Three Saturday Gospels of Luke

IN MOST OF OUR PARISHES the Divine Liturgy is served only on Sunday and some feast days. In some parishes the Liturgy is also served every Saturday. Is this because some people are available on Saturdays or is there another reason?

We know from the New Testament that the first believers in Christ were Jews and that they continued to observe the Sabbath (Saturday), the day of rest and worship according to the Ten Commandments: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God” (Exodus 20:8-10). They also met on “the first day of the week…to break bread” (Acts 20:7).

As the Church developed, the custom of sanctifying both days, Saturday and Sunday, became common in Syria, Asia Minor, and Constantinople. The Eucharist (the breaking of the bread) was celebrated on both days. Sunday was most important because it was the day of Christ’s resurrection – the day on which His tomb was found to be empty. But Saturday was observed as well: both as the memorial of the original creation (cf., Genesis 2:2-3) and recalling the “rest” of Christ in the tomb, the “Great Sabbath.” As St Gregory of Nyssa observed in the fourth century: “With what eyes can you behold Sunday if you desecrate the Sabbath? Don’t you know that these days are brethren? He who elevates one disregards the other” (On Reproof).

We find two effects of this practice in our liturgy today. The first concerns our lectionary: the cycle of Scripture readings appointed for the year. Our readings chosen for Sunday follow one continuous cycle, the passages for Saturday often follow another and those for the rest of the week may follow a third. When the lectionary was compiled –by the eighth century – Saturdays as well as Sundays were clearly special days, set apart from the rest of the week.

The second effect concerns our practice of fasting. Saturdays, like Sundays, are not fast days (except for Great Saturday). Even during the Great Fast the Liturgy would be celebrated on Saturday, often for the departed. In the controversies between the Eastern and Western Churches of the first millennium it was often noted that Westerners fasted on Saturdays but Easterners did not. The Sabbath was for celebration because it was a Eucharistic day.

The First Saturday of St Luke

After the Exaltation of the Holy Cross we begin to read the Gospel of St Luke at the Divine Liturgy. The first and second chapters of Luke relate the conception of John the Baptist, the annunciation and visitation of the Theotokos, and the birth and infancy of Christ. Chapter three begins by telling us of the ministry of John the Baptist. All these passages are read on the corresponding feast days. We begin the “cycle of St Luke” with Luke 3:19 – the imprisonment of John the Baptist.
On the First Saturday of St Luke we read Luke 4:31-36 which tells how Christ, at the beginning of His ministry, would go to Capernaum, a fishing village on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. It was there that He called and began to form His first followers, the fishermen Peter and Andrew, James and John. Luke says that He would teach in the synagogue on the Sabbath. “… and they were astonished at His teaching, for His word was with authority” (v. 32).

The Gospel passages read on Saturday often recount events that happened on the Sabbath. In this passage we see the Lord confronted by a man with an unclean spirit. As often happens in the Gospels, this spirit senses the holiness in Jesus and that His mission is to annul the power of Death: “Did You come to destroy us? I know who You are — the Holy One of God!” (v. 34) The Lord rebukes this spirit and expels it prompting the people to wonder, “What a word this is! For with authority and power He commands the unclean spirits, and they come out” (v. 36).

The Second Saturday of St Luke

On the next Saturday we read Lk 5:17-26, which relates the story of the paralyzed man brought to Jesus. The Lord heals him but, before He does, announces, “Your sins are forgiven” (v. 20). This astounds the onlookers who reason, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (v. 21) The Lord then heals the man, showing that He does in fact have power on earth to forgive sins. “And they were all amazed, and they glorified God and were filled with fear, saying, ‘We have seen strange things today!’” (v. 26)

This event must have made an impact on those who witnessed it and on the first Christians who made it known. It appears in Mt 9 and Mk 2 as well, showing how widely circulated this story was. It proclaims Christ as powerful, not only in word but in deed as well: a graphic summons to hear Him in the depths of our souls.

The Third Saturday of St Luke

This Saturday’s passage follows immediate on last week’s. “After these things He went out and saw a tax collector…” (v. 27). Besides its fishery, Capernaum was also the site of mills processing the grain and olives grown nearby. As the town was a good source of revenue, King Herod had an agent there to collect taxes.

Local rulers like Herod were responsible to the Romans – they had to deliver the taxes assessed for their region. Rulers would farm out the collecting of customs, tolls and some other taxes to so-called publicans, local residents who bought franchises to collect the taxes in a given area. They often formed societies and pooled their share of the taxes.

Mark and Luke name this tax collector “Levi, the son of Alphaeus” while in Mt 9:9 he is called Matthew. The three texts tell the same story and so Matthew/Levi is clearly the same person. Why is he given two different names?
There is a clue is the Greek text of Mt where the tax collector is called Mattheion legomenon (the one called Matthew – i.e. God’s gift). Perhaps Levi the tax collector came to be called God’s gift (“Matthew”) in the community of believers. St Jerome thought that Levi had changed his own name; some Eastern commentators had thought that the Lord had changed it.

Matthew/Levi is clearly a man of some means. When Christ calls him, Matthew throws a great feast to which other tax collectors were invited, much to the annoyance of the Pharisees. Tax collectors were often thought of as traitors by strict Jews because they had accepted to work for their Roman occupiers. They were often regarded as thieves because they often took more from their fellow-Jews than was their due. Thus, when some tax collectors had responded to the preaching of John the Baptist, he told them, “Collect no more than what is appointed for you” (Luke 3:8).

By going to Matthew/Levi’s home the Lord blessed His new disciple’s choice to follow Him and encouraged the other tax collectors to do the same. Many Pharisees resented Him for this; “Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” they sneered (Luke 7:34). But in this way the Lord reached people like Matthew/Levi, and even a chief tax collector, Zacchaeus, who became His followers and our guides leading us to Him.