This is the year we’re taking each Sunday of Advent to look at one of the four gospels as our primary sources for the Jesus story, and this week, as we look to Matthew’s gospel, unlike last week with Mark’s gospel, we actually have a Christmas story, a birth narrative. But we have also been left with Mark’s disconcerting, discombobulating claim that the question imperative to ask is not why he did not include a birth narrative, but why anyone else would include one? Especially when it’s not a crucial, integral part of the Jesus story—when it’s potentially distracting from the essence of that Jesus story.
There are five parts to Matthew’s story at this point comprising chapters one and two. First, there’s the genealogy. And as we think of genealogies today, it’s hogwash. It doesn’t match up with Luke’s: “Matthew’s and Luke’s lines from David to Joseph, a thousand-year period, have only two names in common …” (Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary: The Christbook: Matthew 1-12, Revised and Expanded Edition (Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 2004) 15). They’re not enough people for the amount of time covered. In a couple of places, the relationships are all messed up. One king (Asa) becomes Asaph (the psalmist), another king (Amon) becomes Amos (the prophet). Then the generations are just too neatly divided into three almost equal sets—each set apart by a critical event in Jewish history (from Abraham, the beginning, to David, the beginning of the monarchy, from David to the Babylonian exile, from the exile to Jesus). And finally, in the end, what’s up with Joseph?! We go through all these generations, all these years, and then we’re told that Joseph (whose line it is we’ve been tracing) isn’t really Jesus’ daddy!
But we do get the title and the two names Matthew presumably wanted people thinking of when they thought of Jesus. The title, Messiah—the anointed one—the hope that God would raise up a king of kings—of the line of David. And the two men integral to the history of Israel: David (King David—the very image of what king should be, the best example in their history and the one from whose lineage Messiah would come), and Abraham—and Abraham, not only as the father of Jews, not only as the model of faith, but also as the one through whom God will make a great nation through whom all nations will be blessed. “Every reference to Abraham in Matthew relates him to the promises of God to all humanity, not exclusively to the Jews (3:9; 8:11; 22:32)” (M. Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume VIII (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995) 126).
And we do have five women in the list. Women weren’t included in the genealogies of patriarchial society, so to consider the women is to necessarily consider the surprising ways of this God who works through the unconventional initiative of the unexpected. And the women (except for Mary) were all outsiders—Gentiles (a Moabite, a Canaanite, a Jerichoite, and a Hittite), and they were all women willing to seize the intiative in surprising ways.
The point of the genealogy is not a matter of biological truth, but of theological truth—the theological truth that God is always working through some for all and consistently choosing people we wouldn’t with and through whom to work. Even the almost perfect structure makes less “the theological claim that history is not haphazard” (Thomas G. Long, Matthew in Westminster Bible Companion (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997) 10)—that God is in control of history, as that simply God is in history—in the mess and the messiness, the faith and the faithlessness, the beauty and the ugliness—always working to redeem. Why the genealogy? So that the gospel begins with an unquestionable Jewishness that nonetheless points beyond Jews—that includes the known and celebrated, but the famous at their less than best, as well as the completely unexpected and the totally rejected. From the beginning, we have God intertwined in history in the most unexpected of ways.
Immediately following the genealogy, we have the birth narrative proper. And it contains some of those oh so familiar phrases we associate integrally with Christmas. “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” But notice, within the familiar, what all is not there: no angels appearing to women with birth announcements prefaced by “Fear nots.” No census. No no room at the inn. No stable. No manger. No swaddling clothes. No heavenly hosts. No fear not. No singing glory to God. No shepherds. Again, it’s this particular story—Matthew’s story. And notice that while the angel does not appear to Mary saying “Fear not,” the angel does appear to Joseph, and instead of saying “Fear me not,” which is the implicit message throughout Luke’s account, Joseph is told not to be afraid of keeping Mary. It’s not don’t be afraid of God, it’s don’t be afraid of your story unfolding into God.
In the story as Matthew tells it, Mary and Joseph’s betrothal is a given (which meant, in the tradition of the time, that Mary was already considered Joseph’s wife). Mary’s pregnancy is a given. In other words, Mary’s a given, and Joseph’s the one with choices to consider and decisions to make. He was a righteous man we’re told. And righteous men don’t put up with pregnant fiances when they know they didn’t have anything to do with it. According to his understanding of God and faith and righteousness, the betrothal had to be dissolved and Mary had to be punished—according to Deuteronomy, put to death. You hear it? You hear what we’ve got here at the beginning? At the very beginning of the Jesus story, before Jesus ever says a word, we have an angel telling Joseph, not in so many words, but ever so clearly: “Now you have heard it said that righteousness requires this, but I say to you it does not.”
Matthew’s telling a story about someone asked to believe that there’s a different way of being righteous than the way he was raised to believe—and that it has something to do with believing that God is at work in this man Jesus. It’s an interesting thing to notice, Joseph is the focus. The genealogy ended with Joseph kind of shunted off to the side, but this first story is more about Joseph responding to God than about Mary responding to God. Why this birth story? To convey the idea of a righteousness beyond Jewish law and tradition—to affirm a risky, counter-faith, counter-cultural obedience—to note a teaching we associate with Jesus true before Jesus.
Third, we have the magi. Think about our progress here. We started with some kind of recap of Jewish history (to be sure with Abraham and the women pointed beyond the exclusively Jewish), but then we moved ever more explicitly into a story about a righteousness other than that of the Jews, and now we have these foreigners arriving.
Now as much as we may sing it, they were not three kings. There weren’t even necessarily three. Just three gifts. They were the magi. And as traditional as the magi are at nativity scenes, four times in this Scripture, Jesus is referred to as a child—not a baby. He could have been as old as two by this time. Herod, you remember, had all male children two-years-old and younger slaughtered. Though the age and even the personhood of Jesus were actually irrelevant. The magi were coming to see and worship a king. For all the promises and hopes of the ages were caught up in the future he would bring about—a future dreamed about and anticipated by all peoples. Swiss scholar Eduard Schweizer notes that there was a general, prevalent expectation of the coming of “a universal king who would inaugurate the golden age” (Eduard Schweizer, The Good News According to Matthew (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975) 38). It was to a waiting world that Jesus came—not just to waiting Jews, but to a world waiting for a savior. Why the magi? Because this is not just our story—not just a story about and for Jews. This is a story that reaches beyond the known and familiar to include the hopes and beliefs of other nations, of foreigners, of Gentiles.
Fourth, we have the flight to Egypt. Now in part, this part of the story functions to get the family from Bethlehem to Nazareth. Two familiar parts of the story, by the time Matthew’s writing are that the birth took place in Bethlehem, and that Jesus grew up in Nazareth. So Joseph is warned in a dream, and they escape to Egypt, a prelude to their move to Nazareth. (Luke, we’ll see, does it differently.)
This story stresses again, the obedience of Joseph. It also serves to connect the story of Jesus with the story of Israel, on a number of different levels. We know about escapes both to Egypt and from Egypt. We watched Abraham and Sarah head down there. We watched Joseph and the pharaoh’s who no longer knew Joseph. We remember the long years of exile. We remember another ruler who threatened and ended the lives of baby Hebrew boys, and we remember Moses and the exodus. In so doing, we remember ups and downs, highs and lows. We remember times of belonging with power, and times of belonging to in powerlessness. Why the escape to Egypt? Because sometimes you have to leave home to get home. Because sometimes you have to leave home to remember what home truly is. Because sometimes you have to leave home to get to the promised land.
Fifth, and finally, we have Herod’s awful response. Herod, I’ve suggested before, is the character who, oddly enough, seems to get it most—what this baby means. Now in many ways, Herod the Great was a pathetic, warped, frustrated old man. There’s a story that when he was about to die, he arrested some of the prominent citizens of Jerusalem with orders that they were to be killed as soon as he died for he was determined that there would be tears shed the day he died. And why would anyone think to doubt the legitimacy of such a story? Herod murdered his wife. He murdered his wife’s mother. He had three of his sons assassinated. The Emperor Augustus is quoted as having said that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son (William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew in The Daily Study Bible Series (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975) 26-29).
Herod is terrified at this birth. It’s as if he had a premonition about the first being last and the meek inheriting the earth and knew that he wouldn’t fare well in Jesus’ system. He understood that there was no way for him to stay the way he was—on top—in control. He understood and it scared him. Deplorable as it is, his is the only reaction to Jesus that conveys an awareness of the profound effect Jesus would have on individuals and a world about to be turned upside down.
And yet if he got more of the picture than anyone else, he, like everyone else, didn’t get enough of it. The promise of Christ’s reign brought hope and peace and the possibility for a new way of living for everyone—Herod included. But Herod liked the way things were and feared change. In his eyes, he had a lot to lose if in fact the world—his world—were re-structured. As a king, he may have thought he could protect his power, his wealth, his might. But it was precisely holding so tightly to his interests that he could not embrace the good news in any form. For all his power, in the end, he was a paranoid old man who knew just how fleeting his power really was. And all it took was the rumor of this baby king to scare the daylights out of Herod.
And so Herod ruthlessly sought to eliminate his rival. Not knowing specifically who this rival was, he eliminated any bodies who fit the description: two-year-old or younger baby boys in Bethlehem. Why Herod? Why this dangerous and terrible story? Because the reaction of the power of the status quo (fear-based though it may be) is to lash out in violence with might and it leads to terrible grief.
Those are the first five parts of the gospel of Matthew. With Matthew presumably written after Mark, the Jesus story has already been told. Mark got it down. So what’s left is how that story gets particularized into different contexts. Matthew was writing a congregation. He could have just read them Mark. He didn’t. Not because Mark didn’t get the essentials across. He does. It’s because Matthew was thinking less about only Jesus and more about his congregation.
Matthew’s written for a church—a particular group of Jewish Christians who had just left (or just been kicked out of) the synagogue. They’re grieving. They’re confused. They still consider themselves Jewish, but they’re redefining what they mean by that. So Matthew writes this beginning less to get right into the Jesus story, as to provide incentive for this particular congregation to pay attention to the Jesus story. This is, in fact, a story not so much about Jesus, but about Israel, about Joseph, those foreigners, that congregation for which Matthew was written. It’s not so much about Jesus as it is about God. From the get-go, Matthew suggests he’s telling a bigger story than the story of Jesus and that Jesus fits into this bigger story/this bigger truth/this bigger reality.
What a word for that congregation to hear about—a word that starts off so Jewish but can’t be confined to that, a word about a righteousness that doesn’t have to do with the writings and teachings of the Jews, but about facilitating the way of Jesus, a word about a story for the world, a word about feeling rejected and exiled, about coming home, about grief and loss. What an affirmation for a congregation of people of Jewish heritage and Christian faith—struggling to claim their heritage within their future.
In terms of Mark’s criteria, nothing is essential to the drive to the cross, the central truth of the Jesus story. Even though there’s risk and danger, there’s nothing about the sacrificial love and discipline that lead to the cross. But Matthew’s not in as big a hurry to get to the cross. More interested in what happens along the way. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ identity is kept secret. It’s a poorly kept secret what with just about every evil spirit confessing him son of God, but nonetheless, the authority of Jesus is not obvious until the denial of Jesus that is the cross, and the denial of the cross that is God. In Matthew, Jesus’ authority as teacher is important—Jesus’ authority as the new Moses, and Moses had a birthstory …. Does it come as a surprise to you that according to midrash, a star marked the birth of Moses? And so Jesus’ authority is vindicated even as a baby. And it’s an authority that, from the beginning, transcends Israel and transcends Judaism. None of the gospels deny the cross is crucial, but while Mark’s Jesus seems driven to the cross, Matthew’s meanders a little more. In Mark’s gospel, the focus is on Jesus. Matthew looks more to include the disciples on the way.
Remember last week, the story complete without the Christmas story? This week, we have the Christmas story, but we acknowledge that it remains unfinished without the rest of the story. It serves as invitation to the rest of the story. So this second week of Advent, go home from worship and take with you the affirmation and celebration of a Christmas story bigger than any Christmas story. The idea now that as important as Christmas is, a birth narrative doesn’t have to be told, and if it is told, it may be to remind us that the birth of Jesus is but part of a much bigger story. Take the warning that if you were to hear an angel, it might well mean you would have to revise your understanding of your faith, that if you facilitate the way of God in the world, you may end up running for your life, but it’s the life that truly is life you’re running to.