. . . you will name him Jesus. This means, “he will save his people from their sins.”
. . . they will name him Emmanuel (which means “God is with us”).
The writer we call Matthew believed that ancient prophecy was prediction. He undoubtedly knew that the prophecy he quoted from Isaiah is about Ahaz (a descendent of King David) who does not trust God’s promise. It is no accident that in Matthew’s story an angel comes to Joseph in a dream and explains why he should not just break off the engagement with Mary. Just as original patriarchal Joseph had dreamed of his own ascendance, and trusted the promise of God (see Genesis 37:5-11), so Joseph, the husband of Mary, unlike Ahaz, trusted God’s promise.
Matthew was convinced that Jesus was the Anointed one, the new Moses, who would save the people from the oppression and corruption of their Roman occupiers, just as Moses had liberated the ancestral Hebrew people from the oppression of slavery in Egypt. Joseph, the descendant of King David, at the end of Matthew’s ancestral list is assured that in fact, God is with the people. This child will save the people from their complicity with and corruption by the Roman Empire.
Before getting on with the rest of this discussion, some definitions of terms are in order.
Christianity since the 4th century has assumed that “salvation” means spending an eternal after-life in heaven. These blogs – and biblical scholars from Borg to Crossan, Spong and many others – define “salvation” as liberation from injustice. The Psalms of David and the voices of the prophets are all talking about salvation as deliverance from enemies, and assuring the security of justice for widows, orphans, and the stranger within the borders. Indeed, God has been known to side with the enemy, if that enemy is adhering to God’s rule of justice-compassion. (See, e.g., 1 Kings 21; 2 Kings 5)
Second, “sin” has usually meant actions that range from petty trespass to murder. But “sin,” as explained by Arthur Dewey, et al., in The Authentic Letters of Paul, really means “the corrupting seduction of power” (p. 209). When Joseph names Mary’s child “Jesus,” it is a political act. This Jesus is destined to not only liberate his people from injustice, but to bring deliverance from the political, social, and moral corruption that is part and parcel of civilized life.
Third, “faith” does not mean “belief” that a particular story is factually true. Faith means “trust,” or “confidence” that particular actions or conditions will produce a desired result. In religious terms, “faith in Jesus” means trust that the teachings and evidence of his life will bring liberation from injustice to those who follow him. “Faith in God” means trust in the nature of God’s realm (the kingdom of God), where distributive justice-compassion holds sway.
The Revised Common Lectionary Elves have chosen Romans 1:1-7 to go along with Matthew’s progression of Jesus’ lineage from human to divine. Compare the language of the New Revised Standard Version (linked above) and the Scholars Version:
Paul, slave of God’s Anointed, Jesus – summoned as an envoy [and] appointed to announce God’s world-changing news, which was anticipated by the prophets in holy scriptures. This news is about the “son of God” – who was physically descended from David, appointed and empowered as “son of God,” in accordance with the spirit of holiness, from the time of his resurrection from the dead – Jesus, the Anointed, our lord. Through him I have received the gracious favor of my calling to promote in his name the obedience that comes from a confident reliance upon God among all of the world’s nations. You yourselves are among those who are called, since you belong to Jesus the Anointed. [I am writing this] to all of God’s beloved in Rome, called to be God’s own people: may gracious favor and peace from God our Great Benefactor and from our lord Jesus the Anointed be with you.
The authors unpack several terms. When Paul calls himself a “slave of God’s Anointed,” he is claiming a parallel status with the elite of Roman society, known as “slaves of Caesar.” When Paul calls himself an “envoy,” he is claiming the same status as an imperial ambassador from Rome. When Paul announces “world-changing news,” he is claiming the proclamation of great deeds and events of an empire. But it is not the Roman empire. It is God’s empire.
Paul and Matthew are announcing a paradigm shift: from Moses to Jesus, and from the normalcy of imperial civilization to a world transformed into the rule of God.
The Elves are right for the wrong reasons.
Critics of religion (any religion, but most usually the Christian religion) have long maintained that the purpose of the church and its hierarchy is to control the people. Certainly the long history of collaboration between the church and various imperial regimes would support that idea. Those imperial regimes that fought the church – specifically Henry VIII – are part of the same history. Witch hunts, inquisitions, purges, and wars have been promulgated in the name of Jesus for nearly 2,000 years. Now it turns out it was all a mistake. Jesus did not die to save us from Hell in the next life. Jesus died because of the Hell that is normal civilization in this life.
If you don’t think living outside God’s realm of non-violent, distributive justice compassion is Hell, just ask the “99ers” in the U.S. who have been unable to find work for 99 months, and are now cut off from any further unemployment benefits. Or ask the people who are dying because they can’t afford the most rudimentary health care. Ask the prisoners on Death Row in Texas and California who have been wrongly convicted of crimes they did not commit. Ask the heads of households (men and women) who have been evicted from their homes because of faulty if not blatantly illegal loan documents. The list is unending, and not confined to these United States.
A government body, such as the U.S. Senate, whose rules are so corrupt that clear majorities cannot pass legislation, is a collaborator with the worst of historical empires. Whether we call them Pharaoh or Caesar, the result is the same.
Our leaders are more concerned with wearing their favorite Christmas tie than they are with assuring citizens can find food, clothing, shelter, and medical care; and the ones who now are crying “foul” over the President’s capitulation to monied interests are no different. They were afraid to take a stand until after the election when their jobs were no longer on the line. That is corruption; that is immorality. In the more traditional translation from 1 Corinthians 15:56, that is “the strength of sin, which is the law.” The Scholars Version removes all doubt and lets no one off the hook: “The law is what makes the seductive power of corruption so lethal.”
As Pogo might have put it, “we have seen the overwhelming forces of evil empire, and it is and has been ourselves all along.”
“Jesus is the reason for the season,” our conservative friends piously remind us. But that is far from true. The season in the northern hemisphere is Winter, and in the southern hemisphere is Summer. The earth has nearly reached the zenith in its eternal journey around the sun, producing the longest days of light in the south and the longest days of darkness in the north.
These are ancient metaphors giving humanity yet another chance to get it right.
“Through [Jesus, the Anointed] I have received the gracious favor of my calling to promote in his name the obedience that comes from a confident reliance upon God among all of the worlds nations,” Paul wrote to the community in Rome. Then he reminded them and all who read his words after them: “You yourselves are among those who are called, since you belong to Jesus the Anointed. [I am writing this] to all of God’s beloved in Rome, called to be God’s own people.”
We can call the baby “savior”; we can call the child “god with us”; but the names are meaningless unless we answer the call and sign on to the Covenant.