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The Politics of Polarization—Luke 2:22-40 (Alastair Roberts)

22 When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), 24 and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.” 25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, 29 “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation, 31 which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 33 And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed 35 so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” 36 There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, 37 then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. 39 When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.

In his account of Simeon and Anna in the temple, Luke the evangelist once again alerts us to the greater historical and political platform upon which Jesus has arrived. In the figures of both Simeon and Anna, we see Israel’s messianic expectation, faithful worship, and prophetic vision embodied. As they meet the infant Jesus, hope is faced with its realization and faith yields to sight.

Throughout his gospel, Luke places considerable emphasis upon prayer and the Holy Spirit’s inspiration. These themes are strikingly prominent in Luke’s portrayal of these two old covenant saints. He describes Simeon as a man upon whom the Spirit rests (v.25), as a man who receives the revelation of the Spirit (v.26), and as a man guided in the Spirit (v.26). Luke’s description of Simeon’s ‘seeing’ the Lord’s Messiah—God’s salvation—also carries prophetic overtones: Simeon has been given the prophetic vision required to perceive in an infant the arrival of Israel’s expectation. The strength of the accent placed upon Simeon’s enjoyment of the gift of the Spirit of prophecy in this passage is also arresting; this is the sort of language that Luke is more accustomed to using to describe Jesus’ own ministry, or that of the early Church. In the book of Acts, this Spirit—the same Spirit that has been at work in Israel and her prophets—will be poured out upon the whole Church. The hope that has gestated in the vision of Israel’s prophets is arriving at its long-awaited birth.

The characterization of Anna the prophetess is also noteworthy. She is a widow of 84 years, who fasts and prays in the temple in Jerusalem night and day (the drama of Luke’s gospel will also end with constant prayer in the temple—24:52-53). Her age is suggestive of numerological symbolism—seven times twelve—but perhaps more noteworthy is the intertextual connection that she evokes with the book of Samuel. The drama of the book of Samuel—a drama climaxing in the establishment of the kingdom of David—begins with a woman named Hannah fasting and praying in the temple, seeking a son. In that book, Hannah symbolizes a barren nation. The gift of her son Samuel heralds the dawning of a marvellous new era of history of Israel’s history.

Luke alludes to the book of Samuel on several occasions in his gospel and the book of Acts. In the final verse of our passage, he does so again, describing the growth of Jesus in language redolent of that used of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:26). Here the widow Anna, fasting and praying in the temple, recalls her namesake Hannah, who did the same so many centuries earlier. The birth of Samuel was a harbinger of a seismic shift in the fortunes of the nation and of the mighty and the weak within it, the advance sign of God’s turning of the tables. As the great kingdom of Israel found its seeds in the fasting and prayers of the barren Hannah, so the arrival of the Messiah is here connected to the prayers of a fasting widow. By including the figure of Anna in his account, Luke implies that something comparable to the events of the book of Samuel has been set in motion through the birth of Jesus.

Reflecting upon the echoes of Samuel in this passage can provide us with a helpful avenue into our exploration of the political themes of this text. As in the book of Samuel, it is not the official religious and political leaders such as Eli who are the recipients of God’s revelation and deliverance, but persons who enjoy little power or status. Luke earlier echoed Hannah’s prayer in response to the birth of Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10) in his record of the Magnificat. In her prayer, Hannah prophetically recognized the birth of Samuel as an event with profound political ramifications. The degree to which Luke establishes a parallel between his account in this passage and that of the beginning of Samuel suggests that he wishes his readers to see similar political significance in the birth of Jesus.

Christians are often inclined to downplay the political significance of Jesus’ advent. We so stress the discontinuity between Israel’s expectations of a political Messiah and God’s gift of his Son, who lays down his life, that the notion of Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s politically-charged expectation can become for us a matter of some embarrassment. This supposed discontinuity establishes a breach between old and new covenants and between Israel, who first received the promises, and the Church, who proclaims the dawn of their fulfilment in Jesus of Nazareth.

It is noteworthy that our embarrassment in this area does not appear to be shared by the evangelist. Far from awkwardly registering a clumsy shift of gears in God’s redemptive purposes, Luke is concerned that his readers recognize Jesus as the true fulfilment of the old covenant expectation of men and women such as Elizabeth and Zechariah or Anna and Simeon and that they see the same Spirit who inspired old covenant prophecy in Israel to be the one who orchestrates the advent of Jesus. Although the politically-freighted expectation of Israel receives a surprising fulfilment in Jesus, it is neither an unfitting nor an apolitical one. For the prophetess Anna, Jesus truly is the answer to Jerusalem’s desire for redemption.

The words of Simeon to Mary are especially significant:

This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.

Jesus is the catalyst of crisis, a polarizing, divisive, and destabilizing force. His coming forces people to choose a side, to reveal their deepest allegiances, to show hands previously held close to chests. His destiny leads to the fall and to the rising again—resurrection!—of many within the nation. In the process, hearts are revealed. Later in Luke’s gospel, Jesus disabuses his followers of the notion that he has come to bring a comfortable peace (Luke 12:51-53):

Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.

Jesus is the rock of offence and the chief cornerstone of God’s new temple. Either he is the ubiquitous obstacle or the basis of everything. Either way, indifference and neutrality are not options for us. While Jesus may not have brought the military deliverance that some might have expected from the Messiah, he introduced a new principle of separation and division into history, bringing judgment upon governors, kings, and emperors as, faced with the scandal of Christ, they were left with no choice but to pick a side.

Many of us have witnessed a similar principle of division over the last few months, as events such as those in Ferguson have polarized our acquaintances on social media, revealing the secrets of certain people’s hearts and pushing many to declare previously veiled sentiments. Some of us will also experience the power of such crises to catalyze division among those closest to us in fraught conversations around family meal tables this Christmas season. When such polarizing events press upon the national consciousness, lines of affiliation and separation are redrawn and differences can come into a sharper focus.

The power of Christ to provoke division and to bring that which was formerly hidden into the light eclipses even that of Ferguson. Pilate and Herod, the chief priests, the teachers of the law, the Jerusalem crowds, Jesus’ own disciples: all must pick a side. Simeon relates Jesus’ power as a sign provoking opposition to his determination of the fate of various parties within Israel. The judgment and destiny of all looms as all must make their true colours known. For Luke, the destiny of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries rests in large measure upon how they respond to his ministry. The rejection of Jesus and his messengers by the leaders of his people is directly related to the divine judgment of national cataclysm in AD70.

As we bear strong witness to Christ in the present day, a similar polarizing effect can often be witnessed. God’s healing justice has come near to us in his Son, sealing the doom of tyrants and the blessing and vindication of the righteous. Faithful witness and prayer precipitates division and judgment, propelling different parties towards their contrasting destinies. An appreciation of this fact should introduce a sense of the urgency and imminence of divine judgment in history as we present the message of God’s kingdom to our society. To some we are an aroma leading to death, to others one bringing new life (2 Corinthians 2:14-16). The power of such a gospel and Messiah in the political world of our day should never be underestimated.

One Comment

  1. Yet sadly this political message is made apolitical or the wrong kind of politics. Both of these lead to acceptance of the establishment and it being blessed by churches. As Ellul said, when the nation was monarchist, much of the church was monarchist; when the nation republican, the church was republican; when the nation was marxist, the church became marxist.

    Yet this division also comes in line of Jesus ceasing strife, putting the sword of bronze away, and being the Prince of Peace. It’s a politics of Exile for the people of God in a land of beasts.

    This was a good post Alistair. It needs to be emphasized that politics does not mean the conventional anglo-American divisions and distinctions. It’s so much more, especially for the people of God, the disciples of Jesus Christ.

    Cal

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