There is some hesitation on my part as we begin exploring Luke’s Gospel which will be our guide through this Liturgical year until December of 2022. The hesitation comes with this first part of what will be three talks on Luke’s Gospel. About 100 years ago, I got in a lot of trouble for telling my little sister that there was no Santa Clause. I felt it my duty to tell her because I had just come to realize that the Santa sitting in our living room was one of my aunts. Her perfume was the giveaway. As the family story goes, one of my uncles was supposed to take on the annual role which was passed around from year to year among the four brothers. That uncle got drunk, and failed to show up. My aunt, in her usual “take charge” mode promptly ran to the garage and put on the outfit and came to the door. My hesitation comes from the fact that tonight and maybe in the following talks, I’m going to upset some long-held beliefs, some treasured images, and who knows what else.
So, let’s get into what we know and admit what we don’t know adding the truth that sometimes when we don’t know something, we make stuff to cover that lack of knowledge. There is a set of questions that ought to guide us whenever we begin to explore something: Who, When, What, Where, and How.
So, who wrote this Gospel? Luke is the name used consistently from the second century. He was a companion of Paul, a native of Antioch in Syria. That information comes from the Epistle of Paul to the Colossians and the Epistle to Timothy. There is no contrary information anywhere, so we can let that be. He was not an apostle or an eye-witness. He simply suddenly appears at Paul’s side during Paul’s second Mission. We can say that, because in Luke’s second part which we call “Acts of the Apostles” chapter 16, he suddenly switches to the first-person plural. He says, “We.”
When: The years 80 to 85 are generally accepted as the time. However, from the fact that Luke’s writing stops while Paul is still in custody around the year 63 and the fall of Jerusalem in about 70 would push it a little earlier. Here is an example of contrary data that leaves us to simply say: “We don’t really know exactly.”
It is fairly certain that Luke had at hand a copy of Mark’s account. Sixty-percent of Mark is incorporated into Luke. Probably another collection of quotations from Jesus was probably available to him and these would have been written in Aramaic. There were certainly some oral sources available from John, the deacon Philip, and Mary.
Luke’s Gospel, when it comes to literature is a masterpiece. He is very observant of mannerisms, psychological reactions, and hidden motivations. He favors minorities, segregated groups, and the underprivileged. Watch how often Samaritan, lepers, publicans, soldiers, public sinners, ignorant shepherds and poor show up. All of these people get special encouragement from this Gospel. He is writing for Gentiles. We know that because of the way he omits Semitic words and finds substitutes for them. For instance, he explains in his Gospel the meaning of “Abba”, “Rabbit”, “Ephphata”. He seldom quotes the Old Testament. This Gospel was written in Greek. It was good Greek, not easy street language. Luke is educated, and he writes to people who speak good Greek.
Finally, before we dig into the Infancy Narrative, you must keep in mind this is not History. It is theology. They are not the same. Luke makes no claim to have been an eyewitness. He tells us that he is giving us a well-ordered narrative so that we may know the truth. He says he is writing to Theophilus. He calls him “excellent”. That adjective/title was reserved for Roman Procurators. It was also a very common name, so there is no point in making a lot out of it.
At the time of Luke, there were two problems or “crises” that may have prompted his writing.
The first was the Gentiles, and with that came concepts or ideas about God. The whole Mediterranean world was very parochial, and there were as many ideas about God as there were communities, and with that then, there were different cults. That’s hard for us to understand, but it was a great challenge at the time. Rome made it even more difficult with Emperor Worship. As Rome spread across the region, the parochialism was overcome. With this came an overwhelming sense loyalty and security that drove people to side with the powerful. If you understand that world, then you can see why the message of humility and the ideas expressed in Mary’s Magnificat are seen as a revolutionary threat.
The themes of Greek plays at the time would have thought humility to be silly. The nobility of persons was the theme of their plays captivating theatergoers. Meanwhile the Christian community expected the world to believe the story of a man who died the death of a rebellious slave.
The second crises was over the Jews. The descendants of Abraham even earned the respect of Rome as it recognized that the history of these chosen people made it clear that no power could shake their fidelity to the law of their fathers. This people, reared with a profound respect for the law, their traditions, the experts would find shocking the stories of Jesus who flaunted the accepted ways and seemed so arrogant toward his religious superiors. He seemed to be encouraging social, economic, and religious sedition.
The construction of Luke’s Gospel suggests that originally the Gospel began with Chapter 3, and the Infancy Narrative was added after Acts of the Apostles was finished. The presence of the genealogy in the third chapter is hint of this possibility. Listen how it begins and see if you don’t think is the beginning. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and Philip his brother ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
In Acts of the Apostles, Chapters 1 & 2 serve as a transition from Jesus to Church with the Apostles as the figures. In the Gospel, Chapter 1 & 2 serve as a transition from Israel to Jesus with the characters as the figures. There may be three sources:
- A source for hymns:
- The Magnificat
- The Benedictus
- The Gloria
- The Nunc Dimits
- A source for parts of Chapter 2 which could stand alone
- A source for John the Baptist and the Jesus stories of Chapter 1
Think for a minute how Luke organizes Chapters 1 & 2. There are seven episodes.
- Annuniation of John the Baptist
- Annunciation of Jesus
- Birth and Circumcision of John
- Birth and Circumcision of Jesus
- Presentation in the Temple
- Finding in the Temple
There are obviously two parallels 1 & 2 and 3 & 4. The hymns fit in, but may have been added later. Episode 7 serves as a transition or story/passage.
I cannot emphasize this enough.
The Infancy Narrative is a Dramatization of Theology. It is NOT history!
It all begins with a self-contained story of a Divinely prepared conception of John the Baptist. It is so similar to the one that follow that it cannot be an accident.
With the annunciation of the Baptist’s birth we get four pieces of information:
- It is during the time of Herod the Great
- The names of the Parents are Zechariah and Elizabeth
- They and he were of Priestly descent (Tribe)
- They were old and Elizabeth was without child
Luke probably did not invent the first item because it also is supported by Matthew
The second and third items are more difficult. These are probably pieces of tradition that came to Luke perhaps from the Jerusalem community or from former followers of John who came over to the Church. With the fourth item, it is more likely that Luke is trying to establish a connection with the Old Testament rather than writing intimate family history, because there is a parallel between the parents of Samuel and John.
Now, let’s examine the Annunciation.
Gabriel shows up. The only other time in the Bible that we hear of Gabriel is in the eighth chapter of the Book of Daniel. In verse 15 Gabriel is sent to explain a vision Daniel has just had, and Gabriel scares him so much that he fell to the ground. The Book or Prophecy of Daniel proclaims the coming of everlasting justice – the final time.
In the Annunciation scene there are five steps:
- The appearance
- The fear
- The message
- The objection
- The giving of a sign
As the story goes, Zechariah should have come to the steps to give a blessing, but he cannot. In Luke’s drama, the blessing that cannot be given at the beginning is given at the end of the Gospel when Jesus ass Jesus led his disciples out to Bethany, lifted his hand over them, and blessed them. Watch how often Luke marks the end of a scene with a departure.
There is a struggle in Luke to fit John the Baptist into the schema of salvation history as part of the process of Christian self-understanding and to persuade unconverted disciple of John.
Annunciations have eight components
- The visionary is addressed by name
- A qualifying phrase describing the visionary
- The visionary is urged not to be afraid
- A woman is with child or about to be with child
- She will give birth to the (male) child
- The name by which the child is to be called
- There is an interpretation of the name
- The future accomplishments of the child.
Luke follows this patter with one exception, the name of Jesus is not explained.
The whole concept of a Virgin Birth is unheard of in the Old Testament. So, when it springs up in the Gospel, it is an entirely new idea that brings with it the sense of a “New Creation”. This is the introduction of the message and identity of Jesus as God’s Son.
The angel’s words are a free interpretation of II Samuel 7 and give the child the character of a Messiah from David’s line.
Remember what I said about departures being a way to end of scene. So, with the Visitation story, the scene of the Annunciation is complete. The Visitation itself is a bridge passage that brings together two characters of this drama: John and Jesus. As I said earlier, the addition of the hymn (Magnificat) was probably a later addition. We don’t know where they came from, but they have very deep Old Testament roots, and probably were hymns sung by the early Jewish/Christians.
Then we get two birth stories. One is of lesser importance than the other obviously by the details. John’s birth only takes two verses. In Chapter 3 Luke describes the whole career of John including his imprisonment by Herod before he narrates how John Baptized Jesus. Do you see something odd here? The Baptism of Jesus had to have happened before John was imprisoned. Again – no history here, so do not expect things to “add up”. This is Luke’s way of shifting all the focus onto Jesus. Another example is that Luke describes the growth of John into manhood before he describes the birth of Jesus which, if this was history, should have taken place only a few month later. Again, a shift of attention.
Now, that Census. It is probably the result of a confused memory of the events that brought about two Herodian reigns and the consequent political trouble around the time of Jesus’ birth. The census itself seems to be a way of explaining the presence of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. This is a literary device that provides a solemn beginning. It is ironical that the Roman Emperor, the mightiest figure in the world, is serving God’s plan by issuing an edict for the census of the whole world.
Augustus is the peaceful ruler, the one who pacified the world. Greek cities of Asia Minor (perhaps not far from where Luke was writing) adopted September 23, the birthday of Augustus as the first day of a new year, calling him a “savior.” It is hardly accidental that Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus presents a challenge to this imperial propaganda.
The birth, Swaddling & a Manger. Luke is more interested in the details than in the birth itself. Swaddling and manger are more important any anything else if you just look at the information. The manger has nothing to do with poverty, but an odd location caused by circumstances.
There is a reversal going on here. In the first chapter of Isaiah it says: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey knows the manger of its lord; but Israel has not known me. My people have not understood me.”Luke is saying that this is repealed. The shepherds have been sent to the manger to find the Lord who is the source of joy for all people of Israel.
Like the manger, the swaddling is far from a sign of poverty. It is a sign that Israel’s Messiah is not an outcast among his people but is properly cared for. In Luke, Jesus is not born like an alien in an Inn, but in a manger where God sustains and feeds his people. This is Theology. The details lead us deep into the mystery of what God is doing.
The Annunciation to the Shepherds. There is nothing sentimental intended here nor any effort on Luke’s part to identify with the common man.
This episode is tied to the Jewish idea that is much more deeply involved. It is drawing heavily from images in the Prophet Micah which anticipates and for-sees the triumph of Jerusalem by a ruler from David’s place of origin. Remember what David was? This detail ties in with a King descended from a shepherd image: David the King.
This Annunciation follows the pattern for the most part.
The core message is written in the style of an Imperial Proclamation. I like to think that this is Luke’s counter-propaganda that Jesus, not Augustus was the Savior and source of peace whose birthday marked the beginning of new time. Probably however, Isaiah 9: 5 seems to be the source: “For the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”
Then Luke gives us the final hymn: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace among those whom he favors”. Like the other hymns, added later, it was probably composed by a community of Jewish Christians using the same kind of poetry. It is used to hail Jesus as the Messiah at the end of his ministry, something the angles knew at the beginning of his life. Luke is telling us that the angels of heaven recognized at the beginning of life for Jesus what the disciples came to know only at the end; namely, the presence of the Messiah King comes in the name of the Lord.
And then, after their visit, Luke says: “The shepherds returned glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen as it had been told them.” With that, they depart, and what does a departure mean in Luke? End of the scene.
Luke was a pastor and he wrote to comfort, encourage, and renew a community that was stumbling, disconnected from its roots and facing new challenges. The purpose was not so much to speak new things, but to present old things in a new way, old things which the readers knew from the very sources and traditions Luke used in his work. He chose a familiar form, “narrative.” This form is to literature what story telling is to the spoken word. It communicates in such a way that the readers enter the story and discover that it is their own. He is a master at this, and he uses details told as if they were absolutely unique in order to engage the imagination. The narrator is important because he always knows more than the people in the story, and he shares some of this information with the readers. The readers are privileged participants in the story. So, they know how a situation that is a problem for the characters in the story will be resolved but not how it will be resolved for them. Gifted with knowledge, the readers little by little learn how the characters in the story arrive at the knowledge which they already have but what that truth really means.
The whole thing is an invitation to keep these things in our hearts, to wonder at them as their meaning is gradually unfold in the story.
So, what do learn from Luke in this season?
Jesus is human, born of a woman. Jesus is Divine, born of God. Luke is concerned to put both of these issues together. Born of God, Jesus would return to God, and Christians must accept the end of his live and his consequent absence from history as an individual figure. The Narrative is like a painting with two panels:
The first has Zachariah and Elizabeth. We are like them. We believe yet we doubt, and what does God do? The promise of biblical history in the prophets is fulfilled in spite of us, the barren past become fruitful.
In the second panel the scene shifts from Jerusalem (Temple and Zachariah) to Nazareth. Luke is concerned to show that the origins of Jesus are much more significant than those of John. Nazareth is a no-place. Jerusalem is power.
The role of Zachariah and Mary are parallel, but it is Mary, not Joseph who names, who receives a message and brings things to pass. John’s birth is about overcoming the inability to conceive. The birth of Jesus introduces a whole new order and we are pulled into the realm of creation by the working of the Spirit which is a powerful theme in Luke’s Gospel as we will see in the next talks.
The visitation story invites us to see the New Testament, Mary reaching out and transforming the Old Testament, Elizabeth.
Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth of Galilee. This is clearly held by Christian tradition without contest. At the same time, a clear theological tradition held that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Matthew handled it one way, by beginning at Bethlehem. Luke another way by beginning in Nazareth. Luke had a problem of getting them to Bethlehem. The whole issues of showing the Church and Jesus as being just and legitimate when it comes to Roman Law begins here and is a concern all through Luke.
It’s all a journey, a long pilgrimage to Jerusalem in Luke’s Gospel just as it is for us. As we conclude this, remember the story of Jesus being lost for three days only to be found again. It’s all part of Luke’s plan. The loss of Jesus creates confusion and consternation and Jesus explains the divine necessity which called for his absence; the Father’s business. He must be with the Father. This is his ultimate destiny, and we, the church through him, and with him, and in him are on the same journey to the New Jerusalem.