2014 February Issue
Commentary: Luke 2:22-40
Whereas the Scripture lessons for Advent were considered in anticipation of Jesus' birth, this one for the first Sunday after Christmas will be considered in light of the reality of his birth. In this passage in which Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple, and through their encounters with Simeon and Anna, Luke sets forth what this Jesus who is the "Son of God" (Lk 1.35) would do, and how his presence would affect all people. An exploration of key concepts, Luke's use of contrast, and the context, in which the text is found, will assist in its interpretation.
The two concepts most frequently employed, and so worthy of attention, are the law and the Holy Spirit. Not only is the law mentioned five times (vv. 22,23,24,27&39), but the entire passage is framed within the context of obedience to the law. Luke writes at the beginning of the passage that Joseph and Mary, "brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord" (v.22). In spite of what Mary learned about Jesus from the angel Gabriel (Lk 1:26-38), it does not seem to occur to her that his divine status relieves him or his parents from the obligation to keep the law. When the requirements of the law are fulfilled, Joseph, Mary and Jesus return to Nazareth. Herein we learn something about Luke's understanding of the law. It is a gift from God, which brings structure and order to life, as well as a guide to living in righteousness. With this in mind, the function of the Holy Spirit in this passage is clarified.
It is through Simeon that the work of the Holy Spirit is most evident. Luke tells us that, "It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death until he had seen the Lord's Messiah" (v.26), and that it was the prompting of the Spirit which led him to the temple on that day he saw Jesus. One cannot overlook that it was in the context of obedience that Simeon was able to discern the voice of the Holy Spirit and recognize the Christ child, because, as Luke writes, "this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel" (v.25). Such a person would have been aware of the Scriptures which promised comfort to his people (Is 40:1-11), but it was God's spirit working through Simeon's disciplined life that enabled him to see Jesus for who he was, and thereby confirm the words of Gabriel to Mary.
Luke provides valuable insight to those who ask how to live in the light of Jesus' presence. Rather than promoting libertinism, he suggests that it is through faithful obedience that we are prepared to be willing agents through which the Holy Spirit works, and so able to recognize and respond to the Christ when we encounter him.
Luke frequently uses contrast to make his point. In Simeon and Anna we meet the aged, and in Jesus the very young. Simeon's speech of praise includes reference to Gentiles, and Israel, while in his address to Mary he proclaims that Jesus will be responsible for the, "falling and rising of many" (v.34). Whereas this use of language adds color and variety to Luke's message, it is also a helpful angle from which to interpret the passage.
When Simeon takes Jesus into his arms he proclaims that Jesus will be, "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel" (v.32). Since anyone who was not an Israelite was a Gentile, Jesus' coming would clearly affect all people. In this instance, Luke's use of contrast indicates the scope of the salvation which would be possible through Jesus Christ. It is one of many examples of Luke's emphasis on inclusivity which is found throughout his account.
Luke also draws attention through his use of contrast to new possibilities, which the future holds in light of what Jesus will accomplish. Simeon's response to the child reveals that through Jesus salvation will come to all people. Yet, it is an elderly widow, who does not even have full access to the temple, who hears Simeon's words and passes them along to, "all who were looking for the redemption of Israel" (v.38). From the very beginning Luke makes it clear that all people would be equipped to be Jesus' servants and to share in his glory. The fulfillment of this promise would be costly, however. As Luke reminds us through Simeon in verses 34-35, the unrest, which would accompany Jesus’ coming, would have both social and personal implications. Jesus would be responsible for the, "falling and rising of many" (v.34), and because of his death, not even his mother would be free from suffering. The light and glory which Luke promises through Simeon, then, is inseparable from the inevitable suffering and soul-searching, which by worldly standards would appear to be its opposite.
This text for the first Sunday after Christmas is a continuation of the "orderly account" (Lk 1:3), which Luke sets down according to his introduction. This visit to the temple out of obedience to the law is Luke's way of showing that in spite of the wondrous events surrounding Jesus' birth, Jesus is not above the law. In fact, it is through the confluence of Mary and Joseph's obedience to the law and Simeon's heeding of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus' identity and the impact of his life and ministry to come are revealed. A few people are beginning to understand who Jesus is and what he will mean to them. Yet, in the passage, which follows, Jesus is already twelve years old, leaving a gap for which there is no account. Perhaps this should cause us to listen closely to this story, in, which the old and young meet, and the ancient wisdom of the law converges with fresh insight through the Holy Spirit. For the same Christ we follow when there is no clear account of what will ensue, is the one who according to Luke was, "filled with wisdom, and the favor of God was upon him" (v.40).
Holly D. Hayes
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