Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Matthew 1 The birth of Jesus

It comes as a shock to anyone picking up a Greek New Testament to read its very opening for the first time: ‘The book of genesis - of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham’. This surely is the title of the book. Was the author consciously claiming that he was setting out a new Torah - a new covenant for a new chosen people, indeed a new creation? There is much evidence in the book to suggest that that was precisely what he was about. Jesus was the Messianic King - David’s greater son, he was the new Moses, the instigator of a new law bound in a new covenant, and the son of Abraham, father not just of the Jews but the one in whom all the families of earth were to be blessed. In Jesus the world is recreated in hope. The Jesus story is nothing less than a new Genesis. No wonder the early fathers bound this book in to form the beginning of the new Covenant (or Testament).

After this audacious and ambitious title it is a little disappointing for the modern reader to be confronted with a daunting list of names. But the third section of the Old Testament begins with eight chapters of names and Matthew may, again, have been consciously attempting to add a new section to the existing scripture. He was certainly at pains, all the way through his book, to emphasise the continuity of his work with that of the existing accepted texts. We should we not read this genealogy just as a list of names: Matthew makes clear that Jesus came in the fullness of time: just as 14 generations elapsed between Abraham and David, and between David and the exile, so also in God’s time, Jesus came into the world after 14 more generations. Unusually, five women are included in the genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary. Many attempts have been made to find a common factor between these women: certainly all five were the cause of rumour and inuendo, and possibly four of them were non-Jewish, too: Tamar pretended to be a prostitute and seduced her father in law, Judah: Rahab was a prostitute; Ruth an exotically perfumed foreigner who had crept into bed with Boaz and taken advantage of his intoxication to compromise him; Bathsheba had committed adultery with the king and bore his child. Mary, too was, perhaps, accused of unmarried sex with Joseph.

The message seems to be that Jesus is the consummation of Jewish history: that he came as the new David, bringing a new peak to what God was able to do for his people: and that if anyone should ask how God could use the son of an unmarried mother in his plan of salvation, there was ample evidence in Israel’s history of God using women others despised, either because of their reputation or their race, to bring to pass his glorious plans.

Matthew is now ready to reveal Jesus to us. And unlike Mark who introduces us to Jesus in the wilderness, already a man on a mission, he begins with a story of miraculous birth. The word genesis therefore appears again - this time usually translated birth - by its repetition creating a frame around the genealogy. Matthew may have been consciously or perhaps even subliminally reflecting the books of Moses in the construction of the first chapters of his gospel. Certainly the circumstances of Jesus birth as Matthew describes them suggest a new creation. Unlike Luke’s account Matthew’s is from the perspective of Joseph. Already Matthew had made it clear that Joseph was not the father of Jesus in the same way that the other fathers Abegat’ their sons. Joseph is introduced to us in the list of names as the husband of Mary. Here he is reintroduced as ‘betrothed’ to her. In 1st century Palestine betrothal took place at a very early age: usually between 12 and 13. A marriage contract was then drawn up, and usually a year or so elapsed before husband and wife lived together. During that time of separation, legally, the woman was regarded as the man’s wife, and any affair was still regarded as adultery, even though the marriage had not been consummated. Equally should her ‘husband’ die she was regarded as a widow.

For Joseph, therefore, the news that Mary was pregnant was devastating. He was to lose his bride before she had been his, he would require a certificate of divorce before he had even lived with her, and she may have been stoned to death by his family. To prevent this last possibility, or at the very least, public humiliation, Joseph arranged to have Mary secretly moved to a safe house, while he properly prepared to divorce her with as little fuss as possible.

The intervention of the angel of the Lord in a dream prevented him from proceeding with this course of action. Matthew records no further intervention from an angel until the women arrive at the empty tomb at the end of the gospel. And so the two events that particularly marked Jesus out as the Son of God, his birth through the power of the Holy Spirit and his resurrection, are attested to not just by fallible men and women but are affirmed by the powers of heaven, too. Perhaps to 21st century readers the testimony of an angel casts more doubt rather than more certainty upon the authenticity of the story, but in Matthew’s time the intervention of an angel would powerfully highlight the significance of the event being recorded. The birth and resurrection of Jesus were matters not only of worldly but also heavenly significance. And in both cases it needed the angel of the Lord to remove barriers to facilitate the fulfilment of the Lord’s will: a mighty stone rolled away to reveal an empty tomb to incredulous women, and overturning the conventional thinking of a righteous man who would, by refusing to accept Jesus as his son, prevent him from being the descendent of David.

The angel testified that the conception of Jesus had been the work of God’s creative Spirit. Just as God had breathed the life of Adam into a clay model so he had breathed Jesus into the womb of Mary. Joseph is to take Mary as his wife and to accept this child as his own, not just from birth but from now. For he is to name the child and in so doing take responsibility as his father; and with that responsibility he is also to take the calumny that will be showered upon him and Mary from those who will not believe his story. In that way Jesus will be the Son of David, not just by accident of birth, but by the obedient submission of a righteous man to the will of God: the first of those who are ‘Blessed when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me.’ Luke notably introduces Mary as the most blessed of women. Matthew’s Mary remains only a shadowy receptacle of God’s initiative. It is Joseph who is humble and obedient. It is through his decision that a Messiah is born named Jesus, who would save his people from their sins. He is the willing agent of God’s grace.

God’s will was done. The name Jesus was a common one, but this child was to be no ordinary Jesus. At this point no clue is given as to how he is to fulfil his name. That fulfilment of the name will be the theme of the whole gospel and will not be fully revealed until the full account has been told. But at this point a much more unusual name is introduced, Emmanuel (God with us). It is not until the very last sentence of the gospel that this name is fulfilled. Throughout the narrative, Matthew anchors his account in scripture. It is clear that he does this to add authority to his story. But also his account is written in the form of an apologia. Quotations from the Hebrew scriptures gave his readers ammunition for their disputes with rabbis who disputed the authenticity of the Jesus message. The quotation from Isaiah used at this point was not commonly considered a messianic text. It was originally addressed by the prophet to King Ahaz who was anxious about the future of Israel in the face of a powerful alliance between two of its traditional foes. It simply suggested that a child about to be born was to a sign of the presence of God with his people that would protect them from the powerful nations ranged against them. Perhaps it was the use of the word ‘virgin’ in the Greek translation that Matthew knew which drew him (or the early church from which he got the tradition) to this particular text. Certainly the Hebrew text uses the word ‘alma’ which simply means young woman and does not necessarily have the technical sense of virgin. In the context it is the child that is the sign not the ‘virgin’! Inasmuch as later rabbis interpreted the text they pointed to Hezekiah as the fulfilment of this prophecy. There is a no suggestion that he was born in miraculous circumstances as the son of a virgin. For Matthew, also, it is not the virginity of his mother that is supremely important but rather the nature of the child, and his sonship of David, the Saviour of his people and Emmanuel: God with us.

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