"Spiritual formation cannot be forced, only prepared for. Hence its means cannot be those of conquest, but only of facilitation and preparation." [Adrian van Kaam, Studies in Formative Spirituality, I, 2 (1980), 303]

Gospel Notes for Christmas Day (25 December 2020)

Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
JJoseph and Angel

Jean-Marie Pirot (aka Arcabas) The angel of the Lord speaks to Joseph

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus (Matthew 1:1-25 – NRSV).

Introductory notes

General

This passage is unique to Matthew. “Matthew has his own way of beginning a Gospel: none of the other Evangelists begins like this. His opening word is the normal word for ‘book’” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 18).

Whereas, Luke focuses on Mary in his infancy narrative, Matthew focuses on Joseph. However, the following details are shared by both:

  1. Jesus’ birth is related to the reign of Herod (Luke 1:5; Matt 2:1)
  2. Mary, his mother to be, is a virgin engaged to Joseph, but they have not yet come to live together (Luke 1:27, 34; 2:5; Matt 1:18)
  3. Joseph is of the house of David (Luke 1:27; 2:4; Matt 1:16, 20).
  4. An angel from heaven announces the coming birth of Jesus (Luke 1:28–30; Matt 1:20–21)
  5. Jesus is recognized to be a son of David (Luke 1:32; Matt 1:1)
  6. His conception is to take place through the holy Spirit (Luke 1:35; Matt 1:18, 20)
  7. Joseph is not involved in the conception (Luke 1:34; Matt 1:18–25)
  8. The name “Jesus” is imposed by heaven prior to his birth (Luke 1:31; Matt 1:21)
  9. The angel identifies Jesus as “Savior” (Luke 2:11; Matt 1:21)
  10. Jesus is born after Mary and Joseph come to live together (Luke 2:4–7; Matt 1:24–25)
  11. Jesus is born at Bethlehem (Luke 2:4–7; Matt 2:1)
  12. Jesus settles, with Mary and Joseph, in Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2:39, 51; Matt 2:22–23 (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 307.)

Specific

Jesus the Messiah: “Matthew is saying, then, that his book is the story of Jesus Christ. He does not use the full name Jesus Christ very often; indeed, this is the only place where it certainly occurs in this Gospel (it is read by many MSS in v. 18 and 16:21, but in each case omitted by others). Matthew probably saw it as appropriate in the heading of his book. His normal custom is to use the personal name Jesus, which he does 150 times (Mark has this name 81 times, Luke 89, and John 237). We should perhaps notice that he uses the term only in narrative; no one in this Gospel addresses Jesus by his name. Matthew uses Christ only 17 times (Mark 7, Luke 12, and John 19). The word is, of course, a title; it means ‘anointed’ and is the Greek way of referring to ‘Messiah’. The title was used so often by Christians that in time it came to be a proper name, but Matthew’s sparing use of it probably reflects the fact that this was not the case in Jesus’ lifetime. It surely has messianic significance in the way this Evangelist uses it. Normally he has the definite article with the name Jesus, but its omission here in the heading to the book should not unduly surprise us (he omits the article with this name in all 19 times)” (Leon Morris, op cit, 19-20).

The genealogy: The Jews – like many peoples – placed great store by kinship ties. See for example, Ruth 4. Matthew seems to be drawing particularly on 1 Chronicles 1-3. It is not clear why Matthew arranges his genealogy in three groups of fourteen. The inclusion of the four women is worthy of special note: “It is unusual, though not unexampled (see 1 Chron. 2:4; 3:5), to find names of women in a genealogy, but here we have four. In Jewish writings it is not uncommon to find four women singled out for special mention: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. But Matthew’s four—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba—are probably all Gentiles; and since Ruth was a Moabitess, we should not overlook the fact that to the tenth generation a Moabite was not to be admitted to the congregation (Deut. 23:3). Three of the four are of morally dubious reputation. Matthew is surely saying that the gospel is for all people, not Jews only, and that the gospel is for sinners. It is a sinful world, and Matthew is writing about grace” (Leon Morris, op cit, 23).

Her husband Joseph: Although Matthew calls Joseph Mary’s “husband” he is clear that Joseph is not the father of Jesus – “for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”. This is not just another baby. Jesus is the Son of God!

engaged (betrothed): “A firm commitment, normally undertaken a year before marriage. During that year the girl remained with her own family, but the tie established was a strong one and was really the first part of marriage. A betrothed woman could be punished as an adulteress (Deut. 22:23–24; the punishment of ‘a virgin who is not betrothed’ was different, vv. 28–29). The second part took place when the man took the woman to his home (cf. v. 20; cf. also 25:1–13). That Mary became pregnant before they came together was thus very serious, as Joseph’s attitude makes clear. Some translations read ‘she found out’ (GNB, REB), but the passive more likely refers to Joseph’s becoming aware of the situation. The whole story is written from his point of view. But before speaking of Joseph’s attitude Matthew explains that the pregnancy was due to an activity of the Holy Spirit. He speaks with reverent reserve and says no more. The Spirit is called ‘Holy’, an adjective not applied to him in Philo or Josephus (so BAGD, 5c). The idea that the Spirit is holy is distinctively Christian” (Leon Morris, op cit, 26-27).

Reflection

As we celebrate the Christmas Vigil, our Gospel is Matthew 1:1-25. A challenging read! Most translations these days omit the “begats” and “begots”, preferring expressions such as “the father of”. And yes, the lineage is traced through the males. But there is a noteworthy thing about Matthew’s listing of the ancestors of Jesus. Matthew includes four women – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba: “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, …. and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah”. Of course he is referring to Bathsheba.

More than the simple listing of four women, is what these women represent. They are almost certainly all Gentiles. Ruth is from Moab. The Torah says that to the tenth generation a Moabite must not be admitted to the congregation – see Deuteronomy 23:3. The other three women are not only Gentiles, they are of doubtful moral character. Tamar is the first to be mentioned and her children – conceived with her father-in-law, Judah – are conceived out of wedlock – see Genesis 38:29. Rahab – the prostitute mentioned who protects the Israelite spies in Joshua 2 – is nowhere else mentioned in the Bible or other Jewish writings. So why would Matthew include her? We cannot even be sure that she was the mother of Boaz. Then we have perhaps the best known of the four women, “the wife of Uriah”. Bathsheba is right at the centre of one of the truly horrible stories of the Bible.

What is Matthew intending here? That question does not assume there is a definitive answer. Like the parables of Jesus, ordinary logic and factual detail are not to be given precedence in our interpretations. The question is rather an invitation to ponder, to use our imaginations. And listen! Listen with the ear of the heart.

One thing is certain: None of those people mentioned in the genealogy merited their place there. Maybe the inclusion of the four women is to remind us – to highlight for us – that the work of salvation is first and last a work o grace? It is God’s work not ours. And maybe such factors as moral character or ethnicity or religious affiliation or intelligence or whatever human characteristic we might think of, is utterly secondary to God’s intentions. And maybe Matthew is reminding us that we are all represented by this list of deeply flawed human beings and that we should not judge them but we should praise God for coming amongst us through them and rejoice in his birth in our own broken lives.