Week 3: Matthew’s Story of Jesus Birth – the New Moses

The Christmas stories are so often removed from their context, simplified, changed and altered through addition of later traditions, harmonised and allowed to stand alone to speak outside the story of which they are part. I recognise that I have taken these stories and tried to speak them as if they are whole stories in their own right, no longer introductions to the story of Jesus. My own experience has been one of rediscovering a deeper meaning, a more profound and transformative meaning in these stories as I allow them to speak from the context in which they were written – both their historical context and the narrative context.

Matthew’s Story of Jesus’ Birth…

Read Matthew 1-2 – as if for the first time. What do you notice? Let us turn to Matthew’s story of Jesus and contemplate his story of Jesus’ birth. Before we begin we must let go of what we think we know about Matthew’s Christmas story because in all probability there are elements of Luke’s story and other traditions there as well. If you read through the first two chapters of the Gospel According to Matthew, you will notice there are no animals, no manger or angels in the sky, no shepherds and no journey from Nazareth. Matthew’s story is very simple. It begins with a genealogy that seeks to trace Jesus’ lineage back through his ‘stepfather’ Joseph through the exile to David and then to Abraham. It states categorically that Jesus is in the line of David – there are at least 3 references to ‘Son of David’ in Matthew 1-2. Matthew refers to Jesus as having been born in Bethlehem, the town of David. Jesus, in Matthew’s account, is a Davidic King/Messiah. However, the depiction of Jesus throughout Matthew’s account is non-violent – he is not the warrior-king his ancestor David was. He does not oppose the Romans militarily and so, though depicted in David’s line, this is not his nature, his mission or his way. Never-the-less, this account depicts the advent of Jesus as immediately initiating conflict between the kingdoms – of the world (symbolised by Rome) and God’s Kingdom. Even as an infant the new king will not retaliate but flee to safety amongst the Gentiles of Egypt. In the actual birth narrative (Matthew 1:18-25) we are not given the context of time or place. Rather, we are thrust straight into Joseph’s drama. The narrator fills us in with the thoughts and motives of Joseph – Mary is passive and the only voice heard is that of The Angel of the Lord. In verses 22-23 we have the first of Matthew’s formula quotations from the Old Testament, intended to relate Jesus to the Jewish traditions (there are 10 in the Matthew’s account, 5 of which occur in the first 2 chapters). This is the quote from Isaiah 7:14 (see week 2) and the reference to a young woman who is pregnant. It is a story of hope to ancient Israel during the Syro-Ephraimitic War that this young woman’s child will grow to maturity and the nation will be safe from the Syrians. This child was given the name, ‘God is with us’ – Immanuel. Matthew claims this passage and changes its meaning to illustrate and augment his story of Jesus. Matthew wants to say that in Jesus he has encountered the one in whom the promised deliverance is realised most fully. He uses a Greek translation of the Hebrew (called LXX) in which the Hebrew word for ‘young woman’ was mistranslated as parthenos, which primarily means virgin (rather than the Hebrew, young woman). It is probably important to note that whilst many Christians place considerable emphasis on the virgin birth part of the story, it doesn’t actually feature elsewhere in the New Testament. There are also many other traditions of significant figures in antiquity considered to be born of a virgin – a conception between a god and an earthly woman. It might help us to ask deeper questions of this part of the story – what was Matthew trying to say about Jesus? Out of his experience of the ‘Risen Christ’, what was Matthew proclaiming in his story of Jesus and in particular this birth narrative that introduces his story? As we move into Matthew 2 the story gains context – Bethlehem in the time of King Herod. The first word is uttered by the magi – ‘Where…’ King Herod also asks ‘where…’ It is important to Matthew’s readers to settle the ‘where’ question of Jesus’ birth. One of the objections of Jews to the Christian claim of Jesus as Messiah, was that he came from Nazareth. Matthew uses this story to clearly assert Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem – it is a theological point because of the Davidic traditions related to the promised Messiah. Bethlehem was David’s birth place and therefore the traditional birth place of the Messiah. Luke’s story deals with it differently and has the family travel to Bethlehem from Nazareth for the purposes of a census The magi’s enquiries using the phrase ‘King of the Jews’ anticipates the Passion story where Jesus will again be referred to as the King of the Jews. It is also a counter claim to Herod’s Kingship and triggers the conflict between Jesus as representing God’s Kingdom versus the Kingdom of Herod (and Rome). The tradition that these Gentile astrologers rode camels comes from Isaiah 60 where there, visitors rode on camels and brought gold and frankincense. Many attempts have been made to try to explain the star from natural phenomena but nothing can explain the star that moves, stops and travels again only to stop precisely over the place where Jesus was. There are a range of traditions from Jewish to pagan related stars, or astral phenomena, to significant births – especially of kings. There were various traditional associations between ‘Messiah’ and ‘stars’. The ‘star’ provides a link between the pagan astrologers and Jewish Messianic hopes. The other characters in this story, King Herod and the Jewish religious leaders reflect the oppositional elements in Matthew’s story leading to his Passion where the powers of the world ultimately clash with Jesus and kill him. In this story these people represent the various powers and interests of the world that will oppose God’s Kingdom as represented in Jesus. In this story the magi are led by their pagan astrology and by Jewish Scriptures (they ask guidance of Herod and the religious leaders quote Micah 5). The magi come to worship the new king with 3 gifts all appropriate to offer a king. They are then warned by God in a dream to return home without meeting King Herod again. This dream motif links this story with the rest of the birth narrative. Through it we hear the voice of God who is not actually mentioned in this story. Matthew’s Portrayal of Jesus as the New Moses… Those who are familiar with the Jewish story of the Exodus and the story of Moses, may see similarities between the story of Jesus and the story of Moses. Matthew specifically portrays Jesus as the new Moses, the law-giver, rather than the war-maker, David. In Matthew’s account the story of Jesus echoes that of Moses. In Matthew it is Joseph who receives word from God but in a dream. In the larger setting of the Exodus story, Joseph (the one with a multi-coloured coat!), receives word from God through dreams. These dreams guide him to do that which is God’s will, even though it doesn’t always seem right. Joseph, in Matthew’s account receives guidance to first marry Mary, though she is pregnant, secondly to escape the brutal King Herod and travel to Egypt and thirdly that it was safe to return home. In Matthew’s account there is a brutal king who has all the males 2 years and younger killed in order to ensure he has killed this ‘new king’. This echoes the brutal pharaoh in Exodus 1, who has all the male Hebrew babies killed because they are threatening his kingdom. Just as Moses was threatened by evil powers of the world, so is the infant Jesus. God, however, protects Jesus as Moses was also protected. In the story, the magi (the ‘Wise Men’ or wise ones – we don’t know how many or whether they were men, women or both?) are detoured to King Herod, despite the fact that before and after they follow a star that guided them. Matthew draws Herod into the story through the magi and he becomes the new pharaoh. Note that in the story the magi arrive sometime after the birth – up to 2 years later as Herod kills the male boys 2 years and under! In the Exodus story, the family of Abraham, God’s chosen ones, travels to Egypt in order to escape the threat of famine. Matthew has the holy family travel to Egypt to escape the threat of King Herod. There are other parallels, for instance, the crossing of the Red Sea by the Hebrew people after their escape from Egypt is, in a sense, baptism. It is the final act of escape before they become a nation under God. Jesus was baptised in the Jordan River, the act that preceded his ministry. The 40 years of wilderness wandering and temptation of the Hebrew people is echoed in Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness being tempted. The receiving of the law by Moses on Mount Sinai is echoed in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, with its Beatitudes. This is the moral, ethical and spiritual basis of the new people of God and Jesus, the new Moses, is the law-giver. These are words of peace, mercy, justice, compassion, humility and so on. They counter the terrible way of domination that surrounds Jesus under the Roman Empire and the counter-violence that wells up in the hearts of his people who want a warrior-king to violently oppose Rome. Jesus’ 12 disciples represent the new people of God – contrast the 12 tribes of Israel.

Significance of Matthew’s Story of Jesus’ Birth…

In this introduction to his story of Jesus, Matthew introduces the profound difference between Jesus and David, but also between Jesus and Moses. Jesus’ way is the new way. Whilst we may think of the ‘new’ over the ‘old’ as a positive movement that is not how Jesus’ hearers would have felt. The new was dangerous and risky. The old was tried and true and therefore safe and sure. Many feel the same today and equally reject change. You may notice that Jesus, in Matthew’s account, speaks of restoring, transforming or renewing the old, rather than something ‘new’. Jesus speaks not of replacing the law but of renewing or fulfilling it and as the new Moses he will pick up where Moses left off but perfect the mission where Moses failed. In Matthew’s birth narrative we already see the forces and powers of the world striving against the infant, who was called ‘the one born to be king of the Jews’ by the magi before Herod. At the end of Matthew’s account, Jesus will be called ‘King of the Jews’ three more times as the passion unfolds and he is crucified. Thus in the beginning of Matthew’s story Jesus is threatened by a Roman-appointed king using lethal violence – unsuccessfully. At the end of Matthew’s story Jesus is threatened by a Roman-appointed governor using lethal violence and he is successful. The violence and rejection that are at the heart of the story of Jesus are present right from the start. So is the power and way of God – love! Christmas – A (True) Story… Two weeks before Christmas a nine-year old girl was walking with her friend down the street, sliding on the ice. The two of them were talking about what they hoped to get for Christmas. They stopped to talk to an old man named Harry, who was on his knees pulling weeds from around a large oak tree. He wore a frayed, woollen jacket and a pair of worn garden gloves. His fingers were sticking out the ends, blue from the cold. As Harry responded to the girls, he told them he was getting the yard in shape as a Christmas present to his mother, who had passed away several years before. His eyes brimmed with tears as he patted the old oak. ‘My other was all I had. She loved her yard and her trees, so I do this for her at Christmas.’ His words touched the girls and soon they were down on their hands and knees helping him to weed around the trees. It took the three of them the rest of the day to complete the task. When they had finished, Harry pressed a quarter into each of their hands. ‘I wish I could pay you more, but it’s all I’ve got right now,’ he said. The girls had often passed that way before and as they walked on they remembered that the house was shabby, with no wreath, no Christmas tree or other decorations to add cheeriness. Just the lonely figure of Harry sitting by his curtainless window. The quarter seemed to burn a hole of guilt in the one little girl’s mind as they returned to their homes. The next day she called her friend and they agreed to put their quarters in a jar marked ‘Harry’s Christmas Present’ and then they began to seek out small jobs to earn more. Every nickel, dime and quarter they earned went into the jar. Two days before Christmas, they had enough to buy new gloves and a Christmas card. Christmas Eve found them on Harry’s doorstep singing carols. When he opened the door, they presented him with the gloves wrapped in pretty paper, the card and a pumpkin pie still warm from the oven. With trembling hands, he tore the paper from the gloves, and then to their astonishment, he held them to his face and wept. (Illustrations Unlimited pp84-5)

Reflection…

How do you respond to the thoughts about Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth?

Were there new thoughts and ideas presented?

How do you experience some of these ideas?

Are they comfortable and helpful or difficult and uncomfortable? Why?
Are there elements of Matthew’s birth story that surprise you?

Are there elements you haven’t heard or understood before?

What difference do they make to your hearing of the story?
How do you relate to the idea that Jesus’ birth story brings the powers of the world into conflict with Jesus and God? Does this say anything to you about our world?

In what ways does God’s Kingdom come into conflict with the powers of the world? (What do you perceive the powers of the world to be? What characterises them?)
How do you experience the story of two girls who respond to a poor, elderly man?

How does this story provide insights into Christmas and what challenges does it offer to you as we move towards Christmas?
Christmas is closing in on us – are there insights that may transform how you understand, experience and celebrate Christmas this year?

A Christmas Poem

When Love Comes to Our Lives… It is Christmas!
The World is aglow…
Lights sparkle, twinkle and brighten the night.
Santas festoon homes and shopping centres; tinsel and baubles glitter.
Carols, candles and balmy nights – pretty music fills the air…
Junk mail in the letterbox, crowds and bustle.
It’s getting busy; there are parties and get togethers
Families gather with food and drink
‘Peace’, ‘Joy’, ‘Love’ are loudly proclaimed in song, on cards…
It’s Christmas! (well almost!!)
What happens when the lights are pulled down?
How will it be when Santa goes home and the tinsel is packed away?
What music will replace the sweet Christmas song?
What happened to the hope of ‘Peace’, ‘Joy’ or ‘Love’?
What of those for whom this has been another day, another season
– hard like the rest?
What of those for whom the lights and sparkles are bombs and guns?
What about the hungry, the starving, the poor and the hopeless?
Many grieve and cry over Christmas because they hurt and there is no respite even in the sweet songs and lovely promises of the season.
When sadness and hurt are deep and festivities seem shallow;
when hearts break and love bleeds;
when grief tears us in two and sorrow flows like tears;
where is Christmas then?
Where is the sweet story with it’s promise of hope and joy?
Does Christmas really mean anything in a world where there is hurt, pain, sorrow, poverty and struggle?
Does Christmas mean anything when our lives feel dented and bruised or when illness, grief or pain overtake us?
Sweet stories and songs flow over us;
tinsel only hides a deeper reality that reaches up to strangle the life from us.
Lights hide the darkness but cannot quench its cold tentacles that touch the centre of our being, deep and bare.
But what of Love?
What if love could sit beside us, its warmth and healing flow through us?
What if a love so true and deep could find a home in our heart and radiate a peace and joy that transcends even the deepest sadness?
What if love could quench our most gut-wrenching fear, or envelop our nightmare so deep and real, with light and hope?
What if the love at the centre of the universe could embrace our being and hold us in arms so strong and eternal that nothing could separate us from love?
What if…Christmas truly comes to us?
Love, like light in the darkness, warmth in the cold,
safe arms around us when we’re afraid,
gently, powerfully breaks into our experience.
God, Love, comes and nothing can separate us from this Love – ever!
God comes to us…
Jesus was born into a messy, chaotic family – A messy, chaotic world.
His land oppressed by a foreign power
His family threatened by an evil, jealous and violent King
Born in simple circumstance, he lived a simple life.
He proclaimed a new and wonderful hope that God’s Reign,
God’s Love has come!
God loves all people and has embraced human life to tell us so!
Our world can be changed!
This suffering can be shared and overcome –
The lonely befriended, the lost found, the poor and hungry fed and all welcomed into the promised new life of God’s Reign of love!
The gift of Christmas is that we can be changed and through God’s love the world can know, we can know:
peace, life and joy!
May you be surrounded by the mystery of Love that can sustain you in any situation in life!

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