Jesus the Bastard: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 19 December 2010

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 19 December 2010 (Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year A)

Isaiah 7:10-16Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19Romans 1:1-7Matthew 1:18-25

I’m sure somebody has written on this parallel before, but I just noticed this year that the opening of the gospel according to Saint Matthew bears a striking resemblance to the start of the book of Hosea.  In both cases a man of unremarkable reputation is asked by a divine message to take on a woman who will get pregnant by means other than what a Jewish town would expect.  I have a hunch that the first community of Christians who heard Matthew read in the assembly would have heard echoes of that strange book, and if they had, they might have been expecting the birth of this new child to carry with it the same sort of message that came to Israel as Hosea’s children came into the world: Israel, you are not my people.  Israel, you shall be shown no mercy.

Of course, the Nativity texts have become quite familiar to the Church, so my guess would be that few of us note the surprising character of the next announcement: God will save.  God is with us. Out of this moment, when the respectable Joseph shows a fair bit of restraint in choosing a quiet separation when he had the option before him to make a spectacle of the unfaithful Mary, God will save.  Something has run amok when the moment that portends the judgment of Israel, the birth of an child outside the bounds of bloodline legitimacy, now serves as the means by which God saves Israel.  Something catastrophic has shifted.

Then again, perhaps the shift would not be so surprising to those truly familiar with the Bible: after all, this is no case of a wife who runs around with “other men” but a virgin (yes, alma in Hebrew is something different from parthenos in the Greek, but I’m working from the Greek here) whose child is conceived of the Holy Spirit.  Bastardy will still be on the minds of the people (in the Gospel of Saint Mark they call him “Son of Mary,” as clear an implication as one is bound to find in ancient Palestine), but the legitimacy of the child in this sense transcends, not transgresses, those customs that determine inheritance and social standing.  But make no mistake: Mary here, like Gomer before her, becomes a walking, talking allegory: where Gomer signifies Israel’s running-about with the gods of the Canaanites, Mary brings forth while YHWH’s movement in the world remains largely undetected to Israel and, even from conception, runs counter to the expectations of Israel’s mature sense of self.  Like the births of Lo-Ammi and Lo-Ruhama, the birth of Yesh’wa (that’s the one time this year I’m going to spell it that way) announces the oracle of God with the force of a name.

Placed next to this strangely allegorical text, the Old Testament reading for this week strikes another chord.  Again, most who have been in this or that congregation for very long likely have heard Isaiah 7:14 a dozen times.  It’s as standard as the Charlie Brown Christmas Special in December.  But the lead-up, the dramatic context of that utterance, is striking: King Ahaz, who was not as wicked as Manasseh but who doesn’t fare much better with the prophets, finds the prophet Isaiah in his chamber, and Isaiah not only offers but demands of him that he seek YHWH’s council.  Ahaz, who gets in trouble with the prophets precisely because he’s such a secular king, likely knows what’s coming: after all, he’s been in contact with the Egyptians, forging alliances to fend off the joint forces of Damascus and Samaria.  Given that Egypt is not merely a pagan nation but chief among Israel’s foes, the legendary beast of the Exodus, Isaiah could not have been the only one in Jerusalem unhappy about the alliance.  In a feigned moment of humility, he alludes the Deuteronomic text that Jesus cites against the devil, refusing to put God to the test.

Isaiah, of course, messenger of the divine, will not stand by as Realpolitik poses as piety.  What so many readings of Isaiah miss (but which the lectionary-editors were wise enough to include) is that the birth of Hezekiah (the infant born of the young woman in Isaiah’s day) is a sign that comes in spite of Jerusalem’s unwillingness to let YHWH have a say in how things go.  And indeed, by the time he learns to distinguish good from bad, the mighty Assyrian army has put both Samaria and Damascus underfoot without any help from Egypt.

Those who first heard Matthew’s gospel would have been familiar with all of this–after all, the Torah and the Prophets were the lifeblood of the early Church, even before what we know as the New Testament became widely-authoritative text.  No doubt they would have noted that the Machiavel on the throne in Jerusalem in Jesus’ day would not stop with refusing the prophet but would plot to kill the infant.  And certainly those early Christians, living on the other side of the Jerusalem Temple’s fall, would harbor no doubts that YHWH, acting through the body of Christ on earth, still stood to speak to a fallen but God-beloved world, whether that world refuses or embraces the oracle.  And today’s Christians would do well to note that God’s insistence upon having a say in the world ends neither in the eighth century BC nor in the first AD but continues and will continue until this secular age gives way to the final consummation of the Reign of God.

May the Scriptures remind and enliven our imaginations, and may we stand ready always to put aside our own devices for the sake of the Kingdom.

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