Summary: Year A. 4th Sunday of Advent Matthew 1: 18-24 December 23, 2001 Title: “The truly righteous person is also merciful.”
Year A. 4th Sunday of Advent Matthew 1: 18-24 December 23, 2001
Title: “The truly righteous person is also merciful.”
Matthew tells the story of the origin and naming of Jesus, the Messiah, from Joseph’s perspective. We have precious little reliable information about the events preceding and following the birth of Jesus. While there are many apocryphal stories in circulation, only the material in the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke have been accepted as canonical. They are less concerned with historical detail and accuracy than with theological acuity. In fact, the “Infancy Narratives,” as they are called, are written in a distinct literary style and form called “Midrash.” This type of writing would embellish, ignore, exaggerate or change prosaic facts in order to highlight the supernatural and miraculous. More concerned with mystery than history, Midrash seeks to edify, to teach spiritual truth. Thus, in neither case, that of Matthew 1-2 nor that of Luke 1-2, can we be certain we are dealing with an accurate reporting of the facts, even though both narratives are based on facts. As a result, there is little in these stories that is not disputed by historians, disputed but not disproved. Even though the two accounts differ between themselves, they do not contradict one another. Luke tells the story from Mary’s point of view, while Matthew tells it from Joseph’s. Matthew is concerned to establish Jesus’ legal lineage through Joseph back to David. He also shows that Jesus’ real lineage through Mary, the virgin, goes back to God. Jesus is the Son of David, the very Son of God.
At the end of his work Matthew will stress that Jesus will come again in his final glory, that is, be fully present. His presence now on earth through time, in His Church, is both a continuation and a progressive growth of his earthly presence, a divine presence, God-among-us presence, in the historical Jesus. Matthew takes the same approach to Scripture, that is, God’s presence among us. He sees prophecy as a real but not-yet-full presence of God among us, a presence to be “fulfilled,” at a later date. This text will quote the first instance of that point of view of both history and mystery when he cites Isaiah 7: 14 regarding the virginal conception of Jesus. That partial view of God’s eternal reality, way back when, is fulfilled now in Jesus. In the beginning Matthew 1: 23, the middle chapter 18 verse 20, and at the end chapter 28 verse 20, Matthew makes his point, “God is with us now and always.”
In verse eighteen, this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about, the conception of Jesus took place when Mary and Joseph were betrothed but not living together. In Jewish law, betrothal was much more than our engagement. It lasted about a year, was a binding contract, terminable only by death, which would leave the betrothed a widow or widower, or by divorce, as with a full marriage. The man was already the “husband,” but the woman remained in her father’s house until after the public ceremony. Only then would she move in with her husband and have sexual relations with him. Mary became pregnant before that and Joseph was not the father.
With child through the Holy Spirit, just as the Holy Spirit was the agent of God’s first creation, so will he be the agent here in this new creation, a creation not subject even to the laws of the first creation, that is, human procreation by sexual union.
In verse nineteen, divorce her quietly, in Old Testament law the penalty for unchastity before marriage was stoning to death, but by this time divorce, based on Deuteronomy 24:1, was the ordinary way of dealing with such a situation. While it could be a public trial, Joseph chose a quiet, private divorce before two witnesses. This way he both kept the law, was “righteous,” and showed mercy, to Mary and her family.
In verse twenty, Joseph, son of David, Jesus was not really of Davidic lineage. The virginal conception made that impossible, but Joseph’s naming the child and officially marrying Mary made him, legally at least, a “son of David.” Joseph’s dreams of an ordinary marriage and family were shattered, but God’s dreams for Joseph, Mary, Jesus and all humanity were conveyed to him through a dream with a divine representative interpreting for Joseph what God had in mind. Unlike his ancestor of old, Ahaz, Joseph would accept the “sign,” and allow his decisions and movements to be guided by the light, star? of God’s word.
In verse twenty-one, she will bear a son, the language is similar to Old Testament revelations, especially Isaiah 7: 14, soon to be quoted. Luke 1: 31 has exactly the same language, alluding to Isaiah 7: 14, but it is addressed to Mary. Names, especially divinely revealed names, are full of meaning, often revealed by a word play that need not always correspond to the actual etymology of the name.