By Wes Howard-Brook and Sue Ferguson Johnson, commentary on readings for the First Sunday after Christmas
Note: This is part of a series of Wes & Sue’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2015-16.
Christmas carols continue to echo around and within us, but Sunday’s Gospel from Luke has Jesus already nearly grown. Only Luke provides any glimpse of Jesus’ childhood. This tantalizing scene, though, offers many hints for how the adult Jesus will subvert both the expectations of his Roman audience and of those hearers who, so far, may be expecting Jesus to become a warrior “messiah like David” (1.32, 69; 2.11).
Luke goes out of his way to portray the characters in his first two chapters as pious, torah-observant Israelites. Zechariah and Elizabeth are said to be “righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” (1.6). Old Simeon is similarly said to be “righteous and devout” (2.25), and his counterpart, Anna the prophetess, lives in the temple in a daily and nightly discipline of fasting and prayer (2.37). Although Luke tells us little about Mary and Joseph’s piety, he shows Mary willing to say “yes” to Gabriel’s word and them together dutifully obeying both the torah and Roman commands (2.5; 2.21-24; 2.41-42).
Yet amid all this obedience to prescribed rules and traditional practices, Luke is already hard at work subverting the dominant paradigm. The will of God is made known in these first chapters not via conformance to official rituals, but through the apocalyptic inbreaking of angels. Zechariah, Mary and the shepherds have all come to experience God’s powerful promise of redemption being visited upon them.
Given this heritage, it might not be surprising to find young Jesus conversing with the “teachers” in the Jerusalem temple as the Passover festival wound down. But it hasn’t yet occurred to his parents that their divinely-given son was already “about the things of my father” (Gk, en tois tou patros; not as the NRSV, “in my Father’s house”). One can only imagine both the size of Mary and Joseph’s traveling party that was leaving Jerusalem among perhaps thousands of other pious pilgrims that would allow them not to notice for a full day that their child is missing. Luke extends the parents’ agony by noting that it takes three days to find him (2.44, 46).
But despite the angelic encounter that announced the birth and the nature of the child, the parents’ response anticipates that of others in the gospel: “they did not understand what he said to them” (2.50; 8.10; 18.34; but cf. 24.45). Luke, in this scene, sets up a key theme of his story: truly knowing God and Jesus comes, not from dutifully obeying commands or simply thinking through what is happening, but by ongoing direct encounter with God. And, in many cases, these encounters happens on the earth, in the places away from the siren song of empire. So, immediately after this scene (in the passage we heard during Advent), Luke juxtaposes the names of imperial officials—those to whom one was expected to listen to know what to believe and what to do—with this: “the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness” (3.2). Similarly, as we’ll explore in two weeks, Jesus first hears God’s voice in the Jordan River, calling him “the Beloved” (3.22). And immediately following that, the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness, where he has an apocalyptic experience of the “devil” (4.1-2), through which he discerns his vocation as “son of God” (a reading we’ll hear on the first Sunday of Lent).
We’ll see this repeatedly in Luke, as Jesus, growing in stature and wisdom (2.52), continues to discern the unfolding Way of his messiahship and our discipleship through his own ongoing encounters with God (e.g., 6.12; 9.28).
This key theme of direct encounter as the source of divine power is also hinted at in our passage by one of Luke’s favorite literary devices. Luke, much more than any other gospel writer, patterns his narrative on male/female pairs of people. Usually, those consist of twin, juxtaposed stories, one of which involves a man and one a woman (e.g., both Zechariah and Mary visited by Gabriel with a birth announcement). But sometimes, as here, the pair of stories are positioned at different places in the larger narrative. The twelve year old boy, Jesus, whose parents are deeply concerned about his fate, is matched by the twelve year old girl, the only daughter of the synagogue leader, Jairus (8.41-42; 49-56). In both stories, onlookers are “astounded” (Greek root, existēmi, only 24.22 in Luke outside these two uses). And in both, the established religious institution (temple, synagogue) is largely irrelevant to what God is doing. Luke doesn’t condemn either the temple or the synagogue, as other evangelists do. Rather, he suggests that they are simply not the means by which God is in the process of “visiting” or “overseeing” God’s people (Gk, episkeptomai, 1.68, 78; 7.16; 19.44). Why? As will gradually be revealed, because of their collaboration with the Roman Empire (e.g., 7.2-5; 12.11; 21.12). Thus, in our present passage, Jesus does not gain “wisdom” from the Jerusalem temple teachers, but directly from the Holy Spirit. Similarly, Jairus’ synagogue authority is powerless to save his dying daughter. It is only the immediately accessible power of God that will “save,” individuals, communities and the earth from the ravages of empire.
And so what about us? Many of us at this time of year may find ourselves breathing a sigh of relief, after checking off the boxes on our Christmas “to do list.” Perhaps we have, like Martha, “faithfully” carried out our duties of hospitality (10.38-42). But do we have “ears to hear” (8.8) Jesus calling us, beyond religious responsibility to an in-spiring encounter with the living God of love and true peace? Do we walk away from Christmas, like Jesus’ parents, not understanding the Way of Jesus? Or do we celebrate, like the shepherds, the Good News of God’s inbreaking power, that levels all the hills and fills all the valleys that maintain the unjust, imperial status quo?
Yes, we are called to listen and to question the institutional teachers of imperial religion. But all the argument in the world will not provide the power that saves. That power—the power of unconditional, all-inclusive Love—comes only after we have listened to the Voice of the One who calls each of us “the Beloved,” and sends us on the Way of peace, for all people and all creation.