The beloved physician

A depiction of the seal of the Anglican mission agency USPG, quoting words from Acts 16.9

The first ‘biblical novel’ that I ever read – as a teenager of about 15 – was Taylor Caldwell’s Dear and Glorious Physician. It was sub-titled, ‘A mighty novel of St Luke’. I still have my copy. I continue to think the book is one of the best examples of the genre of ‘biblical novel’. It set me off on the trail of a few others of the genre, such as The Robe, but though The Robe depicts the central Christian story of Christ’s crucifixion, I don’t think, in literary terms it is actually as good as Caldwell’s tale of Luke. Indeed reading Caldwell’s book for a while fired my ambition to write my own ‘biblical novel’. It was going to be on Hosea and his errant wife Gomer, and I even had a title in mind for it, ‘For I desire steadfast love’. I think it was some of my university friends who convinced me that it was perhaps a bit of a hostage to fortune. At any rate that particular book has never ultimately seen the light of day!

In Caldwell’s book Luke comes across as a sensitive, complex character who loves deeply and sometimes very painfully. He also echoes in his life-story the complexities of life in the Mediterranean world of the first century, in which the civilisations of Rome, Greece, and the semitic East, including the world of Judaism, interface and interact with each other in ways that are sometimes positive and sometimes negative. Luke is presented as deeply cultured, as I think the writer of the Gospel of Luke certainly was. He cares deeply about the poor, but perhaps from the perspective of never having been really poor himself. He is a bit of an outsider looking in, albeit with great compassion, when it comes to responding to the grinding poverty that was the lot of the majority of those who lived in those places and those times. In that respect I sometimes think (perhaps a bit wryly and self-critically) that he was quite ‘Anglican’. In many parts of the world Anglican churches may well be churches that care for the poor – but they are perhaps not always churches of the poor. There are of course exceptions – I was profoundly moved when I met Christians of the Anglican tradition at Peshawar in Pakistan, who lived in abject poverty and were at the bottom of the social heap. But the link between Anglicanism and the British Empire has, in a number of countries, meant that there is often a relationship between being Anglican and being middle class.

There is a challenge I sometimes throw at people which is to ask them what Christian denomination each of the Gospel writers would be if they were alive today. It is fun to see what people come up with. Personally, though, I am fairly convinced that if he were around now Luke would be an Anglican! It’s linked to his appreciation of history, of the beauty of language, of order and dignity, especially in worship, appreciation of ‘place’ and his interest in the complexities of the political world in which he was situated. He is I think the evangelist that most requires us to explore the relationship between church and state, which is certainly an issue that the Church of England has had to engage with over the years – and is likely to continue to be revisited.

It is interesting but actually the thought of Luke as a medical doctor is not normally the first thing that springs to my mind when I reflect on Luke. Perhaps though this year, in which so many of us feel awed by the commitment that doctors and nurses have shown through the months of COVID, it is especially good to be reminded of his medical profession. I hope and expect that churches will draw the connection between celebrating St Luke and the sacrificial work of so many in the medical profession in recent months. In fact the link between Luke and medicine is fairly tenuous in the two New Testament books linked to the name of Luke – his Gospel and Acts. His identification as a physician comes primarily from the reference in Colossians 4.14, when Paul describes Luke, apparently one of his companions during his time in prison as ‘the beloved physician’. Then on the basis of this reference it has been noted that in the account of the healing of the woman with the haemorrhage, Luke (Luke 8.43-48)  does not include the note given by Mark’s Gospel that the woman ‘had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and she was no better, but rather grew worse’. (Mark 5.26) It has often been suggested that Luke omits this because of the disparaging way it refers to doctors.

The Gospel reading for St Luke’s Day – naturally from the Gospel of Luke – is presumably chosen because it mentions Jesus sending seventy (or seventy-two) disciples on a mission. The number 70/72 is suggestively looking forward to the spread of the Gospel among the Gentiles that Luke in Acts will later tell us of (In Genesis 10 the list of the nations adds up to 70). It also significantly suggests that as well as preaching, those sent out on this mission were commissioned for a ministry of healing. In fact the biblical reading for today which speaks to me most powerfully is that from Acts 16.6-12a. It is the first moment in Acts when Luke’s account uses the word ‘we’ to suggest that Luke himself had joined the group of travellers accompanying Paul. I particularly appreciate the fact that this is literally the moment when the path of the Gospel ‘jumps’ from Asia to Europe. ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us’ (Acts 16.9). I think that this verse feels almost like a foundation document for us as Christians in Europe.  We need to be aware of this passage and celebrate it much more than we do. One important note it suggests to me is that authentic mission needs to be multi-vocal, and involve a conversation between two (or more) parties – which must involve the one who ‘receives’ as well as the one who is ‘sent’. The Anglican mission agency USPG for which I worked for a number of years, has the words ‘Come over and help us’ on its historic seal and, certainly in recent decades, has taken very seriously the priority of the receiving partner in its understanding of its role in mission. Perhaps in the Diocese in Europe this verse would be an interesting starting point for an exploration of our own mission and vocation. (There is much more to say than I have space for here – including its fascinating references to the Holy Spirit in this short passage).

Clare Amos

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