“This isn’t told for sentiment”

Every other year, I study Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. [1] By happenstance (see footnote 1) the Luke years are the even numbered years, which means that I study Luke in the presidential years and in the midterm election years. Luke’s notion of the ministry of Jesus emphasizes gentleness and healing, so it turns out to have been a good choice, especially this year. [2]

The first thing that happens in Luke account of the birth of Jesus has to do with the birth of John the Baptist. [3] It takes Luke a little while to get around to considering the birth of Jesus at all and this year, I am going to follow him in that.

Zechariah, the father of John, is a priest and has been chosen by lot to go into the Holy of zechariah-1Holies in the temple and burn incense. The angel Gabriel appears to him and calls him by name and gives him the wonderful news about the forthcoming pregnancy of his aged wife.

Zechariah knows several very good reasons why this event is unlikely and he shares them with Gabriel. That always seemed to me a reasonable thing to do. [4]

18 Zechariah said to the angel, ‘How can I know this? * I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.’ 19 The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel, who stand in God’s presence, and I have been sent to speak to you and bring you this good news. 20 Look! Since you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time, you will be silenced and have no power of speech until this has happened.’ (Luke 1 in the New Jerusalem Bible).

That always seemed harsh to me. Abraham said the same thing—using the same words—and God didn’t seem ruffled. Mary will say nearly the same thing later in the chapter, and Gabriel is not offended. What is it about Zechariah?

It is at that point in his lecture that Raymond Brown, my mentor in all this, speaks the line I have taken as the title of this essay: “this isn’t being told for sentiment.” Yes, it is true, says Brown, that Gabriel’s response seems harsh, but Luke is not trying to help you analyze Zechariah’s interview with Gabriel. Luke is trying to remind his hearers of something. “Gabriel,” he wants them to say, “haven’t we heard about Gabriel before?”

zechariah-2Yes, you have. That’s the best answer. Remember back to Daniel 10:15?, the only previous appearance of Gabriel? [5] Gabriel was telling Daniel about the events that will mark the end of this era and Daniel was struck dumb. Well, here is Gabriel again and Zechariah is struck dumb. So…what does the fulfillment of God’s promise to Zechariah have to do with the end of the era?

OK, if you were looking for an answer to that question, you will have to look elsewhere. The answer I am looking at belongs to a different question. My question is, “Why is Zechariah struck dumb?” and my answer is, “Luke is trying to direct our attention to the climactic event—the birth of the forerunner of the Messiah.”

In the light of that, I would say that the question I always asked is not a very good question. I always wanted to know why Gabriel was so mean to Zechariah, especially since Abraham and Mary asked the same question without any retaliation. The question that now seems to me to be a better question is, “What does Luke mean by trying to bring to our ears echoes of Gabriel’s encounter with Daniel?”

The question I was asking was, using Fr. Brown’s word, “sentimental.” It looks for the meaning in the interaction of the two members of the conversation. The question I am now offering you might be called “referential.” Gabriel is there because of what his presence will refer to. It is that “Gabriel…Gabriel…I’ve heard of him somewhere before?” response.

This is a dilemma for modern Christians. All we really want to do, we say to ourselves, is to “read the Christmas story.” But that is disingenuous. We must ask Luke to enter into our world and use only the references we know or we must try to enter Luke’s world and the world of his hearers and to understand the references they knew.

I phrased that as if it were a choice. In pretending it is a choice we can make—we change or Luke changes—I was trying to be funny. I do seriously believe that we have a choice to make, however. One option is to insist that the passage means and should mean what a superficial reading gives us. What? Gabriel didn’t like Zechariah? It’s not good to question God when you are being offered a favor? Leave your incredulity behind when you enter the Holy of Holies?

The other choice is to learn what Gabriel’s presence means. What was Luke trying to tell us by putting Gabriel there? Matthew didn’t use any angels at all; just dreams. Gabriel is not essential to “the story;” he is essential to Luke’s story. And when we find out why Luke thought that situation would echo in the ears of his hearers, we can ask what that lesson means to us.

zechariah-3I can do that. I think the appearance is supposed to mean to Luke’s hearers what the sound of the gun at the beginning of the last lap [6] means to fans of track and field. It means that the race is almost over and if you had a move to make, this would be the right time to make it. [7] Jesus said that over and over in his ministry, but I think it is a mark of Luke’s art that he introduces it into the story of John’s birth.

Someone will surely point out that I have merely exchanged one problem for another. That’s true. Instead of fruitlessly wondering about why Gabriel was mean to that nice old man, I can wonder what it means to me that Luke thinks of Jesus’s birth as inaugurating “the bell lap” of the race we are running. I don’t know what that means to me, in fact. But I do think it is the dilemma Luke intended to offer his hearers.

I think that wrestling with the issue Luke intended for us to wrestle with is the right thing to do.

[1] Originally, it was just a matter of chance, like the division of Senate seats into three parts in the first meeting of the Senate. Obviously, if you are going to elect a third of the Senate every year, you are going to have to make some distinctions and all of the Senators who have to make that decision were elected at the same time. The choice of which Senator got to serve a two year term, which a four, and which a six was entirely random the first time. The first time I chose an infancy narrative, I chose Matthew and it happened to be an odd-numbered year.
[1] “Gentleness and healing” belong in this life only. The “life after this one” is a life of reversal and if you had a comfortable life here, Luke’s picture of what awaits you is the least comforting one I know.
[3] Verses 5—25 and 57—80 and about John and his parents, Zechariah and Elizabeth. In Luke, Elizabeth, the mother of John, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are cousins.
[4] The young boy who is told by the suddenly changed Ebenezer Scrooge to go and buy a turkey is incredulous. “Walk-er!” he exclaims, meaning something like, “You can’t be serious.” That’s how Zechariah responded and it makes as much sense to me as it did to Charles Dickens when he wrote it.
[5] There aren’t many angels as separate beings in the Old Testament—angels with names and duties. They begin to become prominent when the Jews return from captivity in Babylon, bringing little pieces of the Babylonian cosmos with them.
[6] They use a bell at the University of Oregon, my alma mater. It works just as well and it is so…Oregon.
[7] The one I remember best was a 10K race dominated by Frank Shorter and Steve Prefontaine. Pre just sat on Shorter’s right shoulder until the bell sounded, then he moved decisively into the lead and won the race.”  I saw that race.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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