Listening to Matthew Part 1 The Infancy Narrative

Given at St William November 29, St Agnes December 6, St Peter December 14 Naples, Florida

It was sometime between the year 80 and 90 that a devout follower of The Way sat down somewhere with a copy of something called “The Good News” that tells the story of Jesus Christ from the sudden appearance of John the Baptist to the beginning of the mission taken up by those who went forth preaching as many signs confirmed the message to those who would listen. He also had at hand a collection of sayings that had been handed down by those who actually heard Jesus speak, and another collection from an oral tradition that recalled events and customs that had been shared by several communities whose members sought to more faithfully follow The Way Jesus had revealed. Whoever he was, he skillfully wove these three sources together to produce a literary masterpiece we call “The Gospel of Matthew.” 

 It was a difficult and challenging time. Some would call it a crisis. Strictly Jewish at its beginning, these Jewish followers of The Way found themselves at odds with everything they had known in the past. Out of nowhere, they found themselves in a polarized world, that affected everything from family life to the local synagogue where they were no longer welcomed. Gentiles were coming to seek a place among them as followers of Jesus, and these strange foreigners could not and would not embrace the old ways. There was a shift taking place that demanded a new and fresh look at the old traditions offering a new way of looking at Christ that was not quite so “Jewish”, and rethinking of the Old Testament, the history of Salvation, discipleship, and morality.

In this masterpiece that we call “The Gospel of Matthew”, the anonymous writer divides the history of Salvation into three periods: (1) the Prophets and the Law up to John the Baptist; (2) the public ministry of Jesus restricted to the land and people of Israel, and (3) the mission made possible by the great turning point, the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. What happens in this Gospel is that Church, not Judaism is the true people of God because it is the people formed by God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the fulfiller of the Law and the prophets. Who he is no one can say, but there is no reason whatsoever to believe that it is the Apostle Matthew. Nonetheless, tradition has always called this great work, “The Gospel of Matthew”. This man was educated well and uses Greek as though it may have been his first language. It is a much more polished Greek than what is found in his sources.  His language style suggests he may well have been in Antioch or Syria. Some call him a verbal architect because the work is actually “built” in a constructive and balanced way.

A “blueprint” of the Gospel shows us that there are five pillars that hold it all together. These are five discourses or Sermons with the same arrangement. First there is a narrative that is followed by a discourse or sermon. Each of them is very distinct, and they all end with the same words: “When Jesus finished these words.”  What we end up with is five books all bound together. The five can be counted and named this way.

  1. The Sermon on the Mount
  2. The Sermon on Mission
  3. The Sermon on Parables
  4. The Sermon on Church Order
  5. The Sermon on Things to Come.

For our purposes here, following the Liturgical cycle we are beginning, I can’t follow Matthew’s plan too closely. I will do again what I did last year with Luke. First, tonight, we will take time to reflect upon and listen to the Infancy Narrative to prepare ourselves spiritually for Christmas. Then once we return to Ordinary Time, I will share with you some thoughts about the five sermons. Then finally, during Lent as Easter draws near, we will take up Matthew’s account of the Passion and Resurrection.

As I insisted last year talking about Luke, we must always remember that this is not history! This is theology. It is a revelation. It is set in time and in place, but the where and the when do not matter nearly as much as the fact that the Gospel is a living expression, an ongoing revelation by God as a way of speaking to us, calling to us, and embracing us. There is one purpose here, and it is not historical. It is to communicate a faith to us either to strengthen the faith that readers already hold or to transmit to the readers a new kind of faith. What we can discover is the faith that Matthew held and led him to write. This faith is so important to him that he will take no risks of being misunderstood since this faith addresses the meaning of existence. So, to avoid misunderstanding, there is a pattern to his writing that will become more obvious. He states what he wants to say, and then he states what he does not mean to say. It removes all ambiguity and leaves us with: position and opposition. 

Of all four Gospels, this is probably the most familiar and maybe the most popular. It gives us the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, and the Golden Rule. For older Catholics, it was Matthew’s Gospel that dominated the Sunday Gospel Readings before the reform of the Second Vatican Council. It was practically the only Gospel we heard with the exception of Luke’s Christmas story details and John’s Passion. This Gospel gives us a fusion of gospel and ethics, faith and morality. This writer sets himself in strong opposition against those who claim that accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior is all that is required of them. His great concern is to convince followers of Christ that genuine faith must be demonstrated in daily obedience to the way of life he proclaimed. Faith and Ethics. These are two sides of the same coin.

As I said a few moments ago, the structure with its five pillars or five books comes out of Matthew’s intense fidelity to his Jewish roots and his knowledge of the community or church for which he writes. It is often proposed that his intention was to compose a new “Pentateuch” modeled on the Five Books of Moses in which narrative and legal material alternate. However, reducing this Gospel to that purpose misses the point that this, like all the other Gospels is first and foremost a Passion Narrative. Perhaps, a way of avoiding or giving too much attention to the structure with its five books is to more simply see that this Gospel has three parts:

  1. Who is this Jesus the Messiah?
  2. What did he have to say?
  3. What does he do?

The first part centers on the Infancy, the Baptism, and the Temptation.

The second part is preparation for the passion.

The third part is ultimately what it’s all about, the Passion, Death, and Resurrection.

As with Mark’s Gospel, one of Matthew’s sources, there is a turning point that is unmistakable. It is like a drum roll that shifts the focus and defines the direction. That turning point is Peter’s confession of faith.

The Genealogy

With all that said, let’s take up that first part and think about who Jesus is for Matthew. It all begins with what is best called, the “Royal Genealogy.” Matthew makes and takes a great effort to answer the question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” No other Gospel writer found it helpful to start this way. He digs into the family background just as we might do. Members of my family along with me have done some serious research into our origins, our family history, identity, and movements. It’s been fun and has been full of surprises. Here Matthew reveals his convictions about Jesus: his origins lie in the old people of God (Abraham), and Jesus is the fulfillment of Israel’s history. Unlike Luke who traces the ancestry of Jesus back to Adam, the father of the human race, Matthew traces it only to Abraham, the father of the Jews. This is what would have been important and of interest to the Jewish/Christians who were to receive this Gospel.

For Matthew, Jesus is a Messianic King, so his line must come through David and the kings of Judah. Again, I insist, this is a theological statement, not history or a biological report! To get an idea of how clever it is and how Matthew uses this genealogical tool to express faith in Christ Jesus, you could take notice of how he changes the verb in the genealogy. Various translations will be different, but the change is there nonetheless. It is an active verb like “begot” or so and so “became”. When it comes to the last, with the incarnation Matthew switches to the passive voice verb form saying simply: “of her (Mary) was born Jesus, who is called the Messiah.” 

This last statement announces the story of Jesus’ birth contrasting the ordinary conceptions of David and Joseph with the extraordinary conception of Jesus. The whole list of people can only raise questions. The inclusion of women in what ought to be a male genealogy should raise an eyebrow or two. Among them are two foreign prostitutes: Tamar and Rehab. Then there is Ruth, a Gentile and Bathsheba with whom David committed adultery.  It’s almost as though he can’t bring himself to say her name, so he calls her “the wife of Uriah”. This is clearly not real. There is a theological statement here perhaps slightly prophetic about what is coming. Including these women reminded the Jewish and Gentile readers that God’s plan of salvation included Gentiles, even unrighteous Gentiles. What happens through this genealogy is an affirmation that Jesus is an authentic King, a descendant of King David. He is not usurper, but a legitimate ruler of God’s people.

Matthew divides the ancestors of Jesus into three groups of fourteen. There is obviously some reason for this. To come up with a grouping of fourteen between David and Jeconiah, Matthew omits three kings and he does it a second time between Joram and Uzziah. It would seem that he is making a word-play. In Hebrew, there are no numbers. The language uses Hebrew consonants as numbers. The words would work like this: C + D = 5 or in Hebrew, that would be J. C is 2. D is 3. Added together you get J – the fifth consonant. So, in that Hebrew system, the name David has the numerical value of 14! What Matthew is doing here is announcing that Jesus is not just a son of David like Joseph, but is the long-awaited Messiah, David’s ultimate successor.

Jesus then is an authentic Jew. This is important for Gentile Christians to understand, and Matthew wants to make the point.  One final point that can escape us easily is that in the introduction, the very first line of the Gospel Matthew says: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” He calls it a “book”, and with a subtle way that escapes us in English, there is a reference to the first book of the Bible, “Genesis”.  In Greek, genesis can mean “genealogy”, and it has other meanings, “birth” being one of them. Matthew’s choice of “genesis” as the key noun in the opening lines is worth some thought because he might have been promoting some association with the first book of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is likely that he wants to remind readers that in Jesus Christ, God had made a new beginning. Thus, the first Gospel could be called: “Genesis II, the Sequel.”

The Conception and Naming of Jesus

Joseph, in the genealogy, has already been brought forward into this Gospel, and as this narrative of the Nativity unfolds, he remains very much front and center. In Luke’s Gospel, Mary is the dominant figure. Luke emphasizes the essential passivity of the human response to God’s action: “Let it be done to me….” On the other hand, as we see here, with Joseph as the leading figure, the active component in the human response is important for Matthew. Three times Joseph is instructed by an angel in a dream, and three times he must DO something. This is consistent with Matthew’s understanding of Christian faith. It’s about action. Matthew makes that powerfully clear at the end of the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus says: “Not everyone who says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter the kingdom of Heaven, but he who DOES the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

When the angel calls Joseph “Son of David”, it becomes clear that it is Joseph’s continuity with King David that gives Jesus that royal identity. That is Joseph’s role here: to give legitimacy as a Son of David to Jesus. Matthew gives us a Joseph visited by an angel more than once. For his first readers, Jewish Christians, a Joseph who dreams is a familiar scene. Remember the Joseph with the colorful coat who dreams Egypt through famine? When Joseph takes Mary into his home, it is more theological than respectful kindness. By doing this, he provides Davidic paternity on her child inserting her child into his proper place in salvation history. His key role next is to give the child a name, a name God has already chosen, and it is a name that does not show up in Joseph’s lineage or genealogy. It is a common name that originally meant “God helps”. But by the first century the popular explanation of the name was “God Saves”, and this is confirmed by the Angel who says: “You are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 

The Visitors

In 1857 John Henry Hopkins was the rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. He wrote a carol for a Christmas pageant in New York City, We Three King of Orient Are and with that, the first twelve verses of Matthew’s Chapter Two begin to lose every bit of revelation and meaning. In my opinion, he may have given us a catchy tune and sweet lyrics, but he sure did obscure Matthew’s intention with these verses. With his frequently used: “BEHOLD”, Matthew signals a new divine intervention, and that’s what we get here. The story as it goes in the second chapter has the “Holy Family” entirely passive. Joseph is not even mentioned. Mary is seen but no heard, and the child does nothing. The primary figures are nameless strangers from the east and Herod the King. In the original Greek as Matthew wrote it, he calls them “magoi”. It is a word with several meanings: magician, the Persian priestly caste, or a Zoroastrian. Scholars these days seem to prefer this last meaning, Zoroastrian or astrologers. It’s the best guess since a star has their attention.

They speak of “The King of the Jews”, and it’s worth remembering that this phrase will not be used again by Matthew until the Passion. He wants to plant that idea in our minds early on. Herod calls together the chief priests and the scribes, the very ones who will so violently oppose Jesus, and in stunning irony, they know exactly where the Messiah will come from, and they do not go! Only these Gentiles go to Bethlehem!

Matthew loves contrasts, and we get one of them in these verses as we see Herod “troubled” and the Magi “joyful.” And what’s Herod’s problem? He’s just been told that there is a “new-born king.” In other words, a king who is king by birthright. Herod is not. He is a usurper and a tyrant. He has no right to the throne and the title he got by murder. His trouble is really fear, and the contrast between joy and fear is going to show up again and again. The political and religious authority of these Scribes, Chief Priests, and Herod is now threatened, and they will go after the threat. You have to wonder, “What is the difference between the Gentile visitors and these local people Matthew puts into this story?” How is it that these Gentiles are on the move and the locals, who know as much as the Gentiles, do nothing? It’s the star. One group follows the light, the others stay in the darkness. For the first readers of Matthew’s Gospel, the image of the Israelites following the pillar of fire by night, light, the message speaks. Gentiles now get to see the light, and it leads them to something new.

So, these magoi show up with three gifts that Matthew mentions. The gifts have led us to think that there were just three of them which makes no sense because long distance travel would have required a lot of helpers. I blame John Hopkins for igniting imaginations, but there is nothing in all of the Scriptures that gives them names or indicates their country of origins. Such details and embellishments may help us enter into the Christmas Spirit, but they lead us far from the text, and the text is what matters. There have been all kinds of nice and pious meanings attached to the gifts, but the simple truth is: gold, frankincense and myrrh were nothing more than gifts fit for a king, and that is what Matthew is affirming. There is a King here, a king in the line of David. 

What’s with the star? All attempts to come up with some natural phenomenon are nothing but distractions from Matthew’s intent. He wants to report a supernatural phenomenon because something supernatural is going on. And then there is Herod. I’ll talk about him in a few minutes. Matthew is revealing a conflict that will continue in this Gospel. It’s like a preview. Gentile strangers (the Magi) accept Jesus. In contrast, there is the violent rejection of him by the Jewish ruler. It’s a hint about things to come.

From Bethlehem to Nazareth via Egypt

In the second and final half of this Chapter, Joseph is back, and in the mind of Matthew and his first readers there are always two Josephs. We need to have that in mind as well. If you are not really familiar with the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, you need to be if you want to listen to the first two Chapters of Matthew. Not only does Joseph act as a link to the Hebrew Scriptures, so does the story about leaving hastily in the night. This is a Passover story that reveals how God saves. In Matthew, God is saving the “New Israel”, Jesus.  This time, it is in reverse almost as though he was playing it back in order to play again with a different ending. Instead of going out of Egypt, Matthew has the New Israel (Jesus) going into Egypt. The killing of children by a tyrant takes place in Judea this time rather than in Egypt. Had he stayed in Judea, he would be dead. There is in this story the first hint of how important Moses is in Matthew’s Gospel, and how closely Matthew will identify Jesus with Moses. It almost begins to feel as though Moses was the ideal hero of Jesus. Remember how Moses ended up floating in a basket placed there by his mother when the very real threat of a massacre was happening?  That’s how Moses got to Egypt. He was spared the massacre of infants just as Jesus was spared the Massacre of infants. Joseph is informed that he can return with Jesus to his people because “those who sought the child’s life are dead,” just as Moses is instructed in Exodus 4, 10, “Go back to Egypt; for all the men who were seeking your life are dead.” Matthew uses the plural pronoun “those”. He does not say, Herod. Here is a perfect example suggesting strongly that the Exodus event is being repeated once again.

The whole purpose of writing this for Matthew is the identity of Jesus – now Jesus is identified as Israel, a “new” Israel. This whole sense of something new is developed by Matthew as he reverses the biblical themes. In this way he reveals his own faith conviction. Jesus is the son of David. Jesus is King. Jesus is Messiah. Jesus is the fulfillment of all the prophets and writings. One last piece of this identity is yet to be manifest, and it comes at the end of this chapter. Jesus needs to be designated as “Son of God” and this must happen outside of Judea so as to remove any hint that his authority might be based on power. His authority comes from being called out of Egypt, and the verb is the clue that leads us to understand what Matthew is revealing. Jesus is “called”. He has a vocation. His vocation is to be Emmanuel. That is to say, his vocation is to be the holy presence of God among us. This is why those Gentile visitors bow down before him. They are not bowing to an earthly king. They are in adoration of the divine presence.

Here is where Matthew presents his view of authority and how it applies to Jesus. Divine authority is not like human authority. It is not imposed from above by force, threat, or fear. That’s the kind of authority Matthew shows us in Herod. When God acts, it shows itself as an opportunity, something that happens in the normal course of human events. When God acts, there is then a call, a vocation by which humans accept or submit in order to carry out or complete God’s intervention. Matthew says to us, “Something new has happened. There is a new kind of authority that has taken flesh in this holy one. Joy is the result of finding this holy one. That is the response of those visitors, Joy.  Jesus is not to be found in places of power like Jerusalem or in the courts of the powerful like Herod. Confirming this, Jesus is called a Nazarene. Placing him outside of Judea because, the plan of God to save a New Israel has a new, wider, and more inclusive sense.

So, there is a final shift of geography from Bethlehem of Judea, because of its place in the prophecies, to Nazareth where everyone knew Jesus grew up and was at home. I have always found it strange that Matthew would think Jesus is safer in Galilee than in Judea because Galilee is ruled by Herod Antipas who murdered John the Baptist. This is quite different from Luke who has Mary and Joseph coming from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus is born. Luke needs no reason for a return to Nazareth. That’s their home. For Matthew, Bethlehem was the home town of Jesus, and Nazareth in Galilee is a place of exile. It is there, in Galilean exile that Jesus will exercise his ministry. He will come home to Judea only to die.

One more time I must repeat the mantra of these sessions: This is not History. This is Theology. They are not the same.

So, what’s the Theology we get so far?

Were there three magi in history? It does not make any difference. It is irrelevant.

Matthew speaks of only three gifts, the traditional gifts for someone of royal birth. 

It’s not about Three Kings of Orient. It is about the birth of a King. 

Did the Holy Family really flee to Egypt in the night? It does not make any difference. 

What matters is that, like Moses, Jesus has a vocation and he was spared a massacre in order to fulfill it. 

To live this Gospel and listen to Matthew, we have to keep digging into the identity of Jesus and keep asking, “Who is this?” That’s what he is exploring with these stories. The truth about Jesus Christ. 

So far, in these first two chapters, we have this much Theology:

Jesus is the “Son of David”. Thank you, Joseph.

Jesus is the “King of the Jews”. Thank you, magi.

Jesus is the “Messiah.” Thank you, Herod’s scribes and chief priests.

Jesus is “Emmanuel”. Thank you, prophets.

Jesus is “Son of God”.  Thank you, John the Baptist and God the Father. (words heard at the Baptism of Jesus)

We shall also see

Jesus as A Teacher, “Rabbi”, and his disciples are learners. In Matthew, the teaching of Jesus is more important than miracles.

Jesus as A Story Teller (Parables)

Distinctive features in Matthew’s Gospel

Matthew’s Gospel is concerned with:

What followers of Jesus could hope for.

How followers of Jesus should behave in community

How the commandments of Moses and of Jesus relate (Is Jesus a Law Maker or a Law Breaker)

Matthew elevates the disciples who in Mark are dull and uncomprehending. Peter plays an especially important role in Matthew. (Peter walks on the water, he asks how many times to forgive, and only in Matthew is he the Rock.

Matthew makes villains out of the Pharisees who were really the spiritual leaders at the time. also (in)famously vilifies the leaders of the Jewish people, particularly the Pharisees. Some scholars have taken this harsh polemic as evidence that Matthew’s community had been expelled from the synagogue. Though the specific situation is difficult to know with absolute certainty, we can see clearly that there was serious tension between Matthew’s community of Christ-followers and the Jewish leaders with whom they interacted.

From John to Jesus

Now it is an interesting fact that only two Gospels begin with stories about the birth of Jesus, but all four begin his time of ministry with John the Baptist. That fact tells us that this is more important than angels, shepherds, and magi. Unique in Matthew’s Gospel is a conversation between Jesus and John. In fact, it is at his encounter with John that Jesus speaks for the first time in this Gospel. In this dialogue, Matthew sets matters straight over a dispute that arose between the followers of John and followers of Jesus. John’s followers think that if Jesus came to John for Baptism, Jesus was inferior to John; and if Jesus was Baptized, he must be a sinner. With this dialogue, that matter of priority is settled. It is thought by many scholars that the decision of Jesus to be Baptized was an act that gives him solidarity with sinners just as his death gives him solidarity with the dying, and his dining with sinners gives him solidarity with tax collectors and sinners. There is always this matter of “identity” going on beneath the surface in Matthew’s Gospel. In Luke’s Baptismal scene, John is preaching to “the crowds.” That is not the case with Matthew. Remember, as I said at the beginning, Matthew is addressing a growing crisis. He does not want the leaders of the Church to turn into a “brood of vipers” smug and secure in their privileged powerful position. He even makes his point more strongly by having the Pharisees, who are pious lay-people and the Sadducees who are the priestly nobility come together when in fact, at the time, they were in strong opposition to one another. Matthew believes that the leaders and the people of the Church he is writing to must not act like these Pharisees and Scribes who ultimately reject Jesus because they resist God’s plan for the church. “Do not act like those Pharisees” he says to lay people in his church. “Do not act like those Sadducees” he says to the priestly authorities in his church. “Look what they did!” he says.

The Baptism itself is passed over with one word making it clear that something more important is happening here than just someone coming forward in response to John’s call. It isn’t Baptism. If this scene were recorded for us as a musical or an opera, at the verse where Jesus comes up out of the water, trumpets would blast, lights would flash, and the whole chorus would sing out: “Behold in six-part harmony!” This is the event Matthew wants to be remembered. It is what we call, “a theophany” which is defined as the temporal and spatial manifestation of God in some tangible way. Another Gospel comparison tells us something more. In Mark’s baptismal scene, only Jesus hears the voice which says: “You are my beloved Son.” In Matthew, that fact has already been established. So, everyone hears the voice (not just Jesus) which says: “This is my beloved Son.” With that, we can say: “Thank you, God.” The identity of Jesus is complete. Yet, one more thing must happen to confirm his identity before Jesus begins his ministry. That is the temptation.

Both the location and the time are a direct link on the part of Matthew between the temptation of Jesus (the New Israel) and the temptation of the Hebrew people (the Old Israel) The location is the desert or the “wilderness” while time corresponds to 40 days and nights for the New Israel and 40 years for the old Israel.  We know who remains faithful this time around. We can easily be distracted by the details and the whole mood of this story. But for Matthew, the story is less concerned with the vanquishing of Satan than with the meaning of Jesus’ Divine Sonship. So, we have to get down into what Matthew is doing here. This is a “meditation” on what is implied by that heavenly declaration: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” The fact that the first two temptations begin with Satan saying: “If you are the Son of God” helps us get the point. The English translation of the Greek word, ei is misleading because it does not really mean “if”. A more accurate word in the translation could be “since” because Satan is not trying to prove something. The other option in translation would then be: “Since you are the Son of God.” Satan is trying to convince Jesus that being God’s Son is a matter of powerfully working wonders rather than understanding and doing God’s will as found in the Scripture and fulfilling that will in trust and obedience.

In summary then, Moses and the Hebrew people in the desert are always in the shadows for Matthew’s story. The three temptations in the Gospel match in sequence the same three temptations faced by the Hebrew people: hunger, trust, and idolatry. When we sit with this story for a while, it is easy to begin to wonder what this has to do with the temptations we face today. I leave you with this. The basic, underlying temptation that Jesus shared with us is the temptation to treat God as less than God. We are hardly tempted to turn stones into scones but we are much more likely to turn corn into fuel to drive our luxury cars rather than using that corn to feed the hungry. We are constantly tempted to mistrust and doubt God’s readiness to give us what we need to face our trials. None of us are likely to test God by jumping off a cliff, but we frequently question God’s helpfulness when things go wrong forgetting the promise, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (II Corinthians 12, 9) Pagan idolatry is no more a temptation for us than it was for Jesus, but compromise with the ways of the world is a never-ending seduction, and the gods of money, the gods of power are always lurking in the shadows. In all of these things, we would do well to be continually grateful that we have a great high priest who, tempted as we are, was able to resist all such temptation by laying hold of Scripture and firmly acknowledging that only God is God, and that God isn’t us. 

With all that, we will move through the Advent Christmas season with Matthew as our guide. Once that season is complete, with Jesus, we will step out of the shadows, and with the second talk in this series, begin to reflect upon those “five pillars” that Matthew, the architect of the church uses to lead us into the Kingdom: The Sermon on the Mount, The Sermon on Mission, The Sermon on Parables, The Sermon on Church Order, and The Sermon on things to come. The third and final part of this series will come near the end of Lent when Matthew’s Passion leads us deep into the Paschal Mystery.

Father Tom Boyer