Second lesson. As with the first lesson, we read for what insight into these six questions may be found in the selected passage:
What is wrong with human life?
What does God intend to do about it?
Who is Jesus that he can bring God’s plans to fruition?
What sort of a community is gathered around Jesus?
What sort of behaviors are expected of this community?
What does this community expect in the future?
Now I have been reliably informed by a friend of mine that I need to make some connections more explicit lest I sound like myself, which seems to be alarming state of affairs. 😉 I will attempt to do so…
So, why these six questions? Well, they tend to form the basis of most systematic reflection intended to make sense of what God planned, did, and will do according to the biblical record. Thus, they are often the crux of what the academic world calls salvation history, but what Mormon tend to think of as the plan of salvation. The key point here, however, is that none of this is arbitrary because the great theological traditions of the NT tend to be coherent presentations in and of themselves. Thus, in each tradition what God does is a response to how the human condition is presented. Who Jesus is corresponds to what God intends to do. Similarly, the nature of the community and its behaviors and expectations are determined largely by the way Jesus is identified – they are, after all, responding to him.
This time around, all the selected passages are all from the Synoptic tradition, specifically the early sections of the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. According to Matthew’s version:
18 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.
19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Matthew’s story actually opens some seventeen verses earlier with an initial announcement of the identity of Jesus: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Mat 1:1 NRS). It is important to pick up this verse because it is the lens through which Matthew wishes his readers to understand what follows. This is in turn followed by the Matthean genealogy, which features a triad of fourteen generations illustrating Joseph’s descent from Abraham and David. In addition, the mention of four women in an otherwise patriarchal lineage always piques the reader’s curiosity. As it happens, all four women are involved in nativities that, although irregular, bring some part of God’s plans to fruition. Just how Jesus becomes Joseph’s son, and thus the heir of David, is part of the next story.
The story directly associated with this lesson opens as the narrator tells readers that Jesus’ conception is an act of God. Joseph, however, is not privy to this information and so determines to do what he understands as the right thing in a kindly manner. God intervenes, reminds Joseph that he is David’s heir, and tells him to go forward with the marriage, and name the child. This last action, the naming, is important because it recognizes Jesus as Joseph’s legitimate son and so David’s heir. Finally, the narrator reports that Joseph woke up, did as he was told, cared appropriately for Mary, and named the child Jesus. Thus, at this point all is as it should be.
What is the human condition? Two “portrayals” of the human condition are here. In the larger picture, humans have sinned and by implication are without the means to rectify this on their own. A second look at the human condition features Joseph’s characterization. Unlike the general human condition, he is described as a kind and righteous man living under the law. Joseph’s presence in the story reminds the reader that the situation is not completely grim: there are those who are what they are supposed to be, who respond to God as they should, and who will care for the young Jesus until he assumes his mission. In the larger picture, they are also faithfully waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises – God will respond to them, as well.
What is God going to do about this? The human condition requires divine intervention. In Matthew’s story, God is going to intervene in the most miraculous and irregular of all conceptions—including the four explicitly identified irregular nativities in Joseph’s genealogy. Matthew, like Mark, wishes the reader to understand from the beginning that Jesus is the Messiah who will bring to pass God’s promises. But what kind of a Messiah? And how will these promises be fulfilled? Since Matthew is interested in explicitly presenting Jesus as the heir of both David and Abraham, it seems that the covenants made with these two figures from the Hebrew Bible are about to reach culmination. Thus, God’s intervention is also going to restore Israel – although just how remains to be seen.
Who is Jesus, that he can accomplish God’s intent? The most important aspect of Jesus’ identification is established here: he is the Son of God. Traditionally, Davidic kings are the natural born sons of their royal fathers and upon assuming the throne are adopted as sons of God (Ps 2:7; 2 Sam 7:14). Jesus, however, is the Son of God by birth and adopted into Israel’s royal lineage. Thus, Jesus will be Israel’s Messiah as David’s heir but how all of this works out will be conditioned by his birth as the Son of God.
As a first hint of his role in salvation Jesus picks up his given name, which identifies his basic mission: he will save his people from their sins. Jesus is also depicted as the embodiment of the first of several prophetic utterances from the Hebrew Bible: he is the one conceived by a virgin and identified as Emmanuel, that is “God is with us” (Isa 7:14). Readers who are familiar with Matthew’s narrative will remember that Matthew ends his Gospel with a similar statement by Jesus:
“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” (Mat 28:19-20 NRS)
Matthew’s Gospel therefore has no ascension narrative, like that of Luke, for example, because Jesus never really left in any meaningful sense.
As the rest of the prophetic utterances play out through Matthew’s infancy narrative, his readers will find that Jesus is the climax of Israel’s history and embodies Israel’s story in his own life: threatened by an evil king, forced to flee to Egypt, called out of Egypt, spent some quality time in the wilderness being tempted and communing with God, and in contrast to Israel remained faithful in all this. Thus, Jesus is everything Israel ought to have been.
What is the nature of the community that responds to this? This passage suggests that the community that responds to Jesus is going to be like Joseph, the man whose antecedent, interior righteousness under the law prepared him to respond appropriately to God. However, those who have read Matthew know that Gentiles will also be part of this community. How and why Gentiles are included is an area of significant interest to Matthew – and his readers. Suffice it to say, however, that since Jesus is Israel’s messiah the community formed by their response to Jesus will be a restored Israel.
What behaviors are incumbent on this community, and why? Just as Jesus is described as everything Israel ought to have been, so the restored Israel will be what Israel ought to have been. For the moment, however, the illustration provided comes from Joseph. Here we see that he was prepared to do what the law required, and with kindness. However, when God required something more of him than simple obedience to the expectations of the law he responded appropriately. This foreshadows the behaviors that will be required of disciples: their righteousness must be greater than that of scribes and Pharisees, who were scrupulous about the law. This greater righteousness will come by obeying the law as interpreted by Jesus, who as David’s heir and Son of God is uniquely authorized and qualified to do so.
What does this community anticipate in the future? Here the key point is the name Emmanuel – the promise that Israel’s God will be with them. This promise has a profundity that is rarely plumbed, as in the scramble for teaching time it often loses out to the sheer novelty of the virgin birth. In the Hebrew Bible, however, God is the strongest of Fathers, an unequaled protector, provider and disciplinarian for his children. And God is also portrayed as the tenderest of Mothers – thus it is as unthinkable to imagine God forgetting Israel as it would be for a mother to forget the child she nurses every few hours (Isa 49:15-16), or to fail to comfort the child who is in distress (Isa 66:12-13). So the presence of Israel’s God is really no small promise, however lost it might get in 40 minute lessons.
Hope your Sunday is restful and the rest of your week productive and happy,