Reflection by Ian McPherson, Union Theological Seminary
Brothers, sisters, and siblings of God, together I want us to consider this question today: What are we waiting for? Certainly, in this season of Advent, we gather together as we wait symbolically for the coming of the Christ child. But this child was born some two millennia ago. The church has been formally celebrating Christmas and Advent since about the 4th and 5th centuries, respectively. And, even as I look around this room, I dare say we here have collectively celebrated a couple hundred Christmases ourselves. So, I ask again—what exactly are we waiting for?
As we ponder this, let us turn this question toward the author of today’s text. What was the writer of Matthew waiting for as he penned his Gospel? Let’s start by looking at three broad themes that emerge in the work overall. 1) First, Matthew’s Gospel is known for its emphasis on the teachings of Jesus. 2) It is also distinctive in its use of the word ekklesia, or gathering, also translated as church. 3) Matthew’s author—despite almost certainly being a Jew himself—is also a strong critic of the Jewish leadership of his day. Considered together, these themes illuminate this Gospel writer’s agenda: to inspire a distinct community identity centered on the teachings of Jesus and pitted against the religious leadership of Matthew’s day.
Stepping back to examine the context in which this Gospel was written offers us further clarity to the author’s intentions. Given that this text was written about a decade following the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, Matthew’s desire for a new community identity is understandable. Such traumatic events tend to bring our priorities into sharp focus. They tend to bring our enemies into focus too. This breathtaking, heartbreaking show of Roman imperial domination must have been at the forefront of the Gospel writer’s mind as he sought to defend the Jesus movement. In doing this, he took on the religious leaders of his day—those he felt had been complicit in the Roman order of things. Those who had refused to rock the boat. Those who continually sacrificed the Jewish community’s most vulnerable on the altar of social stability. This is why we frequently find the Matthean Jesus in conflict with the Pharisees, a political faction that tries to temper Jewish attitudes of revolt against Rome. It is telling, then, that Jesus’s teachings—of which Matthew was so fond—are often defined against these Phariseean foils. So, what is Matthew waiting for? He is waiting for a community whose righteousness would exceed that of these religious leaders and threaten the very imperial system to which they had sold out.
Indeed, this concept of a higher, anti-imperial righteousness is not just a fourth theme of Matthew’s Gospel I would like to highlight—it is the very first the author addresses, the one that frames his writing from the beginning. It appears in today’s text, when in verse 19 Matthew’s author declares Joseph a righteous man—dikaios. Now if we understand this righteousness to mean that he is “one who is faithful to the demands of the Law,” as one scholar put it, then we can understand the “impossible dilemma” in which he finds himself in this narrative: Mary is pregnant. To be faithful to the law, he must be unfaithful to his betrothed. In effect, he has two choices: condemning her to death or condemning her to public disgrace. Heartbreaking as it is, fearful as he remains for Mary’s fate, dismissing her quietly is the only option that spares her life—at least for a time. Joseph’s fear is telling—he is waiting, praying, hoping against hope for a way out of this crisis.
But he doesn’t wait long. Soon an angel appears to him in a dream and offers another definition of righteousness: one who is faithful to God’s command; one who is merciful. Just when he thinks he has done his best, as prescribed by the law and religious and social convention. Just when Joseph thinks he has exhausted the limits of divine mercy within himself and for his betrothed. Just when he makes a decision sufficient enough to finally allow him sleep, God interrupts his rest with a dream. God provides a radical new understanding of the righteousness to which Joseph is called. In Matthew 12 when Jesus defends the hungry and the infirmed against the Pharisees, he states that God desires mercy and not sacrifice. Sure he is relaying a message Joseph had passed down to him, a lesson Joseph learns when a merciful God refuses to sacrifice Mary on the altar of scriptural legalism.
But what of Mary? What is Mary waiting for? Her silence in this text is deafening. It is difficult to know what Mary wants at all, as Matthew’s author sees little reason to give her voice enough to share it. Scholars tell us it is probable that her unexpected pregnancy is the product of rape, and likely that of a Roman soldier. In Matthew’s account and in too many interpretations of it today, she is textually trapped within various patriarchal systems of oppression. Perhaps she finds at least some comfort in her marriage and in her son’s adoption by Joseph, which affords them protection they would not have had otherwise. What is Mary waiting for? Liberation? Survival? It’s a question whose absent answer continues to haunt this text. But we must continue asking it of her and all the Marys we encounter today.
In light of this text—with all its promise and all its problems—we must ask ourselves again: What are we waiting for? Matthew’s birth narrative may be set decades before Jesus would be known as teacher, but true to form its author presents within it a teachable moment for us, the reader. And though it appears chapters before the word ekklesia, Joseph’s expanded and divinely inspired understanding of righteousness defines the very ethic upon which the church should be built. In this narrative, God promotes to us a radical mercy, one that bends our very understanding of what it means to remain faithful to the scripture and to one another. Considering its imperial context, this text also challenges us—as God challenged Joseph—to resist systems of oppression that render people expendable. To be merciful as God instructed Joseph to be, to remain faithful to Jesus’s teachings, to be the church we must be a community that declares God is indeed with us—with all of us.
And if God is with us, then perhaps God is waiting with us too. But what is God waiting for? According to Matthew, God is waiting for a religious community defined by an ethic of radical righteousness, one less concerned with individual obedience than collective liberation. God is waiting for a church more faithful to the oppressed than to its own legalism. God is waiting for a people who love mercy for those in need. God is waiting for our refusal to sacrifice others for the sake of maintaining the social order. God is waiting for a church that hungers and thirsts after righteousness as deeply as She does. God is waiting for a people ready to receive Her in-breaking into the world. God is waiting for us. So, what are we waiting for?
Ian McPherson is an M.Div student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Ian is recognized as one of the New Faces of Ministry: 2016-17. To learn more about Ian, view his New Faces of Ministry bio.
About Union Theological Seminary
Union Theological Seminary is located in New York City and is known for its commitment to justice work. Union is recognized as one of the Seminaries that Change the World: Class of 2016-17. To learn more about Union Theological Seminary, visit their website at www.utsnyc.edu, or view their Seminaries that Change the World profile.