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Radical Aspects of the Christmas Story in the Gospel of Luke

Posted on: December 18, 2016

Category: Theology

Radical Aspects of the Christmas Story in the Gospel of Luke

In the past several months I have participated in "Jesus Seminar on the Road" events (JSORs). At these events, the effort is to share the results of the academic study of religion with the general public. There are times when people get upset with the academic study of the Bible. To question if a story in the Bible is historical or mythical seems blasphemous to many. Occasionally, someone is asked to leave a JSOR event because of rudeness.

Most people today understand that the Bible is an ancient document that needs to be understood in context. Most people can accept that a myth is a story with its meaning lying elsewhere than in modern science. But for some people, in order to be meaningful the Bible has to be factual. One point worth mentioning at Christmas time is that the factual reading of the story - the virgin birth, the shepherds, the angels - is meaningless. The radical nature of the story lies in the characters of the story, not in the question of facts. Imagine if we got caught up in the question of facts in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and never asked what Dr. Seuss was trying to relay to children. I remember my mother telling me that Christmas is something in the heart that no one can steal. I understood what she meant; I did not respond that since the Grinch does not really exist, the whole thing is meaningless.

Angels do not literally exist, and that's not the point anyway. An angel in the ancient world, as much as today, is a messenger, not a person. The point of an angel is what is pronounced. The whole point of an angel is missed if the pronouncement is not the focus. The question for Luke is what do the angels say, not do they exist? The angels pronounce peace. Luke means that living in peace is the measurement of whether or not one has heard the message. There is no scholarly breakthrough here with Luke. It's a simple, down to earth, message, like the one found in the Grinch. If we put this in a modern way, the Grinch is an angel. The point about the Grinch is not who he is but the message that happens because of him.

Shepherds are another set of characters that Luke employs in the story. There of course were shepherds in the ancient world just as there are today, but the question is why would shepherds be the ones to hear the news about peace? Well, why would Dr. Seuss write books for children? Though the point is not identical, it is similar. Shepherds do not represent power. They represent innocence. The image of the shepherd is what Luke wants us to notice; Luke is not asking us to believe that there were shepherds. It's just a story. The point for Luke is that it takes humility to be open to the news about peace. The announcement is not made to Roman soldiers, to Roman governors, or to the Imperial court. The announcement is far away from the Temple, and no scholar is there to hear it. We might even note that no Christians are around, either. For Luke all self-identity that would suggest pride or special status is absent from the scene. To bring this back to the Grinch story, only when the Grinch realizes that Christmas has nothing to do with him is he able to understand Christmas. With the image of shepherds, Luke says something like that.

The piece de resistance in Luke is the virgin birth. In Christian circles, this is often held to be both factual and central. But, of course, Luke does not care if the story is factual. Though many assume Luke's version is a "virgin birth" story, it is not. It's a special birth story. Luke never explicitly says that Mary is a virgin. Luke does have Mary say, "I have not known a man" (the Greek literally reads, "I don't know about sexual relations"), but this does not means that she will never know. Obviously, she will and will become pregnant. For Luke this birth is especially desired by the will (spirit) of God, which is to pass over Mary. To focus on the virginity of Mary is not only a complete and misinformed exaggeration, not only willfully ignorant of the Greek text, and not only sexist, it is also not the point. The point is why announce a special birth for Mary? Why not just have a regular one? The writer of Luke knows that a regular birth does not go with a hero figure. The writer also knows that special births in Jewish history align the character to the will of God. So, we are led in Luke to ask how the will of God is present in this birth, and the answer is a radical one. The will of God is present in the birth of a peasant child whose first proclamation is about preaching good news to the poor. Good news, in Greek, is something the Emperor announces by way of a series of political offices, public inscriptions, and various kinds of appointed town criers. Good news does not happen inside the life of a peasant woman and an unknown child. Luke, however, begs to differ. The good news about this special birth is that it concerns poverty and the conversion of poverty to the promise of God.

Oddly, the same theme is present in the Grinch story. The Grinch reaches his most desperate need to understand Christmas in the fate of Cindy Lou, a child. The gospel writer Luke has a point something like that. We can only understand this whole story if we understand the desperation of poverty and the way in which poverty contradicts the official good news. Politicians, Roman ones or ones today, announce the official good news about poverty being solved by helping the rich get richer, but Luke is saying that the good news about poverty is only available through encountering poverty in its desperation. Mary is an important figure in Luke not because she is special but because she is a nobody. What is amazing is that a nobody should be the person to watch when it comes to the birth of the good news.

These radical aspects in the gospel of Luke are not facts, have no meaning as facts, and cannot be heard as facts. They are story. The reason why people, both in ancient times and modern times, have difficulty hearing this good news is due to the difficulty of valuing things that never happened.


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