Tragedy: Gospel of Matthew Christmas Stories Part I

Christians carry around in their heads what I call the mush gospel. We mush together the various stories from all the gospels into a single story, then sprinkle in features from family traditions, sermons, hymns, and even movies. The individuality of each gospel narrative is sacrificed to a gospel we have made up. We never really hear the real story.

Nowhere is this more evident than at Christmas. The universal Christmas story has combined both Matthew’s and Luke’s narratives with Santa Claus and Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. In fact, Charles Dickens may be the real inventor of Christmas. (See David Parker, Christmas and Charles Dickens.)Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth differently. The census and resulting trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem come from Luke, as well as the stable, angels and shepherds. Matthew assumes that Joseph and his wife reside in Bethlehem, not Galilee. Jesus is born in a house. Matthew introduces magoi, Magi, which means “astrologers.” In the later tradition they became kings and then wise men. Matthew says nothing about how many wise men there were but the tradition settled on three, and even gave them names. In the mush gospel we add snow, from Dickens and Victorian England.

The birth narratives in Matthew and Luke are not compatible. They tell two different stories. Robert Miller, Born Divine, has done a great job in showing the cultural backdrop that makes such stories the necessary accoutrements for great men. Neither Mark, the first gospel, nor the gospel of John thought it necessary to begin their stories of Jesus with his birth. Mark begins with John the Bather, while the fourth gospel has a hymn beginning before the beginning and then starts the story at the same point Mark did—with John the Bather, which probably shows his dependence on the narrative outline of Mark’s gospel.

The birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are artistic creations that tell powerful stories that need to be heard again anew. A second blog will deal with the birth narrative in Luke.

Joseph’s point of view dominates Matthew’s narrative. After all, his genealogy opens the gospel, not that of Jesus’ mother. His narrative begins curiously in the passive voice: “While his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before she moved in with him, she was found to be pregnant by the holy spirit” (1:18, all translations from the Complete Gospels). “Was found” implies a backstory, namely that it has become apparent that she is pregnant; the villagers have noticed. People are asking, they’re not living together yet, so what’s going on?

The questions Matthew raises actually begin earlier, in his often skipped-over genealogy. Matthew divides the genealogy into three distinct sections: those descended from Abraham, then from David, then those “after the deportation to Babylon.” In the midst of all these men begetting, women make unexpected appearances.

The genealogy’s first section, “from Abraham,” mentions three women. Tamar is the wife of Judah’s first-born son. When g-d killed him for evilness, Judah gave his second-born son whom g-d also killed. Judah decided she was cursed and sent her back to her father’s house to a life of shame and poverty. At the shearing of the sheep, Tamar dresses as a prostitute and waits at the side of the road. When Judah approaches her and bargains for a kid sheep in exchange for sex, she asks for his seal, belt, and staff as a pledge for the kid. But when Judah sends the kid to redeem his pledge, the prostitute cannot be found. Tamar turns up pregnant and is accused of playing the whore. When Judah demands that she be burned, she produces his seal, belt, and staff. He then admits that she is more righteous (twenty-six occurrences in Matthew) than he. (Everett Fox’s translation of Genesis 38 is wonderful.)Rahab is the second woman mentioned in this first section. She is the prostitute who helps the Israelites conquer Jericho. Next, Ruth, the eponymous heroine of her own book, is a foreigner and the grandmother of King David. Pointedly, the Book of Ruth was written at a time in which Israelite men were forbidden to marry foreign women!

The genealogy’s second section mentions only one woman, and then only by implication: “The wife of Uriah,” who was Bathsheba, mother of King Solomon. After David raped and impregnated her, he tried to maneuver her husband into thinking he, Uriah, was the father. When that ruse fails, David arranges Uriah’s death in battle.

All these women exhibit issues that challenge sexual standards. They play to Matthew’s theme that righteousness, the right way, may not be evident. Significantly the great matriarchs of the Genesis narratives, Sarah, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachael, are absent.

In the genealogy’s third section Matthew mentions only one woman: “Mary, who was the mother of Jesus. Jesus is known as the Anointed.” Matthew implies that Mary belongs to the line of women mentioned in the genealogy, throwing a cloud over Jesus’ genealogy.

Matthew describes Joseph as virtuous, or righteous. The various forms of the Greek word for righteousness are significant in Matthew, occurring twenty-six times in his gospel: “Congratulations to those who hunger and thirst for justice ! They will have a feast” (5:6). According to the standards of righteousness Joseph should shame Mary for her illegitimate pregnancy, thereby protecting his virtue. Instead, an angel tells him he is to name the child, thereby claiming the child as his.

The righteous Joseph had to forfeit his righteousness in the eyes of the village gossips to follow the command of the angel, God’s voice. Matthew’s tale suggests that appearances are deceiving. Joseph had to appear unrighteous publicly to preserve his true virtue, to follow the divine voice.

This theme runs throughout Matthew’s gospel. In the parable of the wheat and tares, “The slaves said to their master, ‘So do you want us to go and pull the weeds?’ He replied, ‘No, otherwise you’ll uproot the wheat at the same time as you pull the weeds. Let them grow up together until the harvest, and at harvest time I’ll say to the harvesters, ‘Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles for burning, but gather the wheat into my granary’” (13:28–30). While the plants are still in the field, it is impossible to tell which is which.

In the final judgment scene when the shepherd separates the sheep from goats, neither the righteous nor the unrighteous know how they have either succeeded or failed. When told the standard by which they will be judged, the righteous respond,

“Master, when did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we notice that you were a foreigner and offer you hospitality? Or naked and clothe you? When did we find you ill or in prison and come to visit you?”

And the king will respond to them, “Let me tell you: whatever you did for the least of my brothers and sisters, you did for me.” (Matt 25: 37–40)

How can one live one’s life and not know which side one is on? Only g-d knows the standard of righteous virtue. It turns out that g-d upholds those whom others condemn, even one betrayed and crucified.

Matthew’s birth narrative includes both humor and irony. An angel tells Joseph that “the holy spirit is responsible for her pregnancy” (1:20), a story that would not play with the village gossips. Joseph is instructed to name the child “Jesus,” but the proof text from scripture calls him “Emmanuel, God with us.” At the gospel’s conclusion, Jesus declares “I’ll be with you” (26:20), fulfilling the name from scripture, “Emmanuel,” given at his conception.

The Magi, Astrologers, act out a Marx Brothers routine. They follow the star for two years and lose it precisely at the critical moment. And where do they lose it? In Jerusalem, the holy city. Creches image them kneeling at the manger in a stable, but Matthew depicts a child between one and two years old and at home. The Magi’s gifts are odd: gold for royalty, but also spices for embalming a corpse. Strange gifts for a young boy, but they forecast the gospel’s trajectory.

The Magi confide in Herod, the worse possible confidant, who gives the story a tragic turn. He issues “instructions to kill all the children two years old and younger in Bethlehem and the surrounding region” (2:16). Then we hear

Rachel weeping for her children

She refused to be consoled

because they were no more.

(2:18 quoting Jer 31:15 but not exactly)

Matthew casts Rachel, a matriarch missing from Matthew’s genealogy, as a grieving mother. Another dream prompts Joseph to flee with the mother and child into Egypt to save their child’s life. Far from celebrating innocence in a quiet night in Bethlehem, Matthew spins a tragedy with father, mother, and child fleeing for their lives.

This powerful image of a family fleeing across borders and mothers weeping for their dead children has a formidable contemporary semblance. Matthew addresses his gospel to his own community who faced a world that could not easily be divided into righteous and unrighteous, good and bad, native-born and immigrant or illegal alien. Judgment and condemnation, Matthew insists, belongs only to g-d. His story asks the audience to trust the divine presence in community life, even in the face of Rachael weeping for her children.

Matthew’s genealogy and birth narrative set up his gospel’s major themes. This community was deeply committed to the traditions of Israel. “Not one iota, not one serif, will disappear from the Law” (5:18), Jesus promises. Matthew’s genealogy lays claim to Israel’s history from Abraham to David to Jesus the Messiah. He casts the Messiah’s birth in a Jewish milieu, giving Jesus a Hebrew name: Emmanuel. Over and over Matthew shows how the Hebrew holy writings are fulfilled. But things are amiss. Women occur in this genealogy. Even more, they are not the expected matriarchs and they are all suspect, including Mary. The Magi come from the place of Babylonian exile and Joseph and his family flee to Egypt, where g-d’s people were enslaved. Herod, the king of the Jews in Jerusalem, murders the children who represent his people’s future.

We live in a broken, fractured, and polarized country and world. Matthew’s tragic story of the birth of Jesus the Anointed speaks to our world more truthfully than the mush gospel’s sentimental innocence ever could. The mush gospel imagines a fantasy world; Matthew addresses a real world in all its brokenness and announces that g-d is on the side of the broken and those often deemed unrighteous.

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge. Brandon is a charter member of the Jesus Seminar and was co-chair of the Christianity Seminar, Phase I.

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