Last week, we used the Gospel of Mark to help us reflect upon the significance of Jesus’ coming into the world. This week, we turn our attention to the Gospel of Matthew. It contains one of two so-called infancy narratives in the New Testament. Although Matthew’s telling of the birth story is shorter and less detailed than Luke’s, there is still plenty of material in his account to help us understand who Jesus is and why he came.
A Glimpse into the World of Jesus
One of the most important things that Matthew does for us is give us a glimpse of the world to which Jesus came. First-century Palestine was not an easy place to live. Indeed, it was a place rife with poverty, oppression, and cruelty. We are appropriately horrified by the lengths to which Herod will go to preserve his power, and we find ourselves drawn into the story, weeping with the mothers and fathers of Bethlehem and wishing for someone to come and set us free.
Perhaps now we can understand why so many in Judea and Galilee longed to see God act in a decisive way to right the wrongs of the world. Many in our world have the same longing. Every day, our newspapers and television broadcasts dump a new batch of evidence on us that our world is not what it should be. In frustration, we shake our fist at heaven and cry out to God, “If You really exist, why don’t You do something!”
The point of Matthew’s Gospel, however, is precisely that God has done something. The story of Jesus is not simply the story of one more innocent man murdered by the Romans. Jesus is not merely one more victim of humanity’s unending quest for power. No, Jesus is God’s answer to the desperation and pain that so often characterize human existence.
Deep Roots and Wide Branches
Another point that Matthew seems intent upon making is that Jesus’ coming is deeply rooted in the relationship that God has with the people of Israel. He does this by means of the genealogy that opens the book and by means of the repeated references to Israel’s prophetic tradition throughout his telling of the birth story. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah, and he is the rightful heir to the promises that God made both to Abraham and to David.
And yet, there are hints even at this early stage of the gospel story that Jesus is not just for the people of Israel. Notice, for example, the four women (besides Mary) mentioned in the genealogy. Three were Gentiles, and the other was the wife of a Gentile before she was married to David. The astrologers who visited Jesus were also likely Gentiles. As we have noted on the blog before, God is faithful to the promises that He made to Israel, but He is also determined to bless the entire world in the process.
A Predictable Surprise
A third point that emerges from Matthew’s telling of the birth story is that Jesus’ coming was a surprise, and yet it should not have been. Matthew takes great pains to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies of the Old Testament, and yet it is equally clear that his coming was obscure to nearly everyone. He did not come as a conquering hero, born to royalty and trained in the arts of war and diplomacy. He did not come as a priest, nurtured in the temple and connected with the religious elite of his day. He came as the supposedly illegitimate son of a carpenter and his straying fiancee. Indeed, an angel has to intervene to keep his mother from being left all alone to raise her son.
This interesting dynamic in Matthew’s story is, I think, instructive for us as we try to discern when and how God is active in our lives. Very often, God does not act in ways that we expect, precisely because our expectations are shaped by the values and methods of this world. Nevertheless, if we are sensitive to the rhythms of the gospel story, we will find those rhythms in our own lives, too. God is at work, and God is at work in ways that are consistent with His purposes and His values. The more we get in touch with God, the easier it will be to see Him at work in our lives.