Matthew's Christmas (Identifying with Those on the Edge)
December 12, 2004
Advent 3 Luke 1:47-55 Matt 11:2-11
The town is geared for Christmas. Santa - three storeys tall - adorns the Whitcoulls bookshop on Auckland's Queen / Victoria Street corner. Retailers are working overtime. TV2's Christmas musical was filmed in St Matthew's last week. "You'd better watch out…" Jesus, Ben Lummis, and the elves are coming to town.
For the next two Sundays though I'm going to talk about Christmas in the Bible. It's time to turn back to our sources - Matthew and Luke - listen to their stories, and the problems they raise.
"Are these stories true?" you may ask. "Were there Magi, angels, and shepherds?" If you mean true in the sense of what a TV camera might show, then no they are not. If you mean true in the sense of containing truths about God and humanity, then undoubtedly yes. Lord, preserve us from the mono-focal perspective of literal factual history. Fiction and reality are not opposites. The former is often a vehicle for the latter.
What Matthew and Luke do is take their understandings of the post-resurrection Jesus, weave in threads from the Hebrew tradition, colour their stories with beautiful imagery, and offer us some of most enduring Christian images we have. They are profoundly true in the sense that they are metaphorical narratives speaking to our heart.
For the literalist the birth stories are a challenge. The birth traditions are relatively late additions with the earliest New Testament writers, Paul and Mark, knowing nothing of them. There are many irreconcilable differences between Matthew's and Luke's accounts. The stories sound like overtures to each Gospel, indicating the themes that will emerge in the adult life of Jesus.
Matthew opens his gospel making claims that 'Jesus is the Messiah, the son of David, and the son of Abraham.' He then gives us a genealogy to prove it. The genealogy sits lightly with history. Four generations and six kings, for example, get omitted. Interestingly the line goes through Joseph - in other words, if you believe in a literal virgin birth there is no Davidic DNA in Jesus anyway.
The purpose of the genealogy however is not to comment on bloodlines but to align Jesus with the great patriarchal heroes of Judaism. The title "son of David" was saying 'Here in Jesus is the one who, like King David of old, will save his people. He will restore the Kingdom, defeat his enemies, and live happily ever after.' Likewise the title "son of God" should be understood in the context of Davidic royal descent. At the time of coronation the new king was adopted as God's son. There is no suggestion in Matthew that Jesus was the 2nd Person of an eternal Trinity.
Two other patriarchs are recalled in Matthew's Christmas. Joseph is modelled after his namesake with the colourful coat. Both experience dreams, go on a journey, and wind up in Egypt. The birth of Jesus also recalls the birth of Moses, who likewise was threatened by a genocidal king ordering the death of male babies. Both of these patriarchs connect Jesus with the Exodus, the great liberation story that undergirds the Jewish faith. Here in Jesus, Matthew was saying, is the new saviour who will liberate us.
The link with Father Abraham is also made in the genealogy. Through ol' Abe all the nations of the world would be blessed. Jesus would not just be for the Jewish tribe [David's crew] but for the Gentiles too. Enter the Magi as evidence. They were colourful foreigners, outsiders who came to believe. 'Jesus,' says Matthew, 'is for everyone.' But note well the Magi needed the Jewish tradition to locate Jesus.
So far so good… This baby Jesus is starting to sound like the greatest thing since Adam was a boy. You can see in Jesus traces of all the great male heroes of old.
Then the story throws us what the Americans call a 'curve ball'. Into the genealogy is placed five women. Five feisty women, tainted with sexual anomalies. The usual genealogical policy was that wives and mothers were kept nameless, de-powered, out of sight and mind. By naming women the author was declaring that holy happenings could occur outside the normative patriarchal structure.
The first of the famous five is Tamar [Genesis 38]. This fearless woman, following the death of her husband, was not treated justly. Her rights to produce offspring for the clan were denied. So, disguised as a prostitute she slept with her father-in-law, Judah. The idea was to shame Judah into upholding her rights. Tamar nearly got herself killed.
The next woman is Rahab [Joshua 2,6]. She was a Canaanite prostitute in Jericho who sided with Joshua's bloody army in order to save her own family. Again this is a woman who was a sexual anomaly, and risked her life. She was also a foreigner.
Then there's Ruth. This culturally subversive tale, told to a xenophobic audience, reminded them that King David's great grandmother was one of those hated foreign Moabites. It too is a story of courage, a woman taking risks for the good of others.
Then there is Bathsheba [II Samuel 11ff.]. We usually hear this story from David and his critics' viewpoint: the King falling in love, impregnating Bathsheba, and then having her husband killed in battle. We don't often hear the perspective of a courageous woman who survived the lustful and murderous desires of the all-powerful King to become, in time, the mother of the heir to the throne.
The fifth woman is Mary, the mother of Jesus. Matthew invites us to understand her as a woman of courage who risked the displeasure of men, and prejudiced society, to be an unmarried mother, and give birth far from home and it's security.
I received a vitriolic complaint the other day, criticizing my non-literal understanding of the virgin birth. 'Yes,' I agreed, 'I don't believe in such literalism. I don't believe that God requires us to suspend natural laws, switch off our brains, and our capacity to doubt. Why is a virgin birth essential to Jesus' blend of divinity and humanity?'
Remarkable births were part of the tradition of Israel and the Mediterranean world. Angelic annunciations and miraculous births were stock motifs. A virginal conception was a device to say that Jesus was 'of God' - not just when he was resurrected [like in Paul], or at his baptism [like in Mark], but at his birth.
Matthew uses Isaiah 7:14 to bolster his virgin argument: "The Lord will give you a sign: a virgin shall conceive and bear a son." The sign was to be an assurance to King Ahaz that his rule would continue. A child born some 700 years later is hardly assuring! [The reference was actually to the future king Hezekiah.] Furthermore, the Hebrew word 'alma is better translated, not as 'virgin', but as 'young woman'.
We also need to remember the horrific consequences of the virginal conception doctrine over the centuries in creating an ideal woman who is virgin, faithful, cooperative and docile. The literalist approach to the virgin birth distracts us from understanding Mary determined, courageous, and full of feisty faith - a woman who was one of the fabulous five of Matthew's genealogy.
It is these five that I would like to see on Christmas cards. These women on the edge by their courage, their sexual otherness, and their willingness to challenge the patriarchal norms, give us insight into the adult mission of Jesus. One part of the early Church found sustenance in understanding Jesus in the tradition of the great patriarchs. However, another part of the early Church found sustenance in understanding Jesus fired with the blood of the feisty five. Jesus' greatness was not in any lordly lineage, but in his identification with those on the edge. This is the truth and challenge of Matthew's Christmas.