Third Lesson – again, only the Synoptic tradition is represented, this time by Matthew 2 and Luke 2. Thus, the six interrogations return differences in mostly nuance rather than major substance. This post is a reading of Matthew 2. But why so early with this one? Well, I must repent for last week’s late posting. In my defense, I had a house guest who was introducing me to all sorts of debauchery such as staying up til 9 PM, eating bread, and reading fun books. I am now back to normal…such as it is…and school starts next Tuesday.
The story in Matthew 2 is familiar: the visit of the magi, Herod’s atrocious behavior culminating in the slaughter of the young children of Bethlehem, the divinely directed flight of the family into Egypt and subsequent return upon the death of Herod, and the decision to settle in Nazareth because Herod’s arbitrary and cruel son Archelaus ruled in Judea.
What is the human situation? The human characters in this story mirror in some ways the human characters of the larger Gospel narrative. For the first time members of the Jewish leadership appear, in the person of Herod, the chief priests, and the scribes. Joseph remains the representative of the righteous Jewish community, while a group character described as “all of Jerusalem” (v.3) portray the Jewish urban elite. Gentiles also appear for the first time, as the magi coming in from the east
Thus, there are those among the Jewish nation who are righteous under the law, waiting for God’s intervention, and prepared to courageously respond to God’s direction. These may be distinguished from the general Jewish leadership and the wider urban Jewish population, who likewise know of God’s promised intervention but are disturbed that it may be occurring and do not respond properly. Beyond this relatively mundane reaction lies the barbarity of Herod’s attempt to thwart God’s intervention—not unlike the motives and behaviors that will lead to Jesus’ crucifixion by the next generation of Jerusalem leadership.
Interestingly, there are also Gentiles who have taken an interest in the doings of Israel’s God. The response of the Jewish characters may be contrasted with the behavior of the magi. The latter enjoy limited divine revelation (the stars) and so must seek the prophetic word given to Israel. However, when they do find Jesus they are “overwhelmed with joy” (v. 10), “offer him homage,” and give remarkable gifts from their bounty (v.11). Other than his immediate family, this behavior makes Gentiles the first reported to respond properly to Jesus.
What does God intend to do about it? At this point the reader sees clearly that God’s intervention is intended to fulfil his covenant obligations to Israel—this is standard in the Synoptic tradition. Ironically, it seems that Jesus must be saved from his sinful people in order to “save his people from their sins” (1:21). But it begins also to look like God intends to include Gentiles among those who will profit from his gracious promises – details to follow.Who is Jesus that he can bring God’s plans to fruition? The most common title accorded Jesus in this passage is “the child,” a designation that repeatedly (x9) emphasizes his human vulnerability. When Jesus is not “the child” he is variously identified as “the king of the Jews,” “the Messiah,” and “a ruler who is to shepherd [God’s] people, Israel.” (The dual motif of vulnerability and power surfaces often in the Gospels.) But this is a story in which “showing” is more important than “telling,” I think. And what is shown is stars moving, important, exotic people on long trips, valuable gifts, outwitting treachery and murder, visits to foreign lands and repeated divine intervention – all of which suggests Jesus’ status is pretty special without ever calling him the Son of God.
(NB: Just who is Joseph the carpenter that he can merrily decamp with his family to Egypt and return?)
What sort of a community is gathered around Jesus? Hm. Gonna be both Jews and Gentiles, but the Gentiles will join via the Jewish witness just like the magi got their insight from the Jews. Gonna be a restored Israel under Israel’s messiah, gonna have a shepherd to guide them. They will consider Jesus as both the rightful heir of David’s throne AND something more…although that is not entirely clear now.
What sort of behaviors are expected of this community? Well, if God is going to fulfil his covenant obligations then it makes sense to think that the restored Israel will do likewise. And, they will be able to do so precisely because they have a Shepherd, I expect, who will point out to them how to best fulfil the divine intent behind the specifics of the law.
What does this community expect in the future? As is always the case with the Synoptic tradition, the reader expects the fulfilment of the gracious promises of the Hebrew Bible. Here, however, I am struck by the gift-giving of the magi—a behavior that is echoed on a global scale in Rev 21:24-26. Although the expression “kingdom of God/heaven” has not yet appeared, it’s hard to escape the idea that Matthew’s community expected a future that would be a different sort of a world than that which they were currently experiencing.
Perhaps I will get to Luke 2 before Sunday. In any case, have a great week!