Thursday, 3 December 2015

The Year of Luke - Talk Three

Luke's infancy narrative introduces a set of themes that echo through the gospel and through Acts of the Apostles also. Among these themes is one that gives a particular character to Luke and Acts. Although it is found in many texts of the New Testament, the term for grace, charis, is used most frequently by just two of its authors, the author of Luke-Acts and Paul. In Luke it is often associated with a related term, chara, meaning joy. We turn next, then, to a consideration of Luke's use of charis and of its association particularly with joy.


The best-known combination of these terms in Luke's gospel is in the angel's opening words to Mary, chaire kecharitomene, 'hail, full of grace' or 'rejoice, highly favoured one'. There has been debate about whether or not the first term, chaire, is simply a greeting - 'hail', 'hello' - or is a call to joy, the introduction of a Messianic, 'Daughter of Sion', proclamation. It may simply mean 'hello' or 'cheers', in the way such terms are used as greetings nowadays without reference to their original, stronger, meaning. Or it may have a deeper significance, associating this moment with messianic texts of the Old Testament. The latter is more likely when we consider the atmosphere of joy that fills the infancy narratives: 'you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth' (Luke 1:14); 'the angel said to them, 'Be not afraid; for behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people'' (Luke 2:10); 'when they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy' (Matthew 2:10).

Many of the great messianic texts of the Old Testament associate the new outpouring of God's grace with an outpouring of joy. Examples are Isaiah 64:17f; Zechariah 2:10f and Zephaniah 3:14-17. The atmosphere of joy evoked by these texts flows into the infancy narratives, especially that of Luke. Is Mary being introduced to us as the Daughter of Sion of whom Zechariah and Zephaniah spoke? Raymond Brown is not convinced that she is and he writes about it as follows:

Of course, the typical expectation of divine deliverance vocalized by Zephaniah, or indeed by Zechariah ... played a role in Luke's outlook - but that expectation is a distillation of a whole series of OT passages and not evidence of a particular symbolism. Since Luke's chaire leads into the homonym kecharitomene ('O favoured one') and a reference to God's favour in sending the Messiah who is His Son, there may well be an element of religious rejoicing in it - but it is a joy that comes from the context of the annunciation, and not because chaire should be given an unusual translation which evokes an OT passage (The Birth of the Messiah, p.324).

The other key term in the greeting is a form of the term charis, 'grace'. In the New Testament this particular form of the word appears only here and in Ephesians 1:6 where it is translated as God 'gracing' or 'blessing' us. The theological portrait of Mary given to us by Luke is characterised by the action of the Holy Spirit, by joy, grace, and faith. The emphasis is on the divine benevolence to Mary. For the moment God's graciousness towards her is acknowledged: the meaning of her privilege is yet to be announced.

One interesting suggestion is that kecharitomene is Mary's vocational name, a new and prophetic name (Revelation 2:17; 19:12) like Gideon's 'Valiant Warrior', Simon's 'Peter', or Jacob's 'Israel'. The rest of the Annunciation scene makes explicit what is contained in this name, the singular love of God for Mary in the strength of which she is chosen to be mother of the Messiah. This is her mission and her privilege, and it is the meaning of her name. It is sheer grace to Mary. Being graced is, we can say, her very name, the essence of who she is. Her response is faith: as one who, it seems clear, always belonged to the 'poor of the Lord', she receives God's grace with humility, accepts the mission entrusted to her, and responds with faith in God and service of others.

Many of the themes associated with grace are to be found in Luke 1:26-38, the account of the Annunciation. God initiates another new moment in the history of his dealings with Israel and with the House of David. God is faithful and does new things, and a new and definitive intervention by God is underway. 'The Lord is with you', Mary is told, and 'you have found favour with God'. Christian tradition takes it to refer to the ways in which God has already worked in the heart and soul of Mary, preparing her to be the Mother of the Son of God. And this new creation does not take effect without the consent of the human being: 'let what you have said be done to me'. Karl Barth stressed the essential significance of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus, essential for maintaining the absolute gratuitousness of salvation: 'it is all God's work'. The great tradition focused intensely on Mary's 'fiat', her words 'let it be', with teachers and preachers speaking and writing about the moment when all creation waits expectantly, with anxious anticipation, for the Virgin's response. And the relief of all creatures when she says 'let it be done to me according to your word', for the work in which she has agreed to collaborate has implications for all of creation.

Mary is highly favoured in receiving this revelation of the Son; more than that she is highly favoured in being the mother of the Messiah. She is a model of the Church and of the Christian in her attitude to what has been revealed and to what has been asked of her. Karl Rahner wrote that the doctrines about Mary are only 'the most beautiful part of the doctrine of grace'.

If the Annunciation is the beginning of New Testament grace it is also the fulfilment of Old Testament joy. The most joyful experiences spoken of in the Old Testament are all repeated in the Annunciation to Mary. The barren woman is found to be with child. So it is with Sarah bearing Isaac (Genesis 18.1-15; 21.1-7), with Hannah bearing Samuel (1 Samuel 1.1-2.11), with the wife of Manoah bearing Samson (Judges 13) and with Elizabeth bearing John the Baptist (Luke 1.5-25,57-80). In one way Mary stands in this tradition while in another she does not since her 'barrenness' is of quite a different kind ('how can this be since I am a virgin?'). It is more clearly a work of new creation rather than a miraculous healing of the old creation.

Another great moment of joy re-enacted in the Annunciation are the people's liberation from slavery - the great redemptive act, when God saved his people - Exodus 15 - and brought them to the promised land under Joshua - Joshua 3.1-5.12 - and continued to promise them salvation - Isaiah 9.2-3. To be in God’s presence is to be filled with joy, so David dances before the ark [2 Samuel 6.12-23]; Solomon dedicates the Temple [1 Kings 8]; the ascent to Jerusalem where the Lord has made his home is joyful [Ps 122], the Lord is in the midst of the daughter of Zion [Zechariah 2.10f]. Finally there are moments of great joy when the covenant is renewed - the joy of forgiveness and reconciliation, of renewal, the joy that comes from knowing that God is faithful: Genesis 8.15,22; Joshua 24; Nehemiah 8.

The association of grace and joy invites us to consider other ways in which the theme of joy echoes through the gospel of Luke. As the people of the Old Testament rejoiced, in the Psalms particularly, in the mighty works of God, so the people who witness the ministry of Jesus are filled with joy at what they see (Luke 13:17; 18:43; 19:6, 37, for example). Just as we are told in the Old Testament that God also rejoices (Isaiah 62:5, 19; Psalm 103:31; Zephaniah 3:17f), Jesus speaks about the joy of the Father especially in the context of the lost sinner being found (Luke 15:5-7, 8-10, 32).


One text in Luke-Acts which deserves special attention is Luke 4.22. The scene is the synagogue in Nazareth and Jesus has just initiated his ministry by reading the passage from Isaiah about the Spirit of the Lord coming on the Messiah. 'And all spoke well of him', Luke tells us, 'and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth'.

Some see here simply a reference to Jesus' presence, that it was 'gracious' or 'charming'. This is how the Revised Standard Version and the Jerusalem Bible translate it. Colossians 4.6 recommends that our speech be 'gracious', 'seasoned with salt'. Ephesians 4.29 recommends that we talk in an edifying way so that our speech 'may impart grace' to those who hear. Others see here a reference to Jesus' 'inspired words', even his 'words of grace', and refer to texts in Luke-Acts which use the phrase 'the word (or gospel) of grace' to refer to the entire message of salvation (as it does in Acts 14:3; 20:24, 32).

Against that it is argued that the plural, 'words', means the reference is to his mode of speaking rather than the content of his message. What is being referred to is the charismatic presence of Jesus rather than any content of his words (cf Luke 2.40, 52).

Joachim Jeremias makes an interesting suggestion. He interprets the anger of the people of Nazareth as being on account of Jesus' words of grace, seen in his omission of the rest of the quotation from Isaiah, which speaks of proclaiming 'the day of vengeance of our God'.

It seems as if the phrase, which literally translated means 'his words about grace', must refer not just to the style or presence of Jesus as he speaks but also to the content of what he is saying. Jesus ends the quotation from Isaiah at the point where it refers to the year of the  Lord's favour, the acceptable year of the Lord, the jubilee year spoken of in Leviticus 25 and taken up later by the prophets, in short a time of grace. The account in Luke ties the anger of the Nazarenes closely to Jesus' declaration that a prophet is not acceptable in his own country. It is God's revelation of his grace beyond the borders of Israel through Elijah and Elisha that disturbs and provokes their indignation. What are they to make of a promise of grace that is universal?


It would be pushing things too far to say that we find in Luke-Acts a theology of grace but it is clear from these writings that charis is already very much a part of the Christian vocabulary. We have seen something of the Old Testament background to Luke's use of the term. Grace is central in the spiritual and theological resources he offers for understanding the place of Mary in the history of human salvation. Luke anticipates the fuller theology of grace developed by Saint Paul and a study of the links between the author of Luke-Acts and Paul would illuminate the development from one to the other.

Grace is linked with wisdom as well as joy, and with the Spirit and His power at work. The Spirit who fills the prophets and speaks through them is active in the events of Luke 1-2 as also in the baptism of Jesus, then driving him into the wilderness to be tempted (Luke 4). Jesus as Messiah is the bearer of the Holy Spirit (Luke 4). Luke tells us that Jesus, under the care of Mary, the one who is full of grace, grew in wisdom and stature, and the grace of God was upon him (Luke 2:40, 52).

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