I’m always intrigued by the way the Gospel writers use stories from the Hebrew Scriptures. The stories about the boy Samuel is a classic case in point. Matthew, for instance, is embarrassed that Jesus’ Galilean roots; embarrassed that Jesus is from Nazareth and so when Matthew refers to the story of Samuel, he lifts one line “he shall be called a nazirite” to show that the Messiah coming from Nazareth is pre-figured in Samuel. The only problem is that the word ‘nazirite’ has nothing to do whatsoever to do with Nazareth but describes first born son’s dedicated to God who “shall never drink wine nor intoxicants,” and never cuts his hair.
Luke, however, has no such problem. When, in the story of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the Temple, Luke directly quotes 1 Samuel’s description of the boy Samuel to describe the young Jesus who “grew…in favor with the LORD and with the people.”
Luke is not embarrassed by Jesus’ Nazareth boyhood. Quite the contrary, Luke uses this story — about Jesus’ family’s travels from Nazareth to Jerusalem’s Temple and back — to make an important point about God,
about Jesus and, as always, about us. No matter who you are; no matter where you come from; no matter the circumstances of your birth; you have, and ought be treated with, dignity. Human dignity, says Luke, is a consistent value of both the “old” and the “new” covenant. As the Prayer of the Day puts it, simply and succinctly, “the dignity of human nature” is both “wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored” by God.
It is no coincidence that Luke makes this point when Jesus is twelve years old. He’s a bar mitzvah boy, that is, he is accepted as an equal by his elders because he is equal to them in the sight of God and in respect to the law. The Temple elders might very well have been surprised by Jesus’ understanding, but they certainly not surprised by his willingness to stand on equal footing with them to discuss the law. His was not an act of chutzpah nor a “showing off” of his divinity, in the Temple and on his back and forth journey between Nazareth and Jerusalem, Jesus was simply claiming the place of any Jew to discuss the word of God. Whatever else is going on in this story, Jesus’ elders, including his parents, could not argue with Jesus’ assertion of this
bar mitzvah boy was equal to them in the sight of God. The dignity of Jesus’ nature, that is, of Jesus’ human nature, is wonderfully created by God. And since Luke never makes a point about Jesus that he doesn’t also want to apply equally to all of us, that’s exactly what Luke want us to know about ourselves and all people, that all humans have dignity created by God too. All humans are created to live equally in favor with the LORD and with the people.” The purpose of the rest of Luke’s Gospel is to show us how, in Christ, that created dignity is restored.
At virtually every point in the liturgy, we assume, no, we assert, that we are in favor with God. We expect to be called “children of God” at our baptism; and so we are. We expect to be forgiven, and so we are. We expect to be nourished at Christ’s table, as so we are. We are bold when we make our prayers to God. The expectation that we will treated with dignity by God is deeply ingrained in us; we count on being in God’s favor; and so we are.
One of our callings as people of God’s favor is to have the same expectation of ourselves that we have of God, but the affirmation of human dignity in others is increasingly in short supply. When we ascribe “rights” to some but “entitlements” to others, we are not affirming each other’s human dignity. When opponents are demonized, rather than reasoned with, we are not affirming each other’s human dignity. When we label others —“children” or “elderly” or “homeless” or “wealthy” — when we lump whole groups of people together, caricature them and then treat them, not as individual human beings, but according to our caricature, we are not affirming human dignity.
“In your mercy,” we prayed today, “let us share the divine life of Jesus Christ who came to share our humanity.” I’m not exactly sure what we ask to “share in the divine life of Jesus Christ,” but I suspect that “sharing Christ’s life” is as much about our behavior toward others as it is about Christ’s sharing of himself with us. I suspect that this is exactly what the writer to the Colossians is getting at when he admonishes us to clothe ourselves
“with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” and “with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
We are about to begin another year of God’s favor. There’s a whole lot we can do to make this new year better than this last one. Maybe the best new beginning is to affirm what we pray and to pray what we expect and affirm:
Almighty God, you wonderfully created and yet more wonderfully restored the dignity of human nature. In your mercy, let us share the divine life of Jesus Christ who came to share our humanity, and who now lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit —for the healing of the Church, for the healing of the nations, for the healing of each human life—one God, now and forever. Amen