Lectionary Commentaries for January 1, 2023
Name of Jesus

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 2:15-21

Diane G. Chen

By the time we arrive at the Festival of the Name of Jesus on January 1, the story of the shepherds in Luke 2 might sound a familiar note, especially if verses 15 to 20 were included as part of the lectionary readings on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Only verse 21 is new, so to speak, moving the narrative timeline to eight days beyond the night Jesus was born. 

As we ponder the meaning of Jesus’ holy name, we can better appreciate the significance of the shepherds’ response and be motivated to follow their example. Let us begin with the last verse on the naming of Jesus, and work our way back to the shepherds.

Two events are mentioned in verse 21—the circumcision and the naming of Jesus. It is unnecessary to make too much of Jesus’ circumcision. Jesus was, after all, a Jewish male infant. His parents were law-abiding Jews, who had him circumcised on the eighth day, according to God’s command when he established his covenant with Abraham (Genesis 17:11-12; Leviticus 12:3). 

When naming their son, Joseph and Mary were likewise obedient, following the instructions the angel Gabriel gave Mary to call the boy Jesus (1:31-32). Unlike the naming of John by Elizabeth, which caused quite a stir among the relatives until Zechariah confirmed it (1:13, 59-63), here there was no hint of objection or fanfare, but four simple words: “he was called Jesus” (2:21). The use of the passive voice emphasizes that God, not Jesus’ parents, was the authoritative source of that name. 

The name “Jesus”—which means “Yahweh saves”—is holy in every way. Not only does it signify the bearer’s divine status on account of his supernatural conception by the Holy Spirit, it also spells out the specific mission on which his heavenly Father had sent him, that is, to be God’s agent of salvation for Israel, and through Israel, for the whole world (2:11, 30-32; 3:6).  

Reading the birth narratives of Luke 1 and 2, we the readers follow the author from one scene to another, picking up important pieces of information to form a comprehensive theological picture. For example,

  • In Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary, we learn of Jesus’ divine sonship and kingly status (1:31-35). 
  • In the earlier part of chapter 2, we learn that, for Luke, the city of David refers to Bethlehem (2:4, 11), not Jerusalem. 
  • While a baby wrapped in bands of cloth is not anything unusual, we learn that one laid in a manger is unusual enough to function as an effective sign for the shepherds to find Jesus (2:7, 12). 
  • From Gabriel and the angel who appeared to the shepherds, we learn about the many titles for Jesus: Son of the Most High, Son of God, Savior, Messiah, and Lord. Each of these titles serves as a window into Jesus’ identity and mission (1:32, 35; 2:11).

Because we the “omniscient” readers know more about Jesus than the shepherds did when the angelic hosts suddenly appeared to them, we should appreciate all the more their response to the theophany. They reacted to what they saw and heard with genuine curiosity, trust, and active obedience. Compared to them, we have so much more information. We know the rest of Jesus’ story, his earthly ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and where we now stand in light of his second coming. How much more should we respond favorably and faithfully to that which has been made known to us.

Let us now return to verses 15-20 and take a lesson from how these shepherds responded to what they were told. 

Imagine that we were the shepherds watching over our flocks in the fields that night. Having just witnessed a display of heavenly glory by the angelic choir, and having been given the good news that our long-awaited Savior had been born, what should we do? We could have said to one another, “Did you see that? What’s that all about? Incredible! Who’d believe us if we can’t prove what we have seen and heard is true? People don’t give a rip about nobodies like us! They’d just laugh or accuse us of lying. We’d better keep quiet and forget about the whole thing.” 

Quite to the contrary, even though they were terrified, the shepherds heard the words of the angel and remembered them clearly. Like Mary, who hurried off to find Elizabeth when Gabriel gave her elderly relative’s pregnancy as a sign to validate his message (1:36-45), these men hastened to look for the sign so fittingly made for them—a manger with a newborn in it, wrapped in swaddling cloth (2:11-12, 15-16). How appropriate it was for the Davidic Messiah to be discovered by shepherds in the very city where King David himself grew up as a shepherd boy! Furthermore, their finding Jesus in a manger was a symbolic reversal of God’s indictment of Israel’s rebelliousness at the time of Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib (manger), but Israel does not know; my people do not understand” (Isaiah 1:3). These shepherds, lowly as they were, did know.

When the shepherds found the holy family, they made known to Mary, Joseph, and those who were present all that was revealed to them (2:17-18). They became messengers of the good news themselves. Mary took their report to heart (2:19), as it confirmed what the angel Gabriel told her at their fateful encounter. As for the shepherds themselves, they returned to the fields praising and glorifying God (2:20). Because they believed the angel, their life would never be the same again. 

We, too, are called to proclaim the holy name of Jesus in word and deed, until he comes again. The good news inherent in Jesus’ holy name, that “Yahweh saves,” is desperately needed in our broken world today. May we, like the shepherds, have the courage and integrity to pass on the good news in all its richness and simplicity to anyone God places in our paths.

First Reading

Commentary on Numbers 6:22-27

Joseph Scrivner

The Bible does not come with instructions. When a Christian opens the Bible, literally or electronically, she does not hear the voice of Oprah Winfrey or James Earl Jones, telling her how to organize the Bible’s diverse claims. This is one reason why there are countless Protestant denominations. The Bible’s own variety leaves it open to innumerable interpretations, especially when believers understandably assert their right to read it for themselves.

The consequences of the Bible’s variety may be most significant in how different views of God can be emphasized. On the one hand, one can paint a picture of God in which divine judgment is highlighted. This can be done with verses from Genesis to Revelation, such as the divine command to kill every Canaanite in Deuteronomy 20, or the winepress of God’s wrath with human blood up to the horse’s bridle in Revelation 14. On the other hand, one can portray God as characterized by forgiveness, mercy, and grace. This can also be done with verses from Genesis to Revelation, such as God’s mercy toward Assyria in the book of Jonah, or Jesus’ petition for divine forgiveness of his executioners in Luke 23.

The ability of interpreters to take the Bible in various directions is an important point of departure for the lectionary passages about the Name of Jesus for the first Sunday of the calendar year. Each passage focuses on God’s graciousness and humanity’s importance to God. Specifically, God’s favorable disposition is the theme of the first reading from Numbers 6; God’s high regard for humanity is the message from Psalm 8; God’s son becoming human is the focus of the second readings from Galatians 4 and Philippians 2; and the actual naming of Jesus is relayed in the gospel reading from Luke 2.

These passages for January 1 can be an important moment in which one reminds congregants of how Jesus defines God’s character. Christians often do not know how to assemble their Bible. If faced with hard questions about difficult passages, do most believers have a good response? Is God the kind of God who would command the killing of innocent people, as God is depicted in Deuteronomy 20? Does God’s eschatological judgment include murdering rebellious unbelievers, as symbolically portrayed in Revelation 14? One might be surprised that these kinds of passages continue to play a role in how some Christians think about God, even in mainline Protestant congregations.

Two additional passages not included in the lectionary readings are also relevant. The first is Hebrews 1:1-4. It directly addresses the question of how one interprets the Bible’s diversity in light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ, referring to the “many and various ways” God has spoken in the past, yet presenting Jesus as “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” It also includes the theme of Jesus’ name. The second passage is the end of John’s prologue at John 1:17-18: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is the only Son, himself God, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” Like Hebrews 1, these verses present Jesus as the definitive revelation of God. 

In view of these larger issues, one can approach the key points of Numbers 6:22-27 in thematic and theological terms. Originally addressed to Israel, these verses can be read as a poetic declaration of God’s favorable disposition regarding all people: Israel, Christian believers, and humanity in general. In fact, the opening command is a call for the proclamation of this good news: “Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them” (verse 23).

The people are told of God’s promise in six verbs, two in each of the three poetic lines of verses 24-26. The first verb, “bless,” refers to God’s provision. God will give the people what they need for life. God blessed the first man and woman to be fruitful, providing food for their sustenance (Genesis 1:27-28). God also blessed Abram, promising to make him a great nation in a new location (Genesis 12:1-3). Now in Numbers 6, God will bless Abram’s offspring as they travel to the promised land. Of course, this promise occurs repeatedly, especially in the Psalms. Psalm 67:6, for example, says, “The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us” (see also Psalm 128:5).

The second verb, “keep,” refers to God’s protection. In its original context, this would have included protection for the nation in battle and for individual Israelites. The most famous example of this promised protection is Psalm 121, where the verb occurs six times. That psalm ends with a promise of perpetual protection, “The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in, from this time on and forevermore” (Psalm 121:8).

The two verbs “bless” and “keep” in verse 24 are elaborated with the four verbs in verses 25-26, with God’s face as a metaphor for God’s disposition. Thus, God’s face will not be turned away from God’s people (Job 34:29; Psalm 102:2). Rather, God’s face will “shine” on and “be gracious” to God’s people. This is the prayer of Psalm 67:1, where “bless,” “shine,” and “be gracious” are together in one line. Similarly, Psalm 80 pleads, “Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved” (Psalm 80:3, 7). Verse 26 restates the imagery of verse 25, with the verb “lift up” parallel to “shine” and “give you peace” parallel to “be gracious.”

After the three poetic lines of verses 24-26, the benediction ends in verse 27 with a declaration in prose, repeating God’s promise of blessing and peace. Yet, there is also a change of imagery. This concluding line promises God’s name being placed on the Israelites. The image of God’s name usually refers to the place where God is worshiped (1 Kings 9:3; 11:36; 2 Kings 21:4, 7; 2 Chronicles 33:7). In Numbers 6:27, however, it refers to God’s claim to be their God and they will be God’s people (see Jeremiah 31:1, 33).

When one reads the lectionary passages for the Name of Jesus Sunday, as well as Hebrews 1:1-4 and John 1:17-18, God’s favorable disposition culminates in God being defined by the name of the one in whom God became human. Do those named for Christ also know the God defined by Christ? Is Christ the measure and means by which they organize the Bible’s claims about God? The first Sunday in the calendar year would be an excellent opportunity to pursue these questions.


Commentary on Psalm 8

Working Preacher

Commentary is forthcoming for this text.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 4:4-7

Luis Menéndez-Antuña

Galatians 4 is one of the most discussed passages in Paul’s letters. No wonder: it contains most key topics in Paul’s theology, a touchstone to understanding Paul’s position on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. Subsequently, this chapter includes substantive comments on the Law. Paul crafts two literary figures to convey the notion that Gentiles also belong to Israel’s covenant. The first one, a metaphor, compares the Galatians to slaves that become sons through the ultimate sacrifice of the Son, who releases them from their captivity and inserts them into divine inheritance (Galatians 4:1-9). The second one, an allegory (Galatians 4:22-5:1), recaps the mythological passage in Genesis where the contraposition between Sarah and Hagar grounds two separate lineages: the Israelites and the Ishmaelites. Paul turns this typology on its head to square the Gentile experience with Sarah, and the law-observant faction with Hagar. Both literary motifs bring to the fore important political and theological considerations around inheritance, will, promise, freedom, and enslavement. 

In the wake of some of my previous commentaries, I wish to center on the topic of enslavement. There are several reasons why I think this approach is important: contemporary discussions in the church on reparations are still developing, contemporary scholarship on Paul has not come fully to terms with the legacy of enslavement, translations paper over the cruel reality of captivity (translating “doulos” as a servant instead of slave, for instance), and lectionaries skip texts that deal with slavery. Let’s face it: the position of New Testament texts on enslavement does not preach particularly well and conjures up a set of thorny political issues for contemporary congregations. Of course, a commentary like this one is not the platform to explore the complex literary, historical, and political dynamics at play in Galatians 4, but it may serve as a reminder that Paul’s theology is intimately entangled with the topic of enslavement. After all, Galatians 4:7 says it plainly: “you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if you are a son, then you are entitled to God’s heritage.” 

Galatians 4 starts with a metaphor that sets the tone for the chapter. The metaphor (4:1-9) conveys the idea that the time for the Gentiles to inherit God’s salvation has arrived. Paul frames inheritance by comparing the position of the slave and the position of the heir/son in the traditional household. The son, until he comes of age, is like a slave because he cannot inherit the possessions (4:1). God sends his son “born under the Law” so “we might be adopted as sons” (4:5). Theologically, then, the Son makes all believers sons, and converts slaves into sons. From a historical perspective, the metaphor works on the assumption that the slave is banned from inheritance. It also makes explicit that the son/heir is the owner/master of the slave: since slaves are considered property, the son/heir owns them (the son is the master of everything; 4:1). 

In the passage at hand, Paul addresses his audience, saying that they are no longer slaves but sons. It is this transformation that grants them God’s heritage. In the next verse, Paul suggests that they were enslaved to those who “are not Gods” (4:8). The passage interpretation is elusive partly because Paul goes back and forth between literal and metaphorical uses of enslavement. We should keep in mind, however, that both uses were probably received differently depending on whether the listener was a slave or a free citizen. Good news for everyone, but with different consequences for each status. One could understand Paul as ironing out differences: although the slaves continue to be slaves, they can expect to become “sons” by way of affiliating with the Son. Equally, Paul is mystifying the position of the slave by occluding how enslavement meant social death: slaves not only did not have access to inheritance, but they were also banned from any meaningful relations with any of their family members. Sons and daughters, wives and husbands could be split depending on their masters’ whims. 

Paul is not particularly kind towards the enslaved. No matter how one interprets the Hagar/Sarah allegory, Paul readapts the Genesis narrative to his own theological message: “cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit the son of the free woman. So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.” (4:30-31). Since slaves could not inherit anything but enslavement itself, Paul’s rhetorical move assumes that everyone needs to be converted into a son (Galatians 4:5). This assumption works at the metaphorical level while hiding how enslavement functions at the historical one: real slaves cannot become real sons because they are considered property. The essential link between father/son is not possible in enslavement except in purely biological terms. 

How are we, contemporary believers reading Scripture, supposed to deal with the legacy of enslavement in texts that we consider authoritative or divinely inspired? I must confess that I do not have facile answers to this question. My approach suggests that acknowledging how a text both uses and abuses the position of the captive is a possible first approach to come to terms with the links between Paul’s theology–inheritance in this case–and the crudest reality that any human can possibly experience.