Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Peaceable Christmas

Incarnation in Matthew is not the news of a unique metaphysics that the world did not know. It is the announcement of a political and ethical counter-reality that the world refused to know. 'Emmanuel' names the divine decison that human violence is to be confronted by the peace of God.

It is promised to Joseph that this gift of a son "will save his people from their sins." What kind of salvation will this be? That question can be answered by asking a prior one - From what kinds of sins will this people be saved from?

Commenting on Micah 1:13, James Mays says that 'the chariot is the chief sin' of the people of Israel. Their militarization, their excessive accumulation of weaponry to secure their "vital interests", is a direct affront to the way that Yhwh would have them walk. In Isaiah 2, the prophet says that Israel's God has rejected his people because "their land is filled with horses, and there is no end to their chariots." Israel's desire to be like the nations around them extended to their resolution to violence. Like all of us, they were determined to keep what they had and regain what they once had, and would use force as the chief means of doing so. It is in this force that their trust lay.

Jesus is given to save people from such trust. He is given as a sign that there is an alternative way to live in a world that has been ubiquitously "reinvested with the truth of violence". He is given as the embodiment and teacher of that way. He is that way, and those who read and hear this gospel are called to follow him.

Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

These words were originally spoken to King Ahaz, mentioned already in Matthew's gospel as a descendant of David and therefore an ancestor of Jesus. Jerusalem was under threat, yet in the face of Syrian violence the people of Israel were told to trust not in their military might but in their God, whose presence alone could make for peace. The people of Israel quite rationally refused such risky trust, yet their commitment to the way of violence caused them to suffer the violence of various empires. "They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind."

It is into a sea of violence that Jesus is plunged. The salvation that he will secure for his sinful people can only be constituted by a parting of this sea by the peaceable hand of God.

The Way formed by this parting is where Jesus is, and it is where the church must be too if she is to live and preach the salvation that is meaningless without discipleship.


  1. I might be wrong with my understanding here Declan, however I think we should be careful as the line between proclaiming the truth and the antisemitism is quite thin.
    I do not agree at all with this James Mayer....I do not know much about him, but the fact that Martin Luther was courageous enough to unveil the truth about God's Word causing a tremendous impact on Church and the German culture doesn't justify his wrong attitude toward Jewish people...affecting the history of the church. It's well known that in his later years, while suffering from several illnesses and deteriorating health, Luther became increasingly antisemitic, writing that Jewish homes should be destroyed, their synagogues burned, money confiscated and liberty curtailed. These statements have contributed to his controversial status.
    It's not that I agree with Israel's transgressions but we must know the whole truth about Israel before making any "judgements" about her. As in Romans 9 v 30-33 we read:
    What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; 31 but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. 32 Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. 33 As it is written:
    “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble
    and a rock that makes them fall,
    and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”

    But I keep in mind as well as "because of their transgression, salvation has come to the Gentiles to make Israel envious. 12 But if their transgression means riches for the world, and their loss means riches for the Gentiles, how much greater riches will their full inclusion bring! Romans 11 v 11-12
    Nevertheless, I am not trying to argue with you here, just thought it is right from my side to tell what I believe. And I know that you are not looking for my approval here but I agree with your last verses and the whole idea in general.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Diana. Any word that is spoken against Jews here is only a word spoken by Jews themselves - that is, the prophets of Israel who decried Israel's violence, of which Jesus was the last.

    Of course in the limited nature of a blog post I couldn't go into the history of the church, so my silence regarding the fact that the church has all to often walked in the way of violence -- violence even against its fathers in the faith -- should not be interpreted as justification.

    The focus was simply on the text of Matthew and its textual links to Jewish prophets. But make no mistake about it - the judgement on Israel is also our judgement. We are all guilty, Jews and Gentiles, of not walking in the way of the Lord.