Luke 2 moves from the birth of Jesus, set in the broad sweep of history, and then narrowed down to a poor, pregnant girl in Bethlehem, to angels in heavens and shepherds on the ground, and then to life as might be expected of a faithful Jewish couple. Throughout Mary is treasuring the meaning of all these things (verses 18 and 51). Luke locates the life of the Messiah and Lord both in world history and in the human heart. It’s not John’s “Word become flesh,” but it is nonetheless a deeply incarnational reflection on the meaning of the Messiah.
This enfleshed Word is revealed to a couple of oldsters in the Jerusalem temple before anyone else really catches on. I don’t know if Luke is thinking about the prophet Joel at this point, although Luke will be thinking about Joel at the beginning of the Book of Acts. In Luke 2 we see the Holy Spirit giving visions to the young and fulfilling the dreams of the old, just as Joel promised.
1. The Faithful Parents
According to verse 21, the child’s father and mother faithfully bring Jesus to be circumcised and named according to Old Testament law. The regulation on circumcision of infant males on the eighth day is found in Leviticus 12:3. The Hebrew Bible contains other references to circumcision attached to other rites of passage. The name they give the child is the name announced by the angel, Gabriel. The parents may carry out the rite, but God is the one who names Jesus.
The rites mentioned here — circumcision, presentation, and cleansing — were performed by one of the priestly “directors” who came in from the countryside as part of the annual rotation of outlying priests. “The director of the weekly course, during the week of his duty, performed the rites of purification for lepers and women after childbirth,” Jeremias writes in Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus, “who were pronounced clean at the Nicanor Gate when the rites were complete” (page 164).
This gate stood between the “Court of Israel” and the “Court of Women” in the temple. Until the rite of purification was completed forty days after childbirth, the new mother could not really enter the Temple at all. It was at the Nicanor gate, Jeremias says, that the director would have received the offering from Jesus’ parents for her purification. Luke draws no explicit connection between Zechariah’s role as one of these outlying priests in chapter 1, but he was in Jerusalem for this reason when he had his encounter in the temple with Gabriel. Perhaps there is a small hint that Mary and Joseph are faithful where Zechariah had doubts (but that is mere speculation on my part).
Malina and Rohrbaugh note that “a number of social implications of the practice can be seen in Luke’s Gospel” (page 293). It signifies acceptance of the child by the father. Circumcision on the eighth day required that acceptance at the beginning of the relationship between father and child. And, they point out, the public and community nature of the rite “sealed with public recognition” the father’s acknowledgement and assumption of his paternal responsibility.
We know that in the second century, pagan critics asserted that Jesus was Mary’s illegitimate child, perhaps from a sexual escapade with a Roman soldier. “In the second century, the Greek writer Celsus wrote a book about how Jesus was the illegitimate low-birth offspring of a spinner called Mary and a Roman soldier called Panthera,” writes Giles Fraser. “The implication may also have been that she was raped. Various later rabbinic texts refer to him as Jesus ben Pandera.”
While Luke’s Gospel predates the writing of Celsus, doubts and concerns about Jesus’ legal status as Joseph’s accepted and acknowledged son were likely abroad, at least in Gentile and formerly pagan circles. These are the folks Luke consciously addresses in his work for “Theophilus” (see Luke 1:1-4). We can see this concern expressed in other ways in John’s Gospel, with the constant questions to Jesus, “Where are you from?” That question is far less about geography than it is about genealogy.
Then they come back to the Temple after forty days, “according to the Law of Moses,” to present Jesus to the Lord and to do the appropriate sacrifices for Mary’s purification after childbirth. Jesus is formed as a child in the practices of Jewish piety. Paul notes this in Galatians four when he points out that God’s Son was “born of a woman, born under the law…” Luke notes that, living under the law, the parents did everything that the law required.
That law has great concerns about purity and pollution, as Malina and Rohrbaugh note. The point of such systems, they suggest, is that “the perception of dirt and the behavior called cleaning both point to the existence of some system according to which there is a proper place for everything” (page 72). Purification rituals don’t atone for some sin or fault. Mary does nothing wrong in bearing a child. It simply necessary to conduct a ritual to put everything back in its proper place.
So, we see that Jesus’ parents are faithful Jews who embrace and abide by the Law of Moses. As Jesus is born and grows, everything is in its proper place. He is fully acknowledged as Joseph’s son. His parents do what is needful for the Law, even if it strains their limited resources to do so.
Almost as a footnote, we do see that Jesus’ parents were faithful and poor. The offering they present is that allowed for impoverished people as a concession to their poverty (see Leviticus 12:8). Poor people offer two doves or pigeons because even that meager offering is split between the offering to God and the offering which is for the priest.
At least in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is born poor. His “self-emptying” as it is described in Philippians 2 involves the deprivations of actual human poverty. This is a real human life under challenging conditions.
It is not in spite of his Jewish upbringing but rather as a result of that upbringing that Jesus is prepared by the Holy Spirit – through his parents – for the work that stands in the future. The text could present an opportunity to reflect on the importance of forming children in the faith from the moment of birth in order to prepare them for lives of discipleship.
Why does it matter to Luke to include this in the gospel account? It is not found in the other gospel accounts. We don’t get the little adventure of Jesus getting lost from his parents and debating in the Temple. That we save for another year. But this last half of Luke 2 is certainly intended to make clear that Jesus is a very human little boy before he grows into being a very human adult man. But it is also clear that Jesus is not merely human. Instead, he is the model human. He is strong, filled with wisdom and favored by God and human beings.
Luke then includes a narrative about the recognition and response of the right ancestors, Simeon and Anna. The faithfulness of the parents brackets the validation by and witness of these righteous ancestors. Based on the number of words used, this recognition and response is an important moment for Luke at this point in his gospel narrative. More on that tomorrow.
References and Resources
Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal. Henry Holt and Co. Kindle Edition
Palmer, Parker J. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. Josey-Bass, 2009. Kindle Edition.
Palmer, Parker J. On the Brink of Everything. Berrett-Koehler Publishers. Kindle Edition.
Palmer, Parker J. To Know as We Are Known: A Spirituality of Education. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Vaillant, George E. Aging Well: Surprising Guideposts to a Happier Life from the Landmark Study of Adult Development. Little, Brown, and Company. Kindle Edition.
Fraser, Giles, “The Story of the Virgin Birth Runs Against the Grain of Christianity.” https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/24/story-virgin-birth-christianity-mary-sex-femininity#:~:text=In%20the%20second%20century%2C%20the,him%20as%20Jesus%20ben%20Pandera.
Malina and Rohrbaugh. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels.
Jeremias, Joachim. Jerusalem in the Time of Jesus. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1969.