We are studying Luke 2:22-35, together with Luke 1:26-31, for Sunday, December 23, along with everyone else using the Uniform Series texts. Luke 2:21-35 is most of the account of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple in Jerusalem, up through the end of Simeon’s speech. Just for the sake of length, notes on Luke 1:26-38 appeared in a separate post; here are my notes on Luke 2:22-35:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: This passage continues with the opening movement of Luke’s gospel, which establishes the elaborate and intricate preparations and layered revelations that preceded Jesus’ birth and laid the groundwork for the significance of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. (See notes on Luke 1:26-38 for more on this.)
The way Isaiah 49:5-6 structures Luke’s presentation of the gospel, as the account of the Jewish messiah whose job description has expanded to include the Gentiles, becomes explicit in this passage. Simeon quotes Isaiah 49:6, prophesying by the Holy Spirit that this child will be a “light to the nations.”
In verses 21-23, Joseph and Mary are following prescriptions in the Torah related to the circumcision of male children, the redemption of the first-born, and the purification of mothers after childbirth. These are found in Genesis 17:9-14, Exodus 13:11-15, Numbers 3:11-13 & 40-51, and Leviticus 12:1-8.
Something significant may be going on with the way Luke includes the Hebrew Bible in his text at this point. He quotes part of the text of Exodus, reminding or perhaps informing his Gentile readers that “every male that opens the womb shall be holy to the Lord” – that is, YHWH. (Rabbinic interpretation is that originally, the firstborn were designated for sacred service to God. After the debacle of the Golden Calf in Exodus 32, the Levites – who hadn’t participated in that mistake, with the exception of Aaron himself – become the substitutes for everyone else. We might want to contemplate the way the themes of substitution, sacred service, firstborn-ness, and redemption that are all bound up in this ritual resonate with Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ destiny here.)
Luke doesn’t quote the whole text of Leviticus. Is this because it would let his readers know the little family is poor? Instead of bringing a lamb and a dove, they are bringing the cheaper sacrificial offering of two birds. Is Luke engaging in a little face-saving on their behalf? Or could he be rousing our curiosity, nudging us to discover that factoid about the lamb for ourselves, and then to wonder whether they might be, in a deeper symbolic sense, bringing that lamb with them in the form of their baby, Jesus?
Immediately following this account of Joseph and Mary’s encounter with Simeon in the Temple in Jerusalem, they will also encounter Anna, a prophet, and then go home and watch Jesus grow up, rounding out this opening movement of the gospel.
Luke 2:21-35 is a regular Revised Common Lectionary text, showing up as the Gospel reading for the 1st Sunday after Christmas in Year B, and annually for the celebration of the Presentation of the Lord. This makes it a passage churchgoers will probably know. Simeon’s speech has become a part of the liturgy, the Song of Simeon or the Nunc dimittis.
Here’s that liturgical text in a setting by Palestrina:
CLOSER READING: If this were a movie, there would be a montage made up of scenes of the family on the way from Nazareth to Jerusalem, and Simeon getting up in his little Jerusalem residence and heading over to the Temple. Verses 22-27 coordinate the characters’ actions so that we see them converging on the Temple for their rendezvous there – prearranged, by God-the Holy Spirit, the author seems to intend us to infer.
Certainly the Holy Spirit is explicitly active in verses 25-27, and we assume also in the prophetic speech that follows.
Simeon blesses God (v28) and the parents (v34), using a word that we normally reserve these days for funerals (“eulogize”). Should we make much of this? Simeon’s aside to Mary (v35), about a sword piercing her soul, might be construed as a little funereal.
Simeon addresses God, at the outset of his song, literally as despota, so something like “sovereign” or “master,” rather than the more familiar kyrios, which Luke also uses to refer to Jesus, and which is the word translated as “Lord” in vv23, 24, & 26. This sovereign Lord is the “you” whose salvation Simeon has seen upon seeing the infant Jesus (v30).
Jesus’ destiny emphatically concerns Israel here: he is presented as “the consolation of Israel” (v25), the “glory of God’s people Israel” (v32), and the falling and rising (or resurrection) of “many in Israel” (v34). So Jesus is the fulfillment of a promise – here, concretely, God’s promise to Simeon, but as Simeon announces, also God’s larger promise to Israel. That fulfillment is not without some judgment, or discernment, or differential consequences, however.
Jesus brings revelation to the nations, but also reveals “the thoughts out of many hearts” (v35). He reveals who God is; but he also reveals who we are.
The word translated thoughts here is the Greek word dialogismos, from which we get our word “dialogue.” We might think of the inner conversation we have when we are thinking deeply about, or pondering, something (as Mary was doing back in Luke 1:29).
All in all, Luke here shows us the fruition of an intricately-designed and –coordinated revelation that incorporates the law or Torah, the Temple, specific people called by name to specific encounters, the motivating and informing activity of the Holy Spirit, all bringing about the fulfillment of promises both ancient and recent while pointing towards the further, fuller realization of those promises.
Does this give Luke’s readers a warrant for thinking that this wondrous (see v33) unfolding revelation is still coming together? I suspect that’s the author’s intent here.