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This Week's Commentary
First Sunday after Christmas Day
December 28, 2014Isaiah 61.10-62.3 | Psalm 148 | Galatians 4.4-7 | Luke 2.22-40
After Christmas Day, the theme still is “what God has done and is doing in the world for all peoples”! Isaiah interpreted the restoration of Israel after the Babylonian conquest and deportation of Israel as a sign of God’s justice and victory for “all the nations” to see. Psalm 148 proclaims God is the God of all creation! Paul wrote to gentile Galatians to explain that God’s promise to save everyone, without exception, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. In today’s Gospel, Jesus’ life of service to God brings God’s salvation to “all peoples.”
Resettlement raised up both a righteous remnant and apostates. Isaiah 56-59 and 63.1-65.16 focus on the difficulties and disputes in the process of resettlement. In contrast, chapters 60-62 focus on the hoped-for glorious future of restored Israel.
What did “all the nations” see when Zion/Jerusalem was restored (61.11-62.2)? In 61.10-11, “righteousness and praise” (NRSV) could refer to Jerusalem’s “righteousness” and “songs of praise.” In that case, according to Isaiah 56-59 and 63.1-65.16, this would have to be aspirational or limited to a righteous remnant! If the prophet’s vow was not to “rest” until “all the nations” saw Jerusalem’s “righteousness” and “songs of praise,” the prophet would have had no “rest” back then—and not even now, given the secularism of the state of Israel and its treatment of Palestinian Christians and Muslims! On the other hand, the focus of these verses is on the restoration of Israel as a sign of God’s salvation or deliverance of Israel, so that 61.10-11 refer to God’s righteousness or justice and glory or renown (as in the TANAKH and other Jewish translations). The restoration of Israel after the Babylonian conquest and deportation of Israel would be a sign of God’s justice and victory for “all the nations” to see.
God’s fidelity to God’s people is entirely God’s choice and, ultimately, God’s doing. Isaiah denied Israel any basis for boasting either that it deserved God’s saving action or that its restoration was its own doing. The Babylonian captivity was God’s punishment for Israel’s apostasy. God showed God’s fidelity to God’s people by anointing Cyrus, the king of the Persian Empire, as Israel’s savior (“Messiah”)!
Nevertheless, just as God needed a powerful ruler to deliver Israel from captivity, the realization of the prophetic vision of a glorious future is as much in the people’s hands as in God’s. The people could not realize the imagined future without God’s hand; but God’s hand could not realize the future without the faithful participation of Israel’s imperial Persian friend, Cyrus, of the people of Israel.
At the same time, the prophet distinguishes between a righteous remnant, whom God protects, and the unrighteous (contrast 65.1-8 and 65.9-15). That means that 61.10-62.3 are addressed to the righteous remnant, not to the unrighteous apostates (compare Paul’s treatment of the remnant theme in Romans 9-11). Instead of being God-forsaken, Zion/Jerusalem will be God’s pride and joy (62.3).
Isaiah and Paul envision God’s covenant with one people, Israel. Can we universalize the particularity of this covenant? Can we envision an all-inclusive transformation of this seemingly exclusive covenant? God’s justice is God’s salvation, not only for Israel, but also for all nations (Rom 3.29). Isaiah believed that Israel’s subjection to foreign empires was God punishment for Israel’s disobedience. So also we can believe that God will judge the unfaithful among all nations—including the modern state of Israel and its strongest ally, the United States. Only then can we believe that God will remain faithful to God’s promise of salvation to all nations.
Stanley Hauerwas made this observation in The Christian Century (August 20, 2014: 32): “Christians have suppressed the history of God’s promised people, Israel. This suppression of Paul’s message in Romans 9-11 is what made the unsurpassed horror of Auschwitz possible. Christians’ suppression of Israel and the Jews has also meant that Christians misunderstand the character of the church.” Christians, especially Christian preachers, need to listen to Hauerwas’ words!
Nevertheless, it is also true that many American Christians have suppressed the history of the modern state of Israel’s brutal aggression against the Palestinian people. American Christians committed to peace with justice for the Palestinians need to partner with American Jews and Israelis who share these commitments. The status of “God’s promised people” is not only a gift; Isaiah makes it clear that it is also a challenge to live out God’s righteousness/justice within Israel and with other peoples.
Paul already saw that the decision of most Jews to deny that Jesus was the Messiah Israel expected could lead to contempt of Jews by those who put their faith in Jesus. He wrote strongly against this tendency in his letter to the Romans. But the tendency persisted through the centuries.
Long before Jesus, within Israel, through developments in both the prophetic and the legal traditions, monotheism superseded a narrow, ethnocentric tribalism. The belief that the one God was the creator of all and cared for all eventually replaced the belief that this God was interested only in the historic destiny of Israel. The belief that Israel should be a light to the nations replaced the belief that Israel’s election was simply for the benefit of Israel.
Criticism of Christian supersessionist theologies and denunciation of anti-Jewish Christian theologies should not make us blind to the way Christian theologies—even, or especially, liberal and progressive ones—can be silent about, tolerant of, and even supportive of Israel’s dispossession of Palestinian land and economic resources.
God is the God of all creation: everything in and above the heavens, including all deities (vv. 1-6), and everything on earth, including all kinds of weather and landscapes, and all living things (vv. 7-12)! God enjoys the praise of all creation, especially rival astral deities (vv. 3-4), God’s primordial enemies—“sea monsters and all deeps” (v. 7)—divine powers behind all kinds of weather (v. 8), and God’s rivals among the world’s rulers (v. 11)! God is worthy of the praise of heavenly beings because God created them and “fixed their bounds,” beyond which they cannot pass (vv. 5-6). God is worthy of the praise of all beings on earth because God’s “majesty extends over the earth and sky” (NET v. 13). God is worthy of Israel’s praise in particular because of God is Israel’s refuge and strength (v. 14).
The “horn” (v. 14a) is a metaphor for strength in general, and specifically that of God (2 Sam 22.3 and Psa 18.3) and kings (1 Sam 2.10; Psa 132.17; Dan 8.20). Psa 148.14a refers to God’s strengthening “the people of Israel,” so that they are able to be “faithful” in the midst of sufferings caused by God’s rival deities (vv. 3-4 and 7-8) and rulers of nations (v. 11), and to resist turning to them for security instead of to God.
The particularism of references to God’s “people,” “God’s “faithful,” and “the people of Israel” (v. 14) is in tension with the psalm’s all-embracing universalism. It cannot be exclusivistic. In that connection, it is worth noting that the concept of the creator God and of the three-tiered universe was also known in Mesopotamia and Egypt. (See my comments above on Isaiah and below on today’s Gospel.)
Paul’s use of pronouns in this passage—and throughout the letter—is confusing. The first person plural “we” in vv. 3 and 5b and “our” in v. 6b refer to Paul and other Jews as well as gentile Galatians. The second person “you” in vv. 6-9 refers to gentile Galatians. Paul was writing to gentile Galatians, and he wanted them to understand that God’s salvation is singular, the same for Jews and gentiles—namely, adoption as full heirs of God’s promise to save everyone, without exception, through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
God’s “will” was that the salvation of Jews and non-Jews would be through Jesus Christ (1.4). At a time that God determined, “God sent his Son” (v. 4). We should not make too much of this pre-Pauline “sending formula,” as if it presupposes or implies that this “son” existed in some form prior to being “born of a woman … under the law.” Its basic meaning is that God dispatched this “son” into “the present evil age” (1.4), ordered and ruled by “the elemental forces of the world” (4.3), to perform a specific mission for the sake of Jews and gentiles (v. 5).
Verse 4 emphasizes the humanity of “God’s son,” born of a human mother and within the specifically Jewish ethnic culture. Paul’s silence about the name of Jesus’ mother and her “virginity” is no indication of what Paul thought about Jesus’ paternity. (Rom 1.3 identifies Jesus’ biological paternal ancestry.) That v. 4 emphasizes the humanity of “God’s son” does not mean that it precludes the “divinity” of “God’s son.” For one thing, this “son” is God’s, which could suggest that “God’s son” was both divine and human. In addition, the parallel phrases “as though I were the angel of God” and “as though I were Jesus Christ” in v. 14 (compare the NET) could imply that Jesus Christ was “an/the angel of God.” Whether these verses imply or presuppose the “two natures” of Christ, Paul does not say. He shows no interest in that question here. (Whether Phil 2.6-11 implies or presupposes Christ’s “pre-existence” and “two natures” is the subject of much debate.)
That “God’s son” was born of a Jewish mother (v. 4) establishes that he was a Jew by birth. That is important for Paul’s claim that all who “belong” to or are “in” Christ, whether Jew or Greek (3.23-29), are “adopted” as legal heirs of this undeniable Jew (4.5b-7; compare 2.15).
In addition, “born of a woman” marks a shift from Jesus’ male ancestry. In Galatians, Jesus is Abraham’s singular “offspring” (3.16). In 4.4 and 4.21-31, the focus is on the role of women in the birth of Jesus and in the birth of “children of promise.” Both births bring about liberation from slavery—on the one hand, through Jesus, “born of a woman,” and on the other hand, through Isaac, born of “a free woman … according to the Spirit” (4.23, 26, 28-29, 31).
Verses 5-7 turn from the birth of “God’s son” to his saving work. Paul begins with “those who were under the law” (v. 5a): namely, the Jews. Only Jews, whether by birth or by conversion, were “under the law” (2.15-21 and 3.10, 23-25). Gentiles were not “under the law,” except insofar as the law declared that those who were not “under” it did not belong to “Abraham’s offspring.”
Jews were “enslaved” and “minors” because they were “under the law” until “faith”/Christ “came” (3.23-25) and liberated (ἐξαγοράζω) them (4.3-5a). Earlier, Paul announced that God had liberated (ἐξαιρέω) Jews and gentiles from forces that ordered and ruled “the present evil age” (1.4). Later, Paul calls these forces “the elemental forces of this world,” which held Jews and gentiles in slavery as long as they were “minors” (4.3). The implication of 4.3-5a is that existence “under the law” described the existence of Jews as “minors” and as slaves under “the elemental forces of this world,” which ordered and ruled “the present evil age.”
“A literal rendering of ἀγοράζω or ἐξαγοράζω as ‘to release by means of paying a price’ can be misinterpreted in the sense that Christ actually engaged in some kind of monetary transaction. A literal translation may also lead to the mistaken interpretation, which was widespread in the Middle Ages, that in redeeming the believers God actually paid a price to the Devil” (Louw-Nida, Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament, 37.131 ἀγοράζω; ἐξαγοράζω). In the Pauline letters, verbs for “purchase for a price” (ἀγοράζω and ἐξαγοράζω) appear only in 1 Cor 6.20, 7.23, Gal 3.13, and 4.5. The first two are in the passive voice, which probably implies that God is the active agent. The other two are in the active voice: Christ is the subject of the verb in Gal 3.13; either God’s “son” or God, who “sent” God’s “son,” is the subject of the verb in 4.5. These verses never identify to whom God and/or Christ paid “a price,” which would require the preposition παρά with the genitive, “from” (BDAG ἀγοράζω 1). Only Gal 3.13 alludes to the “price”: namely, Christ’s death on a cross.
In Gal 3.1 and 4.5, the emphasis is on the concept of release—liberation—from something. That is consistent with the use of the verb ἐξαγοράζω, which has the prepositional prefix ἐξ (ἐκ, “from”). Either ἐκ or ἀπό with the genitive serves to indicate from whom or from what the purchase or release separates (BDAG ἀγοράζω 2 and ἐξαγοράζω 1). By sending God’s “son,” God “redeemed those who were under the law”—namely, Jews (4.5). For that from which God redeemed Jews, we have to rehearse the earlier narrative in this letter. Through his death on a cross, Christ “redeemed us”—everyone, Jews and gentiles—from “the present evil age” (1.4). Through his death on a cross, Christ “redeemed us”—everyone who lives from “works of the law,” that is, whose life and identity are defined by observing Jewish law (3.10), namely, Jews—from “the curse of the law” (3.13). By participation, through faith, in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, everything (and, therefore, everyone) would be set free from the power of sin (3.22). Consequently, the coming of Christ (the Messiah) released Jews from their “pedagogue,” the law (3.23-25). Those who lived “under the law” God redeemed from slavery to “the elemental forces of the world” (4.3-5a).
Gentiles were “enslaved” and “minors” (4.3), not because they were “under the law,” but because they were enslaved to “beings that by nature are not gods” (4.8). Paul was writing to gentile Galatians who were being persuaded that they needed to live “under the law.” In that context, Paul seems to be equating living “under the law” with being “enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.” It seems that “the law” was one of the “elemental spirits of the world”—that is, one of the forces that order and rule the “the present evil age” (1.4; 3.19). The law established the division of humanity into Israelites/Jews and Greeks/Romans—people of the circumcision and people of the uncircumcision—and it set the social order of genders and status (3.28). In this context, “the law” refers both to the Jewish law “ordained through angels by a mediator” (3.19) and to Greek/Roman law. The former privileged Israelites/Jews, whereas the latter privileged Greeks/Romans. In both cases, the law divided humanity into Greeks and barbarians, the wise and the foolish (Rom 1.14). Paul’s view in Galatians is that the Messiah brought an end to the era of “the law” and with it the end of such divisions (Gal 3.23-4.7).
Throughout his letters, Paul is clear that Jews who are “in Christ” / “belong to Christ” remain Jews and Greeks/Romans who are “in Christ” / “belong to Christ” remain Greeks/Romans. The latter are “grafted” into Israel (Romans 9-11; Gal 4.16), but Paul never calls them Jews or Israelites. All who “belong to Christ” are “saints.” Jewish and Greco-Roman laws give neither Jews nor gentiles their identity “in Christ.” Rather, Christ gives all who are “in Christ” / “belong to Christ” their new identity. As Paul says, “God sent God’s son … so that we might receive adoption as children” (4.4, 5b).
Paul’s view is that all, both Jew and gentile, who belong to “Abraham’s offspring,” which is singular and refers to Christ (3.29), are “adopted.” All who are “in Christ” / “belong to Christ” are “children of promise” (4.21-31). “Adoption” of everyone, whether they are Jews or gentiles, “in Christ” / “belonging to Christ,” who was a Jew by birth (Gal 4.4), supersedes biological and ethnic ancestry! When Paul reaffirms that “adoption as [God’s] sons” belongs to Israelites (Rom 9.4), that cannot mean that it “belongs” to them exclusively; rather, it means that it is integral to Israel’s traditions.
Paul shifts from the metaphor of minor children/children of age to adoption. The latter metaphor makes it clear that Paul did not have in mind a “developmental process.” For the full meaning of the adoption metaphor we need to bring in the concepts of being “clothed” with Christ (3.27), being “in Christ” (3.28), and “belonging” to Christ (3.29). These concepts imply that “adoption” as legal heirs—namely, of Abraham’s “offspring,” who is Christ—comes from union with Christ. Because Christ is God’s “son,” those who are united with Christ are also “children of God” (compare Rom 8.15-16).
The Greek word the NRSV translates as “adoption” (υἱοθεσία) is a legal technical term for adopting children with the result, or for the purpose, that they would have full rights as “heirs,” κληρονόμοι (3.29 and 4.7). In the Greco-Roman world, only male children would be legal heirs. Nevertheless, in the Pauline letters, “gender specificity” is relevant only insofar as adoption as heirs comes from union with God’s “son.”
For the object or content of this inheritance, we have to go back to “the promise” in 3.29 and its antecedent in 3.14, namely, the Spirit. In addition, the inheritance includes “adoption,” which is the work of the Spirit, who witnesses to that reality by crying out “Abba Father” in the hearts of all who are in Christ (4.6). Because they are “born according to the Spirit,” they are “children of the promise” (4.28-29).
Verse 6 begins with a Greek conjunction (ὅτι), which most modern translations give a causal sense (“because”); however, the NAB translates v. 6a as a “content clause,” that is, as an explanation of the Spirit’s cry, “Abba Father,” as “proof that you are children.” The NAB grasps the sense of v. 6; however, as a translation of v. 6, it is problematic. It is simpler to take ὅτι in a causal sense (“because”) than to take v. 6a as an ellipsis that requires the addition of “as proof.” Verse 6 says that God sends “the Spirit of God’s son” into the “hearts” of those who are “children [of God]” through their union with Christ. In other words, it says that “the Spirit of God’s son” cries out “Abba Father” in the “hearts” of those who are “in Christ,” because they are “children.”
The NRSV and NAB translation of the Greek word υἱοί, (“sons”) as “children” is potentially misleading, because it sounds too much like “minors” (vv. 1 and 3), which was the condition of Jews and non-Jews before their life “in Christ.” Here we encounter the tension between the gendered and non-gendered meanings of this metaphor. On the one hand, ancient laws limited the inheritance rights of both Jews and non-Jews only to male children (“sons”). In addition, because Jesus Christ is “God’s son,” all who are “in Christ” become “sons [of God].” On the other hand, Paul clearly intended to include females in 4.3-7. Besides, 3.28 silences the male gendered resonances of Paul’s metaphor! I applaud the effort to translate this term in a way that expresses the inclusion of females among those whom Christ transforms into “heirs” of God’s promises.
Readers interested in the history of doctrine might want to know whether this verse is “Trinitarian.” Later theologians made use of texts like this when they formulated early Christian doctrines about the relationship between God the Father, Son, and Spirit, but it is anachronistic to attribute such developments to Paul. This issue is beyond the horizon of Paul’s thought-world. Besides, it is secondary to the main point, which is twofold: First, “the Spirit of God’s son” comes into “our hearts” through God’s “sending” action, just as “God’s son” came into the world through God’s “sending” action. This Spirit is not an independent agent; rather, it carries out God’s purpose, which is to witness to the new identity of those who are “in Christ.”
My Greek students know how much I love to play with Greek genitives: Does the “of” in this phrase signify possession (“the Spirit that God’s son has or possesses”), origin (“the Spirit that comes from God’s son”), or identity (“the Spirit which is God’s son”)? The first is implied in the idea that the risen Christ has a “Spirit-body” and became a “life-giving Spirit” (1 Cor 15.44-45). The second appears only in the “sending” formula, according to which God sends the Spirit, which presupposes and implies that the Spirit originates in and comes from God. The most common, if not exclusive, usage is the identification of “the Spirit” with either God or God’s son/Christ. In Gal 4.6, “the Spirit of God’s son” is the same “Christ who lives in me,” namely, “God’s son, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2.20).
What sense can we make of the switch to this first person plural (“God sent the Spirit of God’s son into our hearts”) right after the second person plural (“because you are children”)? This switch could be due to Paul’s use of a traditional “sending formula,” which already referred to “our hearts” (as most scholars believe). Why didn’t Paul change it to “your”? The best explanation is that, in v. 6a, Paul affirmed that the Galatians and other non-Jews were fully heirs of God’s promises. In v. 6b, he affirmed that God sent “the Spirit of God’s son” into the “hearts” of both Jews and non-Jews “in Christ.” God’s saving action in/through Christ is the same for all people—the Galatians and other “nations” (ἔθνη) “in Christ” and Paul and other Jews “in Christ.” Before Christ “came,” “we”—everyone, Jews and non-Jews—were “minors” and in a state of slavery (v. 3). Jews were “under the law” (v. 5a); the Galatians and other “nations” were slaves “to beings that by nature are not gods” (v. 8, which elaborates on the “you” in v. 7). The point is that “the Spirit of God’s son” bears witness that God is “Abba Father” of both Jews and non-Jews who are “in Christ.”
Later scribes replaced the “our” with a plural “your” (as in the KJV). This attempt to “correct” the Greek syntax of v. 6b has the effect, perhaps intended, that “God sent the Spirit of God’s son” into the “hearts” only of the Galatians and other non-Jews “in Christ.” That would exclude Jews “in Christ.” Paul, a Jew by birth, would not have excluded himself, and he would not have excluded other Jews “by birth” who agreed that God declared as “righteous” those who shared the “faith/faithfulness of Christ” (2.15-16)! Paul recognized the danger that arrogance could arise among non-Jews “in Christ,” and that it could boil over into discrimination against Jews in their communities. As if to try to nip in the bud what would become a history of Christian hostility toward Jews, including Jewish Christians, Paul warned non-Jews “in Christ” not to become conceited; instead, they should remember the “mystery” that God shows “mercy” to all who are “disobedient,” whether they are from Israel or other nations (Rom 11.13-36).
Interpreters speculate about what, if anything, “the Spirit of God’s son” cries, “Abba Father” had to do with the Lord’s Prayer (most believe not), and whether this cry of the Spirit occurred during baptism (most believe it does). Although I also devoted a section of my Spirit in Galatia (1989; reprinted 2006) to these issues, interesting as they are, they are secondary to the main point of v. 6. That the Spirit utters this cry underscores the theme, expressed in v. 4, that proclamation of the gospel is about God’s redeeming, liberating acts. Important as human teachers and catechesis are, v. 6 focuses on the role of “the Spirit of God’s son.” The “son” who calls God “Abba Father” bears witness to Jews and non-Jews who are “in Christ” that God is also their “Abba Father.”
What is up with the combination of the Aramaic “Abba” (a Greek transliteration) and the Greek “Father” (ὁ πατήρ)? Perhaps it means no more than that Paul translated the Aramaic for a Greek-speaking audience (so also Rom 8.15). In any case, it fits the context of Paul’s affirmation of the unity-in-diversity “in Christ” of Jews and gentiles, who are ethnically different (3.28).
The “no longer” in v. 7 signifies that the period of “slavery” is over. Christ rescued them from the forces of the “present evil age” (1.4). It is interesting that Paul does not introduce concepts of repentance and God’s mercy and forgiveness as solutions to the problem of human existence. Rather, he introduces concept of transformation through union with Christ. Jews and gentiles alike become “children of God” through God’s “son,” Christ (the Messiah), and his Spirit. As “adopted children of God,” they are freed from all the “elemental forces of this world”: sin, beings that are not gods, and Jewish and Greco-Roman laws that create divisions between peoples.
Two Israelite rituals provide the setting for Simeon and Anna’s prophecies (see the end of this commentary for additional comments). The first is the dedication of the firstborn male to a life of service to God (vv. 22b-23). It has its origins in the narrative about God’s sparing firstborn Israelite males when God killed Egyptian firstborn males (Exodus 13). When Levites took over serving God in the temple cult, thereby replacing the firstborn males, parents were expected to “buy back” (“redeem”) firstborn males by paying five shekels of silver (twenty denarii, equivalent to 20 days’ wages at the time of Jesus) to the temple treasury (Num 18.15-16). Lk 2.22-24, instead of mentioning payment for Jesus’ “redemption,” portrays Jesus’ presentation in the temple, which was not required for his “redemption.” Either the author was uniformed about the Levite replacement for this ritual, or intentionally brought back the archaic, pre-Levite tradition, in order to emphasize the dedication of Jesus to a life of service to God. The latter is correct, as v. 27 and prophecies by Simeon and Anna about Jesus’ divinely ordained destiny (vv. 29-32 and 38; in addition, see v. 40) show.
The second Israelite ritual actually frames the first, which is sandwiched between a reference to a woman’s purification after childbirth (v. 22a) and its fulfillment (v. 24). To signify the completion of her period of purification (40 days), she was to bring to the priest—at the entrance to the temple, which was as far as a woman could enter the temple—an offering (Leviticus 12) of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons” (Lk 2.24) if she could not afford a lamb (Lev 12.8). The author’s conflation of this ritual with the tradition about the firstborn son is confused and confusing. That makes no difference! The point of 2.22-40 becomes clear in vv. 25-40. Jesus’ life of service to God, which began with his parents’ faithful observance of Israel’s laws (vv. 22-24), would reveal God’s salvation to “all peoples” (vv. 30-32). However, God also had destined him to be the cause of “many in Israel” to “fall” and “rise,” though for most he would be a “sign” that they will “oppose” (v. 34).
This is an artful confusion. To signify that the frame within which Jesus’ story has its meaning is the royal Davidic narrative, the author used an imperial census to bring Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem, so that Jesus could be born in the city of David. Now the author uses rituals required by “the law of Moses” (or “of the Lord”) to bring Jesus’ parents to Jerusalem, and specifically into the temple. Jesus’ life will end in Jerusalem (9.31, 51, 53; 13.22, 33; 17.11; 18.31; etc.); and his disciples will begin their mission in Jerusalem, in the temple, and from there go out to all the nations (Lk 24.33, 47, 52-53; Acts 1.4, 8; 2.46). On the one hand, the purification ritual, which required a temple setting, brought Jesus and his parents into the temple—the setting that Simeon and Ann’s prophecies required. On the other hand, the presentation of Jesus, as the firstborn son, to a life of service to God is part of the author’s dependence on the story about Samuel for the infancy narrative about Jesus (Lk 2.22b-23, 27 echoes 1 Sam 1.24-28; Lk 2.34a echoes 1 Sam 2.20; Lk 2.37 echoes 1 Sam 2.22; Lk 2.40 echoes 1 Sam 2.21, 26). The echoes to Samuel call to mind Israel’s prophet who anointed Israel’s first king, Saul, and his successor, David. In addition, Samuel held Israelites accountable to their covenant with God. Both themes permeate Jesus’ story in this Gospel. The ritual confusion in today’s reading is part of the author’s artful narrative theology!
I will comment further on three things: the “the consolation of Israel” and “the redemption of Jerusalem” (vv. 25 and 38), “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (v. 32), and “the falling and rising of many in Israel” (v. 34).
First, the “the consolation of Israel” (v. 25) and the “redemption of Jerusalem” (v. 38): For most of the history of Christianity, the Christian emphasis on human repentance and divine forgiveness has limited “salvation” to God’s forgiveness of sin(s). As important as that has been, it has obscured other aspects of salvation in the New Testament witnesses. For example, here the language of “consolation” and “redemption,” which are parallel to the term “salvation,” are social and geo-political terms. In Isaiah, “consolation/comfort” had to do with the restoration of the people of Israel—specifically, their return from Babylonian exile to Judea and the rebuilding of the temple (Isa 40.1; 49.13; 51.3; 52.9-10; 57.18; 61.2). The term “redemption” referred to liberation, being set free, for example, from financial debts or other obligations, especially for slaves. To be sure, these geo-political and social realities reflected and expressed God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sins. God’s forgiveness of Israel’s sins was about palpable, concrete, social, and geo-political realities; it was not primarily about personal, internal feelings of relief from guilt. The emphasis on geo-political and social realities permeates Luke’s infancy narrative (1.30-33, 46-55, 68-79) and the rest of its story of Jesus and the apostles (4.18-19; 6.20-38; 24.21; Acts 1.6-8). This Gospel and its sequel, the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, describe salvation as repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Lk 24.47; Acts 2.38; 26.20; and many others). That, however, is connected with hope for the “redemption” of Israel (Lk 24.21), the “restoration of the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1.6), on the one hand, and the prophecy that Jerusalem was doomed, destined for destruction (Lk 13.34-35; 21.20-24; 23.28-31), on the other!
Furthermore, the “the consolation of Israel” (the “redemption of Jerusalem”) was not just for Israel’s benefit. Rather it was for “all peoples” (Lk 2.31). It was not just for the “glory” of Israel as “God’s people” (2.32b). Rather, it was also “a light for revelation to the nations” (2.32a). Long before Jesus, a movement began within Israel to replace the belief that Israel’s God was care only about the historic destiny of Israelites with the belief that this God, the one and only God, was the creator of all creation and cared for all creation—and, therefore, all people. This was also a move from the belief that God “chose” Israel as God’s people simply for the benefit of Israel to the belief that Israel should be a light to the nations (“gentiles”).
An interesting parallel is that the Greco-Roman god Zeus/Jupiter was the “father” of the gods and of all people. Imperial Rome believed that Jupiter and the rest of the gods favored the Romans, because of the superiority of their virtues in comparison with the rest of the world (“barbarians”), as their military conquest of the known world demonstrated. Although they believed that Rome was the primary beneficiary of the gods’ providential favor, some also believed that Rome should be a beacon of virtue and a revelation of divine benevolence to the rest of the world. In addition, some believed that all people proclaimed Zeus to be “king in heaven” (Pausanias 2.24.2)!
Second, “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (v. 32): Up to v. 31, the focus has been on devout, law-observant Jews: Jesus’ parents and Simeon (and Anna in the next narrative). In vv. 31-32, we learn that God “prepared” this salvation “in the presence of all peoples”—Israel and all nations (v. 31). As Acts 13.47 and 26.23 show, Lk 2.32a echoes Isa 49.6 (“a light to the nations”), but with an added explanation, “a light for revelation to the nations.” It announces that Jesus is the “light” that will reveal God’s salvation is also for “the nations”—that is, “all peoples.”
This presupposes that gentiles (non-Jews, “the nations”) were without “light for revelation.” From the perspective of process theology, God reveals God’s “light,” not just to “all peoples,” but also to all things—literally, to everything that ever existed or will exist, without exception. The “light” God reveals, however, is not the same for everything. The “light” that God reveals is always for “particular occasions.” We can affirm that the “light” that God revealed to “the nations” before and apart from ancient Israel’s prophets, Jesus, and the apostles was a different, particular “light.” Through Jesus and the apostles, God revealed that the “light” that God had been revealing through ancient Israel’s prophets was not just for Israelites but also for “the nations” (“all peoples”).
The second part of v. 32 (“a light … for glory to your people Israel”) focuses on what Jesus brings to the people of Israel. Just as Jesus, “a light,” brings a “revelation” to “the nations,” so also Jesus is “a light” who brings “glory,” that is, praise and honor, to the people of Israel. (See my comments above on Isaiah).
Third, the “falling and rising of many in Israel”: Simeon’ first oracle praises God for preparing salvation so that all peoples could see it (2.28-32). His second (vv. 34-35), addressed to Mary, is a judgment oracle. It foreshadows the future response to Jesus by the people of Israel (v. 34b; compare 12.51-53). Those who reject him will “fall” (compare “stumbling” over a stone in Isa 8.14 and Rom 9.32-33), which means that they will be subject to God’s judgment. On the other hand, those who embrace him (for which Simeon is the paradigm in v. 28) will “rise.” The noun here (ἀνάστασις) usually refers to “resurrection from the dead.” Here, however, it means that God will lift them up from a low position. The emphasis is on the “falling,” because the oracle goes on to say that Jesus “is destined … to be a sign that will be opposed” (v. 34c). This judgment oracle echoes the earlier “reversal” theme of God’s bringing down the rich and powerful and lifting up the poor and lowly (1.26-38 and 2.1-20).
The third part of this judgment oracle has two parts. The first (English translations reverse the order in Greek) is a parenthesis, a kind of aside about the pain Mary will experience (v. 35a) because so many people of Israel will be among those who “fall.” Others have proposed that her pain will be due to opposition to Jesus that will lead to his execution; however, there has been little or no hint of that at this point in the birth narrative. The rest of this oracle (v. 35b) resumes commenting on “the many in Israel” (v. 34). God will reveal their “thoughts”: the author uses a term that, in this Gospel, always refers to hostile thoughts and questions by those who oppose Jesus (5.22; 6.8; 9.46-47; 24.38).
Paul already saw that the decision of most Jews to deny that Jesus was the Messiah Israel expected could lead to contempt of Jews by those who put their faith in Jesus. He wrote strongly against this tendency in his letter to the Romans. But the tendency persisted through the centuries.
That Jesus became a flashpoint for division among Jews, and that the majority of Jews from Jesus’ time to the present have not believed that Jesus was the Messiah are historical facts. That the majority have “fallen” is a theological judgment from the perspective of those who embraced Jesus as the Messiah. Long before Jesus, Israel’s prophets pronounced judgment on Israelites who opposed God’s messengers. That, however, never meant that God had rescinded God’s promise that Israelites were God’s people and that God was their God. Luke’s Gospel is in the tradition of Israel’s prophets who announce that Israelites (and any other peoples) who reject God’s messengers and their message are subject to God’s judgment for their decision.
Typical of this Gospel, a female character, Anna, is paired with a male, Simeon (vv. 36-38). Whereas Luke tells us little about Simeon, Luke gives a lot of attention to describing Anna (vv. 36-37). In v. 25, we learn almost nothing about Simeon—although we learn everything that we need to know! He typifies those in Jerusalem who were “righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel.”
In addition, we learn that “the Holy Spirit rested on him” (v. 25), that the Spirit revealed to him that he would see the Messiah before Simeon died (v. 26), and that “he came ‘by the Spirit’ into the temple,” that is, the Spirit guided him into the temple (v. 27). The repeated mention of the role of the Spirit shifts the focus from Simeon to God, in the form of the Spirit, as the main actor. God has made it possible for devout, law-observant Jews in Jerusalem to believe that Jesus brings and is God’s salvation for them.
Luke identifies Anna (in Greek, Hanna) as a prophet and as the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Asher, which establishes her deep Israelite ancestry (v. 36a). That’s not all: “She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage [in Greek, “her virginity”], then as a widow to the age of eighty-four”—or “for 84 years,” in which case she would have been about 105 years old (vv.36b-37a). Finally, we learn that “she never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day” (v. 37b). In short, she exemplifies extremely devout Jewish widows!
Whereas Luke allows Simeon to deliver his prophecy in direct speech (vv. 29-32 and 34-35), Luke only alludes to Anna’s prophecy (v. 38). The term “redemption” in “all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” suggests that her prophecy was the same as Simeon’s (compare “the consolation of Israel in v. 38). Whereas the “all” in Simeon’s prophecy refers to “all peoples” (v. 31), that is, all nations (v. 32a), the “all” in Anna’s prophecy refers to all Jews in Jerusalem (v. 38). A few ancient manuscripts substitute Israel; others insert “in” (“all in Jerusalem who were looking for redemption”). The best manuscripts make Jerusalem—as “a collective for its [Jewish] inhabitants” (BDAG Ἱεροσόλυμα/ Ἰερουσαλήμ 2)—the object/recipient of “redemption.”
In addition, although the Greek noun (λύτρωσις) translated “redemption” has a commercial meaning (redeem for a price), its meaning in Luke is not commercial. God does not pay a ransom to the Devil for Jerusalem! (See my comments above about Gal 4.5a.) Rather, this term signifies the liberation of Jerusalem “from an oppressive situation” (BDAG λύτρωσις 1). As Simeon has just said, Jesus will cause “the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (v. 34); and Jesus’ mother will mourn the “many in Israel” who will “fall” (v. 35).
Echoing the description of Samuel in 1 Sam 2.26, Luke describes Jesus’ “childhood development” with a single phrase: “he kept growing and becoming strong by being filled with wisdom” (v. 40; also v. 52). Earlier, Luke described John’s childhood with a similar phrase (1.80): John “kept growing and becoming strong in [his] spirit.” Here “spirit” refers to “the part of human inner life” that is “the source and seat of insight” etc. (BDAG πνεῦμα 3,b). With these brief phrases, Luke alludes to Jesus and John’s “education,” following the typical pattern of Greco-Roman biographies, in which descriptions of the “education” of historical figures would follow treatments of their births and parents. Luke continues with Jesus’ “education” in vv. 41-52. Jesus amazed his teachers in the temple with his “insight” (vv. 46-47). Just as Luke had described his parents devout observers of Jewish law and temple festivals (vv. 22-24, 39, 41), Luke describes Jesus’ “wisdom” and “insight” as firmly grounded in pious Jewish teachers in the temple.
In v. 22, the phrase “when the days of their purification had been completed,” presents the interpreter with three problems.
The pronoun “their” with “purification” has led to early scribal emendations. Some replace it with “her,” because the law applied only to women (Lev 12.1-8). Others replaced it with “his,” to indicate that it was Jesus who required “purification” as part of his consecration as God’s Messiah. Still others simply deleted the pronoun.
To what “their purification” refers is not clear. The law specifies that the woman is not to enter the sanctuary until the completion of “the days of her purification”: namely, 40 days after the birth of the male child (Lev 12.1-8). Therefore, v. 22 could refer to the end of the 40 days. On the other hand, “their purification” could also refer to their offering that would mark the completion of the purification.
The final clause of v. 22 and its explanation in v. 23 refer, not to the purification of a woman after childbirth, but to the parents’ dedication of the firstborn son to God (Exod 13.2, 12, and 15). In v. 24, however, the offering of two “turtle doves or pigeons” seems to refer to the ritual of the purification of women after childbirth (Lev 12.1-8). On the other hand, it could refer to the offering for the atonement of sin (Lev 5.7, 11). However, neither the purification of women after childbirth nor the dedication of the firstborn son requires a sin offering. If it refers to a sin offering, therefore, it is a super-added ritual, demonstrating the righteousness of the Jesus’ parents.
The Gospel’s author has either wittingly or unwittingly conflated and/or confused two Jewish rituals. In the narrative, these ambiguous or confusing details serve three purposes.
First, they provide an important setting for the story about Jesus and his followers: namely, the temple in Jerusalem. The author of this Gospel used an imperial census to bring Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem, so that Jesus could be born in the city of David, to signify that the frame within which Jesus’ story has its meaning is the royal Davidic narrative. Now the author uses rituals required by “the law of Moses” (or “of the Lord”) to bring Jesus’ parents to Jerusalem, and specifically into the temple. Jesus’ life will end in Jerusalem (9.31, 51, 53; 13.22, 33; 17.11; 18.31; etc.); and his disciples will begin their mission in Jerusalem, in the temple, and from there go out to all the nations (Lk 24.33, 47, 52-53; Acts 1.4, 8; 2.46).
Second, the focus is less on the ritual details than on the presentation of Jesus’ parents as Israelites devoted to the fulfillment of Israel’s law. Jesus was born of a Jewish mother and of law-observant parents. These impeccable credentials were necessary for one who will reveal and bring God’s salvation to Israel!
Third, the focus of these opening verses is on the consecration of Jesus, a firstborn son, for service to God—in the first instance, as a remembrance of the Israelites’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. In this case, Jesus’ parents, knowingly or not, consecrate Jesus for his role as the Messiah. The connection with the Exodus narrative interprets Jesus’ messianic role, and consequently, God’s salvation, with liberation from slavery. That is what occasions Simeon and Anna’s doxologies. They are personifications of devout, law-observant Jews in Jerusalem, who faithfully waited for God’s salvation of Israel, and found it in Jesus.
The narrative structure provides clues for the interpretation of vv. 25-35. After the introduction of the main character, Simeon (vv. 25-27), the remainder of this section consists of two oracles. Simeon’s act of cradling Jesus in his arms (v. 28a) introduces the first oracle (vv. 29-32), which is doxological (v. 28b). By means of Simeon’s canticle (which has become known by the Latin translation of the first words, Nunc Dimittis, “now dismiss”), the author foretells Jesus’ destiny as God’s agent of salvation for “all peoples”—a salvation deeply and firmly rooted in Jewish wisdom.
For those of you who wish to consult study Bibles, I recommend the following:
The New Interpreter’s Study Bible, ed. Walter J. Harrelson (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003).
HarperCollins Study Bible: NRSV with the Apocryphal/ Deuterocanonical Books, Revised & Updated Edition, ed. Harold W. Attridge et al. (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2006).
The Jewish Annotated New Testament: New Revised Standard Version, eds. Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Isaiah 61-62, I recommend the following:
The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), 6:513-17.
The Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (London: SPCK; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992 [I had no access to the 1998 expanded edition]), 166-68.
NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Isaiah+61:10 (or BibleWorks)
For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Psalm 148, I recommend the following:
The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 4:1270-73.
Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The Old Testament and Apocrypha, eds. Gale A. Yee, Hugh R. Page, and Matthew J. M. Coomber (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 595-97.
Marti J. Steussy, Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 202.
The Women’s Bible Commentary, eds. Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe (London: SPCK; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992 [I had no access to the 1998 expanded edition]), 137-44.
NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Psalms+148 (or BibleWorks)
For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Gal 4.1-7, I recommend the following:
Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1979), 202-12.
The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2000), 11:280-86, 289-92.
J. Louis Martyn, Galatians, Anchor Bible 33A (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 384-408.
Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, eds. Margaret P. Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 516-19.
Global Bible Commentary, eds. Daniel Patte and Teresa Okure (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 468-70.
NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Galatians+4 (or BibleWorks).
For those of you who wish to consult commentaries on Luke 2, I recommend the following:
Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah: A Commentary on the Infancy Narratives in Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Image Books, a division of Doubleday, 1979/1977), 435-70.
François Bovon, Luke 1: A Commentary on Luke 1:1-9:50, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 95-107.
The New Interpreter’s Bible, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 9:68-75.
Fortress Commentary on the Bible: The New Testament, eds. Margaret P. Aymer, Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, and David A. Sánchez (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014), 219-22.
Global Bible Commentary, eds. Daniel Patte and Teresa Okure (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2004), 389.
NET Bible translation notes: https://net.bible.org/#!bible/Luke+2 (or BibleWorks).
David J. Lull, Professor Emeritus of New Testament, Wartburg Theological Seminary, is a resident of Pilgrim Place in Claremont, CA. He holds a B.A. degree from Iowa Wesleyan College), a Master of Divinity degree from Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, and a Ph.D. degree from Claremont Graduate University. An ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, David taught New Testament at Yale University Divinity School, and was the Executive Director of the Society of Biblical Literature. As the director of the Bible Translation and Utilization unit of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., he was the “creative consultant” for the documentary film The Bible Under Fire: The Story of the RSV Translations. His publications in the area of Pauline studies include Chalice Press Commentaries for Today on Romans (with John B. Cobb, Jr.) and 1 Corinthians (with William A. Beardslee); and The Spirit in Galatia (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). He also co-authored (with William A. Beardslee, John B. Cobb, Jr., and others) Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (reprinted by Wipf & Stock). His most recent publication is a major review essay covering more than a dozen books on “Paul and Empire” in Religious Studies Review 36/4 (2010): 251-62.