Luke provides us with ample material for contemplation. His infancy narrative is longer than Matthew’s, and it has a number of features that have caught the attention of experts and lay people alike. For our purposes, though, I would like us to focus on a single feature of Luke’s account—the relationship between the expectations of those around Jesus and the unfolding of God’s actual plan.
Luke the Storyteller
Luke is a master storyteller. He intends his two-part work to be read as a whole, and, as such, he takes great care in how he unfolds the story that he wishes to tell. We are so familiar with that story, for it is the story of Christianity itself. Moreover, we are familiar with its background in first-century Judaism.
We are so familiar, in fact, with the story and its background that we often miss what Luke is doing as he presents his version of our faith’s foundational narrative. Even more than Matthew, Luke roots the coming of Jesus deep within the messianic expectations of Israel in general and Jesus’ own family in particular. And then Luke spends the rest of his two-part work explaining, redefining, and even subverting those expectations.
Luke’s Subversive Agenda
Reading the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is like taking a trip back in time. As we listen to Zechariah and Mary express their praise to God for what He has done for them, we encounter themes that are characteristic of Luke’s theology (e.g., concern for the poor). But we also encounter a profound interest in how these events will benefit national Israel. Jesus is presented as the nation’s rightful king and as the one who will redress all of the wrongs that have been done to Abraham’s descendants. No concern at all is shown for how the coming of Jesus will impact the world, and there is not even a hint that the Messiah will suffer.
In the second chapter, however, we see the rhetoric about the Messiah begin to shift. The message brought to the shepherds gives us our first hint (fleeting though it may be) that the coming of Jesus may be good news for more people than some ethnic Israelites might have anticipated. It is clear from the Greek text that Jesus’ coming is supposed to be a joyous occasion for “all the people” of Israel (cf. Luke 2:9-14), but Gentiles cannot be blamed for seeing in this text a promise that extends benefits “to all people” (cf. KJV). The textual variant in verse fourteen certainly reinforces this impression, but, even without the variant, the praise offered by the angels is ambiguous enough to support Gentile aspirations without arousing suspicions among its original hearers about what God might be up to.
The tension between what is expected of the Messiah and what is actually going to happen becomes more explicit when Jesus is brought to the temple (Luke 2:22-38). Simeon’s words to Mary may very well foreshadow the suffering that she—and he—would one day experience, but they certainly declare that the life and ministry of Jesus would impact the whole world and not just Israel.
And, of course, the tension only grows as the rest of Luke-Acts unfolds. Luke never severs the connection between Israel’s messianic hope and the ministry of Jesus. Instead, Luke shows how the work that Jesus did both fulfills Israel’s hope and moves beyond it. Jesus is the one who cares for the poor, who teaches the common people, who restores sinners to fellowship with God, who defeats the forces of evil, and who sends his disciples into the whole world to do his work there.
So why should any of this be of interest to anyone other than Bible scholars and literature buffs? First, it demonstrates Luke’s integrity as a historian. Luke could have easily presented Mary and Zechariah as understanding what was going to happen, but he does not do that. Instead, he presents them as products of their spiritual, cultural, historical, and political environment. And, in so doing, he makes them historically plausible characters in what turns out to be a remarkable drama.
Second, Luke tells the story in such a way as to invite the reader to see herself or himself as part of it. The characters are not superhuman heroes separated from the limitations and weaknesses of normal human existence. They are thoroughly human characters in a thoroughly human story. We can relate to them because we are them.
Third, precisely because we can relate to the characters in Luke’s story, we see even more clearly how radical Jesus’ message was. We, like they, sometimes shake our fist at heaven and demand that God do something about the evil in our world. God’s response, both then and now, is to point to the manger—and to the cross. It is the shape of Jesus’ life that deconstructs the toxic values of our world. It is the form of his death that demonstrates God’s love for the world. It is the reality of his resurrection that spells doom for sin and death. All of these elements, and many beside, are necessary for God to accomplish all that He intends to do in Christ.