Lectionary Reflection for the Third Sunday of Lent

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 13:1-5:

Luke BTCB

The question about evil and its causes—or about evil and its relation to justice—can of course be asked in many ways. The epitome in biblical literature for theodicy examined from the perspective of unjust suffering is surely the book of Job; looked at from the other end, as a question about why the practitioners of evil seem to prosper as their victims suffer, it takes theological form in Ps. 73.

Here it is the first perspective in which the question is raised, though the second hovers over it, since the Roman oppression was on everybody’s mind. In order to address the issue more fundamentally, Jesus adds to it the fate of some people killed in an accidental manner, perhaps through a flaw in engineering long unnoticed. Talbert suggests that the issue might well have been raised because some in the audience took absence of tragedy as a sign of God’s blessing, while thinking that “trouble is God’s punishment for sin”; the effect would be as much as to say, “Our lives are tranquil . . . why should we repent?” (2002: 145).

Whatever the motives of “some” in the crowd for turning to this subject, Jesus has an astringent answer: “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than all other Galileans, because they suffered such things? I tell you, no.” The idea of a necessary causal connection between personal sin and the experience of suffering is here dismissed in a word. But there is a more pressing, more universal question, and that is the question of the human sinfulness, from which no one is free, and its deeper consequences, from which no unredeemed person is exempt. Accordingly, “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3). In the context of Jesus’s immediately preceding eschatological remarks, this almost certainly means “perish eternally.”

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

 

Lectionary Reflection for the First Sunday of Lent

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 4:1-13:

Luke BTCB

Scriptural narrative presents three direct temptations by Satan; these, in canonical order, are the temptation of Adam and Eve, the temptation of Job, and the temptation of Jesus here in Luke’s Gospel. Unsurprisingly, these three episodes have been connected by Christian exegetes down through the centuries in various ways, but especially by seeing the resistance of temptation by Jesus as a paradigmatic reversal of the yielding of Eve and Adam in the garden of Eden. That this connection is invited by Luke, arranging and concluding his genealogy of Jesus as he does with Jesus as “the son of Adam, the son of God” (3:38), has seemed to much of Christian tradition an obvious element of his narrative design.

Thus, Ambrose speaks for many: “There is here an Adam typology and a Genesis background to this story: as Adam is cast out of paradise into the wilderness, so Christ, the new Adam, goes into the wilderness on our behalf, then to come forth from that temptation to lead us back to paradise” (Exposition of Luke 4.7). Parallels with Job are a frequent theme in Protestant theologians and poets such as Henry Oxenden’s Jobus Triumphans (1656) and especially John Milton’s Paradise Regained (1671), where the “two Adams” theme nonetheless still predominates: Milton bases his companion to Paradise Lost on Luke’s rather than Matthew’s account with its different order of temptations (Matt. 4:1–11) because it suited what he called his own “grand design” to place the temptation of the tower last.

Milton, though influenced by Calvin, is in this preference for Luke’s account certainly following the more dominant typology (Paradise Regained 2.129–39). What seems to emerge in these Lukan passages is a strong reminder that in biblical narrative in general there is a cosmic agōn or struggle taking place for the human soul (Calvin 1972: 1.135).

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

 

Lectionary Reflection for the Last Sunday after Epiphany

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 9:28-36:

The echo of Jesus’s baptism (Luke 3:22) in the divine voice from the cloud is to Luke unmistakable: “This is my beloved Son [literally, “this is the Son of me, having been chosen”]. Hear him” (9:35). The reference to Jesus having been “chosen” (ho eklelegmenos) is found only in Luke (cf. Isa. 42:1). Mark 9:7 and Matt. 17:5 appear to echo the divine pronouncement at Jesus’s baptism more precisely.

The point in each case is clear: the Father’s distinctive identification with the Son. What Luke adds uniquely, Gentile though he was, is a characteristically Jewish way of hearing it, tying the identity of Jesus even more closely to the messianic prophecies now being fulfilled. Jesus is God’s distinctive, ultimate, authoritative Word; he is also the Suffering Servant, the true Israel, the Chosen. As the transfiguration ends, the three see Jesus “alone,” and this time, they apparently need no warning to “keep it close,” not to disclose “in those days any of those things they had seen” (Luke 9:36).

They had been standing on very holy ground, and they now understood the identity of Jesus in a far more profound way than ever before. As Calvin says, also framing his remarks with an eye to the Epistle to the Hebrews, “And this is why the Apostle says in Hebrews [1:1] ‘God, who at sundry times and diverse manners spake in time past through the prophets, hath in these last days spoken by his Son’” (1972: 2.201).

 

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 4:14-30:

Luke BTCBJesus responds to the skepticism he knows is rising in their hearts with a “proverb” (Greek parabolē; the Hebrew equivalent, māšāl, can mean any figurative saying as well as “parable”). Jesus knows what they really want is for him to do in their own midst some of the miracles he has done up north in Capernaum (4:23). They want to see signs and wonders here and now, in their own village; they have little interest in the larger context. His response immediately points up two things that his audience in Nazareth, as elsewhere, does not like to hear: first, that Israel more often than not has rejected the prophets (4:24) and, second, that, as a result, wonders of the Lord were sometimes then performed by the prophets among the Gentiles instead, as witnessed by Elijah’s blessing of the widow of Zarephath (4:25; cf. 1 Kgs. 17:9–24).

Jesus is here reminding his hearers pointedly of the same thing John did in the previous chapter (Luke 3:8–9): if Israel thinks its special covenant relationship with God is all that matters, their disobedience notwithstanding, they have not been paying sufficient attention to either the Law or the Prophets. Cyril of Alexandria grasps the point firmly: by these two stories of Elijah and Elisha, he says, Jesus is referring to the “heathen who were about to accept him and be healed of their leprosy, by reason of Israel’s remaining impenitent” (1983: Homily 12). It seems more than probable that Luke, a Gentile himself, must have noticed these long-standing biblical patterns and pondered over their recurrent frequency in the teaching of Jesus and the ministry of the apostles.

We have to conclude from the suddenly impassioned and violent response of the crowd in the synagogue that, here as elsewhere, any suggestion that God would bypass the Jews and confer his blessing on the hated Gentiles has produced a hair-trigger animosity; Lightfoot’s general observations about this reflex suggest that the pattern of response to this message everywhere in the New Testament was well grounded in long-standing Jewish prejudice (1979: 3.59). The enraged crowd drags Jesus out and tries to shove him off a cliff, presumably so as then to stone him. But somehow, mysteriously, he escapes (4:29–30), for, as Bede says, reflecting Luke’s words, “the hour of his passion had not yet come” (quoted in Aquinas, Catena Aurea 3.1.163).

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

 

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 1:46-55:

Mary’s Magnificat is a glorious lyric, a poetic summary from scripture, filled with Old Testament phrases and praises of the God who keeps his own covenanted faithfulness and brings his word to fulfillment (Gen. 17:19; 1 Sam. 2:7–8; Pss. 138:6; 71:19; 126:2–3; 111:9; 103:17; 98:1; 118:15; Isa. 41:8; Hab. 3:18).

Echoes of Torah, of the rejoicing of Hannah, but most of all of the psalms of David are woven together into an exuberant poem. And it seems fitting that one who is to bring into the world the “word from the beginning,” the long-awaited “David’s royal son,” should be among women a poet and human author of a seminal scripture herself.

As with the song of her namesake predecessor Miriam (Exod. 15) and the psalms of her ancestor David, so Mary’s song is poetry attuned for joyous praise; in it God is found to be greater than all our frail imaginings of him. Ambrose remarks that everyone should aspire to “the spirit of Mary, so that he may rejoice in the Lord” (Exposition of Luke 2.2c).

Botticelli has a painting, Madonna della Magnificat, in which (also “poetical”) Mary is shown writing her great poem into Luke’s book as the evangelist holds her inkwell! Spiritually, this painting echoes the comment of Ambrose. The Hebraic verbal echoes are deep and resonate already in the greeting of Gabriel and Elizabeth: “Blessed is the man . . . [whose] delight is in the law of the Lord” (Ps. 1); blessed is the man, and so also blessed is the woman who is found in the way of complete openness to the word of God.

Bonaventure’s summary seems most apt: “Her canticle shows that the fulfillment of all promised blessings has come about, and therefore brings about the fulfillment of all praise and canticles and even of the [entire] Scriptures” (2001–4: 1.1.100).

 

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

Lectionary Reflection for the Third Sunday of Advent

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 3:7-18:

Ambrose reflects a widespread view among early commentators that John is here “a type of the law, because the law could denounce sin, but not pardon it” (Exposition of Luke 2.68; cf. Calvin 1972: 1.11). Later he adds, “there is therefore one baptism of repentance and another of grace” (Exposition of Luke 2.79).

Here the baptism is a sign of true and most practical repentance and John’s prophetic office: to the penitents’ Ezekiel-like question, “What shall we do then?” (Luke 3:10), John’s answer to those who have possessions is that they share them (3:11), to the tax collectors for the Roman government that they take no more than is appropriate (3:12–13), and to the soldiers that they should “not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with [their] wages” (3:14).

Both early and medieval commentators (Origen may have been the first) noted how these three groups of penitents reflected the three basic estates as they understood them: commoners, clerks, and knights (soldiers); these who come to John are thus a representative remnant of Jewish society.

This aspect of John’s message, namely that a scrupulous ethical life is both necessary for a true repentance and certainly consequent upon it, is recorded uniquely in Luke’s Gospel: “fruits worthy of repentance” (3:8) establish that reformed action, not mere membership, is the criterion, and it connects this passage, as Bonaventure notes, to the prospect of God’s judgment (2001–4: 1.20.240; cf. Matt. 21:19; Luke 13:7; Dan. 4:11).

Here, as earlier in Old Testament contexts, almsgiving is related to the idea that sin incurs indebtedness to both God and neighbor, and gifts to the house of the Lord and to the needy are ways provided by which our indebtedness may be satisfied (Augustine, Sermon 389). This concept will carry over into the teaching of Jesus, as the prayer he taught the disciples (Luke 11:2–4) and the repentance of Zacchaeus (19:8–10) make clear.

Calvin says that “good works are called the fruits of repentance, for repentance is an inward thing . . . but results in the production of fruit by a change of life” (1972: 1.122). In the light of 3:10–14, as read by the church down through the centuries, we cannot doubt that 3:8–9 links the general absence of “works worthy of repentance” in the larger population to Israel’s disfavor and God’s judgment, and so prompts John the Baptist’s prophetic image of “the ax . . . laid to the root of the trees” (3:9). He is here, as we are later told explicitly, the last of the Old Testament prophets (16:16).

 

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

Lectionary Reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 3:1-6:

To anyone familiar with the Jewish scriptures there was something about John the Baptist that ineluctably echoed the prophets of old. For one thing, the “word” (rhēma) or revelation came to John in the desert. This already has a prophetic connotation (cf. Jer. 1:1–14). For another, it wasn’t just that John preached the need to repent. It was, at least in part, that he preached it out in the desert, “in the wilderness” (Luke 3:2).

Luke makes explicit the connection of John to Isaiah, citing an evidently messianic passage (Isa. 40:3–5). Here Luke puts together the judgment voice of Isaiah’s condemnation of Israel and calling it to repentance (cf. Isa. 11) with the consolatory mood of Isa. 40 (“comfort ye my people”) in a striking juxtaposition. John is here not only acting, as Malachi had predicted, as an agent to turn “the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6; Luke 7:27), but in a more radically transgenerational way calling the dispirited and scattered Israel of his time to repent. Then he invites the penitents to be baptized as a sign of cleansing from their sins so that these individuals may become the faithful Israel long ago covenanted in a spiritual marriage to Israel’s most holy God.

This message could hardly have come at a time when the Jewish political fortunes were at a lower ebb—at least since the Babylonian captivity and perhaps the “abomination of desolation,” the setting up by Antiochus IV Epiphanes of a statue of Zeus Olympus on the altar of burnt offerings. As Gregory the Great and Bonaventure have it, it was clear to all that “Judea had come to an end, for it was subjected and divided into so many kingdoms” (Bonaventure 2001–4: 1.5.228). Jerusalem was now again possessed by an alien power; all manner of vile judgment had fallen on it, and when the authentic voice of a prophet as of old was heard to cry out in the desert, many who were despondent but yet yearned in their hearts for the peace of Jerusalem went out to hear this prophet for themselves.

 

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

Lectionary Reflection for the Third Sunday of Easter

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 24:36b-48:

After the Lord has left them, at “that very hour” the pair return to Jerusalem, presumably arriving later in the same evening, to find “the eleven and those who were with them gathered together [athroizō]” (24:33), already talking in amazement about the Lord having appeared by now to Simon Peter (24:34). And so Cleopas and the other tell their story too, notably “how he was known to them in the breaking of bread” (24:35).

But even while they are in this joyous exchange, flushed with the excitement and wonder of it all, suddenly Jesus is standing “in the midst of them” and saying, “Peace to you” (24:36).

Despite the collective witness of previous encounters with the risen Lord, they are “terrified and affrighted” (ptoeō and emphobos—the doubling indicates extremity of apprehensive emotion) and think he is a ghost (24:37).

As so often, he calms them down: “Why are you troubled? And why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (24:38). He points to his hands and his feet, inviting them to touch him, “for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see I have” (24:39). When he does this (24:40), they can scarcely believe for their joy and wonderment (thaumazō has the sense we employ when we refer to something wonderful as “fantastic” or “incredible,” not meaning the word literally but hyperbolically for something so marvelous our minds cannot take it in).

Luke here is as emphatic about the physicality of the resurrected body of Jesus as Paul will be later (1 Cor. 15:35–49); it is of the essence of what he is showing to have happened that every expectation of mortal nature in death has been broken through, the corruptible body having been restored and now, recognizably flesh and bones, yet an entirely new phenomenon.

It can scarcely be overstressed how contrary Luke and Paul are to modernist metaphorizing and sidestepping of this absolute foundation of Christian faith and hope.

John Updike, himself a modern and no pietist, nevertheless underscores this point beautifully in a poem directed against the evasive liberalism of many theologians when he insists that Jesus’s bodily resurrection is the lynch-pin of any plausible Christian future: “if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules / reknit, the amino acids rekindle,” he says, “the Church will fall.”

 

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

 

Lectionary Reflection for the First Sunday after Christmas Day

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 2:22-40:

Strikingly, even before the offering for the firstborn can be accomplished by his parents, Simeon takes Jesus up in his arms, blessing God and saying, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2:29–32 KJV).

I cite the KJV here because of its proximity to the language of the liturgy in the Book of Common Prayer (1662) and thus primarily to draw attention among English speakers to this passage being the fourth poetic or hymnic passage encountered thus far in Luke to have entered into Christian liturgy. It has been part of daily prayers since the fourth century; in the Eastern church it is said at vespers, in Western use generally at compline, from which it enters the Book of Common Prayer. Simeon’s benedictional praise poem has thus also itself become a “sign to many” for two millennia.

Now suddenly appears yet another surprising figure, namely Anna (Hebrew Hannah, meaning “grace”). Luke tells us that she is a prophetess and, more remarkably, that she has spent most of her long life in the temple precincts, “serv[ing] God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:37). She is a widow, her husband having died seven years after her marriage. She is of the tribe of Asher and a daughter of Phanuel (whose name is a variant of “Peniel,” recalling Gen. 32:30: “face to face [panîm el-panîm] with God”), and it appears that, most unusually for any woman, she has effectively been an intercessor at the temple for more than sixty years.

She is eighty-four at least (the syntax here is ambiguous); for Luke it is evidently a fact of interest that she is so advanced in age. Later commentators, possessed of the conviction that no apparently incidental number would have been included in the narrative by the biblical writers unless there was a spiritual reason for it, sometimes treat the number as symbolic or figural and see Anna’s responsive thanksgiving as constituting her as a mystical sign of the church (e.g., Bede, Homilies on the Gospels 2.38: seven [a number for the “fullness of time”] multiplied by twelve [a biblical number for revelation of God’s purposes]).

Be that as it may, all commentators see her appearance as highly significant to Luke. In some deep sense, Jesus is an answer to the prayers of Anna, even as to those of Simeon. Arriving on the scene precisely at the moment of Simeon’s prayer she acts as what dramaturgists call “fifth business”; in her words she not only gives thanks to God but, Luke adds, like the shepherds, also immediately begins to spread the good word “to all those who looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (2:38).

Calvin sees the examples of Simeon and Anna also as prefiguring the evangelical joy of the church, “that the faithful may encourage each other to sing God’s praises with one voice, and mutually to take up the strain” (1972: 1.98).

 

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

Lectionary Reflection for the Fourth Sunday of Advent

This excerpt comes from Luke (BTCB) by David Lyle Jeffrey, commenting on Luke 1:26-38

As the curtain rises on this second scene, Mary is described simply as “a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David” (1:27). That is all.

There is no description of her domicile; it is simply inferred from the verb (eiselthon, “entering,” typically used with reference to “coming into” a house) that she is at home privately, precisely as one would expect a young woman of that time to be, in seclusion from the gaze of men. In such a culture, the virginity of a young woman was both her own and her family’s central concern, a matter of honor.

We, who live in a time of sexual laxity more resembling Roman than a normatively halakic Jewish culture, may too easily underestimate the degree to which sexual purity was then integral to both personal and family honor.

It is exceedingly unlikely that a man other than her father or younger siblings would have access to a young woman in her familial home. Thus, we should not be at all surprised that Mary was taken aback by the appearance of the angel Gabriel. Here we need to bear in mind that there is no reason for us to imagine that Mary was confronted with one of the angels as imagined by the painters, whose wings are visual attributes designed to distinguish them symbolically from humans: Dan. 9:21, for example, refers to “the man Gabriel.” That he was not, however, human but a divine emissary must have been suggested by his bearing or radiance.

That Mary is a virgin, moreover, is emphasized by repetition of the term parthenon. This firm identification heightens the sense of the extraordinary in the event of Gabriel’s direct address to Mary (Hebrew Miriam), since, as we have seen, it was so unusual in Jewish culture for any man, let alone a strange man, to salute a woman, especially an unmarried woman, directly (Lightfoot 1979: 3.25).

But what he says is still more extraordinary: “Rejoice, highly favored one, the Lord is with you; blessed are you among women!” (Luke 1:28). The term kecharitōmenē (“highly favored one”) is highly unusual, precedented in the Septuagint only in Dan. 10, where Gabriel is likewise the speaker, and it establishes here a connection between Mary as singular “chosen one” and her most saintly Old Testament predecessor in relationship to the eschatological fulfillment of God’s purpose to redeem his people.

Mary is perhaps to all outward appearances quite ordinary, but in the divine perspective she is to be revealed as extraordinary on a level yet unimagined in her culture. (Gabriel’s form of address to her, his calling her kecharitōmenē , suggests in historic Catholic exegesis her having found favor before the angel declares it; the parallel with Daniel supports that implication.)

The subversion of normative cultural expectation is heightened in several ways, some highlighted by the pairing of this narrative with that of the announcement to Zacharias of John’s birth: special births in scripture had always been announced to the father to be; this time it is the woman who hears first. Gabriel says to Mary, “The Lord is with you,” not merely in greeting but in the context a strong affirmation of her chosenness. The following phrase, “blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:28), is missing from some manuscripts but anticipates the response of Elizabeth in 1:42.

All of this together makes the angel’s greeting a stunning indication of Mary’s importance to what follows.

 

©2012 by David Lyle Jeffrey. Published by Brazos Press. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.