< December 25, 2011 >

Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

 

The Genesis of Jesus

At the beginning of his genealogy (1:1) and at the beginning of his birth narrative (1:18), Matthew introduces what follows as the "genesis of Jesus the Messiah."

In the genealogy, the genesis speaks of Jesus' ancestral origins, establishing his royal lineage as a descendent of King David through his father Joseph. In the birth narrative, the genesis has to do with Jesus' divine origins, with the astounding truth that the child in Mary's womb is "from the Holy Spirit" (1:20). As the Spirit hovered over the waters at the beginning of creation (Genesis 1:1-2), so now the Spirit is initiating a new creation with this child.

Of course, God's way of launching this new creation brings complications for the human characters involved. Joseph is engaged to Mary, but they have not yet "come together." When Mary is found to be with child, a dilemma arises for Joseph. He does not yet know that the child is "from the Holy Spirit" and believes that she has been unfaithful, bringing dishonor to both their families. A betrothal was as legally binding as marriage and could only be ended by divorce. According to the law, Joseph had grounds not only to dismiss Mary, but even to have her stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22:13-30).

Righteousness (dikaiosune) is an important theme in Matthew. While righteousness includes law observance, it is not slavish adherence to the letter of the law. This becomes clear when Matthew tells us that Joseph, being a righteous (dikaios) man, was unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace and "planned to dismiss her quietly" (1:19). Joseph, being righteous, has mercy and compassion toward Mary, and resolves to end their betrothal without submitting her to public humiliation.

Yet God has other plans. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife, "for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit" (1:20). The angel further says that Mary will bear a son, and that Joseph is to name him Jesus (the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means "he saves"), for "he will save his people from their sins" (1:21).

Matthew tells us that all this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet, and quotes Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel" (1:22-23). The Greek word parthenos (virgin) translates the Hebrew word 'almah (young woman). In the Greek translation of Isaiah, Matthew sees an apt description of what is happening with Mary, a virgin who has conceived and will bear a son. The name Emmanuel, meaning "God is with us," also highlights a central claim of Matthew's Gospel -- that Jesus bears God's saving presence among us.

When Joseph wakes up, he does exactly as instructed in his dream. He takes Mary as his wife, and when she bears a son, he names him Jesus, adopting him as his own and grafting him into his royal family tree (1:24-25).

Redefining Righteousness

Joseph, being righteous, risks disobedience to the letter of the law in order to respond to God's call. He risks shame and scandal by taking Mary as his wife and adopting her son as his own. He travels an uncertain path that challenges conventional notions of righteousness, just as his adopted son Jesus will do.

The righteousness taught and lived by Jesus in Matthew is not slavish adherence to the letter of the law, but faithfulness shaped by mercy. Over and over again, Jesus comes into conflict with religious leaders for breaking with their interpretation of the law. He is criticized for healing on the Sabbath, for not fasting enough, and for eating with tax collectors and sinners. His response? "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners" (9:12-13).

Jesus says that righteousness exceeding that of the scribes and Pharisees is necessary for the kingdom of heaven (5:20). The righteousness he teaches goes beyond what the letter of the law demands and sometimes even overturns it. Instead of demanding an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, for instance, Jesus exhorts his followers to turn the other cheek and to love their enemies (5:38-48). Jesus not only teaches these words but lives them -- suffering hatred, rejection, and violence, and responding only with love.

Jesus embodies God's over-and-above-and-beyond righteousness, righteousness that shatters the letter of the law and will stop at nothing to save us from sin and death. He enacts God's gracious will to heal and restore a broken creation, to bring about a new creation shaped by justice, mercy, and love.

God With Us

A preacher might help hearers imagine how, through Jesus the Messiah, God is at work to renew and restore lives today, even in unexpected ways. A personal or communal crisis, for instance, may bring us to new clarity about faithfulness to God's call, as it did for Joseph. We may be led to rethink long-held rules and traditions that obstruct mercy and no longer serve God's purposes. We may be called outside our comfort zones and led down uncertain paths for the sake of God's mission.

Are we ready for the risks involved? We may be subject to criticism and even hostility when God's mercy moves us -- when, for instance, we risk reaching out to those on the margins. But then we are in good company, for Jesus was called "a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners" (11:19). This Jesus, friend of sinners, is Emmanuel, "God with us" to heal and to save. What better company could there possibly be?