Christ Church Cathedral
6 January 2018
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Here we are on the twelfth day of Christmas in the West, while tonight our friends in the Middle East begin their Christmas celebrations. Antiochene Christians, Copts, Greek Orthodox, Melkites, Russian Orthodox and Syriac Christian communities begin their celebration after sunset today. For Armenians, Christmas begins on January 19.
The major celebration, of course, will be at the ancient Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, where the Orthodox faithful from different national and linguistic communities will gather for prayer and singing prior to the start of the liturgy.
At the centre of those celebrations will be the venerated cave where tradition says the birth of Jesus occurred. Controversy around the star on the floor of the holy cave is sometimes thought to have been a trigger for the Crimean War in 1853–56.
Both in the West and in the East, this is a day when we celebrate the legend of the wise men who—in Matthew’s Gospel—come from afar to venerate the newborn king of the Jews.
Considerable energy has been spent on the historical problems presented by this traditional story which is found only in the Gospel of Matthew. For those most part the message of this fictional story is completely lost amidst all the sound and fury as people debate whether such a magical star could have happened, or how these oriental visitors chose their gifts for the Christ Child.
This morning, I invite you to join me in an exercise of intentional listening to the Gospel of Matthew, so that we might discern the significance of this story which Matthew has carefully woven into his ‘midrash’ about the birth of the Messiah.
Midrash is a form of Jewish education in which a story is developed around a simpler biblical or historical moment, to explain how it happened and also to explore the deeper meaning of the event.
For example, ancient Jews such as St Paul were familiar with a midrash about the rock in the wilderness that flowed with water when struck by Moses. The midrash solved the problem about how the people got water on other days and at other locations, without leaving a trail of leaking rocks all over the wilderness—and turning the desert into a green parkland. In the midrash this technical problem was solved by the same rock magically relocating with the Israelites each time they moved. Indeed, in some versions of the story the rock went from tent to tent making home deliveries of the fresh water!
Paul cited the midrash in 1 Corinthians 10:1–5: “… for they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.” Paul does not quote the legend, but he assumes that his readers know about it, and he extends the legend by claiming that the supernatural rock that followed the Israelites through the wilderness from one location to another (which they all knew about) was actually Christ.
Midrash invites us into a story and within that story we find a deeper truth being presented, but it is a form of truth that is not mortgaged to historicity.
So, rather than be distracted by discussions over the historicity of the wise men coming to present gifts to the Christ Child, let’s explore why Matthew is telling this tale and what he is seeking to communicate with his readers.
The birth of Jesus in Matthew
Matthew seems to preserve the earliest written story about the birth of Jesus.
It was not a tradition found in Matthew’s source, the Gospel of Mark written at least a few years earlier.
And it was not a tradition that was of any interest to the contemporary Gospel of John. As we see in John 6:42 (“They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”), the Gospel of John simply assumes that Joseph and Mark were the parents of Jesus even though John also affirms most clearly the divinity of Jesus in the famous Logos hymn that serves as the prologue for that gospel.
When the Gospel of Luke is written even later, it has a very different midrash that seems to play with a parallel between the births of John and Jesus and the Roman legend of Romulus and Remus.
As we prepare to explore Matthew’s infancy midrash, we can note that the point of these birth stories was not to establish his divinity but rather to clarify his calling as the prophet of God, the one who comes to ‘save’ his people.
Matthew has crafted his story about the birth of Jesus very carefully so that it fits Jesus into the biblical drama of salvation:
He begins with a genealogy that is selective (with three sets of 14 ancestors), but traces Jesus back to Abraham, the ancestor of the Jewish people (and of the Arabs, as it happens).
Cleverly woven into that list of male ancestors are four women, each of them with something irregular about their sexual history:
Tamar, a widow who pretends to be a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law to secure her rights within the family (see Genesis 38, but be warned this content is for adult readers only);
Ruth, a foreign woman from Moab, who becomes the great-grandmother of King David after spending the night with her future husband to secure his intervention on her behalf (see Ruth 3);
Bathsheba, who is not named here but simply listed as the “wife of Uriah”—a woman who David sexually abused and then arranged to have her husband murdered so that he could add Bathsheba to his harem (see 2 Samuel 11); and
Mary, who was discovered to be pregnant even before Joseph had slept with her.
Then we met a character named Joseph. Guess what? God speaks to him in dreams. Well, what else who happen to a guy called Joseph, a Jewish listener would say. Apart from being sent down to Egypt, which happens in Matthew 2!
This Joseph is both a dreamer, and an upright man, who seeks to treat the women in his life properly. So already the readers of Matthew are beginning to think about Joseph, Egypt and Exodus/liberation as the framework for the story of Jesus that Matthew is about to tell them.
By now Matthew’s readers have also been alerted to the idea that we do not need to have a perfect family background for God to be at work among us, and for God to use us to move God’s purposes ahead.
For many people even that wee bit of the story is good news indeed. ‘Broken things for broken people’.
Joseph is told to go ahead with his plans to marry Mary and to treat the unborn child as his own. He is even instructed on what name to give the child.
The child is not to be called ‘Joseph’, as a traditional Jew may have expected, but ‘Joshua’. Joshua was the successor to Moses and the person who—in the biblical narrative even if not in real history—conquers the land of Canaan so that the tribes of Israel can possess the ‘promised land’.
Piece by piece, Matthew is assembling his story about the birth of Jesus.
To really understand this birth, he says, think about Joseph and think about Joshua. But wait, there is more.
Like Moses himself—Jesus is the target of a murderous campaign by an angry king who orders the murder of every Jewish boy in his territory in order to eliminate a threat to his authority.
Herod actually did lots of nasty things and even murdered members of his own family to preserve his reign for almost 40 years. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, he ordered the arrest of the headmen of every village with orders for them to be executed on the day of his own death, so that tears would flow on the day he died.
From this murderous reputation, Matthew has fashioned a legend within the legend, and created the story of Herod ordering the murder of the ‘Holy Innocents’, the children of Judea. Matthew turns Herod into another Pharoah so that Jesus can be seen as Moses 2.0.
So far so good, Matthew has developed a midrash which tells his Jewish Christian readership that Jesus is no threat to Judaism. Rather, Jesus is the ancient Jewish story coming to life in front of their eyes.
Even the name of Jesus’ mother helps with this project. We call her ‘Mary’, but her neighbours would have known her as ‘Miriam’: the same name as the sister of Moses.
All we are missing is the basket among the bulrushes.
So why the oriental strangers
Matthew could have spun this midrash, including Herod’s murderous rage, without any need to add a visit by foreign sages.
But he had more to teach his readers than the Jewish pedigree of Jesus.
Matthew was also passionate about the significance of Jesus for the gentiles, for those people without any Jewish descent. Which is most of us.
In the decades before Matthew was drafting his revised and enlarged edition of Mark’s Gospel there were occasional state visits to the Roman emperor by oriental rulers from beyond the empire seeming to establish cordial diplomatic relationships. Details of these and other parallels to Matthew’s birth narrative have been blended together by Matthew to create the spectacular scene of a visit to Bethlehem by an entourage of unspecified size (but certainly more than three individuals), bringing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Matthew is not recording history here, but appealing to his non-Jewish audience. They too have a part in the story of Jesus. God’s purposes in sending Jesus were not restricted to the Jewish nation, but extend to everyone, everywhere at all times.
A message for all the world
How an author begins and concludes their work often reveals what is central to their concerns.
As he commences his revision of the Gospel of Mark, Matthew creates a beautiful midrash that sets Jesus into the Sacred story alongside characters such as Joseph, Moses and Joshua. Not a bad CV at all.
But time had passed. Already we are several decades after the death of Jesus. Matthew knew two things: (1) many Jews (and perhaps most) think Jesus was a traitor and a heretic, and (2) Jesus is attracting a very big following among the non-Jewish populations in cities like Antioch where is where Matthew himself is most likely based.
He needs to celebrate the Jewish pedigree of Jesus while also offering a place in the story for outsiders who become insiders.
The entourage of pagans who worship the Christ Child in Matthew—and only in Matthew—are the promise of success for the commission given by Jesus in the closing paragraph of the Gospel of Matthew:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt 28:19–20)
There is room for everyone in the Jesus story.
Outsiders become insiders.
There is even a place for us.