SERMON: Epiphany III

SERMON: Epiphany III

I want you to imagine you are S. Matthew. Don’t worry: we haven’t a clue who he was so it might as well be you. The ascription to Matthew is not part of the text and we don’t know when it was assigned to him. We do though know something about you from what you wrote. You are a Jewish Christian and your Gospel is full of Jewish literary characteristics. But you write in Greek for a Greek speaking Christian congregation probably located somewhere in Syria whose Bible was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures known as the Septuagint. And like all Jewish theologians from the earliest Old Testament narratives, you do your theology by story.

When did you write? Well we know your Gospel was known to S.Ignatius who around 110 A.D. quotes from it in his Letters. Further the extreme hostility to the Jews exhibited in your Gospel indicates that you are writing after Christianity had decisively split from Judaism. This did not occur until after the Jewish rebellion which in 70 A.D. saw Jerusalem destroyed together with its temple. So probably a date about 85 A.D. would be right. It was then that the Jews added to the Prayer of XVIII Benedictions daily recited in the synagogue the dreadful curse: ‘Let Christians and heretics perish in a moment, let them be blotted out of the book of the living, let them not be written with the righteous’. Now excluded from the synagogue, it is no wonder that you always refer in your Gospel to ‘their synagogues’. Indeed you interpret the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple as God’s judgment on Israel. You intend in your Gospel to prove that Christians are the true descendents of Israel and not the Jews who rejected their Messiah and had him executed.

What sources did you have? Clearly by the time you wrote eyewitnesses were no longer available. But you did have Mark’s Gospel written before the destruction of Jerusalem and her temple. Indeed you reproduce 90% of it in much the same language as Mark. It’s possible though not certain that you have another source as you and Luke, who wrote about the same time as you, have common passages which are not found in Mark. You of course added your own material when you saw fit, especially at the beginning and end of your Gospel.

But your other main tool was your Bible, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures. Skilfully you would show that everything that has happened should not be a surprise as it was all foretold there. True later critics will point out that you have taken isolated passages out of context and strained the primary meaning of the text. But that was a perfectly legitimate form of exegesis enabling you to show how blind the Jews were to what was in their own sacred text starring them in the face.

To-day we are going to be concerned mainly with the opening chapters of your Gospel which are your own composition. You have two overriding concerns: first you must show that Jesus is the true Jewish Messiah and therefore descended from David and second that the admission of Gentiles into Christianity, of which you very much approve, was foreordained by God. You manage to kill both birds with one stone in the very first sentence of your Gospel: ‘The genealogy of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham’.

In the genealogy that follows you show how Joseph was descended both from David, who through his subsequent marriage to Mary becomes the legal father of Jesus, so satisfying Jewish requirements for Messiah, and also Abraham, satisfying Gentile requirements for at the call of Abraham God promised that ‘by you all the families of the earth will bless themselves’ – in other words everyone is of concern to God and involved in his redemptive work in Jesus.

You now set about describing the birth of Jesus. Here you encounter your first problem. Everyone knows that Jesus was Jesus of Nazareth. Yet to be Messiah according to the prophet Micah he must be born in the city of David, Bethlehem. Luke solves the problem through a census that gets Joseph to leave Nazareth for Bethlehem. But you picture Joseph and Mary as resident in Bethlehem – no inn and manager in your account. Your problem will be to get the holy family to Galilee.

You now describe Jesus birth from the Virgin Mary. Happily the Greek rendering of the prophecy of Isaiah in the Bible you are using proclaims this. For while the Hebrew text simply refers to a young woman, the Greek noun can be translated virgin.

But your account is important for some early Christians were led to believe in the heresy of adoptionism, possibly even in your days – that is that Jesus was the biological son of Joseph and Mary but at his baptism he was adopted by God just as Jewish kings were adopted as God’s son at their coronation. They were not divine but closer to God than any other human. Mark’s Gospel which begins with Jesus’s baptism could be misunderstood in this way. But you and Luke will have none of this. Jesus is seen as divine from his conception and Isaiah confirms this.

Now how are you going to get the holy family to Nazareth? Suddenly you have a brilliant idea. You remember that in Deuteronomy God promised to raise up a prophet like Moses. Why not as well as seeing Jesus as son of David also picture him as a second Moses. At the same time you could make the Jewish king Herod a second Pharaoh.

In order to drive home your assertion that the Gentiles are part of God’s redemptive plan, you describe the visit of three wise men, foreigners from the east, who come to Jerusalem searching for the new born King of the Jews. Not unnaturally the reigning king Herod is perturbed and hopes the visitors will lead him to the child.

But after paying homage to the infant, the kings return to their own land. Then through one of the many dreams with which you pepper the narrative, Joseph is told to flee to Egypt as Herod plans to kill all the babies in Bethlehem so fulfilling a prophecy found in Jeremiah.

What a parody of the Exodus narrative. There Pharaoh kills the Jewish babies and Moses later flees from Egypt to Midian for safety. In your brilliant narrative it is Herod who plays the role of Pharaoh and Egypt becomes the haven of safety. Later you use a further dream in which Joseph is told to take Mary and the child back to Israel, but not to Bethlehem but to out of the way Galilee where they settle in Nazareth. Mission accomplished.

Now like Mark whom you rely on, you can record the baptism of Jesus by John and the temptations in the wilderness. But you have one further problem. Why once Jesus was baptised and his destiny was revealed to him did he not immediately go to Jerusalem. Indeed you record, as we heard in to-day’s reading, that when Jesus learned that John had been arrested, he acted scared and ‘withdrew to Galilee’. Was Messiah funking his destiny? But the tradition of Jesus’ Galilean ministry could not be ignored. Happily a prophecy of Isaiah was to hand to confirm that this was God’s will: ‘In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations’. Here you find incontrovertible evidence that cosmopolitan Galilee, where the tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali were said to have settled, was the proper location for Messiah’s ministry.

You will go on to pick up the Moses theme when like the patriarch at Sinai, Jesus delivers his law, later called the Sermon on the Mount. You will put the blame for Jesus death firmly on the Jews who when Pilate washes his hands of his responsibility, are said to pronounce the dreadful self-curse ‘His blood be upon us and on our children’. And you will make it clear that the Gentile mission is the vocation of your community in Jesus’s final injunction to his disciples following his resurrection: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’.

You deserve congratulations. You have written one of the documents of title of the Christian faith. True it reflects your own times and the bitter hostility to the Jews which will cause their persecution for generations to come. So when later your Gospel is read, it would be wise to add a health warning. But you have affirmed the basic tenets of the Christian faith that will later be encapsulated in the Creeds, that Jesus is Son of God as well as flesh like our flesh and that his mission was global for God’s love embraces all whom he has created. And further you have shown how the Scriptures substantiate your claim that Jesus Christ, Son of David, is the long awaited Messiah and your community the legitimate heir of ancient Israel. Your descendents will have good cause to thank you.