I am often asked why Luke was inspired to include the story of Zechariah, Elizabeth and John the Baptist’s birth in relating Jesus’s story to his primarily Gentile audience. Luke had to make evident to them that Jesus were rooted in Judaism which alone, among all other religions at that time, had identified one, true God. Furthermore, Luke’s listeners had to understand that God willed Jesus to manifest Israel’s prophetic teachings: the importance of an honest, reverent relationship with God over and beyond the temple cult, the insistence that we improve the quality of our relationships with others especially those who suffer from society’s neglect, disrespect or prejudice, those who lack opportunities for work and livelihood, and those who suffer from being sick and/ or disabled. Also Luke’s Gospel will affirm the central Christian witness that God intended Jesus to inaugurate the Pharisaic belief in resurrection from the dead. The Jewish sensibility that the Messiah required a forerunner was an essential link to all of this. Here ‘s my commentary on Zechariah’s Canticle “Blessed be, the Lord,” also known as “The Benedictus” (Latin for ‘Blessed’). The same insights gleaned from Mary’s Magnificat apply here. Moreover, Zechariah’s Canticle highlights even more dramatically how the vision of prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Malachi and others was about to be realized in a way.
Since the Exodus, Israel professed God as the great Liberator, the One who frees people from oppression. Ever after, faithful Jews insisted that what God had done for their ancestors, God would continue to do for them and for all who seek God with a sincere heart. Zechariah embodies this belief as he rejoices that his people will now be “free from the hands of enemies” and “free to worship God without fear” i.e., without interference from worldly powers. When Jesus began his public ministry in Nazareth, he, too, embodies this truth by quoting the prophet Isaiah: “God has anointed me … to let the oppressed go free.”
Continuing with the Canticle, Zechariah makes clear that FREEDOM FROM OPPRESSION IS part of a progressive movement in which ultimately the entire world will accept God’s invitation to treat all people as equals–all peoples as children of God. Each in their own way, the Hebrew prophets insisted that God had invited Israel to become the world’s leader in this progression that would ultimately achieve harmony and peace for peoples everywhere. Through Judaism, and, for Christians, through Jesus, God invites humanity to return to the glory of Eden–the world as God intended it before free will turned much of humanity against God and God’s ways. As Zechariah’s canticle continues, this concept becomes clearer.
“Filled with the Holy Spirit,” Zechariah looks upon his son John and declares that this forerunner to Messiah will “give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins because of the tender mercy of our God.” This statement puts all peoples, all nations and all religions on equal footing. Indeed, one common denominator for humanity is that “everyone needs forgiveness.” Life and Hope cannot be sustained without it. It is this honest and humble recognition that will move the world out of its tribal sensibilities (the “us” against “them” mentality) toward a universal brotherhood and sisterhood working out conflicts with equanimity.
Of course, to forgive and receive forgiveness presents many challenges for us today as then. The choices as to the degree of accountability that each act of forgiveness must include wreak havoc with our souls. After all, it is not easy to decide how much, how little to exact from those who have harmed us or harmed others. Indeed, there are times when making demands on offenders is fitting, just and right. For example, there are times to insist that money lent to a relative or friend be paid back in full. Such accountability empowers the relative or friend to mature, to take responsibility for his or her actions. Other times, however, it may be best to wipe the slate clean and grant complete clemency. In the case of abusive relationships, it is right and just to abandon the relationship altogether—especially when the abusive party makes no attempt to change or proves incapable of improving. Forgiveness, like all human values, requires faith, dialogue and discernment with others.
Taking all of this into account, we need to note that the Bible offers a progression in its examples of how and when forgiveness is offered. One of the oldest biblical writings, for example, comes from Leviticus 24: 20 in which we find justice expressed as “an eye for an eye” which began to put limits on exacting justice. Genesis, however, (stories and events documented generations after the older “legal texts” of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) offers us “the mark of Cain”—evidence of an even greater mercy. You will remember God does not kill Cain for murdering his brother Abel. Moreover, God’s mark on Cain forbids others to take revenge upon him (Genesis 4:8—16). These sensibilities deepen over time throughout TANAKH and Jesus builds on these as evidenced n Matthew’s Gospel’s Sermon on the Mount (MT: 38—42) and Luke’s Sermon on the Plain (Lk 6: 27—42). These prescriptions reach their ultimate manifestation through Jesus himself when he cries out on the Cross “Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.” Note that there is no exemption clause here—every one and all are forgiven. Ultimately, when we take the Bible as a whole, it insists that accountability always leaves hope for the offending party, even as it grants us some satisfaction in terms of justice. Hope is embodied in the opportunities it offers offenders to change, to make amends so that he or she can reclaim their inherent, basic, common human dignity. Humanity’s survival is dependent on a universal commitment to forgiveness for genuine love to manifest itself and grow in the world.
- What biblical stories exemplify the importance of Zechariah’s pronouncement of the necessity for forgiveness of sins? Consult the ways all world religions, world literature, drama, films, television stories offer catharsis through forgiveness. How do you relate to these stories? How do they impact your understanding of forbearance, patience with yourself and others, mercy and forgiveness of yourself and others in your life?
- Recall your childhood experiences of forgiveness and accountability. Was there a proper balance? How have these experiences informed your adult sensibilities?
- What are your personal experiences of forgiving and being forgiven as an adult? How do you balance forgiveness and accountability in your life now? What criteria do you use? To what extent do the Golden Rule and Platinum Rule apply?
- In what ways might you be struggling with forgiveness and accountability today? (Apply this to yourself as well as toward others.)
- What historical and contemporary world events challenge your faith tradition or alter your convictions about forgiveness and the balance of mercy and justice?
There are abundant resources that help us engage in the process of forgiveness—forgiving yourself, forgiving others. See the corresponding page on the website for some suggestions:
There are abundant resources to explore forgiveness in your life. Here are just a few:
Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, Matthew Linn:
DON’T FORGIVE TOO SOON (New York: Paulist Press, 1997)
HEALING LIFE’S HURTS: Healing Memories Through Five Stages of Forgiveness (New York: Paulist Press, 1988) http://www.paulistpress.com/Products/2059-3/healing-lifes-hurts.aspx
Paulist Father Frank Desiderio’s Forgiveness Retreats: http://www.forgivenessretreats.org/
Psychology Today: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/do-the-right-thing/201403/forgiveness-4-helpful-strategies-do-it-better
The Center for Non-Violent Communication: https://www.cnvc.org/
 Genesis: Introduction by Jon D. Levenson in The Jewish Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004) 11
Other sources include http://www.wikiwand.com/en/Book_of_Genesis: composed “just before or during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century, and the Priestly final edition was made late in the Exilic period or soon after.” FYI, scholars consider the OLDEST book of the Bible, the first to be recorded in writing is JOB.
EXPLORE Parallels between Zechariah’s Canticle and the hymn O Come, O Come, Emmanuel
|The Canticle of Zechariah parallel lines:|
69 [t]He has raised up a horn for our salvation within the house of David his servant, 70 even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old: 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,
72 to show mercy to our fathers
and to be mindful of his holy covenant
73 and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father, and to grant us that, 74 rescued from the hand of enemies, without fear we might worship him 75 in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
76 And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lordto prepare his ways,
77 to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, 78 because of the tender mercy of our God
by which the daybreak from on highwill visit us
79 to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
|O COME, O COME, EMMANUEL VS. 5 TO 7 Verse 5: O come, thou Key of David, come,|
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery. Refrain (Verse 4 has this line: “O come, O Rod of Jesse’s stem (i.e. David), from every foe deliver them.” Verse 6: O come, O Day-Spring from on high And cheer us by thy drawing nigh Disperse the gloomy clouds of night And death’s dark shadow put to flight. Refrain Verse 7:
O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all humankind;
O bid our sad divisions cease,
And be for us our King of Peace. Refrain
1. What feelings are evoked by listening to this portion of the hymn?
2. You’ve noticed that the hymn makes reference to the importance of Davidic descent in ancient Judaism and this concept of a “royal family” exists in many times and cultures. From ancient times up to the late middle ages, the world valued ancestral blood lines in leadership and revered them. Of what benefit is that to us today? Can we translate the importance of an ancestral line to a modern mindset? If so, how? If not, why?
3. Invite discussion on the many ways religious and spiritual leaders build on their predecessors’ lives and actions. What can we learn from this dynamic?