One of the most fundamental questions we face as human beings is the question of justice. There is a universal instinct to insist on equity, fairness, justice, and yet it is a double edged sword that quickly cuts the one with a rigorous demand for it. We know that we need mercy too. Luke writes so that we may know that in Jesus all of our deepest longings as human beings have begun to come true. Here, he begins to unpack how mercy and justice have met in Christ.
Luke seems to indicate that Elizabeth continued in some measure of seclusion until John was born since that’s when the neighbors and relatives rejoice with her (1:58). In fact, Luke says that they notice how the Lord has “magnified” His mercy toward Elizabeth. This is another indication that Mary was not merely being poetic: He who is mighty has done “great things.” Mary’s soul magnifies the Lord because the Lord is in the process of magnifying His humble people. Just as the Lord has magnified His mercy to Mary, so too all the neighbors and relatives recognize that this is no ordinary thing. Likewise, it’s specifically God’s “mercy” that has been enlarged in Elizabeth, which is also what Mary said: His mercy is on them that fear the Lord from generation to generation (1:50). Luke is not merely telling an interesting story; He is slowly demonstrating why the gospel of Jesus is so compelling. And here, his argument embedded in the narrative of Elizabeth’s story is the universal human need for mercy.
Likewise, the story of Zacharias is not merely another part of this interesting story, but he is also a living proof or demonstration of what Luke wants us to understand. In fact, Luke does this brilliantly not only in what is happening, but he also puts it in Zacharias’s mouth to sing. First, to the event: When Zacharias couldn’t believe the word of God, he was struck mute as a sign that God’s word would come true (Lk. 1:18-20). It appears that Zacharias also became deaf since the relatives must make signs to him (cf. 1:62). In other words, his unbelief robbed him of some of his humanity. Rather than coming out of the temple and blessing the people, he came out in silence only able to make signs with his hands (1:22). But here, when he submits to the Word of God concerning his son’s name, his mouth is opened immediately and praise and blessing pour out (1:64). He regains his humanity (his hearing and voice), and begins to do what he and all humans were created for: praise and blessing. This is also a result of God’s mercy. Rebellious humanity doesn’t deserve a second chance, but God is the God mercy. Zacharias is not crushed by his unbelief; he is chastened and thereby given a song to sing. This is the difference between strict punishment and wise discipline. Discipline aims at glory; strict punitive justice will always disfigure.
The Politics of Mercy
This same idea is seen in the fact that both Mary’s song and Zacharias’s song are politically charged songs. While the sort of political program God has in mind is implied in Mary’s song and story, it is developed a little further in Zacharias’s song. The language of “visitation” and “redemption” go all the way back to the Exodus (visit: Gen. 50:24-25, Ex. 3:16, 4:31; redeem: Ex. 6:6, 15:13, Dt. 7:8, 13:5, Ps. 106:10). Later, the prophets warned Israel that God was going to come “visit” them for their sins (e.g. Is. 10:3, Jer. 50, Hos. 8-9, Ex. 20:5). Likewise, God is raising a horn of salvation in the house of David (like Gabriel told Mary, Lk. 1:32). And the purpose of this revolution is to raise up a people to serve God without fear in holiness and righteousness all the days of our life (1:74-75). John’s mission will be to give the people knowledge of this salvation through the forgiveness of sins (Lk. 1:77). This is the tender mercy of our God (1:78).
The tendency of well meaning Christians over the centuries has been to say that since salvation is about forgiveness, it’s not really a political or public thing. One commentator says that John’s work of preparation for restoration involves the forgiveness of sins rather than the rallying of troops. But this assumes that forgiveness and mercy don’t make a political impact. But that’s only true if forgiveness is merely God letting us off the hook and not actually dealing with our sin. But if God actually deals with our sin then the forgiveness of sins is a rallying of troops since the restoration of human beings to the glory they were made for is the conquest of all suffering and tyranny. This also goes back to the Exodus and Passover: it was the blood over their doors that exempted Israel from the angel of death and released them from Egypt. Preaching the forgiveness of sins in the blood of Christ our Passover lamb is not a “religious” tangent to dealing with the “real” problems of racial injustice or economic oppression or poverty. Forgiveness is the light that comes to us in our darkness, in the shadow of death and guides our feet into the way of peace (1:78-79). The forgiveness of sins through the blood of Christ is what sets men and women free to be fully human, to speak the truth in love.
Conclusion: The Justice and Mercy of the Eighth Day
Luke says that all of this takes place on the “eighth day” (Lk. 1:59). This goes back to God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17:12). Circumcision was a removal of flesh on the eighth day and quickly became associated with naming, beginning with Isaac and down to John (Lk. 1:59-63). This ritual symbolized God’s covenant promise to take away sin through the shedding of blood, and it took place on the eighth day indicating that this was not merely a private/”spiritual” reality but the beginning of a new creation. Sin has deeply marred creation, and nothing but the renovation of all creation can properly be considered “salvation.” But what Mary and Zacharias are proclaiming and what Luke has set out to demonstrate is that the Eighth Day is finally arriving in Jesus, and John has been born to prepare the way for Him. Jesus is transfigured on the eighth day (Lk. 9:28) and ultimately rises from the dead on the eighth day which of course is also the first day of the week. This is why Christians have met on the first/eighth day of the week ever since. Believing in Jesus means that His death is your “circumcision” – the removal of the sins of the flesh (Col. 2:11). This is what your baptism means: you have been released from the power of sin in your life because Jesus took all the just requirements of the law and every false accusation onto Himself on the cross and triumphed over everything that could hold us back (Col. 1:14-15). On the eighth day, which is also the first day, justice and mercy have met in Jesus, and now we are found in Him.