A Provocation: Second Sunday of Advent: December 9, 2018: Luke 3:1-6

Luke 3:1-6

1 In the fifteenth year of the hegemony of Tiberias Caesar,

when Pontius Pilate had hegemony over Judea,

Tetrarch over Galilee: Herod,

Philip (his brother) Tetrarch: over Iturea

and the region of Trachonitus

Lysanius: over Abilene, Tetrarch,

2 in the time of the priesthood of Annas (Gracious) and Caiaphas (Stone??):

It happened

a word of Elohim

on Yochanan

(MERCY is Gracious)

the son of Zechariah

(MERCY Remembers, or Remember MERCY)

in the wordless wilderness.

3 He went into all the surrounding region of the Jordan

proclaiming a purification of mind-changing

into release of sins.

4 As it stands written in the book

of arguments of Yesha-yahu

(MERCY is Salvation)

the prophet:

A voice bellows:

In the wordless wilderness

Prepare the road of  MERCY

straight make his paths.

5 Every ravine will be filled

every mountain and hill will be humbled.

It will be:

the crooked things into straightness,

the rough into level roads.

6 They will see,

all bodies,

the deliverance of Elohim.

Translation from Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, by Richard W. Swanson

A Question or Two:

  • Why does the storyteller use both of the main Names of God, MERCY and Elohim?
  • Does it matter that the first Name (MERCY, YHWH) is the Name used when God shows grace to the people God has chosen?
  • Does it matter that Elohim is used, so say the rabbis, when God is revealed to Gentiles?

Some Longer Reflections:

This scene is full of names.  (In the formatted version of this posting, at ProvokingTheGospel.wordpress.com, has all the names in boldface.)  The first five are linked with Roman power.  In the outlying provinces (and all of the place-names are in the outlying provinces), Rome names and Roman power meant theft and brutality.

One thing you learn when reading Luke, or any Jewish biblical story, is that every name has a meaning that the storyteller expects you to know, a meaning that shapes the way the character acts and what they accomplish.  So Yochanan (John) means MERCY is Gracious.  That means that an attentive reader of the story should not just see camel’s hair and locusts and broods of vipers.  A proper audience member remembers to listen for MERCY, to hunt for grace.  Take a look at the text for next Sunday: John addresses the crowd, which includes traitors who collect Roman tribute and soldiers who enforce the will of the Empire, and he finds simple things that even Imperial collaborators can do in service of God’s Dominion.  And John’s father carries the name, Zechariah: MERCY Remembers, or Remember MERCY.  Read the song Zechariah sings when John is born.  “Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant,” he sings.  (Luke 1:72)  Names create character action in Jewish biblical story.  And John quotes Yesha-yahu (Isaiah), whose name means MERCY is Salvation.  The storyteller has just told us that this entire story is about mercy even in the face of Roman domination.

It is therefore significant that, coming after a long string of the names of powerful oppressors, we are introduced by name to two High Priests, Annas and Caiaphas.  The name Annas means “Gracious.”  Caiaphas’s name is more difficult.  It might possibly mean “Rock,” which would give the High Priest the same name as Peter.

That gives me pause.  The storyteller in the gospel of Mark speaks of the High Priest without needing to mention his name.  The storyteller in Luke mentions TWO High Priests at the very beginning of the story, thus creating a puzzle that has occupied interpreters ever since.  Does Luke imagine that there were two High Priests?  (There weren’t.)  Does Luke think that there was a sort of tag-team arrangement?  (Nope, again.)  Is Luke historically confused, and thinks that Caiaphas was High Priest immediately after Annas?  (He wasn’t.)  Maybe we are simply to notice that these two names are Jewish names, and that they sing in the same key as the central characters: this is a story about rock-solid mercy, and even the High Priests who are forced to collaborate with the foreign overlords are part of this Jewish story about hope and grace and a God who remembers mercy.

If so, this fits tightly with the rest of Luke’s story.  John finds observant Jews even amongst traitors who collaborate.  Jesus eats with Zacchaeus, and the audience discovers that he ALREADY gives half of his possessions to the poor, and repays any improper collection fourfold (the verbs are in the present tense, not the future: he is already doing these things, not promising to start doing them: you can promise anything, but it’s what you actually DO that matters).  Jesus even finds an observant Jew nailed to the cross next to his, an observant Jew who acknowledges that he deserved to be condemned to death.

In a story like this, the storyteller wants you to remember that even those who are apparently enemies might turn out to be allies.  This seems a good moment to learn Luke’s lesson: in a complicated world, there are allies, and enemies, and opponents; not all opponents are enemies.  Some are, to be sure, but not as many as you might think from reading Facebook.

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