“An Ordered Account”
Sunday 30 December 2018
Today’s gospel reading is quite unique. It gives us the only account in the canonical gospels of an event in Jesus’ life between his infancy and his public ministry in adult life.
The uniqueness of the passage encourages us to ask why it should have been included in the gospel. Was it the only authentic event from this part of Jesus’ life that came the way of the evangelist? We can’t really know the answer to that question one way or the other.
What we do know is that Luke had access to this tradition and he chose to include it when he could just as easily have left it out. We know that because we have evidence of his deciding to leave out things that were in Mark’s gospel to which he had access. So, he didn’t just put every tradition he had at his disposal into his gospel. He was selective.
What was it about this episode that Luke saw fit to retain it? We can only be speculative in answering the question, but speculation backed by rational argument is a valid tool for gospel meaning making.
Let’s explore. Right at the beginning of the gospel, Luke tells his patron Theophilus: “I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account…” Luke is interested in an “orderly account”. In other words, he is interested in sequences of events – this follows that which follows that.
If we are exploring Luke’s attention to sequences, then the episode that we read today fits into a fairly apparent sequence. Luke alone gives us the sequence of Jesus’ progress as a Jewish male through the various milestone stages of religious development.
In 2:21, Luke tells us: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”
Then, in 2:22, Luke tells us: “When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord.” Leviticus 12 gives us the Mosaic law background for this event to which Luke refers.
In today’s reading, Luke tells us: “Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was 12 years old, they went up as usual for the festival.” What is the significance of this visit to Jerusalem at twelve years of age? Jesus has now reached the age of Jewish religious manhood – he is responsible for his own vows and he is required to attend the Passover and other feasts.
Finally, from chapter 4, Luke gives us a detailed account of his public ministry in adult life from the day he picked up the scroll of the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth.
These represent all of the significant milestones in the life of a first-born male Jew – circumcision, dedication, bar mitzvah, adult mission. We can ask further though as to why Luke felt it was important to include this sequence of events in his ordered account.
One scripture scholar makes the following suggestion: “Luke’s primary interest is to establish that Jesus was a true Israelite, from birth brought up in the moral and ritual life of Judaism. Home, temple, and synagogue formed him, and no subsequent criticism of his ministry or message could trace charges against him of heretical, unfaithful, or misguided influences on his formation. At every significant period of his life he was in continuity with Judaism.”
It has become increasingly apparent to me through my reading on the apostle Paul in recent times and through careful reflection on the Acts of the Apostles that it is essential to our understanding of the followers of Jesus that we realise that, not only was Jesus a faithful Jew, but the vast majority of his earliest followers were Jews. Not only were Jews, but remained Jews. We have tended to underestimate how important it was for the early preachers of Jesus’ message to relate it to the tradition of Judaism.
It may well be that Luke is responding to a perceived need to make it clear to the community for which he was writing the gospel that Jesus was a faithful Jew. He was not some marginal religious fanatic.
I wonder what that might mean for us today as followers of Jesus. We don’t live in a society that cares one way or another about whether Jesus’ message is a legitimate growth from the tradition of Judaism.
I suspect though that one of the things that it does mean is that we must consider the gospels, and the New Testament generally, in the light of the Hebrew or Old Testament.
If we only read the New Testament in our Bible reading, we run the very real risk of lacking a suitable religious context out of which to understand what we read. We actually miss a lot of the subtleties and nuances that a thorough knowledge of the Jewish writings gives us when we consider the New Testament.
The Church has always recognised the importance of giving attention to reading the Hebrew Testament of the Bible. If you look at the lectionary, that is the selection of readings to be used each day of the year in Holy Communion Services and in Morning and Evening Prayer Services, you will notice that there is, almost universally, a reading from the Hebrew Testament set down each time.
Not only that, the Psalms play a central part in the Morning and Evening Prayer Services each day, and it is generally a Psalm, or part of one, that is used as our response during the Liturgy of the Word in the Holy Communion Service.
So today, as Luke reminds us of Jesus’ Jewishness, and of the fact that he was steeped in the writings contained in the Hebrew Testament, I urge you all to make sure that you include the Hebrew Testament books in your personal reading of the Bible. By doing that, you will be amazed how, over time, your insight and understanding of the gospels will deepen and many of the things that might previously have puzzled you will be become clearer.
Fr Allan Paulsen