First, I am aware that Christmas lies between today and next Sunday. But this is a series of blog posts about Sunday lectionary readings, so I’m going on ahead to December 27.
Readings like this week’s Gospel text make me glad that I’m an English professor rather than theology professor. My impressions might take too much from the theological podcasting world, but the sense that I get there is that there’s a lot at stake in self-identifying as part of this or that school, so that “The Scholarship” becomes not a tradition of inquiry but a Shibboleth of sorts, a mark that you’re “one of us” or “one of them.”
So for some folks, saying that Luke’s geographic center of gravity is Jerusalem where Matthew’s is Galilee would be something of a betrayal: the project would not be to appreciate what’s going on in Jerusalem in Luke and to take for granted that it’s a different portrait from Matthew’s. Instead the duty of the public expositor of the Bible would be to demonstrate that in fact the disciples could have gone to Galilee and remained in Jerusalem after Jesus rose from the dead. For other folks, the different rendezvous points at the ends of Matthew and Luke ends the conversation; whatever happens in those disparate places could not be the real act of the real “historical Jesus” and thus stands at best as interesting mythology or at worst as the ideology that stamped out the burgeoning feminism and toleration that was all over the Roman world, as you can see in… no actual extant texts, but we’re just sure somebody mean and orthodox stamped it out!
I caricature, of course, but I also enjoy Luke as a portrait of a real Savior, and I love the fact that here, in the season of Christmastide, we get to read one of the “Why are you looking for Jesus?” texts that bookend the gospel of Luke. The one that has become more famous, perhaps because more people go to church on Easter Sunday than on the first Sunday after Christmas, happens in Luke 24, when the women go to the tomb of Jesus, where two men (in Luke’s version) greet them and ask them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead?” (24:5). That question, with all of its triumphant scorn for Rome’s murderous machinery, is cool in its own right. But it’s even cooler paired up with its counterpart in Luke 2.
In the Christmas-season text, also in the area of Jerusalem, just like the Easter text, Jesus himself poses the question: “Why are you looking for me?” (2:49). Luke, as a literary text, puts the true King in Jerusalem at each end of the text, defying the expectation that he go away early on and that he stay dead later on. In both cases, when somebody does find him, he’s teaching folks to see the world through the newly-illuminated Scriptures, and on both ends the Spirit is the agent making things move in the world.
Because I think of the four gospels as literary portraits, that literary move makes a good deal of sense to me. The point of Luke is not to discard what nineteenth-century German history professors would approve of and to retain what remains and to fill in the gaps with one’s pet theories about a figure called “historical Jesus.” (Sorry, Mr. Aslan.) The point is to receive Jesus, a figure whose life comes to us through a long-running community called Church and its canonical texts, the four gospels. We receive the Church’s Jesus (who is also the Christ of Faith) not as a “historical” core with theological decorations but as a moving target within a moving tradition whose every sermon is on the move.
So to read a text that asks “Why do you seek?” is to confront a tradition’s history as well as the tradition’s self-awareness that Jesus always challenges our best efforts to make God a system as well as the living Savior whose presence makes the most sense among a people called Church. You know where to find this Jesus: doing the Father’s business, among the living, wherever two or three are gathered, whenever you do for the least of these.
May our next encounter with the living Son of Man find us striving to live the life that Jesus makes possible.