A brief excursion from my reading of Luke’s Gospel, to consider Matthew’s story of Jesus birth.
MATTHEW CHAPYER 2
2 After Yeshua was born in Beit-Lechem in the land of Y’hudah during the time when Herod was king, Magi from the east came to Yerushalayim 2 and asked, “Where is the newborn King of the Jews? For we saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard of this he became very agitated, and so did everyone else in Yerushalayim. 4 He called together all the head cohanim and Torah-teachers of the people and asked them, “Where will the Messiah be born?” 5 “In Beit-Lechem of Y’hudah,” they replied, “because the prophet wrote,
6 ‘And you, Beit-Lechem in the land of Y’hudah,
are by no means the least among the rulers of Y’hudah;
for from you will come a Ruler
who will shepherd my people Isra’el.’”
7 Herod summoned the Magi to meet with him privately and asked them exactly when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Beit-Lechem with these instructions: “Search carefully for the child; and when you find him, let me know, so that I too may go and worship him.”
9 After they had listened to the king, they went away; and the star which they had seen in the east went in front of them until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 Upon entering the house, they saw the child with his mother Miryam; and they prostrated themselves and worshipped him. Then they opened their bags and presented him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 But they had been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, so they took another route back to their own country.
13 After they had gone, an angel of Adonai appeared to Yosef in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and escape to Egypt, and stay there until I tell you to leave. For Herod is going to look for the child in order to kill him.” 14 So he got up, took the child and his mother, and left during the night for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until Herod died. This happened in order to fulfill what The Lord had said through the prophet,
“Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 Meanwhile, when Herod realized that the Magi had tricked him, he was furious and gave orders to kill all the boys in and around Beit-Lechem who were two years old or less, calculating from the time the Magi had told him. 17 In this way were fulfilled the words spoken through the prophet Yirmeyahu,
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and lamenting loudly.
It was Rachel sobbing for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no longer alive.”
in his first chapter, Matthew establishes Jesus’ family tree, and his conception in a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit, thus fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah about a child who will be called Immanuel, God is with us. His birth takes place in Bethlehem because his parents lived there.
in chapter 2 Matthew broadens the significance of Jesus birth, firstly with the story of the Magi and the star. Although Matthew does not quote the prophecy this episode is based on Isaiah chapter 60, “Gentiles will come to your light and kings to the brightness of your rising.” They represent the wisdom of the gentile world, drawn to the birth of Israel’s messiah – king. Very skilfully Matthew mingles the folktale aspect of the mysterious Magi, with the dirty politics of God’s Rule through Jesus. The innocent Magi unwittingly alert Herod to the possibility of an alternative power in Israel.
There have been many scholarly investigations of the meaning of the Magi’s gifts with general agreement that they are suitable for a priestly ruler whose death may have as much importance as his life.
This dark note is continued in the story of Herod’s massacre of children, from which Jesus’family escapes into Egypt, thus repeating the story of Israel, God’s child, which was called out of Egypt in the exodus. The evil of power, its casual brutality and opposition to God’s rule is much more clearly displayed in Matthew’s account than in Luke’s.
Matthew also insists that from the start God’s messiah – child arouses deadly opposition. The closed system of worldly power is one dimensional, recognising no alternative to its empire. The mere whisper of an alternative is enough to trigger an atrocity. As in the book of Revelation, the red dragon of tyranny waits to swallow the new-born messiah. (Revelation 12) The child who means that God is with us has to be snatched away by his human parents to become a refugee in Egypt.
The story told by Matthew is therefore dark with foreboding, suggesting that Jesus Messiah will always exist in tension with the evil powers of the world, and may be overcome by them.
Luke’s birth story is a powerful myth of the arrival of the peaceable kingdom; while Matthew’s remains stubbornly attached to the violent powers under which human beings live. If Luke contrives to break our hearts with a glimpse of dawning goodness, Matthew breaks them with a realistic reminder of what evil can accomplish.