No Right Answers: Luke 2.21–38

2017-1-1-not-rightDelivered at Ames UCC
on January 1, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

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I was a literature major in college. That meant I got read a whole lot of books that I loved. But I also had to take a class on poetry. I remember the day we talked about Emily Dickinson’s “Because I could not stop for death.” It felt like we spent an hour on the first stanza:

Because I could not stop for Death–
He kindly stopped for me–
The Carriage held but just Ourselves–
And Immortality.

Our professor kept asking what it meant. We kept saying, “She didn’t want to die. But death came anyway.” Which it does. But she kept at us: “What else? What else?” She seemed, to me, disproportionately excited to look for more meaning within those 20 words.

I know I passed the class, but I remember feeling dense and dimwitted throughout. Poetry confused me and I felt like I was never “getting it” or getting it “right.”

Twenty years later, I can say the experience of being Christian can feel the same. As people who are seeking the divine, in part through Christian scripture, we can also feel dense and wonder if we will ever get it “right” or know what our scripture “really means.”

Look at today’s portion from the gospel community of Luke, for example. It begins with Jesus being presented as an eight-day-old newborn to the temple in Jerusalem.

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 (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord”), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

The passage implies that this presentation is a required religious purification ritual for the whole family. But it wasn’t. Ancient Judaism did not have any such requirement. Luke makes this false connection by pairing it with a quotation from God’s instruction to Moses in the wilderness in Exodus 13. Yes, God asked for first born sons to be dedicated to service to God, but that was never implemented as a formal religious purification ritual rule.1

Women did a forty day period between delivery and a ritual, which is detailed in Leviticus 12, but Mary is only a week out of the barn. And there was no requirement for the fathers of newborns.

Saying that it was time for “their” time for purification, meaning the whole family’s, is not historically accurate.

So what does that mean? What does the story mean as told and what does the discrepancy between story and history mean?

The Lukan writers might have just been ignorant of Judaism. There’s just as much evidence that the majority of those who gathered around Luke’s account of Jesus’ life were mostly Gentile as there is that they were mostly Jewish. So maybe they had no idea what they were talking about.

Or, it could be an intentional sleight of hand to further emphasize the holiness and piety of Jesus’ family. Not a lie, but a conflation with good intent. They really want us to know Jesus is Jesus. So, let’s take the sentence as is, as if we don’t know the rest of the Bible.

Well, if the whole family has to come for a blessing as described, it means the whole family is recognized as carrying the responsibility for being in right relationship with God and each other. In a way I really like, it means that women aren’t the only ones somehow tainted by childbirth. It is a refutation of the curse put on women way back in Eden. By receiving the sentence as if we do now know anything beyond what is written, we gain some equality between the sexes.

But which interpretation is right? And what else does it mean?

This is where the Holy Spirit comes in, and her counterpart in literature, poetry. The Holy Spirit literally enters this story through Simeon:

Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple;

And with the Holy Spirit, Simeon brings poetry:

Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.

What I have learned since my formal study of poetry, is just how badly we humans seem to need this form of open-ended expression. Poetry serves a function that prose and good sentence structure cannot. Poetry can throw aside all rules of grammar and verb–tense agreement. Poetry does not need to begin on any particular place on the page. Poetry breaks rules to speak truths.

Our ordered language is obviously very helpful for daily life. If we all spoke in iambic pentameter or haiku, getting answers to questions at the car repair shop might take all day. Imagine a visit to the doctor in limerick form:

There once was a leg that was broken.
Various curse words were spoken.
The ambulance came.
This pain has no name!
And now in a cast you must be…??

I couldn’t find a word for traction and physical therapy that rhymed with broken and spoken.

But when it comes to love and grief, we need poetry. We need language that disrupts language because our deepest emotions and the lives we lead are themselves disruptive of rules and expectations.

When Simeon needed to make a predictive statement about Jesus’ future, he didn’t use every day, conversational Hebrew. He said to Mary and Joseph that

(Jesus will) 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.

To prepare Jesus’ parents for the rule-breaking and disruption yet to come, Simeon skipped a concrete description of Jesus’ ministry, and relied on the poetry of a sword-pierced soul. Because in the end, that is how Jesus’ concrete work would leave Mary and Joseph feeling.

I feel as excited as my poetry professor was about Emily Dickinson to be back to the stories of Jesus in our reading schedule. We will be with the Lukan community’s version of him until the end of April. By then Jesus will have been more polite than Emily, and will have stopped in a garden for death. A sword will have pierced his body as deeply as his mother’s soul.

And maybe when we are then confronted with the resurrection, when we are asked to receive a nonsensical account of presence beyond death, we won’t worry about the “right” interpretation and “getting it.”

Because as Jesus will show us, a life of faith is not about “getting it right.” It is about our willingness to be guided by the Holy Spirit. With her help, we can receive the gospel as a whole as a poem. A poem that speaks for our hearts. A poem that asks us to ignore rules. A poem with as much potential to redeem the world as an infant baby on the eighth day of his life.


1Levine, Amy-Jill and Marc Zvi Brettler. The Jewish Annotated New Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 102 footnotes.

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