Two-pronged Approach

The readings for Sunday, December 18, 2016, Fourth Sunday of Lent, Cycle A, are
Isaiah 7:10-14; Romans 1:1-7; and Matthew 1:18-24.

Characteristic of Matthew’s Gospel is a two-pronged approach. What led him in that direction? To call his Gospel a compromise document is not off the wall. A valid hypothesis is this: Matthew writes for the Christian Community of Antioch in Syria about 85 A.D. It is clear from Acts of Apostles that this Christian Community was composed of an older element — Christian Jews, and a newer element — Christian Gentiles. As often happens among people of different background, they did not always get along with each other. So much was this the case that it led to a serious disagreement between two Christian leaders, Simon Peter and Paul of Tarsus, known also as SS. Peter and Paul.  See Galatians 2:11-14. Problems the Church had to face at that time, the fifties and sixties of the first Christian century: Must Gentile (non-Jews) converts to Christianity become Jews to become Christians? How much Old Testament law applies to Gentile converts? In religious practice change is difficult and prejudice clings stubbornly.

The struggle for unity in the Church at Antioch was ongoing in the eighties. Another valid hypothesis: the author of Matthew’s gospel, a Christian scribe (scholar and teacher), was designated by the leaders of this community to produce a document that would help to bring Christian Jews and Christian Gentiles into the desired unity. Thus the two-pronged approach, addressing both elements. We see this already in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. While Jesus’ Jewish lineage dominates the genealogy, Matthew inserts into the genealogy four Gentile women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba — thus enabling the Gentile Christians to also lay a claim of clan relationship to Jesus. Clan in the Middle East was as important then as it is today. Matthew continues his two-pronged evangelization by two birth stories or two revelation stories. The second of these two stories, one appealing to the Gentile element, we call “Epiphany.” The first of the two stories, appeals to the Jewish element. It is the gospel reading for the fourth Sunday of Advent. The headline: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.”

In contrast to Luke’s story of the annunciation to Mary, the Gospel of Matthew knows nothing of that annunciation. So Matthew begins simply, “When his (Jesus’) mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together (in carnal action), she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.” How this came about is not said. However it should be recalled that our Gospel authors were themselves thoroughly impregnated with their Scriptures. We call these Scriptures the Old Testament. Matthew had not read the Gospel of Luke. It was still in production. Matthew did not need Luke’s story of the annunciation to Mary. Instead he attributes the creative activity in the womb of Mary to the same Spirit who enabled all creation from the beginning. (Genesis 1:2)

There will however be an annunciation in Matthew’s Gospel, but to Joseph rather than to Mary. Matthew leads gradually to that annunciation. “Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, (a Jew who was obedient to the laws of God), and unwilling to bring disgrace upon Mary (for what seemed to be a pregnancy outside of wedlock), resolved to divorce her quietly (secretly). God steps in — the annunciation to Joseph. An angel appears to Joseph in a dream, the first of four dreams for this holy, restless sleeper. The frequent dreams alert us to a teaching device of Matthew — weaving Old Testament revelation into new evangelization. In the Old Testament there was another Joseph, son of Jacob. He also had frequent dreams to guide him.

The angel says, “Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for that which is in her is of the Holy Spirit.” The title, “Son of David” tells us that Jesus gets his Davidic descent, his claim to royalty, from Joseph. The angel continues, “She will bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.” The angel explains why the child must be named Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins.” According to popular understanding , the name Jesus is derived from the Hebrew verb meaning “to save.”

Matthew, always concerned to legitimize events through the Old Testament, quotes from Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel, (which means God with us).” In this way, through the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Matthew reaffirms (reveals) the virgin birth of Jesus and his status as God.