Isaiah 60:1-6/Matthew 2:1-12
One of my mantras is: “I take the bible seriously, but I don’t take it literally.” Which creates a bit of a dilemma because a prevailing sentiment in American Christianity is that if you don’t believe that everything written in the bible actually happened as it says it did then, of course, you don’t take the bible seriously. We Christians who raise the question, “did that really happen?” might be inclined to be double-minded in our faith. As we conclude our celebration of Christmas, we want to affirm the sentiments of this wonderful holiday but feel a bit guilty with our doubts about it all. Did that star really lead those wise men to a manger in Bethlehem? Did that really happen?
Let me say it more forthrightly: As a progressive Christian I believe that I can take the bible very seriously without believing that it literally had to happen the way it’s written. These Christmas stories are not supposed to be read as literally, factually true. Indeed, the authors did not intend for them to be read as literally true. Instead they were intended to be read metaphorically, as extended parables, so to discover a truth that is deeper and more profound than just a literally reading provides. In this way I believe that we can embrace these stories and the truth they tell wholeheartedly and without second-guessing ourselves.
Last week I introduced this idea as we encountered the Song of Simeon and the other songs of Luke’s account. Today I’d like to look at Matthew’s treatment as we encounter this story of the magi seeking the one “Born of the Jews.”
In some ways we already get the metaphorical nature of Matthew’s account in that this Epiphany Sunday is all about light shining in the darkness. That is a big metaphorical theme for the gospel and Matthew introduces it with the star leading the magi.
But we see another agenda for Matthew in the very title the magi use in the question they ask of King Herod: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?” Where did this title come from? Not from anything previous. Not from the Old Testament (OT). Not from some messianic aspirations. Oh, there’s verbiage about following in King David’s steps, maybe the King of Israel, but “King of the Jews” – nothing. Where did it come from? Well, from the end of the story. It is the question Pilate asks Jesus: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Now, all the gospels reference Pilate’s question in their accounts but this is the only place this title is used other than that.
So, what is Matthew’s agenda hidden here in the magi’s question? It’s the Roman Empire. It was Rome that set up Pilate; it was Rome that set up King Herod. Indeed, Rome designated and supported Herod the Great as “King of the Jews.” That title belongs to King Herod by way of Rome. So, from the very beginning Matthew sets up Jesus to be in opposition to the Roman Empire. Imperial Rome is always lurking in the background throughout the entire gospel culminating, of course, in Jesus’ execution by Rome. From the very beginning, Matthew wants his readers to know that its either Caesar or Jesus. You can’t have both.
Moving on, one characteristic of Matthew is his use of OT scripture. It’s sometimes called the prediction-fulfillment formula. You know, “this happened to fulfill the prophecy of blah, blah, blah.” And so it’s thought that Matthew’s purpose is to prove that Jesus is the Son of God with these prophecies from the OT. Or, to put it another way, it should have been obvious to the people of Israel that Jesus is the Messiah because these scriptures clearly say so. So, a common theme of many conservative Christians is that the OT clearly predicts Jesus and the Jewish people should have known. But that was not Matthew’s intent. Let’s look at some examples.
1. Matthew 2:5-6: They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
• The only one of Matthew’s predictions which in its OT context refers to an indefinite future: Two OT texts combined together.
• Micah 5:2: But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel, whose origin is from of old, from ancient days.
• 2 Samuel 5:2: For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The Lord said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”
• Not a prediction of Jesus’ birthplace. Rather it is ancient Israel’s yearning for a king like David, the shepherd king. It is about hope and promise.
• Jesus was probably born in Nazareth, not Bethlehem. Birth in Bethlehem is symbolic for the “son of David” the ideal king.
2. Matthew 2:23: There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
• The holy family has just moved to Nazareth from Egypt having originally lived in Bethlehem (Matthew does not have them coming from Nazareth).
• No such passage in the OT. Scholars don’t know where Matthew got this.
So, you might ask: Where did Matthew get the idea for a visit to the Christ child by magi from the east? Not really sure but most likely from today’s OT scripture, Isaiah 60. There we have this language: “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” And those who come will bring gold and frankincense. Most scholars believe that Matthew added myrrh to the list of gifts to foreshadow Jesus’ death. But two things from this Isaian passage that relate to Matthew’s magi. One, is Isaiah’s declaration of light coming to the nations and, two, it will be for the Gentile nations as well as Israel. For Matthew that is fulfilled in the person of Jesus.
The traditional way of looking at Matthew’s birth narrative is that he used the OT to prove that Jesus was the messiah, the Son of God. Some would say that the OT texts Matthew used were actual predictions of Jesus’ birth. That he did prove Jesus was the Messiah. Others, say skeptics, would say that Matthew failed in this attempt and that the whole thing was an illegitimate manipulation. And, we’ll just throw out the rest of the bible as untrue while we’re at it.
But there is another way. This approach would agree that Matthew’s use of the OT was not to predict Jesus and prove his divinity, that he did look for texts to bolster his story. But this way would also say that Matthew never thought they were. Rather, in telling a story about a star and magi and Herod and gifts Matthew tells a story of God’s promise and Israel’s yearning, a way of connecting the person of Jesus with the ancient scriptures of Jewish tradition. Indeed, it is about proclaiming that Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us. That is a story I can embrace with my whole heart.