Manifesto (Part One)

Sunday December 19: Advent 4
Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25

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.19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil 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.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Now the birth of Jesus took place....

These words are so familiar we may find it hard to hear anything new. Most of us will also be familiar with critiques of Matthew’s Christmas story; how it “misquotes” Isaiah; how God “rapes” Mary. The whole notion of Divine Conception is bizarre in our ears.

So let’s begin considering the gospel this week with these issues. We should remind ourselves that there was nothing strange about the story within its own milieu. Indeed, the gospel would be exceptional if it did not have such stories, given its other claims about Jesus. Such stories were commonplace in introducing a hero in the ancient world. We have our own versions today; eg, the log cabin boy who makes it to President, and the little battler John Howard, who becomes Prime Minister.

Matthew’s milieu saw no problem with the ‘mechanism’ of the conception. To be sensitive to the underlying fact that the Divine forces itself upon Mary, or to the scientific non-sense of parthenogenesis-via-God, is important. We need to deal with these issues simply because they are issues for us. However, to think, on the basis of our better biology and more enlightened gender awareness, that the story says nothing, and has no authority, is naive. It is to respond too quickly to our unfamiliarity with another age and culture. The power of story lies in its ability to provoke a response and make us consider and reconsider our existence, and what it means.

In a risqué cartoon (for the 1960s), the Woman’s Weekly had a pregnant young woman asking her doctor why he was gazing out the surgery window. “Last time this happened,” he said, “there was a star in the east.” The many jokes about what “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” might mean, already tell us how relevant this story remains to our lives. Many of the jokes take little account of the milieu of the gospel and more account of our own. But consider the serious claim that the Divine rapes Mary for its own purpose.

Does this ‘seizure’ not happen to us all? Did we ask to be alive? Did we ask for a life in the constant presence and growing awareness of our death? What is this God which places us here in this arbitrary and precarious misery, where most people stutter through life while a few privileged ones lord it over the rest?

The Australian cartoonist Patrick Cook had cartoon with a hapless fellow watching leaves in a stream.  The text said something like

Row, row, row your boat
merrily down the gutter,
muddily, muddily, muddily, muddily
life is but a mutter.

Will our life be a mutter, or will we, like Mary, grasp what we have had thrust upon us, and live seeking more, and the most? How will we choose to see our life- as mud in the gutter, or as a part in the Divine drama of the cosmos?

One of the rhetorical slanders against the early Christians was that Jesus was the product of rape by a Roman soldier. There is no more historical basis for this claim than the one that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus, or that Jesus was the product of some other more or less willing liaison ; the gospels are not primarily interested with biographical details in the way we are tempted to read them. I find Bill Loader’s reflection upon this to be full of insight.

What would then have been understood as the worst kind of slander has caught the imagination of some moderns who have learned that rape means someone is being violated. Mary then becomes the violated one from whom is born hope. It is a magnificent image, confronting the values of the time, but historically with little if any basis in reality. We don’t need to colonise historical traditions with our values to be able to affirm those values. We can affirm solidarity with victims of rape without needing the warrant of ancient texts in a fundamentalist kind of way like this.

He presents us the art of theology.  We can ‘play’ with the story, and recognise how it confronts us, and questions our assumptions about the relegation of women and the less powerful.  This play is serious, and can be life and culture changing. Or we can reject all such insight (the Fundamentalism we normally recognise), or demand that our insight is the only insight which over-rides all the earlier insights of the tradition. This is the Fundamentalism of the educated person whose education has gone not quite far enough to keep them mindful of the art of balance.

The artfulness we require here will recognise the inherent violence and sexism in the story, but also not neglect its radical insights and inherent subversiveness.

We will maintain perspective in our picture by not ignoring those first boring begetting verses of Matthew. Those 17 verses tell us of the Genesis (get it?) of Jesus the Messiah. He is heir and successor to Abraham and David and Solomon.

Yet he is supremely one of us.

There are (at least) three Gentile women named in his lineage, and three (if not also Ruth) who have had improper sexual relationships. His family is ordinary and flawed and yet the stuff of legend in Israel. The four women excuse the questions about Mary, head them off at the pass, and introduce a radical new view of God, where sexual relations are no longer defining, and where women have socially significance.  Joseph was legally required to divorce Mary. This was seen as an act of justice.  God steps in, and already, before birth, Jesus is an occasion for reshaping and reinterpreting God’s Law of justice and compassion.

John Petty points out that in this story of five women- it was highly unusual to have women listed in a line of succession- we have the first of Matthew’s fives, that relating into the story of Moses where Jesus is the new Moses.

...the list of names in Matthew's geneaology includes the names of five women.  Matthew likes to do things in "fives."  There are five sections of Matthew's gospel, for example, symbolic of the five books of Moses.  In Matthew's Christmas story, there are five Old Testament citations, five dreams, five scriptural fulfillments, and five uses of the word "Messiah."  Matthew likes "fives" because he is presenting Jesus as the "new Moses."

I would add that the fifth woman is Miriam; Mary to Jesus as Miriam was to Moses.

This very human Jesus, Israelite through and through, is yet thoroughly ‘Divine.’ His lineage is not only a royal line, the numbers match up with impossible neatness.

Note the pattern: 3 x 14. In other words 6 x 7; the 7th 7 is about to begin. The structure is an attempt to say: God’s will is involved here, even though we, today, give little credence to such numerics (just like the astrology of chapter 2).

His birth is not human alone, but has the hand of God involved at every moment, perhaps also recalling the stories of God causing miraculous pregnancy in women who had been unable to have children. Gentle Joseph, already unusual in his determination for a ‘quiet’ divorce, allows God to proceed. He is the first of a long line of folk in the gospel who perceive this new movement of God in the events of Jesus’ life.

Given the hysterics and violence that accompany irregular pregnancy even in our own time, Joseph’s standing aside is remarkable. In this vignette alone, there is an amazing over-riding of the old ideas.  The justice of Joseph (dikaios) is a far cry from the justice that demanded divorce (with return of the dowry?), and even stoning.

He stands aside because the child’s name is Yeshua- God saves.  He is the fulfilment of “what has been spoken by the Lord through the prophet...” There are fourteen of these quotations in Matthew. Jesus is the fulfilment who will save, who is God with us, and who is anointed by God; Jesus, Emmanuel, Messiah.

Bradke – nee James
Phillip and Mary are delighted with
the birth of their first son Ethan Thomas,
born Dec 25, 2010, first great
grandson for Poppy Max.

The Divine Birth Notice is seems wordy by comparison, although it is heavily loaded with imagery and allusion in every line.  Even his mother Miriam is Moses constant companion, and his father Joseph is the shepherd boy Dreamer who goes to the Royal Court. As Bill says

The birth narratives are not really about the baby Jesus; they are about the Jesus whom we see in ministry and crucified under the banner ‘King of the Jews’.

The Christmas stories always need connecting with the grown up Jesus if they are not to be sentimentalised. Don’t put tinsel around the cross at Christmas. The magic of angels and the virginal conception are the embellishments to enable us to celebrate that life of compassion and self giving. In their own way they give us the radical message of inclusiveness: of the women, of the Gentiles, of the sexually suspected, of the pregnant girl. They lay before us the violence which grace confronts: the all maleness, the righteous Law observance, the willingness to abandon the pregnant girl, the murderous ruler, the slaughtered children, the aspiration to kill ‘the king of the Jews’. We have to work hard to keep it all from being reduced to jingles to promote shopping sprees or being perpetuated as just a bit more Christian naiveté in a world where the same geography and the same issues exist.

The birth narrative is like the notices in the paper; not so much about the baby, but about hopes and aspirations for a life and its significance for the whole family. “They are about the Jesus whom we see in ministry and crucified under the banner ‘King of the Jews.’”  So not really a birth notice, the reading this week, but an introductory chapter to a gospel.  And the gospel is no newspaper obituary: This was the life of Jesus. An obituary is for a life that is finished. The reading this week is the introductory chapter of a manifesto for the ongoing life of the Kingdom of Heaven.

Andrew Prior Dec 14 2010, first published at

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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