Luke 2 – Simeon and Anna

Luke 2:22-40 Jesus Presented in the Temple

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast January 11, 2009

Introduction                                    Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It is good to be back with you after a little holiday break. Last week I was in New York for the American Historical Association annual meeting. I chaired a session on German Pietism, which was quite good, and I attended a fascinating discussion of the differences between religion in Europe and America. Seeing professors in New York reminded me of a favorite joke. What do you get when you cross a theology professor with a Mafioso? Someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand. Classes begin this week at Wake Forest, and I hope I am ready for my forty theology students at the Divinity School. Of course they most important event today is that Wake and Carolina are playing each other in basketball. I want to give a shout out to Rev. Bob McGee who is taking me to the game tonight. It is one of those times when I am torn between my alma mater and my employer. I’ll also give a shout out to James and Marilyn Dunn who celebrated fifty years of marriage over the weekend.

We have entered the season of Epiphany, which has actually been part of the Christian calendar longer than Advent. In ancient times, Christians in the East took the story of the Magi coming to the Christ child as an event worthy of special observance. Epiphany began on January 6, which is the proper day to take down your Moravian stars, and the theme of the season is the spread of the good news of Jesus to all peoples of the earth. Next week we will begin a study of the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel, which includes the story of the Wise Men. We will see that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth is quite different from Luke’s Gospel, which we have been studying since the first Sunday in Advent. We have seen that the author of Luke used a variety of sources in crafting his story of Jesus’ birth. We have seen that Luke connected the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist, and we talked about how Luke used early Christian or possibly Jewish hymns to enliven the tale of the birth of the Messiah. There is a strong tendency in churches of all denominations to end the story of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day with the baby lying in a manger, but Luke carries the story further. The famous scene in Bethlehem is not the climax for Luke. Eight days later, Jesus’ parents take him to the Temple in Jerusalem where two prophets acknowledge him as the Savior and sing canticles about the child.

Read: Luke 2:22-40

Presentation of the First-Born in the Temple                        Luke says that Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem a few days after his birth in Bethlehem in order to perform the expected religious rituals of presentation and purification. He quotes directly from the Old Testament in explaining these rituals to his audience, but it appears that Luke himself did not know the details of these Jewish rites. He appears to have confused two different rituals here. One concerned the birth of a first child if the child was male, which Jesus clearly was. The graphic phrase used by the Israelites was that a male who “opened the womb” was “holy” in the sense that he belonged to the LORD. In ancient Israel it appears that such boys were set aside to be priests in their local villages. This idea that the first-born male belonged to the LORD is reflected in the story of the Exodus when God claimed the first-born males of Egypt in a dramatic fashion. It is probably reflected as well in the story of the offering of Isaac when God accepted a sacrificial ram instead of Abraham’s son. You may remember that Samuel’s mother offered him as an oblate to the priest Eli since he was her first-born.

It is impossible to determine when the practice changed, but long before the time of Jesus, parents would redeem the first born by giving a gift to the Temple instead of giving the child to become a priest. We know from Jewish sources that Joseph would have paid five shekels to redeem Jesus as the first-born. Parents were not required to bring the baby to the Temple when presenting him. All they needed to do was bring the money, but Luke probably did not know this. Not only was he a Gentile, he was writing several years after the destruction of the Temple and the ending of the Jewish priesthood. He knew about the ritual, but it appears he did not know how it actually worked. We should note in passing that Luke clearly says that Jesus opened Mary’s womb, which appears to contradict Catholic teaching on the Virgin Birth.

Purification of Mary:            The other ritual was specific to the mother. According to the Mosaic Law, bodily discharges made people unclean, and this was particularly true of women. Mary would have been considered unclean for forty days after the birth of a son. The birth of a daughter meant that a woman was unclean for twice as long. It is common in tribal societies to have a period of confinement for a woman after giving birth, and there is a lot of wisdom in that. Not only does the mother need time to recover physically and emotionally, she and the child need to be protected from germs for a few weeks. Even today it is often a significant moment when a new baby is first brought out in public, and it is not surprising that this would have been governed by religious rituals in the past. Until quite recently the Anglican Church had a special ceremony for “churching” a woman after childbirth. Modern people are uncomfortable with the apparent sexism in such traditions, and modern medicine treats this issue with clinical detachment rather than religious ceremony. For the most part, modern Americans do not view women as ritually unclean after childbirth, but unfortunately we also do not treat them with special reverence.

Luke’s account of the purification of Mary is a little confusing, and most scholars are convinced that Luke did not know how the ritual actually worked. For one thing, the text says that the time had come for “their” purification instead of “her” purification. It appears that Luke thought that the father was involved in the ritual, too, which was not the case. Also, it looks like Luke thought that purification and presentation were related rituals, which they were not. It says in Leviticus (12:6) that a woman needed to come to the door of the sanctuary and offer a lamb and a pigeon or dove in order to be purified. If she were poor, two doves would suffice. She had to do this at the door because she could not enter the sanctuary. This law had applied in the days before there was a Temple in Jerusalem. There is no evidence that Jewish women in the 1st century were travelling great distances to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice after the birth of every child, but there was probably a ritual of purification in the synagogue without animal sacrifice. If a Jewish mother made a pilgrimage to the Temple, she might provide for the sacrifice so she could enter the courtyard for women.

It is plausible that several weeks after the birth of Jesus, his parents brought him to the Temple where Mary was purified by a priest and Joseph paid the price of redemption. This was probably part of the tradition about Jesus, but Luke was a confused on the details. The important thing for him was not the rituals but that Jesus’ parents were pious enough to go to all this trouble when most people did not. In other words, Luke wants us to know that Jesus’ parents were good, pious Jews who followed the details of the law, and that Jesus was born in the normal fashion. Even more important for Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus appears in the Temple at the very beginning of his life. In the other gospels, the first time we see Jesus in the Temple is when he drives out the moneychangers. In the other gospels Jesus appears to be opposed to the Temple and the priesthood, but Luke places the infant Jesus in the Temple. He did not come to destroy the Temple or the law of Moses, but to fulfill them.

Simeon                        Luke gives much more attention to an old man named Simeon than to the rites of purification and presentation. Christian scholars in ancient times assumed that Simeon was a priest serving in the Temple, but Luke merely says that he was a devout and righteous man living in Jerusalem. Simeon was living in expectation of the coming of the Messiah, and Luke tells us that he was led by the Holy Spirit to come to the Temple on the day that Jesus was presented. We know from other sources that there were a number of Jews who were hoping for a divine Savior. Some of them were hoping for a Messiah like King David who would rescue Israel politically, but some of them were praying that God would send a religious reformer to cleanse the Temple of its corruption. Some of these people, who were called Essenes, established communities in the caves near the Dead Sea, and we know a lot about them today because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Just like today, there were probably people who shared many of the concerns and hopes of the Essenes without going off to live with them. Simeon appears to be such a person. By the way, some the Dead Sea scrolls are on display in Raleigh, and I want to thank the UNC student who gave me a commemorative shot glass from the exhibition.

The story of Simeon greeting the infant Jesus is beautiful. We are told that the old man took the child in his arms and blessed God and his parents. This has helped shape baptismal practices in many churches. Later this morning I will be baptizing the son of Kirk and Ashley Sanders and I will take young William in my arms and bless him in accordance with our religious traditions. I think parents should know that they are following in the steps of Mary and Joseph when they bring their children to modern sanctuaries and present them to God in this way. Simeon was chosen by the Holy Spirit to bless Jesus, but he was not a priest. This is biblical support for Martin Luther’s idea that any believer can serve as a priest.

Nunc Dimittis            Simeon gives two short speeches or prophesies. The first one sounds like a hymn that Luke adapted for the occasion. It has parallels to dying statements of important figures in the Old Testament, but in many ways it sounds like a post-resurrection Christian hymn in that it speaks of salvation as already accomplished. The canticle is known as the Nunc dimittis, which is Latin for the first words, “now let depart,” and for centuries it has been part of Catholic and Protestant liturgies. It is often used as an evening prayer or a blessing at the end of a service. It is particularly appropriate for use as a dying blessing for a person who has been faithful through long years of Christian devotion and service. However, the focus of the Nunc Dimittis is not on the departure of Simeon from this life, but on the salvation that Simeon sees. The themes of vision and light in the Nunc Dimittis are very similar to the themes of the Gospel of John, which this is a reminder that Luke and John have a lot in common.

It is very appropriate that we reflect on the Nunc Dimittis as we enter the season of Epiphany because it speaks of all nations seeing God’s salvation. The language used here echoes many statements in the prophet Isaiah, especially Isaiah 49:6. The last part of the scroll of Isaiah was composed in the final days of the Babylonian Captivity when the Israelites were preparing to return to Zion. Isaiah’s words remain a beacon of hope for people who live in physical or metaphorical exile  today. Isaiah’s prophecies were beloved by the Essenes, who wrote hymns similar in tone to the Nunc Dimittis, but the Essene’s hope was only for Israel.

This canticle in Luke speaks of a revelation for both Gentiles and the children of Israel. Luke begins his Gospel with an affirmation that Jesus is the Savior of all peoples, not just Jews. He claims that the work of Jesus will bring glory to Israel as well as the light of revelation to Gentiles. The great heroes of old: Moses, Samson, Samuel, and Elijah only saved the Israelites. It is no wonder that Jesus’ parents were astonished. Simeon’s vision of Jesus as a Savior for Gentiles is a wonderfully inclusive and universal view of salvation. Keep in mind that Luke also wrote a book about the spread of the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire.

A Sword                        Simeon’s next prophecy is more somber and hardly sounds like a blessing. He tells Mary that this salvation will not come without pain and sacrifice. One of major themes of all four gospels is that people react in different ways to the light of revelation. Some rejoice that they can see clearly, others close their eyes, and some try to destroy the light because it is too revealing. All of the gospel had to deal with the historical fact that only a few people became followers of Jesus during his lifetime. Even fifty years after his resurrection, the church was still a small, persecuted sect. Luke acknowledges that Jesus will divide people as well as unite people. We still live with this tension. Many Christians view Jesus as a unifier who brings together all the people of the world into a community of love and reconciliation. Others preach that Jesus divides the world into those who repent and those who reject. Still others, particularly outside of the church, believe that the Christian proclamation of Jesus as the Savior is a contributing factor to religious violence and intolerance. It is interesting that Luke’s Gospel begins with an acknowledgement that Jesus is both a universal Savior and a divisive figure. The Good News will lift up many who are oppressed, but others will stumble and fall.

Simeon also says that the innermost thoughts of people will be revealed, and the phrase he uses almost always refers to bad thoughts that people try to keep hidden. In other words, Jesus will force people to confront their own selfishness and mean-spiritedness. When we hear the Beatitudes, are we heartened by the hope that the meek will inherit the earth and that peace-makers will be blessed, or do we resent God’s liberation of the poor and his opposition to violence? Do we really God’s kingdom to come or do we secretly want to be lords ourselves? I think many of us want to keep Jesus in the cradle instead of letting him reveal our inmost thoughts.

Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her soul, and this one verse has been subject to widely different interpretations. Many have viewed it in terms of Mary’s grief at the cross. Mel Gibson’s movie about the passion captured this idea very well when he juxtaposed scenes of Mary at home with Jesus and her agony on the road to Calvary. It is possible that Luke had something else in mind, though. The Bible often uses the word “sword” to refer to the prophetic Word of God that separates good and evil. The sword divides people into those who are obedient and those who are not. Simeon appears to be saying that Jesus will be that sword that reveals who people truly are, and even his mother will have to respond to his preaching the way all people will. Mary has a place of honor in the church not simply because she gave birth to the Messiah but also because she became a disciple.

Anna the Prophet                        Luke does not end his story on the hard note of judgment, however. He introduces a very old woman named Anna who was member of one of the so-called “lost tribes” of Israel. That means that she was not really a Jew according to the standards of Jesus’ day, but she was devout. Scholars debate over how old Anna was. If she was married at 12 and remained married for seven years and then was a widow for 84 years, she was about 103 years old. Others think that Luke meant she was an 84-year old widow. Either way, she was extremely old, and Luke describes her like one of the pious widows mentioned I Timothy. She was almost like a nun in that she lived alone and spent her time in prayer and fasting.

Luke calls her a prophet, which indicates that there were female prophets in the early church, and Anna was one of several women who were evangelists who proclaimed Jesus as the promised Messiah. She is a model for women in ministry as well as a model for the ministry of the elderly. She was not in the Temple being ministered to; she is there as a minister and prophet of the Lord. She is serving, not being served. Day and night she worshiped God and prayed. I know many Christians who reject this type of piety and devotion. Real Christianity for them is only found in social service, but Luke presents Anna as a model for devotion to God. There is another important point in Luke’s depiction of both Simeon and Anna. It is likely that they represent the law and the prophets. Again, Luke presses the idea that Jesus was the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament.

Conclusion                        We’ve come to the end of our study of the birth narratives in Luke. Believe it or not, there is much more we can learn from these little stories, and I hope you will continue to examine them and think about them. Luke’s Gospel brings together men and women, old and young, shepherds and angels in a common devotion to the infant Jesus. He repeatedly links the ministry of Jesus to the Law and Prophets of Israel, but he also presents Jesus as something more than a prophet or lawgiver. Jesus will be the Savior of the whole world, and that salvation will not come with the trampling boots of warriors. It will come with the healing touch of the prince of Peace.

Luke ends his account of the birth of Jesus by telling us that Mary and Joseph did all their duties according to the Law and returned home to Galilee where Jesus grew up and was filled with wisdom. That is a wonderful image for us to take into our own lives in 2009. We, too, should grow in wisdom and become mature as Christians. 

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