Fourth Sunday of Advent

Coming so close to Christmas Eve, the reading for this Sunday prompts thoughts of the festive worship services that are to come.

The Ark of the Covenant
"The Ark of the Covenant," Gwyneth Leech. Image by Lawrence Lew, O.P., via Flickr; licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

December 22, 2013

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Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25

Coming so close to Christmas Eve, the reading for this Sunday prompts thoughts of the festive worship services that are to come.

There are good reasons, however, to practice restraint and continue the mood and message of the Advent Season. The text serves to announce the forthcoming Nativity, but it holds us in suspense and even portends a possible disruption of what is to come as Joseph deliberates his relationship with Mary.

Mary is said to be “engaged to Joseph” (1:18, NRSV), but the English word “engaged” hardly captures the meaning of the Greek word that it represents (mnesteuo). The variety of translations in some of the most widely known English versions show how translators have struggled to render the word appropriately. The RSV says that Mary “had been betrothed to Joseph.” The KJV says that she “was espoused to Joseph,” and the NIV says that she “was pledged to be married to Joseph.”

The problem with the word “engaged” (NRSV) is that an engagement can be broken off informally; there is no need for a legal action. But the situation of Mary and Joseph was more complicated than that. According to the custom of the day, there were two stages for a couple to go through in what can be called a marital process.

First came the betrothal (Hebrew kiddushin), a marriage contract, typically arranged by the parents, that could be broken only by divorce (cf. 1: 19, where apoluo is used, rendered as “divorce” in the RSV and NIV; the NRSV has “dismiss”).

That was followed by a second step (Hebrew nissu’in) considerably later (sometimes a year later), often including a marriage feast, after which the groom took his wife to his home. The verb paralambano (“to take”) in 1:20 and 1:24 can actually mean “to take home” one’s wife, thus referring to what happened after the second step. The drama of our text, however, takes place between the two events in the lives of this young couple. The first step had taken place; the second is in jeopardy.

Joseph’s reaction, when he hears that Mary is pregnant, is to suspect her of adultery, one of the grounds for divorce in Jewish law.In light of that, Joseph “planned to dismiss [RSV: “divorce”] her quietly” (NRSV). It may seem surprising to many in our day that Joseph is called “righteous” as he contemplates divorcing Mary in her time of need (1:19), but the accent must surely be upon the clause saying that he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace,” wanting to keep the whole matter quiet. Moreover, law and the culture of the day would virtually say that Joseph had no alternative but to divorce Mary.

That might not satisfy some hearers of this text today, but at least it softens the seemingly harsh treatment of Mary by the man who is said to be “righteous.” Fortunately, May knows nothing about his deliberations. In any case, it all becomes a moot point when an angel intervenes, telling Joseph in a dream not to refrain from going through with the second step of the marriage custom.

The angel also tells him how it is that Mary is pregnant and announces Jesus’ forthcoming birth.

Joseph is to name the child “Jesus” (Iesous in Greek). The Greek name is derived from the Hebrew Yehoshuah (Joshua in English), which means “Yahweh is salvation” or “Yahweh saves.”

The child born to Mary is to be given that name as a designation of his function, which is to save his people from their sins (1:21). The way that is envisioned by Matthew is that Jesus not only grants forgiveness of sins in his earthly ministry (9:2) but does so also in his post-resurrection reign where he has all authority (28:18), and from where he exercises that authority through the ministry of the forgiveness of sins by his disciples in the church (16:19; l8:18; 26:28; cf. 9:8).

The first of Matthew’s “formula quotations” is expressed in 1:22-23. In those formulations the evangelist declares that an event has taken place to fulfill what a prophet has spoken, followed by a quotation from the Old Testament (others are at 2:15, 17-18, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 27:9).

The quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in Matthew 1:23 is based on a Greek version of the Old Testament, in which the term parthenos (“virgin” in English) is used. The wording is exactly like that of the Septuagint, except that in 1:23 Matthew has “they shall call,” while the Septuagint has “you shall call.”

The Hebrew word here (‘almah) means simply a “young woman” of marriageable age.

The context of Isaiah 7:14 is an encounter between the prophet Isaiah and King Ahaz of Judah during the Syro-Ephraimite war (735-732 B.C.) when Syria and Israel attacked Judah. Jerusalem and the royal family are under siege. But Isaiah expresses hope with a promise. He declares that the Lord will give Ahaz a sign: “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Before that child reaches the age of discernment, the threat to Jerusalem will be over.

The evangelist Matthew sees the coming of God’s Son into the world as the fulfillment of the promise given through Isaiah. What Isaiah promised in the eighth century B.C., expecting it to be fulfilled in his time, Matthew saw as having its ultimate fulfillment in his day. Or to put it another way, what Isaiah foresaw as a new era to come, Matthew saw as present. The birth of Jesus is the sign of God’s presence, “God with us.”

Incidentally, the spelling Immanuel is the customary way to transliterate the Hebrew word in the Old Testament; the spelling Emmanuel (sometimes spelled Emanuel) is the customary way to transliterate the word from Greek in the New. The difference can be seen in the NRSV at Isaiah 7:14 (Immanuel) and at Matthew 1:23 (Emmanuel).

The reading closes with attention on Joseph (1:24-25). He takes Mary into his home as his wife, and then, after the child is born, he names the child “Jesus” in obedience to the command. Verse 1:25a functions to emphasize the virginal conception by the Spirit.

Preaching so close to Christmas Eve, but trying to keep the restraint and anticipation of Advent, it is possible to develop a sermon that shows (without technicalities) how the relationship of the testaments works in this case.

The First Lesson for this Sunday is Isaiah 7:10-16. It contains the verse (7:14) that Matthew quotes at 1:23. One need not necessarily dwell on the Hebrew and Greek terms and their meanings for the woman who is pregnant, and one need not get into the details of marital customs of antiquity.

Each preacher has to decide the matter and the extent that one wants to go. The main thing would be to stress that Isaiah of the eighth century B.C. foresaw a new day of peace and security for the people of God, and he spoke of the forthcoming birth of a child as a sign of it. The evangelist Matthew, in turn, who was a student of the Scriptures, saw the birth of Jesus to be the culmination of the hopes of the past, the fulfillment of the hopes of Israel, and for the sake of the world as a whole.

One could also focus on the meaning of the Emmanuel theme heard in both Isaiah and Matthew. The coming of Jesus into the world is the sign of God’s being with us. There is no greater sign. Other signs — whether they are in nature, history, or personal experience — can be ambiguous, but this one is not. Jesus came into the world to reveal and to redeem — to show us the true character of God, and to “save his people from their sins” (1:21).

In addition, Jesus gathered about himself a community of witness in his earthly ministry, and he continues to do so in the era after his resurrection and Pentecost. The people around Jesus, both ancient and modern, are to be a sign in the world that “God is with us,” Emmanuel! Many congregations are named Emmanuel (or perhaps Immanuel or Emanuel) for good reason. Every congregation, no matter what its name, is appropriately called by that name — at least in spirit and mission — even if not on its sign out front, in the weekly bulletin, or on its website.

Among ancient Jewish texts on this is the Mishnah tractate Gitin 9.10.