This week we had a congregational reading of Luke 1:1-2:40, with songs (Luke: The Musical!). You can download the script (scripture, songs, prayers and questions) here. This is the background briefing, preparing us Gentiles to hear a very Jewish story.
The gospel according to Luke has often been described as the gospel for the Gentiles. At the very beginning, it is addressed to ‘Theophilus.’ Theophilus can simply be a name; but it means ‘god-lover.’ A god-lover was a Gentile who had come to know and worship the God of the Jews without converting to Judaism (i.e. without circumcision and without adopting Torah); and there were many God-lovers.
They must have been people of deep conviction, because it wasn’t an easy time to be Jewish or to be identified with the Jews. From 175 to 164/163 B.C.E., Antiochus IV, the Hellenistic king of the Seleucid Empire, reigned, and he hated Jews with a passion. Judaism was outlawed; Jewish books were destroyed; Jewish towns, gathering places and even the Jewish Temple were desecrated by sacrifices of pigs to pagan idols; circumcision was banned. There are accounts that babies found to be circumcised were killed then hung to rot around their mother’s neck as a warning to others. Like more recent European history, the persecution of the Jews was both extreme and grotesque, and aimed to eliminate Judaism altogether.
Eventually, Antiochus IV was overthrown and the Jews made an alliance with Rome. A century of relative peace and independence ensued, until Judea became a Roman province in 63 B.C.E. The population began to seethe, and tensions with Rome mounted. In 70 C.E., the First Jewish Revolt was crushed and the Temple was destroyed; it’s estimated that between half a million and a million Jewish people were killed. The Second Jewish Revolt was crushed in 135 C.E.
It’s in the midst of this dark and terrible history—a history that the earliest readers all knew and even lived through—that Luke wrote his account to Theophilus, that Gentile god-lover who has committed to the small sect of Jesus-followers within this heavily persecuted faith (ca. 100 C.E.).
Two thousand years later, we read this story in the shadow of the Holocaust. In this day and age, Jewish people are still frequently whitewashed, marginalised, or persecuted. Jews and Judaism are being aggressively attacked by radical Islamists, neo-Nazism is on the rise, many Christians are ignorant of or even deny the faith’s Jewish roots, and European history is being rewritten, even erased from textbooks, by white supremacist Holocaust deniers.
As Gentiles living in this moment, Luke’s account of a Jewish Messiah speaks urgently yet generously to us. So let us listen to this story for the god-lovers, attentive to these histories and wondering what the author wants us to know in all that will unfold. Ω
The congregation went on to do an embodied reading of Luke 1:1-2:40, moving between Temple, the Judaean hills, Bethlehem and Nazareth (well, the church, the carport, the lawn and the shed!). You can download the script (scripture, songs, prayers and questions) here.
- What stands out? What do you notice? Does anything sound like direct speech?
- Does the background briefing and/or today’s telling change anything you thought you knew about Jesus? Luke? the Gospel? the Messiah? Gentiles? Yourself? What?
- How would you describe your place in this story? Is this unchanged?
- What response does it call out from you now?
Some congregational responses:
- Simeon’s ‘blessing’ is very unsettling — not the blessing most mothers would want. Yet Mary has been puzzling and thinking all along; her song opens herself up to this sort of life; she is not meek and mild; she was probably not so surprised … yet still, hard to reconcile, especially for us who live in a society which assumes happiness is the most important thing for our children.
- Mary as riot grrl … most revolutions begin in back rooms and kitchen tables, and most work on them is done in those places; we see this here. Is this how we think of Biblical womanhood? That is, two pregnant women writing revolution songs? (Cue hysterical laughter! Interestingly, someone with a Catholic background said they had never heard beyond the first couple verses of the Magnificat. They had no idea Mary was fermenting revolution.)
- People are all longing and waiting … Simeon and Anna spend their whole lives waiting — what are we longing / waiting / preparing ourselves for? What are we giving ourselves to in the midst of our waiting? We notice the faithfulness of Zechariah, Simeon, Anna of just showing up, year after year, performing roles and orienting themselves to the waiting.
- Mary and Zechariah’s responses to the angel were quite different? No, quite similar? Um … they both asked questions. This is a puzzling story! Why was Zechariah struck dumb? Was it blessing or curse? What did Zechariah learn in his silence? Was naming the boy ‘John’ his obedience to God? What was it like for Elizabeth living with a silent man for the length of a pregnancy?
- We were struck by the naming of things as they really are: the work of the spirit, the injustice in the world, that God is acting and will continue to act in history.
- Perhaps we read as an invited guest; perhaps we are new members of the family. Simeon’s song: “A light of revelation to the Gentiles” — a gift to god-lovers. We are being welcomed in. As such, it is not our story to own, but a story in which we are invited to participate.
- Someone said they move between being fully immersed and even moved to tears by this story, and at other times simply being struck by its oddness.
- A conspicuous absence: Joseph! Wise men! To some extent, men’s voices!
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