Commentary on Luke 2:22-40
Luke’s story of Jesus being presented in the temple explicitly suggests that his parents brought him to Jerusalem in accordance with the Law of Moses. The story mentions at least four times that Jesus’ parents did with regard to him what was required by the Jewish law (2:23; 2:24; 2:27; 2:39) and, in doing so, highlights his Jewish background. The city of Jerusalem is mentioned six times in this chapter. Within Luke’s ecclesial and social context, these explicit references to Jewish traditions and sacred spaces signify Luke’s commitment to present Jeus and his parents squarely within the Jewish tradition.
Luke’s introduction of Simeon parallels that of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Luke makes a point of highlighting that Simeon was both righteous and devout, just as Elizabeth and Zechariah were. Simeon appears to have a lot in common particularly with Zechariah. Both were associated with the temple and were described as maintaining the commandments of the Lord, but Simeon’s story takes a slightly different turn than Zechariah’s, which was marked by a lack of belief in the announcement about John’s birth.
Simeon is presented as a leader filled with the Holy Spirit and was faithfully awaiting the consolation of Israel. As John Carroll notes, the noun paraklesis, translated as “comfort” or “consolation,” reminds readers of “second Isaiah’s proclamation of approaching salvation for Jerusalem” and the comfort that has been granted (Isaiah 40:1-2).1 Within its literary context, the suggestion that Simeon was waiting for the consolation of the nation reveals that he lived not so much for himself but for others in the nation.
Simeon’s declaration that he will now go in peace, having met Jesus, reminds readers of the peace the great company of the heavenly host announced to people of good will (2:14). Simeon’s peace comes not from thinking that everything will be peaceful in light of Jesus’ arrival—it will not be—but from deep awareness that Jesus will challenge the Roman Empire that offered its own version of peace and reserved it for a select few. Simeon’s peace comes from the assurance that everyone will benefit from that challenge to the empire, and from redemption.
Simeon’s emphasis on the theme of salvation to all nations is important within the canonical context. Prophet Isaiah introduced the theme in Isaiah 40 and 49:13. But Isaiah’s vision of salvation is extended to the gentiles as well (Isiaiah 49:6). This theme of salvation to both communities—rather than one or the other—plays out in the rest of the Gospel and in Acts.
Simeon predicts that the Christ child will cause the falling and rising of many. His prediction hearkens back to the Magnificat in Luke 1 and offers a prophetic confirmation of what Mary had already sung about the nature and content of Jesus’ mission. The Greek verbs in this story differ slightly from the Magnificat, but the order of the falling and rising is the same in both texts. The phrase “falling and rising of many” suggests that Jesus will disturb the existing structures that are hierarchical and will consequently face resistance. He will become a stumbling block to many in the nation.
Simeon’s prediction that a sword will pierce Mary’s own soul is intriguing for at least two reasons. Both Joseph and Mary appear in this story, similar to previous sections, but Simeon’s words are addressed to Mary alone. As with previous sections, Joseph remains in the background as Luke introduces Mary as the central figure who will walk with Jesus in this journey. Within this literary context, Simeon offers Mary a realistic warning about what awaits her, now that her life is intrinsically connected to Jesus’ mission of challenging the powerful.
Gabriel, other angels, and the shepherds offered wonderful predictions about Jesus, but Simeon offers a slightly different and necessary perspective on the life of Jesus. It is as if he says, “I know there have been many amazing predictions about Jesus, but there is more to the story. Not everything that will occur will be joyful or comforting.”
Simeon speaks about the peace and salvation Jesus brings, but he also speaks about the resistance and violence they will experience. His eyes have seen salvation, but they also see a sword that will afflict Mary. From Simeon’s perspective and, by extension, from Luke’s perspective, the two realities are not mutually exclusive. The gospel certainly means good news to some and bad news to others, but at times it brings joyful news and challenging times for the same group of people.
Simeon’s prophecy helpfully complicates the story and offers a realistic view of what challenging the empire entails. Simeon warns Mary—and by extension the readers—about the consequences of the Christ event and the varied responses to it, and invites them to be prepared for both the good and the ugly. Even as he anticipates the salvation Jesus will bring, he seeks to prepare them for the violence the empire will unleash to prevent its actualization. The story cautions us against embracing simplistic narratives that are convenient.
The narrator consistently makes observations about Mary’s response in all key encounters. Mary posed pointed questions to Gabriel, responded affirmatively at the end of her conversation with angel Gabriel, sang about the mission of Jesus after her meeting with Elizabeth, and “treasured up all these things” that she heard from the shepherds and “pondered them in her heart” (2:19). But this time, the narrator says little about how Mary responded to Simeon’s prophecy that a sword would pierce her own soul. Mary rarely responds with silence, but this time she chooses silence.
It is a poignant prophecy about what awaits her and her family requiring great sacrifice on their part. Mary’s destiny is tied to that of the nation, but the same news that brings comfort to the nation will bring her immense pain. Jesus’ work of confronting structures of power will bring redemption, but it will also put Mary and others in harm’s way. The force of Simeon’s prophecy and the complex realities it anticipates require a profound response, one that words could not sufficiently articulate. And Mary offers one through her profound silence. Silence becomes that emotional and intellectual space where Mary holds the two anticipated realities in tension.
- John T. Carroll, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2012), 76.