|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
NOTE: This is the same text for the Lesser Festival "The Presentation of Our Lord"
Luke has an emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus and his family. Five times in our text we are told that they observed the Law (vv. 22, 23, 24, 27, 39). Just before our text, Jesus has been circumcised. Following our text, we are told that Jesus' parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover -- that it was their "habit" ("as usual" in NRSV, but literal Greek, "according to their custom or habit, or perhaps "ethics" as a translation of "ethos"). In the larger context, Luke 2:22-52 may be called: "Two Stories of Jesus in the Temple." Our text is the first of these stories.
As Jesus' life begins with fulfilling the Law and coming to the temple in Jerusalem, so the Gospel ends with similar themes. Jesus' last speech begins with: "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you -- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled" (24:44). The last two verses of this writing state about the disciples: "They worshiped him, and returning to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God."
Why this emphasis on Jesus' Jewishness -- especially if Luke was written to a Roman (Gentile) official, "most excellent Theophilus" (1:3)? Perhaps there was some prejudice by these Gentiles believers against Jewish believers. We know that Jewish Christians had concerns about Gentiles converts.
There may be congregations where it might be important to remind the people that Jesus was Jewish. He grew up in a devout Jewish family. From the eighth day onward, he was taught to obey the Law of Moses. One might also consider the importance of parents in helping to develop the faith and religious practices of their children. God had chosen Jesus' parents well.
R. Alan Culpepper (Luke, The New Interpreter's Bible) reflects on the importance of rituals. He writes:
... The observance of religious requirements and rituals has fallen on hard times. Essential to Judaism is the praise of God in all of life. The Jewish law taught that God was to be honored in one's rising up and lying down, in going out and coming in, in how one dressed and what one ate. . . .
The pressures of secularism and modern life have again reduced the significance of ritual observances in the lives of most Christians. Busy schedules, dual-career marriages, and after-school activities mean that families eat fewer meals together. Prayer before meals and family Bible study are observed in fewer homes today than just a generation ago. For many, religious rituals are reduced to church attendance at Christmas and Easter and to socially required ceremonies at births, weddings, and funerals. The marking of both daily and special events with rituals that recognize the sacredness of life and the presence of God in the everyday is practically extinct. In the minds of many it is associated either with superstitions and cultic practices of the past or the peculiar excesses of religious fanatics. The result has been that God has receded from the awareness and experience of everyday life. Many assume that God is found only in certain places, in sacred buildings, in holy books, or in observances led by holy persons. Their lives, on the other hand, move in a secular realm devoid of the presence of the holy. Daily experiences are reduced and impoverished. They have no meaning beyond themselves, no opening to transcendence. Little room for mystery remains in the everyday as it becomes increasingly subject to secularism and technology. What have we lost by removing ritual observances from our daily experience? [p. 74]
He then gives this challenge:
The challenge to modern Christians, therefore, is to find effective rituals for celebrating the presence of God in the ordinary. We need to learn to greet the morning with gratitude; to celebrate the goodness of food, family, and friendship at meals; to recognize mystery in beauty; and to mark rites of passage -- like a sixteenth birthday and the freedom and responsibility that come with a driver's license. Rituals are not restrictive; they celebrate the goodness and mystery of life. [pp. 74-5]
Along this line, I have used Luther's meaning to the first article of the creed, to remind us of God's involvement in our everyday lives:
I believe that God has created me together with all that exists.
God has given me and still preserves my body and soul:
eyes, ears, and all limbs and senses;
reason and all mental faculties.
In addition, God daily and abundantly provides
shoes and clothing,
food and drink,
house and farm,
spouse and children,
fields, livestock, and all property –
along with all the necessities and nourishment
for this body and life.
God protects me against all danger
and shields and preserves me from all evil.
And all of this is done
out of pure, fatherly, and divine goodness and mercy,
without any merit or worthiness of mine at all!
For all of this I owe it to God
to thank and praise, serve and obey him.
This is most certainly true. [The Book of Concord, Kolb & Wengert, "The Small Catechism," pp. 354-5]
Note that v. 22 states that it was time for their purification according to the law of Moses.
The quote in v. 24 is from Lev. 12:8, which refers to the purification of a new mother (40 days at the birth of a male; 80 days at the birth of a female). The usual sacrifice when the days of purification were completed was a "lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtle dove for a sin offering" (Lev 12:6). However, if the mother cannot afford a sheep, then two turtledoves or two pigeons could be offered (12:8). The fact that this is the quoted verse indicates that Mary was probably too poor to bring a lamb.
The quote in v. 23 is from Exodus 13:2, 12, 15; which refers to the dedication of the first born to God.
Luke seems to be combining two events in this temple visit.
Occasionally I've heard parents offer to give away their children. Sometimes there are those days when parents would even pay someone to take away their children. The presentation of Jesus (as well as baptism for all people) is a giving away of children to God. They no longer simply belong to their parents, but they belong to God. Even though (in Luke) Mary and Joseph are aware of Jesus' unique birth and the angelic promise that he will called holy and the Son of God (1:35); they still go through the prescribed ritual for a first-born son.
This "giving away" of children in baptism implies that the parents are not just raising their own child, but a child of God, and that God will help in this scary process of child-rearing.
When I first wrote these notes in 1996, I had baptized a 19-year-old that same day. As he drove home, he was almost hit by a semi as his mother watched from her car. Amidst her terror, she also thought, "At least he is baptized." I'm certain she has found further comfort in that thought as he left home later that month for the Navy. He had been presented to and given to God.
Related to the difficulties of raising children, I've had a number of grandparents state: "I'm glad that my children are all raised." While turning one's children over to God could be a "cop-out" on taking proper parental responsibility; it can also lead to the realization that who a child grows up to be is not totally the responsibility of the parents. We have to trust that God's hand is involved -- often in ways that we can't fully comprehend.
There can also be comfort in knowing that we have been presented to and accepted by God. The world in which we adults live is not always kind or easy, but we are assured that we belong to God. As Luther is reported to have said (or shouted) when he felt tempted by the devil, "I am baptized." While I can only guess what he might have meant by the phrase, I would think that part of it is the understanding, "I belong to God." "God claims me as his child." I find it interesting that he didn't battle Satan with "I believe" or "I have faith." His comfort in uncomfortable times was the fact that he had been presented to God and had been graced by God in baptism.
These two devout Jewish characters are portraits of the Israel that accepted Jesus.
Simeon is male. Anna is female. Luke often uses such parallels, e.g., an angel's announcement to Zechariah and an angel's announcement to Mary.
Simeon is at the temple because of the leading of the Holy Spirit. Anna is there because she is naturally always there.
Their immediate response at seeing Jesus is to bless/praise God. Simeon also blesses the parents -- perhaps as a spirit-filled prophet.
The NRSV correctly captures the tense of the first verb, "... you are dismissing". It is a present indicative, not an imperative, e.g., "let your servant depart". This verse goes back to the revelation by the Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. He has been "released" from that promise -- or, in other words, he is ready to die in peace. God has fulfilled his word to him. A theme from this canticle is that God keeps promises.
One of the fascinating things I find about Simeon's song is the reason why he can now die in peace: "For my eyes have seen your salvation."
From all indications, what his eyes have seen was the infant Jesus being carried into the temple by a poor, pious family who had recently walked about 60 miles from Nazareth to Jerusalem. In a similar way, Anna sees the same thing and begins talking about the "redemption of Jerusalem."
A popular proverb in our culture is, "Seeing is believing." That adage doesn't apply to Simeon and Anna. The opposite seems to have been true: "They believed, so they were able to see more than the obvious." In this infant, they see salvation and redemption.
I find the liturgical uses of Simeon's song interesting. It is the Gospel Canticle for Compline -- the "going to bed" liturgy. It is an option for the post-communion canticle in Lutheran Book of Worship. (In our older liturgies, it was the only option.) What have our eyes seen prior to this song in these liturgies? What have eyes seen before going to bed? It's usually the common ordinary stuff of every-day life: dirty dishes, filthy clothes, dusty furniture, piles of paper work, and so on. Is God's salvation to be seen in such common, ordinary things?
What have eyes seen in the sacrament? There's a small piece of bread and a sip of wine and those people communing around us. Is God's salvation to be seen in such common ordinary things?
God is present in an infant, in bread and wine, in each other, and in the events of the day. Where God is present, there is salvation for those with the faith to see more than just the obvious.
Perhaps as a contrast, the same word for "see" is used in 2:48: "When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety."
If "seeing" Jesus is "seeing" God's salvation for all people, then we may want to make more of Jesus' response to his anxious parents: "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (2:49)
Can we still claim that the church -- God's house -- is the place to "see" Jesus and, by faith, to "see" God's salvation?
Unfortunately, not all Sunday services will be like Christmas or Easter celebrations; but Jesus is present with God's salvation even on those Sundays after Christmas and after Easter -- even if many of our members aren't present.
I also find it interesting that Simeon doesn't sing and praise God because "I am saved," but for the salvation of all people -- both Jews and Gentiles.
A similar thought is expressed in John the B's preaching -- the only other use of this particular word for salvation (soterion) in Luke: "and all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (3:6).
Luke stresses the universal aspect of salvation. It is for all people -- and for that we should rejoice. When Simeon and Anna see Jesus, their only response is to sing and worship, to thank God and share the news with others.
I recently reread, Why Christian?, by Douglas John Hall. He reminds us:
The object of God's love, according to biblical faith, is not first of all the church; it is the world: "God so loved the cosmos ... (John 3:16; not accidentally, I think, that is the single best known verse of the newer Testament). The church is only a means to the end, not the end as such. The end -- the goal that this faith envisages -- is the "salvation" of the world (using "salvation" in the way we spoke of it earlier, that is, god wants to make the world whole, to fulfill its promise, to "mend" its torn and tattered life.) ...
... For now, I only want to point out that the mission of the church is of central importance to Christian faith, so much so that it constitutes the most basic reason why the church must exist. Of course the church needs to have periods of retreat from the world, to recover its own identity through study and prayer, to renew its courage, and so on. But precisely in these times of renewal, the church learns once more that it does not exist for its own sake. A church that hived off to itself and was content to be a comfortable "fellowship" would contradict in the most flagrant way the whole message of the New Testament. [p. 139]
Simeon also blesses the parents and speaks to Mary. Perhaps in contrast the universal salvation, he talks about the "falling and rising of many in Israel." Not everyone will respond positively to God's salvation in Jesus. At the time of Luke, there certainly was a division within Israel about Jesus. Even among those who believe in him, there were some who did not rejoice that he was the salvation which God had prepared for all people.
Perhaps the description of Jesus "growing" (2:40) and "increasing" (2:52) might encourage us to keep growing and increasing in our wisdom and in divine and human favor. Having been presented to God (as Jesus was and as we are in baptism) is just the beginning of our life of faith.
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