Sermon by Don Portwood December 23, 2007 with many thanks for the research and words of Bishop John Shelby Spong
Again the Sovereign spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Ask a sign of the Sovereign your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put God to the test.” Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore God will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”
Mat 1:1 The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Mat 1:2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
Mat 1:3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, Mat 1:4 and Ram the father of Ammin'adab, and Ammin'adab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, Mat 1:5 and Salmon the father of Bo'az by Rahab, and Bo'az the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, Mat 1:6 and Jesse the father of David the king. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uri'ah, Mat 1:7 and Solomon the father of Rehobo'am, and Rehobo'am the father of Abi'jah, and Abi'jah the father of Asa, Mat 1:8 and Asa the father of Jehosh'aphat, and Jehosh'aphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzzi'ah, Mat 1:9 and Uzzi'ah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezeki'ah, Mat 1:10 and Hezeki'ah the father of Manas'seh, and Manas'seh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josi'ah, Mat 1:11
and Josi'ah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. Mat 1:12
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoni'ah was the father of She-al'ti-el, and She-al'ti-el the father of Zerub'babel, Mat 1:13 and Zerub'babel the father of Abi'ud, and Abi'ud the father of Eli'akim, and Eli'akim the father of Azor, Mat 1:14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eli'ud, Mat 1:15 and Eli'ud the father of Elea'zar, and Elea'zar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, Mat 1:16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ. Mat 1:17
So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ 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 Sovereign 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 Sovereign 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 Sovereign 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.
It’s the 4th Sunday of advent, the day before Christmas Eve. And the lectionary readings are two scriptures, one from the prophet Isaiah written 800 years before the birth of Jesus…and one from Matthew, written 90 years after the birth of Jesus.
If we were one of those big churches, this morning we might have a living nativity scene set up outside and we could go back in time to Bethlehem and see people dressed up like Mary and Joseph and worship and adore the baby Jesus, pet the donkeys and greet the shepherds and wise men.
But no, instead we have a lectionary reading from Isaiah and Matthew that I have to deal with. We don’t take the Bible literally at Lyndale Church, so I always research the scriptures and prayerfully try to discern what the truth is for us from the scriptures.
If we were fundamentalist Christians, this scripture from Matthew would be used to prove that Jesus was the divine son of God…look it’s right there, born of a virgin. God is the father, Mary is the mother through the Holy Spirit…a fulfillment of the scripture from Isaiah. The virgin birth is one of the pillars of fundamentalism. Couldn’t be any plainer, if you think Matthew was writing history and not poetry. But Matthew may have been writing something more than even poetry.
Tomorrow night’s Christmas Eve meditation is entitled, “Don’t try to figure it all out”. But today, thanks to the work of Bishop John Shelby Spong, former Bishop in the Episcopal Church, whose research and words I’m using fully and gratefully today, we are going to spend some time trying to figure out why Matthew may have told this story.
To begin: How many of the 4 gospels talk about Jesus birth? Which ones? Which is first? The two stories that tell us of Jesus' birth are dramatic and interpretive stories that were clearly never intended by Matthew and Luke to be read as history. The story of a virgin birth for Jesus entered Christianity through Matthew around the 9th decade. So around 90 years after Jesus’ birth.
Since Matthew is the source of the story of Jesus' miraculous birth, it’s important to notice how he introduces this idea. Yet almost no one ever bothers to read the first 17 verses of Matthew's opening chapter, which is his introduction to the virgin narrative. We’re much more familiar with the words: "When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly."
Note the hint of scandal there. Joseph, unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.
But Matthew addresses this scandal by having an angel appear to Joseph in a dream to tell him that the child did not result from unfaithfulness, but was the work of the Holy Spirit. The story goes on to confirm this conviction with miraculous signs. (A star in the East, wise one’s come to worship the newborn child). But the sign is Matthew’s claim that this birth was foretold by the prophet Isaiah. Which scholars know to be both inaccurate and based on a mis-translation.
Matthew based his story on our Hebrew text for this morning from Isaiah. But he quoted the Septuagint. The Septuagint is the name given to the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures. The Septuagint has its origin in Alexandria, Egypt and was translated between 300-200 BC. It was widely used among Hellenistic Jews, because many Jews spread throughout the empire were beginning to lose their Hebrew language. The Septuagint was also a source of the Hebrew scriptures for early Christians during the first few centuries AD.
So Matthew is quoting the Greek translation of Isaiah that said, "Behold a Virgin will conceive and bring forth a child." If Matthew had read the Hebrew original instead of a Greek translation, he would have discovered that the word "virgin" was not present anywhere in that text. In Hebrew, the prophet Isaiah wrote, "Look, the young woman is with child."
This text was written as part of a sign that the prophet Isaiah was giving to the King of Judah, King Ahaz, in the 8th century BC to convince him that the armies of Syria and the Northern Kingdom, that were at that moment besieging Jerusalem, would not conquer Jerusalem. Isaiah's words were designed to give assurance to King Ahaz about the continuation of his kingdom. It did not refer to an event that would occur 800 years later. So that’s the inaccuracy in the text that Dan read this morning. But, those first 17 verses of chapter one, what about them? Perhaps one reason Matthew's opening verses are seldom noticed or read is that they are the "who begat whom" verses, which are among the most boring parts of the Bible. Matthew traces Jesus' genealogy through 42 generations from Abraham to the moment of his birth. If I started to read them, your eyes would immediately glaze over.
Yet, Bishop Spong says, it is here, that Matthew gives us the clues we need to understand his purpose in creating the story of Jesus' miraculous birth. To understand these clues, however, requires a knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures. So let’s take a look. Would you open your Bibles to the first chapter of Matthew? Look at the insert.
Matthew seeks to show in this genealogy that Jesus was first, the descendant of Abraham, the father of the Jewish Nation; and second that Jesus was the descendant of David and thus heir apparent to the Jewish throne; and third that he was the son of God through the virginal conception.
Yet after taking us on this long genealogical journey through this long line of kingly figures Matthew finally reaches Joseph… whom he calls "the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus," only to indicate by Jesus’ virgin birth story that Joseph had nothing to do with Jesus bloodlines at all!
Beyond that, however, this list of Jesus’ family line is unusual for a second reason.
Can you pick it out? I’ve given you a bold clue. Four women are included by name and are designated as part of Jesus' ancestry. Women were valued so little in this patriarchal world that it was rare indeed for them to have merited a mention at all.
The next thing that makes these women so unusual is that every one of them was somehow “sexually tainted”.
The four women’s names were, in order of their appearance in the biblical story: Tamar (tay’ mer), Rahab, Ruth, and finally a woman that Matthew called simply "the wife of Uriah the Hittite," but we know her from the biblical story as Bathsheba, who was later the wife of David and the mother of King Solomon, who was David's successor. You can read the stories of each of these women for yourself. Tamar played the role of a prostitute, to seduce her father-in-law into what would have been called an incestuous relationship in that day [Gen.38]. Rahab is known as "the harlot" who helped the spies of Joshua, when they entered Jericho by stealth, to search out the land of Canaan prior to its conquest by the Jews [Joshua 2].
Ruth, a Moabite, was the widowed daughter-in-law of Naomi, who used a distant kinship and the heavy drinking of Boaz to place him into a situation where marriage was his only viable alternative [Ruth 2-4].
Bathsheba was the woman whom David spotted bathing on the rooftop, and after sending for her, impregnated her in an adulterous relationship [2 Sam. 11, 12]. Then to cover his crime, David ordered his military captain to place Bathsheba's husband Uriah at the most dangerous spot in the battle so that he would be struck dead, freeing David to claim his widow for the royal harem.
What was Matthew suggesting about the ancestry of Jesus as he traced it back to Abraham?
What was he seeking to accomplish when he said that Jesus' bloodlines had journeyed through incest, prostitution, seduction and adultery? What was he trying to tell his original readers when he stated that among the mothers who produced the physical line that led to Jesus were Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba?
Remember, this is the narrative which Matthew used to introduce the story of Jesus' conception without the benefit of a human father. It is small wonder that these opening verses in Matthew's Gospel have been generally ignored by the traditional voices of Christian history. They clearly did not like the association.
Since Matthew is the one who introduced the virgin birth story to the Christian tradition, one has to wonder what it was that compelled him to do so. What was his motive? Traditional Christians like to say that Matthew told this virgin birth story because this is the way Jesus was born. That answer, however, fails to account for the fact that neither Paul, who wrote between 50 and 64, nor Mark, who wrote in the early 70s give any evidence of ever having heard stories of Jesus' miraculous birth.
Paul says only two things about Jesus' origins. First, that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law [Gal.4:4]," and second that he was "descended from David, according to the flesh [Rom.1:3]." There is no hint of a supernatural birth in either reference.
Mark has no birth story and explains Jesus' uniqueness by writing that at his baptism God poured the Holy Spirit on him [Mark 1: 1-11]. Later Mark records a reference to Jesus' mother, which is hardly flattering. In this episode Jesus' mother seems to believe him to be out of his mind and so she goes to get him [Mark 3:21-35]. That is hardly the behavior of one who knew herself to be the virgin mother of a divine child, whose nature had been communicated to her prior to his birth by a heavenly messenger. Clearly Mark was not aware of the existence of a miraculous birth story. It simply had not yet become part of the Christian tradition in the early 70’s. So we return to our original questions: What caused the story of a miraculous birth by way of a virgin to grow up around Jesus of Nazareth? What was the need that Matthew felt to which the story of the virgin birth seemed to speak?
Spong gives two possibilities; one that is clear and simple, the other more shadowy and complex. The simple answer was that virgin births were a primary, indeed almost a commonplace, way by which ancient people acknowledged the greatness of a particular human life. People in that era understood little about the reproductive process. They had no concept of genetic codes, egg cells, or zygotes. When a larger than life figure crossed their horizon, they explained that greatness with stories about divine origins and heavenly parents. Among figures of the ancient world who were said to have been the products of a virgin birth were Plato, Alexander the Great, Romulus and Remus, Indra, in Tibet, Mithra in Persia, and the Buddha. It was their way of saying, "we have met something in this life that is beyond the boundaries of the human capacity."
The shadowy and complex possibility lies in the supposed need of the early church to cover up what may have been a scandal surrounding Jesus birth. That shouldn’t come as a surprise since clearly there was a scandal associated with his death.
Earlier Christians had to confront the charge that the messiah had to be a mighty victorious warrior, he could not be a crucified man who had been hung on a tree. No one could claim that Jesus was the "one who was to come" until they dealt with his death on a tree, which they did by identifying the death of Jesus with the death of the Paschal Lamb of the Passover and with the slaughtered Lamb of God in the liturgy of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The "scandal of his death" was turned into the heart of the gospel and the passion narrative was created to interpret that death as fulfilling the will of God. Could there have also been a scandal associated with his birth that needed to be explained or covered? Hints of this possibility appear hidden inside the gospel tradition if one knows how to look for them.
In Mark, for example, Jesus' critics refer to Him as "the carpenter, the son of Mary [Mk.6:3]." To call a grown man the son of a woman was, in Jewish society, to raise questions of his paternity. Matthew clearly understood the insulting quality of these remarks since he edited them when he copied this story from Mark into his Gospel [see Mt. 13:55]. Matthew has this critic refer to Jesus as "the carpenter's son, whose mother is called Mary." Matthew also portrays Joseph as responding to the reality of a scandal, by planning to put Mary "away quietly." Finally in John, the crowd is reported to have shouted at Jesus, "we were not born of fornication [John. 8:41]." Is there not an implicit charge being made in this text that Jesus was?
Scholars can clearly document today that the earliest critics of the Jesus movement sought to discredit him with the claim that he had been an illegitimate child. And since the gospels of Matthew and Luke would have been circulating for 5 – 15 years by the time the Gospel of John was written, it’s a surprise then to see in Johns gospel twice, in 1:45 and 6:42 Jesus referred to as “the son of Joseph”.
Spong asks why it has not occurred to us to ask whether Matthew might be using this introduction to his narrative about Jesus' birth to a virgin - to counter the rumors, abroad at that time, that the birth of Jesus was itself tainted by scandal. Think about the fact that the story of Jesus' "virgin birth" is introduced by Matthew who traces Jesus' genealogy and proclaims that the line that produced this Holy Child ran through the incest between Judah and his daughter-in-law Tamar, the prostitution of Rahab the Harlot, the seduction of Boaz by Ruth and the adultery of David with Bathsheba. Then he tells us that Mary, the mother of Jesus, is pregnant prior to her marriage to Joseph and that Joseph is prepared to put her away.
Matthew has taken great pains in these opening verses of his gospel to argue that the divine plans of God are not thwarted by incest, prostitution, seduction or adultery. God can act through all human distortions and when God acts the human circumstances do not matter. When we note these Jewish references in the stories of Jesus' birth, it becomes clear that Matthew (and Luke) were not writing history.
No, Jesus was not born of a virgin. But Like Matthew and all the gospel writers, when we understand who he is, we know and can understand the poetry and the motive in Matthew’s story. When we understand who he came from, it can widen our vision of who God chooses to work through, yes even tainted women, yes even people like you and me. God doesn’t choose people to work through because they are good and righteous and holy, God chooses them because God can work through anyone and everyone.
And we can understand anew, that the whole creation, the stars and the angels of heaven were said to have rejoiced that such a life could emerge from our humanity. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the One through whom countless millions have experienced new beginnings, new life, liberation and salvation, can we also join with Matthew in honoring Jesus….in whom God has done a new thing, visiting God's people, with healing, mercy, grace, forgiveness and new life, God with Us. Emmanuel.