What are the two essential messages of the birth narratives of Luke and Matthew?
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Matthew, in stark contrast to Mark’s “narrative of omission” begins his account with an elaborate genealogy that places Jesus as an ancestor of King David and Abraham. Here already Matthew shows his special interest and the intended audience for his Gospel. He is writing to the Jews and presents Jesus as a King, better than David and a teacher greater than Moses.
Matthew’s birth narratives focus on the role of Joseph, who is “a just man” in Matthew’s words of this event. Joseph is contrasted with Herod, an unjust and wicked ruler. Matthew takes great care to show how the birth event of Jesus fulfils prophecies made in the Old Testament and makes use of these prophecies to present Jesus as a governor, the ruler of Israel, a prince, and as God’s Son.
It is Matthew that tells us about the wise men that came to worship, bringing gifts fit for a king and the murderous acts of the bad king Herod. It is he who records the journey of the holy family to and back from Egypt (in no small part to illustrate how Jesus’ life mirrors that of the people of Israel); and of the angels who in dreams direct Joseph. Matthew, in his powerful birth account, presents Jesus, in fulfilment of the prophecies and hopes of the Hebrew Scriptures, as the King of the Jews who has been given all authority in Heaven and Earth. He is Emmanuel, God with us.
Luke’s Gospel is an attempt, in his own words, to put in place “an orderly account” of the birth, ministry, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Luke wrote his Gospel primarily for a Gentile audience and focuses on the traditionally marginalized and neglected groups in First Century Mediterranean societies. Thus Luke’s Gospel is full of references to women, children, the sick, the poor and rejected people groups like the Samaritans.
This special and caring focus on the neglected and rejected also features in Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus. Luke’s birth narrative is the longest out of all of the four Gospels and gives special attention to the role of the Holy Spirit and to the women in the story. Here the angel appears to Mary (not to Joseph) and it is Elizabeth and then later again Mary that each has words of praise and blessings recorded. Luke in his human focus, records the “homeless” status of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem, the special care given to the baby Jesus as he is born and how a lowly feeding troth becomes a crib.
As if to further emphasize this consistent focus on the poor and on the rejected of society, the angels appear to shepherds in Luke’s account, not to the rich, privileged and powerful wise men as in Matthew’s account. It is the ordinary shepherds that witness this glorious event and became the first messengers of God’s peace and goodwill towards men on earth.
The birth narrative of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel illustrates the complete kenotic act of God in Jesus, born amongst the poor and rejected, bringing good tidings of peace and goodwill to all.
Hint: think of the themes of fulfilment and servanthood. But fulfilment of what? And servanthood in what senses?