Mary – Session 6

INTRO Having explored the ‘infancy narratives’ in Luke’s Gospel, we now move to Matthew’s Gospel and the author and the originating community express who Jesus is and Mary’s role in a different oral tradition concerning Jesus infancy. Matthew’s approach is very different, because the community from which this tradition arose is very different and facing different issues. First Matthew’s Gospel opens with a genealogy of Jesus heritage and forebears, then describes the Annunciation of Jesus’ conception and birth to Joseph in a dream, then moves on quickly to the the visit of the ‘Magi’ the Wise Men and the subsequent flight into Egypt. And this gospel’s infancy narrative concludes with the Holy Family’s return to Nazareth.  

[1] Let us first explore a little the originating community that gave rise to the Gospel attributed to Matthew. Firstly who is ‘Matthew’? Almost certainly not the Apostle to whom it is attributed, but a converted Jewish rabbi and scribe who probably used source material, known to Biblical scholars as the ‘Q’ document (a presumed collection of the sayings of Jesus, said to have been made by Matthew the eye-witness Apostle and written in Aramaic not Greek – upon which Mark and Matthew’s Gospels heavily relies and also Luke in a lesser way). Incidentally this explains the great similarities between the three Synoptic Gospels and the radical difference of presentation in John’s Gospel which relies much less on ‘Q’. The author is clearly an important church leader, evangelist and teacher, who presents the Gospel as a teaching manual in classic rabbinic style – eg gathering healings, teachings and parables in groups of seven (the perfect Biblical number). He even praises a scribe, whom some suspect be the author (Matthew 13: 52). He shows more sympathy to mainstream Judaism (while strongly critical of the Jewish authorities) and certainly great understanding of Jewish laws and traditions. Constantly the author quotes the Jewish biblical writings as ‘proofs’ that Jesus fulfils the hopes and mission of Israel. Now an important historical note for understanding Matthew’s Gospel. After the Romans brutally destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple in 70AD, there were no more sacrifices or active priesthood, which was tied to the Temple. The influence of the Synagogues came to dominate Judaism, replacing the Temple Priests as the Teachers and governors of Jewish religion. The leading rabbis and scholars held an important meeting at Jamnia to ‘rescue’ Judaism after the total disaster of the destruction of the Temple. This meeting banned all Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ, from the Synagogues a form of ‘excommunication’. It is interesting that one of the reasons was that the Christian Jews broke the Law prohibiting eating and drinking with Gentiles – at the Eucharist and the agape that usually followed the ‘Breaking of Bread’.  Matthew’s community was predominantly Jewish with some Gentiles. This ‘rabbinical’ Gospel is seeking to strengthen the faith of Jewish Christians who endured the pain of excommunication while internally, spiritually remaining thoroughly Jewish. So ‘Matthew’ emphasises throughout the Gospel that Jesus is the long-awaited ‘Masiah’ or Christ, that He is of the Davidic Royal line – an authentic Son of David (King) and Son of Solomon (Wisdom incarnate), who brings to the Earth the Kingdom of God. 

[2] Now let us turn to the Genealogy (Matthew 1: 1-17).    The author states immediately who Jesus is – the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. Immediately he affirms the faith of Christian Jews – Jesus is the long awaited Davidic Messiah King, and believing in Him is faithful to the Covenant with Abraham. Furthermore Abraham was the Father of Nations (not just the Jewish people) and therefore relevant to the Gentile Christians in the Matthean community.  He groups the generations in groups of 14 – the perfect Biblical number 7 being doubled. One of Matthew’s preoccupations is to show that Jesus gathers into himself (‘recapitulates’) all of the Covenant People’s history, as we will see clearly when exploring the Visit of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt. What is particularly significant for the role and person of Mary in Matthew’s Gospel is the other women named in the genealogy: Tamar (mother of the tribe of Judah, from which comes the Kings of Israel); Rahab (the prostitute of Jericho who saved the Hebrew spies and who later married Salmon); Ruth (the Moabitess who was David’s grandmother) and Bathsheba (referred to the Uriah the Hittite’s wife who was Solomon’s mother). It was very unusual to name any women in Hebrew genealogies.  Jesus genealogy leads indirectly to Mary (Joseph husband of Mary and of her is born Jesus (Matthew 1: 16). Matthew sees Mary as standing in the tradition of those women whose offspring were an essential part of Jewish history culminating in the birth of the Messiah, Jesus. But why these women, because there were others who were more prominent (eg Sarah, Judith, Esther etc)? Three of the four woman are Gentiles, and Bathsheba was married to a Gentile, Uriah – suggesting the universal mission that Jesus brings. Three also had sinned: Tamar seduced her father-in-law (Genesis 38: 24); Rahab was the prostitute of Jericho (Joshua 2: 1); and Uriah’s wife committed adultery with King David (2 Samuel ch 11). This suggests Jesus embracing and then redeeming the sinfulness of Israel and indeed bringing forgiveness to all the world. But perhaps the most compelling reason is that each of them have ‘irregular’ or extraordinary marriages which could be despised by pious Jews. This includes Mary, who was pregnant by ‘another’ after her betrothal to Joseph. Yet each woman and their marriage is chosen and used by God to produce offspring essential to the salvation history of the People of the Covenant. Both mother and child in each case speaks to both Jewish and Gentile Christians of God’s saving love for both groups of believers. The genealogy concludes with an emphatic statement that Jesus is Mary’s son  but not biologically the child of Joseph. Here is the Matthean community’s strong belief in the virginal conception of Jesus by the agency of the Holy Spirit – the clear belief of the first century Church. 

[3] We have arrived now at the Annunciation to Joseph (Matthew 1: 18-23). Mary’s husband’s name, Joseph, evokes the great Joseph of Genesis, the favourite son of Jacob who had prophetic dreams, was betrayed by his brothers (who at first plotted his death but then sold him into slavery) yet became the saviour of his People (as well as the Gentile Egyptians in time of famine!). Joseph of Genesis is a foreshadowing of Jesus the Saviour of the world. And Joseph of the Gospels does not speak but repeatedly meets God in dreams, and does what God asks of him. His life is changed from all his expectations because of the ‘dream of God’ for him and for the world. He is of David’s line and his adoption of Jesus as his own (through  him naming Mary’s child as ‘Jesus’ Matthew 1: 21) qualifies this child as a son of David and therefore the Messiah. Was Mary engaged or married to Joseph? The Galilean custom of the time was that the ‘betrothal’ (engagement) took place about a year before the man took his betrothed into his own home. From the time of the commitment or betrothal the woman remains living with her family and the marriage is ‘sealed’ by the man taking her into his home. Hence the angel of the dream saying to Joseph ‘do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife’ (Matthew 1: 20). During the year between betrothal and ‘taking home’ the man could divorce her, especially if either the woman was not a virgin or had been unfaithful to  him. The woman’s punishment by Jewish law could be stoning to death – her and the child she carried! This is the risk that Mary took when she uttered her ‘fiat’, her ‘yes to God as recorded in Luke’s Annunciation. And Joseph the righteous one,  risked being vilified and despised for not having her punished, or at least divorced (which in turn  would mean that she probably might never be married and become so vulnerable to extreme poverty and exploitation). 

[4] The Emmanuel (Matthew 1: 23 & Isaiah 7: 14). After recounting the dream Annunciation, the author quotes Isaiah’s prophecy to King Ahaz concerning the impending birth of his successor (Hezechiah) as a ‘fulfilment citation’. And the Greek (or Septuagint LXX) version is used, replacing the Hebrew for ‘young woman’ (not implying virginity) for the Greek translation’s word that is precisely ‘virgin’. Once more the early Church’s belief in the Virgin conception of Jesus is stated, because this child is unique among all the children of the Earth for He is the Emmanuel – He is God with us! Joseph wakens from his dream and like the righteous man he is, does what God asks of him! Mary remains a virgin up to the birth of her child whom Joseph’s naming of Him Jesus makes him the Son of David.

AFTERWORD God does not reject the sinner or those whom the religious people despise but rather gathers them into His mercy making them part of bringing mercy made flesh into the world. Who do we reject? despise? do not consider ‘good Christians’? perhaps because of their ‘irregular relationships’ of their sexual orientation? Mary risked her very life to say yes to God – what do we risk to serve the Kingdom? Do we dare to dream the dream of God and discover the ‘God of Surprises’ who disturbs our planned lives? Are we an inclusive and merciful Church – or parish? Who and why do we refuse the Eucharist to those whom God embraces with merciful love?

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