Lesson 3: We Have Come to Worship Him: Luke 2, Matthew 2 #BCCSundaySchool2019

The texts for this lesson are Luke 2 and Matthew 2. I welcome the opportunity to put these two chapters in juxtaposition both for what the comparison might tell us about the content (that is, the infancy of Jesus) but also the medium (that is, the two Gospels themselves). Examining them in tandem, far more than reading them individually, teaches us something about how to read scripture generally, and the Gospels in particular.

To begin with, the lesson includes Luke and Matthew and not John or Mark because the latter two gospels include nothing about Jesus’s birth and infancy. This is obvious, but it’s also an important point, and worth interrogating. Why do only Luke and Matthew consider the story of Jesus’s birth important enough to recount?  More generally: Why do gospel writers choose to include what they include, and leave out what they leave out?  In part this may be a question of the sources they had, but it’s also a question of narrative construction. These authors wrote the stories they did because they wanted their readers to understand certain things about Jesus, and the stories of his birth Matthew and Luke give us are for them means to that end.

So, let’s look at what Matthew and Luke say about Jesus’s birth. Perhaps surprisingly, for those accustomed to stories of mangers and journeys on donkey-back, Matthew glosses over Jesus’s actual birth in a clause—not even a complete sentence. If all we read were Matthew, we would understand Jesus to have been born in Bethlehem and nothing else: no full inns, no donkey, no manger. Matthew is far more interested in two interrelated subplots: the magi (or “wise men”) from the East following the star, and Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt to avoid Herod’s wrath.

It is from Luke that we get the manger scene, the Roman census, and so on. No star here, though. But just as Matthew focuses on the magi and the flight into Egypt, Luke gives us two stories we might read in parallel to Matthew’s: the story of the shepherds and the story of Mary and Joseph’s visit with the young Jesus at the temple.

Right away we might see parallels. For Matthew, the infant Jesus is visited by foreign royalty. For Luke, he is visited by shepherds. Luke, in his opening verses, takes us on a dizzying journey from the awe-inspiring power of Caesar over the entire world to the humble manger where Jesus is born: an intentional contrast. Matthew barely mentions Caesar at all, instead comparing the humble Jesus to the paranoid and vengeful Jewish king Herod. For Matthew, Jesus’s birth triggers joy and anxiety among the elite; for Luke, he dazzles the holy man Simeon and the prophet Anna at the temple. Matthew emphasizes Joseph: it is Joseph whose lineage he gives and Joseph who shepherds his family and Joseph who receives visitations by angels. Luke emphasizes Mary, giving us her annunciation scene and her interactions with Simeon.

What is each author trying to accomplish? Matthew’s story is steeped in Jewish scripture. The lineage he presents in chapter 1 links Joseph to the great stories of the Hebrew Bible: Abraham, Jacob, David—and several women: Tamar, the victim of sexual assault; Rahab, the prostitute whose righteousness won her entry into the Hebrew covenant; Bathsheba, abused by King David. These stories resonate with the themes of the Jewish past. Matthew mentions the exiles into Egypt and Babylon, and reminds us that the House of Israel constantly grappled with abuse and misunderstanding.  And then Joseph suffers judgment from his neighbors who believed him to be unrighteous. His family was persecuted by a paranoid king who brought about the death of children, as in the time of Moses, and he had to lead his family into and out of exile, as had happened so often with the children of Israel. It is for Matthew appropriate that the magi from the East brought the infant gold (a gift for a king) and frankincense and myrrh (spices used to anoint the dead body). The story of Jesus for Matthew is the story of Israel writ in a single life: birth, persecution, exile, and redemption.

Luke’s story, pitting the impoverished origins of Jesus, an infant in a barn surrounded by shepherds instead of foreign potentates, against the power of Caesar, also illustrates Luke’s themes. His focus on women—Mary and Anna—is characteristic; throughout his gospel Luke wishes to emphasize how Jesus’s ministry exalts the marginalized and the weak. As Mary claims in her Magnificat, the hymn in Luke 1 she sings after the annunciation, God “has been mindful of the humble state of his servant . . . He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” The angel who speaks to the shepherds reels off a whole host of titles for Jesus: Savior, Anointed One (ie, messiah or Christ), the Lord. These titles are a mixture of traditionally Jewish titles—Messiah, which in Greek is ‘Christos,’ means ‘anointed one,’ and is in the Hebrew Bible a word used to describe kings chosen by God. “Lord,” of course, was a Roman political title. Luke seeks to draw that contrast, and to show how Jesus will destroy the traditional structures of power that depend on force and oppression; how the coming Christ which Simeon and Anna promise will revise the way the world works. As Simeon says, Jesus is “a light of redemption for the Gentiles and the glory of your people Israel.” The old order is fading, and the Kingdom of God is emerging into view.

Comments

  1. Kristin V Brown says:

    Enjoyed your insight. Thank you.

  2. Another Roy says:

    I appreciate the commentary as I try to implement in home study. Thank you!

  3. I was taught that Matthew was written to convince the Jews of that time that the promised Messiah had come. He features the details that fulfill the prophecies of the Old Testament.
    In other words, here is the man who we have been told to expect. Come and listen to the testimonies of those who met him or heard directly from others who were there. And here are our proofs. In that way, it is similar to arguments you used to hear more of in the Church when speaking to other Christians about Joseph Smith and the Restoration. We hear them less now because so few in our world are familiar with the Bible and its teachings. It is hard to appeal to prophecies people do not even know, let alone believe.

  4. When it comes to the question of why they wrote what they wrote, for the longest time I’ve wondered about Luke 2:19

    But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

    Okay. How does Luke know that? I assume it was passed down from retelling to retelling until Luke wrote it down.
    Secondly, why pass it down? Why write it down? What’s different by having it there?
    I don’t know. If you drop the verse it doesn’t feel like anything is missing.

  5. I screwed up the end tag for the quote.

  6. Ryan Mullen says:

    It seems to me that both Matthew and Luke are, in part, trying to answer the question of how Jesus, who was from Nazareth, could be the Messiah, who was to be from Bethlehem. Their answers are not entirely contradictory, but not entirely complementary either.

    In Matthew, there’s no mention of Nazareth until after Egypt. He just starts with Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem and provides no reason for them to be there. When the magi come approx. two years later, Joseph and Mary are still in Bethlehem, living in a house. It seems Bethlehem is where they are from, and they only leave under the duress of a divinely orchestrated death threat.

    In Luke, as noted in the OP, we read the narrative most people today are familiar with: Joseph and Mary are from Nazareth and only go to Bethlehem because of the Roman administration. The 2nd floor guest chamber of their extended family is full, so Joseph and Mary stay in the first floor room with the livestock. Luke provides no reason why Joseph and Mary leave Bethlehem, and none is needed since they are only visiting.

    It’s certainly possible to harmonize these two accounts, as I recall James Talmage does in Jesus the Christ, but the narratives don’t require it. Splicing Matthew into Luke doesn’t fill any plot holes in Luke, nor vice versa. (Rather, the harmonized account has new inconsistencies: Why do Joseph and Mary stay in Bethlehem for two years? The harmonized narrative doesn’t say.) Each narrative is complete on it’s own, explaining why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem for Jesus’s birth, but why he was then reared in Nazareth.

  7. Jeffrey Chadwick provides a workable theory that explains that in his book “Stone Manger – The Untold Story of the First Christmas.” He posits that Joseph and Mary chose to relocate to Bethlehem intentionally to fulfill prophecy that they and all Jews at the time were very familiar with. In the historical record there was no huge Roman census or enforcement until many years later (maybe Luke confuses dates). They were registering as town citizens of Bethlehem like everyone did in that time and still do today in many European cities. Joseph started building a house, which was finished by the tilme the Magi came but was an early work in progress when Jesus was about to be born. Since there were no private rooms available, they prepared a grotto near the home site as best they could and laid the baby in a stone manger that Joseph had built to water their goat. Joseph was a stone mason, not a carpenter (compare abundant limestone to scarce wood as seen in the architecture of the area). He says carpenter was a mistranslation of the Greek word for builder. This theory does seem to answer a lot of questions.

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