about Jesus. That seems to be why, in place of becoming knowledgeable about our diverse biblical insights, some are content simply to smash them all together and come up with just one catechism theology, a theology on which most of us became grade school experts.
Notice, for instance, what commonly accepted theological point is missing from our first and third readings. We were brought up listening to the explanation of Jesus’ death which we hear in our I John pericope. “He (Jesus) is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.” We’re in good biblical company when we profess our belief that Jesus died for our sins. Just one problem; Luke, the author of both the gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, never mentions Jesus dying for our sins, certainly not in today’s two liturgical passages.
Luke’s read on Jesus’ death and resurrection revolves around his conviction that Jesus had to experience those two events. As his followers, we’re to go down that same road. The death he suffered was simply legalized murder according to Luke. As a human being, Jesus was subject to the whims and decisions of others, just as we are. Luke teaches that Jesus’ life and death demonstrates how we’re to face parallel situations, and, by giving ourselves over to them, reach life. In some sense, Luke believes we die for our own sins. Jesus’ role is to show us how to do it and give us the strength to follow through to the living end.
Most of us have heard the “majority” theology of Jesus’ death and resurrection for so long that we’re locked into that one explanation. But at times, it’s good to hear Luke’s minority opinion. Many Christians through the centuries have benefited from it. When it comes to faith, our biblical authors were convinced that one size doesn’t fit all.