Sometime around Labour Weekend the retail world decided we should start preparing for Christmas. The Church begins that preparation today. And this sermon is about its original, biblical, meaning.
As you probably know there are only two accounts of Christmas in the Bible – Matthew’s[i] and Luke’s – and today I wish to talk about the former and on the Sunday morning of the 24th I will talk about the latter.
Matthew, or his sources[ii], wove stories from the fabric of the Hebrew Scriptures which they believed pointed to Jesus. Into these stories he threaded the affirmations of the early Christ communities – namely that Jesus was the Christ [the messianic son of David], in Jesus we meet God [what ‘born of a virgin’ alludes to], in Jesus we find freedom [the new Moses], and in Jesus [descendant of Abraham] all nations are blessed. There is also in the Matthean account a subordinate affirmation of one whose ministry to the marginalized challenged the normative patriarchal understanding of history [Jesus, son of Mary].
Liberal scholars have long recognized problems of historicity. The events in the birth narratives are not referred to in the gospels of Mark or John, Paul’s letters, the sermons in Acts, or the creeds and hymns in the epistles. There are also tensions, if not contradictions, between Matthew’s and Luke’s infancy accounts[iii]. There are however a number of points the stories have in common.[iv] Despite the modern thought that the Bible should be literal and factual, the gospel writers were much more concerned to proclaim the message of Jesus – a message of faith.
Matthew sends his reader on a theological (not geographical) journey from the City of David (Bethlehem) to the land of oppression (Egypt), to the echoes of exile (Ramah), and then to Nazareth. Matthew is linking important stages in Israel’s salvation history with the next stage in that history, namely Jesus’ ministry. This is no insignificant rabbi from Galilee!
‘Son of David’ is a reference to Jesus being the fulfilment of Jewish messianic hopes. The hope was that the ‘son of David’ would throw out sinners from the house of David and gather a holy people. Of course who the adult Jesus thought was ‘holy’ or a ‘sinner’ is a contentious point – contentious then, contentious now. The sinners in Jesus’ time were people like lepers, prostitutes, Samaritans, Romans, and foreigners generally – the very people Jesus welcomed.
Those we are led to believe he condemned were religious leaders like the Pharisees. But today, given the tensions after the Jewish-Roman war of 66-70, the comments about Pharisees are seen more in the context of rivalry between the two surviving branches of Judaism – Rabbinic Judaism and the Christ communities. Maybe the truth is that Jesus’ “holy people” were the discarded and marginalized, who held the doors of acceptance open to anyone else, sinner or saint or in-between, who wanted to join them. So, he redefined ‘holy’ and ‘sinner’.
The primary purpose of the genealogy that starts Matthew’s gospel is to ‘prove’ this Davidic lineage. Of course there is a lack of natural paternity (Jesus has no Joseph chromosomes), but this is rectified by legal paternity (Joseph’s act of naming and thus claiming Jesus) which was a not uncommon practice in 1st century Palestine.
The title ‘God with us’ (Emmanuel) for Jesus should be understood not as referring to a member of the Trinity but in relation to Davidic descent. In the Hebrew Scriptures divine sonship was used to describe angels,[v] Israel collectively,[vi] and the upright and pious.[vii] In relation to David’s successors it was used at the time of coronation to say the new king was adopted as God’s son. Paul understood the resurrection as Jesus’ coronation or enthronement.[viii] For Matthew and Luke it was Jesus’ conception. And of course all this ‘God’s Son’ stuff was politically potent – given there was already a ‘God’s Son’ ruling in Rome.
Matthew adapts Isaiah 7:14 to state that Jesus was virginally conceived. This was a theological proclamation – namely that what the Christ communities experienced in Jesus they did not believe human life alone was capable of creating. They believed that one could not meet Jesus without experiencing God. This is what ‘born of a virgin’ meant.
Of course the historicity of the virginal conception has long been debated. Isaiah 7:14 refers to a child born about 700 years before Jesus. He was born to ‘young woman’ (not ‘virgin’). The child was to be a sign that King Ahaz of Judah would not be overthrown by the kings of Israel and Syria. That child was probably King Hezekiah. Not Jesus!
There are also examples in other ancient cultures and religions of ‘virgin births’.[ix] This was a mythological way to emphasise the importance and power of an adult leader, king, or god.
Whether one believes literally in what is called the ‘virgin birth’ or not, today we need to be aware of the consequences of this doctrine over the centuries – in particular the role it’s played in creating a mythical ‘ideal’ woman who is virgin, faithful, cooperative, and compliant, and in doing so rendering every other woman inadequate, incomplete, or sinful. The myth has been well utilised by patriarchal societies.
In constructing his infancy narrative Matthew drew principally upon the stories of two famous Jews: Joseph and Moses. Joseph the patriarch of old was said to experience dreams, and journeyed to Egypt. So too Matthew’s Joseph. Baby Moses was threatened by a king who ordered the death of male babies. So too baby Jesus. The adult Moses led the Hebrew people out of bondage in Egypt and into freedom. So too the Christ communities saw Jesus as a new Moses leading them to freedom.
Matthew’s narrative also alludes to the return from the exile in Babylon – both in the genealogy he constructs [1:11-12] and in the reference to Ramah [2:18]. The exodus from Egypt and the return from Babylon were considered the two greatest manifestations of God’s power in the history of Israel.
The genealogy begins by connecting Jesus with Abraham, thus alluding to Genesis 22:17,18 “that through the seed of Abraham all the nations will be blessed”; and Matthew continued to develop this theme of universalism. Jesus would be the saviour of the Gentiles who, as the story of the Magi foreshadows, would react to his birth with belief and homage. Note though the Magi’s religion points them in the right direction, they still need the Jewish Scriptures to find baby Jesus.
Matthew’s infancy narrative, an overture to his gospel, suggests there are only two responses to Jesus: accept him and pay homage [like the Magi], or reject him and persecute him [like Herod].
Some scholars understand the Magi story arising from early Christian reflection on Second Isaiah,[x] some as reflection on Numbers 22-24,[xi] and others on the visit of the Queen of Sheba (I Kings 10:1-13).
As with the virginal conception there are a number of problems if one tries to assert the historicity of the Magi’s coming. There are for example no other records of the celestial phenomenon; and the slaughter of the babies is not mentioned in the Jewish historian Josephus’ detailed account of the horrors of Herod’s reign. However, as Jack Spong says, ‘[the coming of the Magi] is a beautiful, powerful story, not literal but true, opening to all of us in every generation the opportunity to follow our stars to the place and moment where the divine and human meet.”[xii]
So these are the dominant themes of Matthew’s birth narrative: gathering a ‘holy’ people [son of David], ‘in meeting Jesus one met God’ [born of a virgin], Jesus leading us to freedom [a new Moses], and a faith inclusive of all – Jew and Gentile [son of Abraham].
There is though, in addition to the dominant themes, a counter-theme running through the infancy narrative that is critical of aligning Jesus with great male heroes of Jewish history. This counter-theme is seen in the naming of four women in the genealogy who were anomalies in their day and who were tainted with some sexual irregularity – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. All of these women were in situations which rendered them dangerous to patriarchal normality. All of these women had something extraordinary or irregular in their union with their sexual partners. All of these women were seen as anomalies - courageous, non-compliant anomalies.
By including these women there is a profound critique of the usual male-centred history and genealogies where women are just vehicles of reproduction and aren’t named.
The four foreshadow Mary who is also a courageous anomaly and is tainted with sexual irregularity. The Galilean marital practice forbade sex in the engagement period. So if Joseph was the biological father the conception was outside acceptable practice and Mary would certainly have been seen as bring dishonour (the whole ‘blame the woman’ thing). If Mary was the victim of rape, which was all too common then as now, then the stigma would also attach to her son.
The message of this counter-theme is that Jesus was born on the margins, from the womb of a courageous and marginalized woman, who stood in a long and proud tradition of strong and marginalized women. In his ministry Jesus would identify with, support, and advocate for those so marginalized.
In chapter two of Matthew, the counter-theme of concern from those on the edge of the social and political system is continued by contrasting those who stay put and remain complacent with those who are displaced or lack permanent homes. Jesus and his family were displaced persons, refugees, with “Herod and all Jerusalem” arrayed against them and the wandering Magi.
As the gospel of Matthew continues, this counter-theme of God siding with the outsiders, the anomalies, is muffled but never completely silenced. And indeed, in my reading, the title ‘Son of Mary’ [namely son of the marginalized one] gives substance to what it means to be a ‘Son of David’ [namely the newly defined holy sinners], a ‘Son of God’ [namely the outsider Jesus, the least likely Time Person of the Year, is exalted], a new Moses [namely one who leads the oppressed into freedom] and a ‘Son of Abraham’ [who embraces all people regardless of race and culture].
These are the messages and affirmations of Matthew’s Christmas that we then need to translate into our context today; messages and affirmations rarely seen on Christmas cards.
[i] Matthew chapters 1 & 2
[ii] Matthew wrote towards the end of the first century, probably in modern day Syria. He relied on at least two written sources – a sayings source (Q – which he shared with Luke) and Mark.
[iii] An example is the geographical movement in Matthew from Bethlehem (Joseph’s original home) to Nazareth (his new home); whereas Luke represents the exact opposite pattern.
[iv] These include: 1. Mary and Joseph are legally married but have yet to live together or have sexual intercourse, 2. Joseph is of Davidic descent, 3. An angel heralds the birth, 4. Conception is through the Holy Spirit, 5. An angel names him Jesus and says he’s to be the saviour, 6. Place of birth is Bethlehem, and 7. Raised in Nazareth.
[v] Job 1:6; Psalm 29:1
[vi] Exodus 4:22, Deut 14:1, Hosea 11:1
[vii] Sirach 4:10, Wisdom 2:18
[viii] Romans 1:4. For Mark it was the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:9-11).
[ix] Horus, Zarathustra, and Alexander, the Ptolemies, and the Caesars were said by some scholars to have been "virgin-born."
[x] H. Hendrickx Infancy Narratives.
[xi] R. Brown
[xii] Spong, J. Born of a Woman, p.98.