Scripture scholars point out two things in Sunday's Gospel that set Luke apart from the other three evangelists.

First, only Luke posits a good thief in his crucifixion narrative (Lk 23: 35-43). Mark, Matthew and John mention two others who were put to death with Jesus, but there's not even a hint that one of them noticed a contrast between themselves and Jesus. Matthew even contradicts Luke by mentioning, "The revolutionaries who were crucified with Him kept abusing Him in the same way [as the crowd]."

If just one of the four Gospel writers included the good thief scene, it must be Luke. More than any other evangelist, he emphasizes Jesus' innocence. The criminal's statement - "We have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal" - fits perfectly into his theology.

Forgiveness

So does Jesus' implicit forgiveness of the man: "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Jesus "forgives" more in Luke than in any other Gospel. Only Luke, for instance, includes the parable of the prodigal son and the Zaccheus narrative; and he alone has Jesus heal the high priest's servant in the garden. (The other three Gospels presume the man walks home that night carrying his severed ear.)

The second point unique to Luke is also in the quote above. "Today, you will be with me in Paradise." In our earliest Chris-tian writing - I Thessalonians - Jesus' followers presume the dead simply stay in their graves until Jesus returns. We find a remnant of that belief in the prayer said over the grave at Catholic funerals: "Grant that our brother/sister may sleep here in peace until you awaken him/her to glory."

Luke, presuming Jesus' Second Coming wasn't going to take place in the lifetime of anyone in his community, seems to have introduced the idea that Jesus' disciples instantly come into His presence at the moment of death. That's why his Jesus says "today." Had Jesus made the same promise in Mark or Matthew's Gospel, He would have promised, "After a short stay in the grave, you will be with me in Paradise."

Luke's two unique concepts also give us an insight into how our sacred authors look at leadership in the community. Like Luke's theology, it must respond to the changing needs of the community.

Leadership

The idea of someone's being appointed directly by God as leader or king is belied in the first reading (II Sam 5: 1-3). David, the greatest king in Jewish history, became leader of the united Jewish state only "when all the elders of Israel came to David in Hebron, [and he] made an agreement with them there before Yahweh, and they anointed him King of Israel."

Yahweh didn't impose David on the Israelites. Before Jesse's son can rule, the people must acknowledge that God has blessed him with those gifts that would help them live more fulfilled lives.

Paul provides a parallel in the second reading, a well-known hymn to Jesus (Col 1: 12-20). No matter His superhuman attributes, the gift in Jesus that most helps us is God's determination to "reconcile all things through Him,...making peace by the blood of His cross through Him, whether those on earth or those in heaven."

As a good leader, Jesus can never be looked at independent of the people He leads. If His people need forgiveness or instant life after death, Luke tells us He provides it, even if He must contradict "prior traditions" to give it. If we need to be one with God or one another, Paul assures us Jesus will do what's necessary to bring it about.

Flexibility in response to people's needs is key to understanding the biblical concepts of theology and leadership.

(11/18/04)