Sunday, November 27, 2011
Scripture Sunday: The Gospel of Luke
Luke is the third gospel, and most scholars seem to agree that it shows the more human side of Jesus Christ--the humble and compassionate side. Not that Luke contradicts the godhood of Jesus; it actually fleshes out a lot more details about the circumstances of Jesus' birth by giving some backstory regarding Mary's family.
The first chapter begins by talking about Mary's much-older cousin Elisabeth and her husband Zacharias, a priest. Elisabeth and Zacharias are wonderful people who obey God, but they haven't been blessed with a child. They're both pretty old, but an angel comes to Zacharias to tell him that Elisabeth is going to have a baby. Zacharias is naturally incredulous, because Elisabeth is far too old to have a kid and she's been barren all her life. But the angel's words come true (angels don't mess around when it comes to delivering information--their messages come from God and they're rare), and Elisabeth has a son who becomes John the Baptist, a preacher who prepares the people to accept Jesus' message.
Elisabeth's cousin Mary is a young engaged girl, and verse 27 of chapter 1 takes care to note that Mary is a virgin. An angel comes to Mary and says that she will also have a child, kind of on the opposite scale of miraculousness from Elisabeth, because Elisabeth is having a kid way past the normal time for conception, while Mary will be conceiving way before the usual time because she's a virgin. But as the angel says in verse 37, "For with God nothing shall be impossible". It's interesting that God so often seems to work through these unnatural or supernatural pregnancies--Jesus' is the son of God so his birth is clearly the most amazing and supernatural of all, but almost all of the patriarchs' families in the Old Testament had some kind of miraculous birth occur. Abraham's wife Sarah was like Elisabeth, a woman who had always been incapable of having children, only to give birth to Isaac in her old age. Isaac's wife Rebecca goes twenty years without having children, then gives birth to the twins Esau and Jacob only after a rough pregnancy. Jacob's beloved wife Rachel is barren for a long time, then dies after giving birth to her second child. This is a common theme in the Bible, God making life happen when people least expect it.
Jesus' birth is clearly something that Luke wants to take time to explore in detail, because the first chapter alone has 80 verses. Of course, the verse and chapter divisions were added hundreds of years later--it's not like Luke was dividing his own writing into numerically-ordered pieces--but the overall impression a reader gets is still one of an author leisurely establishing the facts and circumstances about Jesus' birth. Chapter 2 presents the Christmas story, the version you'll mostly likely hear portions of in every Christmas pageant. Chapter 2 shows how a very pregnant Mary and her new husband Joseph traveled to his home town of Bethlehem because of Caesar Augustus' census that made everyone return to their home city to be taxed. The rest of Luke covers Jesus' miracles, ministry, crucifixion, and resurrection, though the nativity story is one of the parts of the book that stands out from the accounts in the other gospels.