In Luke's version of the Christmas story an angel announces Jesus' birth to a group of shepherds. This is how we always heard the story in my youth, taken from the King James Bible.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men."
In about 1980 I was a young Beach Mission leader and spent part of my Christmas holidays running evangelistic kids' activities at a big caravan park on the Gold Coast. In the bus on the way to somewhere one of my fellow leaders, an earnest young Calvinist a couple of years older than me, was pontificating about the results of his research into this passage.
He had a problem, it seems, with the inclusivity of the passage as it appears in the King James version. Did Jesus' coming really mean great joy to all people? Would there really be general peace, and goodwill towards everyone?
According to him, apparently not. The best scholarship seemed to favour a less inclusive interpretation. Most modern translations, including the New International Version (NIV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), present a more qualified blessing. The NRSV, for example, says I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, and the choir of angels sings:
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!
My friend seemed very relieved at this discovery. It allowed him to maintain his Calvinist position undisturbed. God's peace did not come to everyone, only to those whom God favours. Which of course was us Christians, and not those unbelievers who were futilely celebrating Christmas without believing the Gospel and who we were intent on converting.
It's hard now to remember clearly what happened that long ago and perhaps I'm confabulating, but I seem to remember I was quite disturbed not just by his conclusion, but by the obvious enjoyment he got from it. I lacked the knowledge to dispute his conclusions, but there seemed something profoundly unmerciful, unloving, in the glee with which he pronounced doom on a large proportion of humanity.
Back then I didn't have the knowledge to argue back, but 30 years on I think I can make a better fist of matters.
It turns out that his textual point was, on the whole, quite correct. As Bart Ehrman points out, there is a great deal of variation between the large number of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament still in existence. The King James translators primarily used Erasmus' Greek New Testament as the basis for their translation. Erasmus had access to a very small sample of Greek manuscripts of very late date. His edition, and the King James translation, preserves the more universal, inclusive reading, pronouncing joy to 'all people' and 'peace on earth, goodwill towards men' without qualification. However, earlier Greek manuscripts contain the more qualified version featured in the NRSV and pretty much every more recent translation.
We all read the Bible (or any other text) through the lens of our presuppositions. We can't help it, it's the way our brains work. Hence my friend read the more up-to-date version of this passage and saw Calvin's elect, those predestined to be saved from the foundation of the world. The limited wording clearly indicated that some were not to be favoured or to experience peace.
If you don't buy this presupposition (as I don't) then you have to ask - who are "the people", and who are "those whom he favours" to whom peace is promised?
The first clue comes from the fact that the announcement is made to a group of shepherds - poor rural labourers, left out in the fields at night to do the dangerous and dirty work of ensuring that their masters' flocks are not stolen or eaten by predators. It's not announced in the Jerusalem Temple, or in Herod's palace.
The second is the use of the term 'the people'. Most scholars agree that this probably refers to the people of Israel. In the gospels, however, this term is far from synonymous with the official Jewish hierarchy, which is seen more as an opponent to God's message than as an ally. So for a start, "those he favours" seem to be Israel's outcasts and poor people.
But where does that leave us, the Gentile interlopers of later Christian faith? Well, a number of stories in Luke, as well as the other gospels, make it clear that his message is much wider than a message to Israel. Indeed, the first public address recorded in Luke, his message in the Nazareth synagogue, almost leads to his death as he punctures his audience's sense of Jewish entitlement by reminding them of Elijah's sojourn with the widow in Sidon and Elisha's healing of the Syrian general Naaman. This message should be a warning to all of us when we too smugly assume we are the elect of God. God is capable of surprising us in ways we might find unpalatable, including favouring those we see as enemies of the faith.
This same type of reversal is seen in Luke's trenchant, political version of the Beatitudes (Luke 6:20-26). The poor, the hungry, the weeping, those who are hated and reviled should leap for joy. Meanwhile, those who are rich, have full bellies, are full of joy and are much admired will mourn and weep. The world will be turned on its head.
You might be moved at this point to examine yourself and try to figure out whether you are in the first camp or the second. For most of my readers the result will be sobering. We are almost all rich in world terms, we will spend Christmas eating and drinking more than we should and enjoying the company of our friends and families. Need I say more?
Well, yes, because a little later on in Luke 6 Jesus talks about something closely related.
No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.
There's no need to spend time agonising, asking ourselves whether or not we're in the elect and hence covered by the blessing or if we're eternally damned. These things are not fixed, they are in our hands. Jesus preaches a message of repentance - "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand!" Do you want the promised peace and goodwill? Then bear good fruit, and leave the rest to God.
Have a great Christmas everyone, and may we all experience peace and goodwill in 2014!