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April 6, 2015

One key fact not noticed in reports about Pope Francis' declaration of the Holy Year of Mercy is that it will coincide almost exactly with Year C in the Sunday Lectionary, the Year of St. Luke's Gospel. It begins Dec. 8 and will conclude on the feast of Christ the King, Nov. 20, 2016.

Luke gives us the Gospel of mercy, a matter which Pope Francis will no doubt emphasize throughout the holy year. It also, in several places, provides a striking contrast with St. Matthew's Gospel which portrays Jesus in a more judgmental manner than does Luke.

Take two examples. First, in Matthew's account of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares, "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect" (6.48). In Luke's Sermon on the Plain, Jesus says, "Be merciful just as your Father is merciful" (6.36).

Second, even when Matthew's Jesus speaks of mercy, Luke's Jesus gives the same message in a more fulsome way. In the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, Jesus says, "I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (5.44). Luke records Jesus as saying, "I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (6.27-28).

Throughout much of Church history, Matthew's Gospel has been seen as the first Gospel – not only as the one which was written first, but also as the synoptic Gospel of greatest importance. (St. John's Gospel is seen in a class of its own, an account quite different than the three synoptic Gospels.)

Since the Holocaust, parts of Matthew's and John's Gospels have been viewed as problematic because of their negative portrayal of the Jewish people. Nearly 2,000 years ago, Luke anticipated that problem, downplaying Jewish involvement in the crucifixion and Jewish hostility toward Jesus.

Luke gives his readers parables and stories of God's mercy not found in other Gospels – the woman who seeks the lost coin, the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, the prodigal son, the rich man and the poor Lazarus, and the good Samaritan. The story of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus emphasizes, not that God is found in perfect moral behaviour, but that he is found in the shared breaking of God's Word and the shared breaking of bread.

Throughout Luke, we find Jesus forgiving sinners before they have repented. This is most evident in the story of Zacchaeus where Jesus invites himself to the tax collector's house and, only once he has arrived, does Zacchaeus promise to give half of what he owns to the poor.

By giving Luke's Gospel its due, it does not mean that we disregard Matthew. Together, they give us a fuller picture of Christian discipleship and a fuller picture of God. We ought to strive for moral perfection, but we ought also to restrain our judgments of those who fall short. For God is a merciful God, and we can never outdo him in mercy. A year that celebrates that mercy will indeed be holy.