Commentary on Luke 2:21-38
The start of a new year causes many to reflect on new beginnings, new possibilities, and newness of life.
Religious institutions provide opportunities to mark these occasions to remember the seasons of our lives and to reclaim God’s purposes for human reality. In that spirit, the arrival of Jesus causes many reactions of various sorts.
Luke presents Jesus’ parents as dedicated pious law-abiders, even while ignoring the potential shame of Mary’s pregnancy (see also Matthew 1:19). Just before this passage, shepherds visited the child and revealed to everyone in the area what they had heard from an angel. They announced the “good news” about Jesus as “savior, Messiah, and Lord” (see also 2:10); the crowd was “amazed” and Mary kept it to herself (Luke 2:18-19). In 2:21-38, the religious establishment would make its own compatible claims.
Mary and Joseph had sufficient funds to travel to Bethlehem to be registered even if they were unable to secure a decent guestroom for the occasion. They were either poor planners or they simply did not have adequate means to locate satisfactory space. Their religious gifts expose their economic status. They brought two turtledoves (or, perhaps two pigeons), which was the expected sacrifice for people who could not afford to offer a sheep (see also Leviticus 12:8). (Is there irony in the fact that the shepherds who announced the birth of Jesus as good news did not bring gifts [perhaps a sheep?] of thanksgiving?) So, they were not as well-off as some. Yet, there was also a Torah stipulation for those unable to afford even two pigeons (see also Leviticus 5:11). So, Mary and Joseph were not among the poorest of the poor. In any case, the sacrifice was more for the ritual cleansing of a birthmother than for the dedication of a child (see also Leviticus 12).
In this passage, the attention is on priests and prophets, represented by Simeon and Anna, who provide the religious establishment’s counterpart to the shepherds’ earlier acknowledgement of the appointed Messiah (Luke 2:15-20). Like the priest Zechariah (in chapter 1), Simeon performs priestly duties in the Temple area. Even though Luke did not describe him specifically as a “priest,” many biblical scholars think that he was because of his reception of Jesus. It was probably not the time for his group’s rotation to perform priestly duties in Jerusalem, so Luke described him as a person “led by the Spirit” (2:27). For Luke, the “Spirit” was very active in these opening scenes, with John (1:15), with Mary (1:35), with Elizabeth (1:41), and with Zechariah (1:67).
Also, Luke described the spirit-led Simeon as “righteous” and “devout,” adjectives that associated him not only with Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:6) but several others within the Luke-Acts narrative: Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:47); “devout men” who buried Stephen (Acts 8:2); Ananias of Damascus (Acts 22:12). Generally, the reference assumes people whose devotion to God was accompanied by obedience to Torah (Luke 1:6) and a vibrant expectancy of the coming kingdom (23:50), as Simeon was also described as “looking forward to the consolation of Israel” (2:25). Most significantly, the centurion described Jesus as dikaios (= “righteous”; the New Revised Standard Version translates this term as “innocent”), when he witnessed Jesus’ death (23:47). Simeon was placed in outstanding narrative company!
The female prophet Anna, a widow, also deserves mentions. She was a temple prophetess (Luke used the feminine form, prophetis), so she speaks — like Simeon and Zechariah — on behalf of the establishment. As a prophet-widow who prayed and fasted “night and day” (Luke 2:37), she was like the persistent “widow” in one of Jesus’ parables, who became a relevant example of the need for tenacious prayer (18:1-8): “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?” Unlike Simeon, Anna did not speak directly to Jesus’ parents. She left that role up to the priest. Rather, this prophetess proclaimed a message to the crowds about the birth of the Messiah, especially to those who were expecting Israel’s “liberation” (Greek lutrosis).
So, Luke also presents the stamp of approval from the religious establishment, from Temple servants, priests, and prophets, even while recognizing that outsiders (for example shepherds) also had input into this revelation. These various groups represent various voices within the Jewish community. In Luke’s treatment, all of these diverse groups acknowledged the coming of the Messiah.
Yet, only Simeon would allude to the significance of the Messiah’s role for the inclusion of the Gentiles (Luke 2:32), which partly establishes the eschatological nature of this appearance. The Messiah’s coming would inaugurate the end-time events of Jewish eschatological hopes. And, this messianic figure will come from Israel. In Isaiah’s words, “I will give you (Israel) as a light to the nations (or, Gentiles), that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:6).
Of the three “prophetic” speeches in Luke chapters 1-2, the inclusion of the Gentiles is found only in Simeon’s words. Luke’s narrative, however, will also end with a reference to all “nations” (or, “Gentiles”): “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (Luke 24:46-47). Although Luke brackets the Gospel with attention to Gentiles, it will not be a central motif until the book of Acts. Jesus has limited contact with non-Jewish people in Luke’s account (see also 7:1-10).
Another feature worth stressing in a patriarchal society is the prominent presence of female characters in the opening chapters of Luke. The presence of notable women — Elizabeth, Mary, Anna — is striking itself, but even more so when readers notice their “public” speeches. Unlike the mothers of chapter one, Anna’s specific words are unavailable even as Luke’s presentation leaves readers wondering at the reception of her words, whether they were well-received (Luke 2:38).
Oftentimes, the religious establishment is condemned for its financial miscues, faulty claims, or power abuses in a world that needs its prophetic voice. In this passage, Luke wants his audience to recognize the positive role the temple and its professionals play in the life of the community.
During this New Year, may we remember the changing of the human calendar in light of the coming of Jesus’ appearance! May “shepherds,” who work and live in the “fields,” and the religious establishment both recognize the significance of this event as we all continue on our journeys!
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Glory of Israel,
The coming of your son, Jesus, broke open the heavens and prepared a way for all of your children to come home to you. Give us eyes to see your miraculous spirit moving in this church and in this world. Teach us to be proclaimers of your love to the nations, for the sake of the one whose name is redemption for the peoples,
Jesus Christ our salvation. Amen.
Nunc dimittis, Robert Scholz