Matthew has been busy on Ancestry.com, but you wouldn’t know that from the lectionary because we skipped over the first seventeen verses of Matthew. All you really need to know is that Abraham had Isaac, and Isaac Jacob, they had kids who had kids who had kids…on and on…to David, who became king and had Solomon who had kids who had kids…on and on…to Joseph, who goes down in history as the one who often get confused with one of the shepherds in Nativity sets.
So Joseph finds out that the young girl he is about to marry has become pregnant with a child from the Holy Spirit. He thinks about exposing her to save his reputation as a righteous man, but an angel appears to him in a dream and tells him, “It’s cool, she’s fulfilling a prophecy from Isaiah about a virgin giving birth to a son. She will name him Immanuel.”
Joseph is cool with that, so he marries Mary, they don’t have sex until she gives birth at home in Bethlehem, and they name her son “Jesus.”
(If you were looking for magi and an escape to Egypt, those come later. If you were hoping for shepherds and a census, that happens in Luke’s version of the story.)
This passage raises a few questions:
- Why is it important that Joseph be part of Abraham’s family tree if Jesus isn’t really his son?
- Why do Mary and Joseph name their son “Jesus” when the prophecy says they will name him “Immanuel?”
- What’s up with the prophecy anyway?
We’ll start with the third question and work our way backwards from there.
3. Prophecies, Sprophecies
What is up with this prophecy? No one used Isaiah 7:14, the piece about virgin birth and “Immanuel,” to talk about the expected messiah before; Matthew was the first. The whole virgin birth thing is a story that many religions have adopted for one reason or another. Horus, Chrishna, Buddha, and several others share similar birth narratives to Jesus, so does that mean that Jesus’ story is false? Or does it mean that we should also be following/worshipping Horus, Chrishna, Buddha, and so many others?
Probably neither. Remember, the purpose of biblical stories such as these are not so much to get all of the facts straight as they are to send a message about the bigger truths behind the actual events. That isn’t to say that Jesus’ birth narrative definitely is not true to history, just that perhaps the thrust of the story is about how Jesus is truly the one God’s revelation to humankind.
2. Baby Names
But if God had chosen to reveal Godself to us in Jesus, with a loose connection to a prophecy and similarities between his birth narrative and those of many others, why did the angel ask Mary and Joseph to name him “Jesus,” instead of “Immanuel,” as Isaiah wrote down? The name “ישוע” (or “Yeshua”) translates as both Jesus and Joshua; they are the same name. Thumb through your Bible and find who it was that brought the people of Israel out of the wilderness into the Promised Land. No, it wasn’t Moses, he led them out of Egypt, but it was Joshua who led them into the Promised Land. It may be significant that Jesus shares his name with Joshua because he also brings God’s people into a land of promise—in a liminal way (right now, but not quite yet).
1. The Family Tree
So Jesus is connected to Joshua, but he is also connected to a plethora of biblical figures through his stepdad Joseph, which means he really isn’t connected to them by blood. Who they are include the patriarchs of Judaism: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and great kings of Judah: David, Solomon, and others. Having these heavyweights of Judaism in his tree, Jesus seems destined to royalty, but the fact that he is not related by blood and is actually born of a virgin (whose genealogy Luke traces back to Adam) means that his throne is not an earthly one.
Remembering that the purpose of stories like these may include the hope to send a message, what message might these genealogical circumstances be telling us? Perhaps the important thing to believe about Jesus is that the way he lived and died reflects the nature of the God who created us. By transgressing the bounds of kingship, and by never flinching to the temptations of the domination system, powers, and principalities of this world, Jesus showed us that God nurtures each and every one of us as Joseph did Jesus, even when we feel as though we are illegitimate. We have no choice in the matter of whether or not God will welcome us into his embrace—it’s a choice we shouldn’t have to make anyway. We are inextricably tied to God forever and always.
The Rev. Curtis Farr is the assistant rector of St. James’s Episcopal Church. He blogs for St. James’s every Wednesday, offering reflections on the readings of scripture from the upcoming Sunday. His personal blog is entitled Bowing to Mystery, on which he posts sermons, articles, pictures, videos, etc.
This is a weekly contribution to the creative and imaginative process of interpreting the black and white fire of Scripture. Using an adapted process of Midrash, the author includes historical/cultural information, personal anecdotes, and other theologians’ ruminations on selected passages from the upcoming Sunday’s lectionary readings. All are welcome to journey into the fire by using the comment sections on the blog itself, or on Facebook or Tumblr.
With credit to N.T. Wright and Marcus Borg who guided me with their book The Meaning of Jesus, and to Matthew Hurst for the photo above.