The Bible is a gift that enacts an event
I think we should read the Bible the same way we shop for gifts. See, each epistle or Gospel or Psalm or whatever we’re reading is a gift from the author to their audience, crafted specifically for them. But we can also extend that gift to us, since we have it before us too. The Bible isn’t just a story of a people, it’s a revelation, so it has relevance today.
The story is revealed to a variety of people, and the message that they need to hear helps craft the nuances of the story. The authors are crafting a narrative, breathed by God, and that leads them down different paths. They are writing a story of Jesus’ life with the same goal in mind: to help a group of people learn to follow him. They aren’t writing a cold history. They’re writing a story, a sort of love story, one that doesn’t describe “events,” but rather one that helps enact an event.
Do what the Bible does, not what it says
Sometimes the text appears to contradict itself, for example, we see this all over the infancy narratives in Luke and Matthew—that is the stories that tell the birth of Jesus. There are different characters mentioned, different events focused on, sometimes things are omitted too. The big points are the same: Jesus is given the same role (Son of God and Savior), his birth is announced by an angel, his parents are married, the birth is from God to a virgin not through intercourse but through the Holy Spirit. Joseph is part of King David’s line too. He’s born during the time of Herod the Great, and grows up in Nazareth.
John the Baptist’s birth is in Luke, but not Matthew. An angel visits Mary in Luke and an angel visits Joseph in Matthew. In Matthew, Mary’s already pregnant during the annunciation to Joseph, but in Luke she is not yet pregnant. Notably, the canticles in Luke, of both Zechariah and Mary (the latter also known as the Magnificat), are absent in Matthew. Finally, in the post-birth narratives, Shepherds visit the family in Luke, while the Magi visit them in Matthew.
All of those differences and similarities, in my opinion, are the result of the story that the Gospel writers are trying to tell to their audiences. Personalizing the Bible, and the Gospels specifically, can help us relate to them more than a cold academic analysis (which I just spent four-and-half-years doing, and my faith survives! A miracle!). I want you to see the stories are personal gifts from the writers to their audience. And there’s a meta-narrative here too; and it contributes to this idea that I like: that we should do what the Bible does, not what it says. In the same way the Gospel writers are crafting the same message differently, we need to do the same today. The story we tell about Jesus is for Philadelphia in 2019. The Incarnation is an event that is ongoing, even today, one they are inviting their audience to participate in and one that we’re participating in now.
Matthew is including the other
In Matthew, the Gospel writer tells of the Magi. Matthew is trying to shift his largely Jewish audience to consider “pagans,” “Gentiles,” “foreigners.” So he makes the foreign and distant aspect of the Magi, or Magians here, very clear and apparent.
The way he’s writing is undoing the power and influence of Herod, whom Jewish people would be normally loyal to, and he’s focusing on the other. This is a theme for Matthew, extending the mission of God to Gentiles. And he has his work cut out for him because there is a distinct prejudice among his audience with pagans, or foreigners, as it were. In the Greek Old Testament, the same word for Magi, is used to describe Daniel’s enemies, so there is some hostility that’s even written into the text and thus the culture.
He’s also deconstructing worldly power; he’s clearly showing that inclusion of Gentiles, the Magi, in this case, disturbs worldly power, in this case, Herod. He’s writing to undo that, too.
In the end, the pagans worship Jesus, and Herod is threatened by that. It is a demonstration that God doesn’t need honor from Israel if they won’t offer it because the Gentiles will, the pagans will. Later on in the book, when John the Baptizer enters in, he’ll tell the entitled religious leaders that God will raise children out of stones to honor God, and not even Abraham’s heirs are entitled. The writer is trying to undo the power differential between Jewish Christians and prospective Gentile ones. This opening makes it clear: Jesus is coming for everyone, Jew and Gentile.
It remains clear, though, that the Jewish people held a prejudice, not unlike the one we see in parts of our culture today, that foreigners will pollute our environment. I think you can make a clear political parallel, and I think it’s critically important to do that, but I think it’s noteworthy for us to imagine the same problem today. Who is being excluded? How can we include them? Who are the Gentiles today? In our neighborhoods, in our lives, in our families.
Luke is including the lowly
Luke’s gospel is distinct from Matthew’s in a sense; instead of being focused on the outsider, which Luke does, Luke focuses on the lowly, the outcast, the disenfranchised.
We can see this clearly in the annunciation and the canticle that follows. Mary sings the “thesis” of Luke:
Powerful things he has done with his arm:
he routed the arrogant through their own cunning.
Down from their thrones he hurled the rulers,
up from the earth he raised the humble.
The hungry he filled with the fat of the land,
but the rich he sent off with nothing to eat.
Read through that lens, the Shepherds story extends that theme. If I’m being honest, I think sometimes the lowliness of the shepherds is overstated; it was a lowly profession and most likely the shepherds keeping watch were watching someone else’s sheep. But the Old Testament heralds shepherds as leaders and honors them; the sheep and shepherding motif is significant in the Jewish community, throughout the Old and New Testament, but it is uniquely Jewish, in a sense. There is a similar “topsy-turvy” idea happening in the Jewish community with regards to the role of shepherd, but for Luke’s Gentile audience, there is a much different association happening.
We see the role reversal Mary prophesied about here. The shepherds are elevated to declare to the world that Jesus is born. The first to find out. Living on the margins, they are the perfect recipients of this upside-down Gospel. The Gospel is written and enacted for them. Luke is writing it that way too. The Gospel is for the oppressed, for the poor, for the disenfranchised.
They are being told of not just a new Savior, but a new ruler. A new ruler, a new system, a new political economy even. They expected something different and looking for it. A baby born in a manger is perfect for them.
The poor and the other: the Gospels are being written to them. The writers thought of their audience and are offering them a gift. In the text itself, we see the same care to include others too. Receive the gift yourself. You’re being included too. God cares about you and writes to you as well.
The church needs open borders
I think that welcoming people to our community is a great expression of loving them. I think we want to imagine the people around us, in our city, in our neighborhoods, in our lives, and actually craft a church that is helpful and meaningful to them. Our church can sort of be a gift to someone else. So that’s the project we’re working on.
As a child of immigrants, that sort of thought process is really important to me. It’s hard to find inclusive spaces. And sometimes I think people are more concerned with themselves and their own development than they are including a stranger. I think that’s pretty antithetical to the Gospel, but I think it’s common, especially in these increasingly xenophobic times.
I think that’s the tension we face when we make the church just about deepening ourselves, instead of also widening ourselves. It probably is the result of my own experience, but I think we’ve heard that refrain a lot, “take care of your own,” before you bring someone else in. Deepening and widening are not mutually exclusive; they happen together invariably. Thus, our church needs open borders.
Inclusion is a part of discipleship and deepening. Part of our own deepening and flourishing is including others too. Many of us know that immigrants make the country richer and deeper. But inclusion makes the church richer and deeper too.