Our second of four weeks looking at episodes leading up to the birth of Jesus brings us to the birth of John the Baptist, and the fulfillment of Elizabeth’s, and even more of Zechariah’s, waiting to reveal what they know about this remarkable child. We’re studying Luke 1:57-80, with a special focus on verses 57-66 and 76-79 – that is, the story of John’s birth, circumcision, and naming, and then the final verses of Zechariah’s longer prophecy. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on the text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We are continuing a bit further along in Luke’s gospel. All of the material related to the birth of John the Baptist is unique to Luke. We might want to wonder what Luke hopes this story will make us see and think and feel, and how it leads in to the themes he emphasizes in his gospel, and helps make his larger theological point(s).
We’ll remind ourselves that Luke’s gospel, in particular, emphasizes: the role of women, the role of the Holy Spirit, relations between poor and rich, and the economic, equalizing justice to be brought by the Messiah. Also, ethnic inclusion. A story told in elegant, educated Greek.
The passage this week concludes Luke’s first chapter, which began with a brief announcement of the purpose of the gospel (“an orderly account”), then told the story of the annunciation to Zechariah, the annunciation to Mary – also handled by the angel Gabriel – and Mary’s visitation of Elizabeth. From this we might notice that these two episodes involving Zechariah form an envelope around the episodes involving Mary and Elizabeth. An envelope in which Zechariah moves from being silent, while fulfilling his role as priest, to being outspoken, while finally performing his role as a prophet. Zechariah himself personifies the concept of “Law and Prophets.”
It might or might not be significant that Zechariah seems most doubtful when acting as an agent of the law, in his function as priest. In the conclusion of the story, today, when he is at last freed to speak and prophesy, he also expresses faith – in God, and in God’s promises to Israel.
The “Song of Zechariah” (verses 68-79) appears in the lectionary as an option for the beginning (2nd Sunday of Advent) and ending (Reign of Christ Sunday) of Year C. The story of the naming, however, is one of those things we wouldn’t know was in the Bible if all we knew were the lectionary. Bible Content Examinees be warned.
CLOSER READING: Elizabeth does not perform a lot of the actions in this part of the text, but the actions she performs are indispensable: giving birth to the baby, and then standing up for his unconventional name. In v57, there is fulfillment for Elizabeth, of “the time” – the kind of time measured by a clock, that elapses as minutes tick by.
In v58, the neighbors – literally, the “ones near-the-household” – and the relatives – literally, the “together-borns” – hear the good news of the birth. Hearing will continue to be something this group does; at the end of the story, all the hearers of the words of what has been happening will lay up the things they’ve heard [about] in their hearts. They will wonder about what this set of events means for the destiny of the baby (v66).
The neighbors and relatives are very active in the story, hearing, rejoicing with Elizabeth, and then coming to the circumcision – as prescribed in the Torah – on the eighth day, and calling the name of the child Zechariah.
The altercation between “them” and Elizabeth seems particularly rude and dismissive because in ancient Hebrew/Jewish culture it is really the mother’s task to name the newborn baby. Usurping her naming right happens occasionally (see Genesis 35:18), but it’s exceptional. So the neighbors are being annoying, or else acting like Gentiles, or maybe both, in seeking to confirm Elizabeth’s name with Zechariah. In effect they are going over her head – for whatever reason (vv59-62).
As we readers know, they are also going against divine instructions. We readers know that Zechariah will back Elizabeth up on the name “John,” because we presume Zechariah told her about the name, and its angelic provenance.
The fear that comes upon the neighbors and relatives in v65 echoes the fear that came upon Zechariah earlier in the chapter – almost as if it is residual fear, stemming from the proximity of these events, which they witness, to their divine source. Zechariah, of course, was in more direct contact with that – as was, we might surmise, Elizabeth.
We might also notice that Zechariah’s silence mirrors Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The hiddenness of the child’s growth in the womb corresponds to the hiddenness of the news about him that Zechariah will now announce.
Zechariah’s prophecy is a LONG speech, vv68-79. It begins with thanksgiving to God and a description of what God has done: visited his people, made redemption for them, raised up a horn of salvation – a monarchical image of anointing – for the “house of David” – presumably pointing forward to the coming Anointed One. God has remembered his covenant, been faithful to the oath he swore to Abraham, and rescued his people from their enemies.
The prophecy continues specifically with a description of John: a prophet of the Most High, who will “prepare the way” – we may gather this preparation has something to do with repentance, as “forgiveness of sin” is explicitly linked to “knowledge of salvation” here. This will be consistent with the Baptist’s ministry of calling people to repentance.
The final clause of Zechariah’s prophecy seems to speak of the messianic future for which John will prepare. The term translated “tender mercy” is in Greek a reference to the physical seat of compassion, the viscera. We could think of it as the “visceral mercy” or the “gut-feeling mercy” of God. The language here is lyrical: “the dawn from on high,” that will “shine on those sitting in darkness and the shadow of death.” That light will guide our feet direct, or straight, into the way of peace.
If the hill country of Judea was anything like Harrison County, Indiana, the growing John probably never went a day without encountering the knowing looks of all those neighbors and relatives who had “marveled” and “stored up” their memory of the strangeness surrounding his birth. We could imagine a young man in that position lighting out for the desert as soon as he could. Maybe divine prophecies can also be self-fulfilling – or at least, contain the seeds of their own fulfillment.
Images: “Feuchtwangen Pfarrkirche – Vorhalle Fresko Evangelist Lukas” Wolfgang Sauber, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Cappella Tonabuoni, Zacharias Writes Down the Name of His Son,” Domenico Ghirlandaio, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons