The Good Priest and His Wife
Fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time.” History begins with “Now it happened in those days.” Luke begins his account not signaling a fairy tale, but a true, historical story. He told us he would begin at the beginning. So we expect him to begin his record of the earthly life of Jesus in Nazareth with the announcement to Mary. Instead he takes us to the Temple in Jerusalem to introduce us to an old Jewish priest and his wife who have tried for years to have children with no results.
“Now it happened in the days of King Herod of Judea, that there was a priest named Zechariah of the priestly division Abijah. His wife, a daughter of Aaron, was named Elizabeth. Now both were righteous before God, living blamelessly, obeying all of the Lord’s commandments and requirements, but they were childless. Elizabeth was barren, and both of them were advanced in years. (Luke 1:5-7)
To understand a text it is wise to ask, “Where are we and what time is it according to the writer?” Luke answers these questions clearly. We are in Judea (in the next paragraph he will give us an even closer camera shot.) We are in Jerusalem at the Temple, and it’s late in 4 or 5 BC near the end of Herod the Great’s reign. Luke’s first readers would instantly think about Herod’s jealous defense of his throne and his paranoia resulting in the murder of his beloved wife, Mariamne, and the murder of his sons. They would tense up simply hearing the name King Herod. For us as readers today we become wary about the role he will play in Luke’s account.
By introducing us to a priest and his wife, a Jewish couple fully devoted to their faith and carefully obeying the Mosaic rules and regulations, Luke faces us with Jesus’ Jewish roots. As a kid back in New Jersey, many of my Jewish friends did not think of Jesus as one of them. This remains a strong misconception—a misunderstanding that Luke’s first century text wants to end. He roots the birth of John the Baptist, the prophet who will identify the Messiah, firmly in Jewish soil. His parents have sterling kosher credentials. In fact his mom traced her roots all the way back to Aaron, the brother of Moses, and the first High Priest. In case we miss his point, Luke underscores that they were not Jews in name only. They’re daily routine carefully obeyed the Jewish laws and customs. But then Luke throws us a curve. Elizabeth hasn’t been able to have a baby.
Good, godly Jews, especially a priest and his wife, could expect Adonai to multiply and bless their family (Genesis 1:28). Instead, like Abraham and Sarah, Zechariah and Elizabeth, are childless.
If this were a TV show, this is where the first commercial break would occur, and we would have to stay tuned because we don’t know whether or not this old couple will be bouncing a new baby boy on their lap, or if they do, what King Herod might do to the young child who would grow up to announce a rival king. To be continued…
Let me encourage you to let Luke tell us his story. Don’t jump so quickly to another Gospel or even to your Bible Commentary. Read Luke’s words again. Place yourself in his story as presented in the words of his text and let the Spirit open up your heart to God’s point of view in His Word. All we know so far in the text is that we are in Judea in the days when Herod pretended to be the true King of the Jews with a faithful priest and his devout wife who are living the heartache of having a childless marriage.
LORD, I pray that some of my Jewish friends will read Luke’s text, see how Jewish the story of the birth of John the Baptist is, and keep reading and decide for themselves whether or not Jesus is the true Messiah. Help my Gentile friends to guard themselves against rejecting and demeaning God’s Chosen People.
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