According to the Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, “a parable is usually a fictitious short story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.” Take for example Jesus and his parable of the Good Samaritan (Lk. 10:2-37), in telling the Good Samaritan parable Jesus does not aim to tell the legal expert a history, rather the story about the Good Samaritan is told in order to provide an instructive response to the legal expert’s question: “And who is my neighbor?” Whether or not the story is true or fictitious is not of the stories concern, rather the concern of the story lies in what it seeks to teach, namely, that even the enemy, impure, despised and the foreigner is neighbor to the legal expert. In light of what has been said above about the function and nature of parables, we now turn our focus to the birth narratives found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Not unlike the Good Samaritan Parable (Lk. 10:2-37), the birth narratives found in Matthew and Luke seem to function in a similar parabolic way. The goal of these birth narratives is not to primarily record history ‘as is’ (though we find history in these stories), rather the writers of Matthew and Luke seem to be using the birth narratives as a means to communicate Jesus’ identity and mission. Put more simply, in the birth narratives the writers of Matthew and Luke are deeply concerned with making sense of (or interpreting) the extraordinary Jesus who they came to know, hear, touch and experience in relation to the Jewish hopes of liberation, independence, peace, justice and vindication. Therefore, in reading the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke we discover a hopeful, challenging, daring and scandalous claim about Jesus, namely, that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah.
Lest we be tempted to misinterpret or take lightly the claim that Matthew and Luke make about Jesus being the Messiah, a few words must be said about what messiah means. According to Jewish thought, the term messiah has nothing to do with divinity, rather the title had everything to do with kingship. In its early usage, the term messiah or anointed one (mashiakh) often served as a title given to kings and priests (though once it seems to refer to Israel itself). Nevertheless, in the wake of the Babylonian exile – which meant the rupture of the Israelite kingdom – the title messiah came to be loosely related to the restoration of the Israelite kingdom. In light of over 500 years of exile, occupation and severe suffering and oppression under foreign rulers and empires, developments concerning a messiah (God’s anointed, elected king) developed. According to the Jews, the God of their ancestors would send the messiah (God’s anointed, elected king) to liberate, vindicate, to establish peace, to establish justice and to establish God’s kingdom for Israel on earth beginning in the land that was presently occupied by a non-Jewish entity – the Romans. For the Jews, this messiah was the hope of Israel. Moreover, in claiming that Jesus is the Messiah the writers of Matthew and Luke boldly proclaim that Jesus of Nazareth is the hope of Israel.
While such a claim about Jesus’ identity may have been hopeful for some people, for others the claim that Jesus of Nazareth, that is, the illegitimate son of Mary is the messiah was scandalous. In reading the birth narratives, such a claim is deeply scandalous because Mary bears a son out of wedlock. Such an event is so deeply scandalous that even Joseph – Mary’s fiancé – initially decided to call off the engagement (Matt. 1:18-25) because of Mary’s illegitinate son. Even more, this event is so intensely scandalous, that even after Jesus’ birth people still wondered and questioned: “Where did this man get all this? What’s this wisdom he’s been given? What about the powerful acts accomplished through him? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t he Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joses, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” They were repulsed by him and fell into sin (Mk 6:3).” Nevertheless, what is truly scandalous about this story is the fact that the God of Israel’s ancestors decided to bless a poor woman from Nazareth that most people would have thought to condemn. To put it in another way, the God of Israel’s ancestors chose to anoint Mary’s poor illegitimate son as the messiah.
While the claim made about Jesus’ identity in the birth narratives may have been hopeful for some and scandalous for others, to certain ears the claims made by the gospel of Matthew and Luke were outright treasonous. Living underneath Roman rule, one would expect to find titles, such as, son of the Most High, God’s Son and Christ (the messiah) to be attributed to Caesar Augustus, for it was assumed that Caesar Augustus was the incarnate Lord, Redeemer, Liberator, Savior of the world, God incarnate of the Roman Empire. However, in reading the birth narratives we are immediately taken aback to discover that Caesar merely plays a footnote in the saga concerning Jesus of Nazareth. Rather than hailing Caesar as God’s King, the writers of the birth narratives audaciously hail Jesus as God’s King – God’s Messiah, Lord, Liberator, Redeemer and Savior of the world. In ascribing these titles to Jesus, we discover a weighty renunciation of Caesar and his imperial gospel.
In contrast to Caesar and the content of his imperial gospel which was religion, war, victory and peace, the content of Jesus’ gospel is about the end of evil, oppression, violence and injustice. The content of Jesus’ gospel is about hope, non-violence, freedom, justice and peace. To put it in another way, the content Jesus’ gospel is about the making right of all things broken in the world; it is about the reconciliation and restoration of all things. Thus, in beholding Jesus we witness the beginning of God’s making right of all things. More simply, God through the person of Jesus is not merely announcing the making right of all things, but God in effect has began the making right of all things. Nevertheless, the making right of all things does not end with Jesus but the mission of Jesus is – a mission that brought peace and justice to the marginalized, destitute, poor, disenfranchised, hated and despised – continued by his disciples.
What then do the Christmas stories teach us? The Christmas stories teach us that God’s making right of all things has began in the person of Jesus the Christ. The Christmas story calls for people to reject the doctrine of empire – injustice, violence, racism, nationalism, hate, marginalization, exclusion, war, etc. – and it calls for us to participate with God and God’s Messiah in the kingdom project of justice and peace a present reality.