“‘Where is the infant king of the Jews?’ the Magi asked. ‘We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.'” (Matthew 2:2)
“Herod called together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” (Matthew 2:4)
In this story of the Magi, we see a theme continuing in Matthew, of the irrational and the outside. Just as Mary’s pregnancy was outside the genealogy and narrative of Israel, so too the Magi are lead by a cosmic sign and not by Israel’s scriptures. They are led by the emergence of Christ in a real world, and not by theoretical prophecies that never enter actual history.
“‘Go and find out all about the child,’ Herod said, ‘and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.'” (Matthew 2:8)
Although Herod is told by the priests and scribes where the Christ is to be born, he still doesn’t go, but sends the Magi to Bethlehem. Prophecies are dead letters unless and until they are realized in the real world. For Herod, the Christ is just an Idea; he is not interested in Jesus himself. What he fears is that anyone would adopt the Idea, as a king (like Herod himself) adopts the Idea of a “king” and fills the role. By slaughtering all the infants, he is not merely accounting for all possible claimants—he is killing each one individually, personally, because each one could fill the Christ-Idea. Each one is a rival, even if they are not actually Jesus.
In Matthew’s account of the Magi, which is not found in the other Gospels, we see a theme developing. Although Matthew cites prophecies, and appears to be giving a straightforward “proof” for fulfillment, there is a deeper point being made about prophecy and history. Jesus is not the Messiah because he fulfilled the prophecies. Rather, he is the Messiah because he is the Messiah. The prophecies were not for him, but for us. He no more fulfills the prophecies than he fulfills the Law—because to fulfill the Law implies that the person doing the fulfilling is in need of Law to hold them together (i.e., they are broken). The Law, and the prophets, were made for man, not man for the Law and the prophets. Matthew’s account reveals that Jesus is not an Idea. He is not a prophecy realized. The Magi could find him because they followed the living world, the moving star. But Israel, the priests and scribes, could not find the Christ in Bethlehem, because they were looking for him in the prophecies, in dead books, in an Idea.
What this means, for us trying to understand discipleship, is that Jesus cannot be found in letters, in books, in pronouncements, in interpretations. Jesus is only found in history, in the flesh, in the person before our eyes. If we do not find Jesus in the real world we live in, we will never find him, no matter how many prophecies we read, how many priests and scribes we listen to, or how many innocents we slaughter. Every self-righteous offense against our brother is a massacre, because we think that we are defending our precious Idea. But the Other, our brother, is not a sacrifice to our Ideas. Herod is a monstrous revelation of what happens when we live in an Ideology of Christ—for, then, Christians are the greatest monsters in the world; the corruption of the best is the worst. We think, especially we American Christians, that we must defend some Idea of Christ, and so we take up our swords and fight, even the sword of the Word. But Christ is not there in our victories, he is among the Magi, among those who follow a different star. We will not find him among the brothers we slaughter, because he lives.
“So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: I called my son out of Egypt.” (Matthew 2:14-15)
Again, we see a developed theme in Matthew—God acting outside the narrative, outside Israel. The Christ must leave Israel because Israel was a rival to the Christ-Idea. Although the Christ-Idea was Israel’s reason for being, how could Israel ever recognize the Christ, because it would mean the end of Israel and the Christ-Idea. Those in power must always kill the prophets, because the prophets are outside the community; they point to Another to come. A prophet is not without honor, except in his own home and among his own people.
The infancy narrative in Matthew is not merely a nice story—it is a radical critique of religion and the narrative of belief. Believers will kill anyone who challenges, who steps outside, their belief—will kill even God himself, whom they always imprison in their narrative, turn him into an idol. There was no greater nation of idolaters than Israel, precisely because they worshiped the One True God. The Christ cannot come out of Israel, as we saw in Matthew’s genealogy. He must come out of the womb of a Virgin, out of Egypt, out of “the least among the leaders of Judah” (Matthew 2:6). If Israel was true, honorable, holy—then the Messiah must be illegitimate, despised, not respectable.
“But when Joseph learned that Archelaus had succeeded his father Herod as ruler of Judea he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he left for the region of Galilee. Then he settled in a town called Nazareth. In this way the words spoken through the prophets were to be fulfilled: He will be called a Nazarene.” (Matthew 2:22-23)
To be a “Nazarene” in Matthew’s Gospel is not merely a description of a hometown. To be a Nazarene is to be so embedded in Israel as to be hidden, indistinguishable. When Jesus returns from Egypt, he is not placed in palaces of power, or in the temple, or among the scribes, so that he may grow into someone of consequence. No! He is hidden in the real world, among the most ordinary people of Israel, among people who do not live in Ideas or texts or offices; he is hidden among the least among us who live in flesh and blood, in history.
When Jesus emerges out of Nazareth as an adult, for his public ministry (many years later), he does not do so as a rival to anyone in Israel, as though he were an Israelite. He has gone into the heart of Israel, into the common people, into Nazareth, and he has been transformed into something outside what Israel could ever expect or imagine. The prophets, in all their dim visions, could see what the heart of Israel contained, in its truest light, but only Jesus emerges outside the darkness of prophecy, and in himself has replaced Israel. That is the Messiah, not the fruit of Israel, but its root—God himself. Only by going to the root of Israel could Jesus emerge publicly as the Messiah, for the Messiah brings Israel back to the beginning, not forward to an end. (By the way, the remarkable vocation of Charles de Foucauld was to imitate the “life of Nazareth” and be a “universal brother” to “the furthest removed, the most abandoned”).
For the Gospel writers as historians, as storytellers, Christ is an Idea that they shape out of an actual life. It is not a Life they shape out of an Idea. Who could read the Hebrew prophets of the Messiah, and invent from them the Jesus of the Gospels? Jesus was clearly a man who had absorbed the Idea of the Messiah. Whether he actually was the Messiah, or simply incarnated the Idea, is hard to answer—maybe it doesn’t matter. Jesus transcended a religious Idea the way a poet transcends an emotional Idea–not through some mystical divinization, but by the explosion of reality. The Life of Christ was the Incarnation of the deepest and highest Idea of the Messiah, the Christ. The Jews thought that the Christ would ascend to God, but Jesus showed that the Messiah-Idea can never come to anything unless God descends to man. Without that, the Jews are forever waiting for an Idea who will never arrive, because to arrive would be the death of the Idea. This is what the priests and pharisees feared: if the Messiah had arrived, what would become of priests and pharisees? They would no longer be the keepers of the Holy; they would lose their place.
“A genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1)
In giving the long genealogy, Matthew seems to be giving a straightforward “proof” of Jesus’ ancestral legitimacy. Yet, after recording 42 generations of men who begot, Matthew comes to Joseph, but it is not “of him” (Joseph) that Christ was born, but Mary: “of her was born Jesus who is called Christ.” (Matthew 1:16)
In other words, Mary does not complete the genealogical line in Matthew’s narrative, but is entirely an intervention from without. The Messiah was not an Idea that the Jews could build toward, but something entirely outside their possibility—what the prophets prophesied was not Jesus, only a dim Messiah-Idea. Jesus could no more look like Israel than he could look like Joseph; he sprung only from the loins of God in the womb of a Virgin; he sprung from a God who could not be man, and from a woman who could not know man.
The paradoxical history of Israel is that it goes from God to Abraham to David to Joseph, only to find that, rather than a progression, they’ve merely gone back to the beginning—to a God who is outside their descent, their ideas, their progression.
Matthew’s conception of history is not linear, not narrative, not progressive (despite what it looks like), but wholly meaningless. The Messiah does not give meaning to Israel’s story, he says only what Yahweh says–I Am. All mouths are shut, all stories are meaningless, because they all go in search of an end point, and the Messianic end is in the beginning. We see this later in the Gospel, when the Rich Young Man asks Jesus how he can enter the kingdom, and Jesus tells him that to enter another place he has to leave his current place. It’s such a confounding and literal answer to the man’s question: if you want to go there, leave everything here. Yet, even though the man has asked Jesus how do to just that, he is baffled by the answer.
“Her husband Joseph, being a man of honor and wanting to spare her publicity, decided to divorce her informally.” (Matthew 1:19)
The Holy Spirit acts outside the respectable, the honorable, the legitimate. Joseph thinks that Mary has lost her place in the narrative that leads from Abraham to God. But here he learns that God is not in the narrative, but in the womb of a woman untouched by man and his intentions, by Israel and its begettings.
Note, also, that God speaks to Joseph, not merely through an Angel, but through an Angel through a dream. The Angel does not appear as a character in the narrative of the real world, but as an intuition. Joseph’s reason and logic are fine: Mary has fallen from Israel and must be quietly dismissed. But God regards Israel’s reason and logic as little as he regards Israel’s history and its characters—not at all.
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ genealogy and birth is a lens to understand Christian discipleship: Where shall we look to find God? In doctrine? In an institutional or dogmatic history? In those who are respectable or venerable in religion? No! We must look for God in the irrational, the paradoxical, the dishonorable, the outcast (or, outlier). Whenever we think that we have understood or obeyed God, we see in that very delusion a trap—for God is always outside our narratives and expectations. ALWAYS! That’s why, when the pharisees and lawyers ask Jesus a question, he always answers them indirectly.
“Now all this took place to fulfill the words spoken by the Lord through the prophet: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, a name which means ‘God-is-with-us.'” (Matthew 1:22-23)
Putting aside Matthew’s attempt to “prove” that a prophecy has been fulfilled, what is the abstracted meaning of this prophecy by Isaiah? It’s a pairing of opposites and impossibilities—Can a virgin give birth to a son? Can God be with us? This is the Idea of the Christ, a paradox, a sign of contradiction. At best, the Gospel writers are right that Jesus fulfilled the prophecies, literally and historically. But at worst, the Gospel writers have made the Messiah-Idea real in their story-making of the Life of Jesus. If that’s the case, does it make Christ any less real in Jesus? No more than in calling each other “Jason” or “Taylor” or “Malcolm” do we lie—not that there really is such a person in these names (we all have different Ideas of the person when we say the name), but is there not some human need to give Ideas a name and a face?
If we tried to deconstruct our daily lives the way scholars try to deconstruct the Gospels, maybe there would be true findings, but what use would there be in living, in seeing each other, naming each other, speaking to each other? The Life of Christ in the Gospels is no more or less real than the lives we live every day. Whether or not one believes in the Life of Christ literally, the Gospels are the literary expression of a Person-Idea greater than any other in history; greater, even, than Oedipus Rex or Hamlet or Don Quixote; more primordial, more divine, more human.