If you didn’t grow up in the church, you’d never know how subversive Jesus’s birth story really is.
Hell, if you did grow up in the church, there’s a good chance you don’t know how subversive the birth story is.
Every aspect, every piece, is a story of subversion and rebellion. From the birth itself to who shows up to see him. And this is true for both birth stories.
The Birth in Matthew:
In the first two chapters of the gospel we call Matthew, we read about an angel coming to Joseph and telling him his girlfriend is pregnant with the Messiah and he needs to do right by her. Not right as in the cultural norm and religious teaching of the day; that meant killing her. No, do right as in love her, marry her without sleeping together, and name the boy Jesus.
Joseph thinks about it. OK, he says, I’m in.
Some travelers, perhaps mystics or astrologers from Persia come looking for an infant would-be king to which a star will lead them. They head into Jerusalem and talk to everybody about their quest. King Herod, a paranoid and evil man, hears about this king, thinks he poses a threat and sends these astrologers to find the infant.
When the astrologers are warned in a dream not to tell Herod where Jesus is, they take off a different way, but Herod has it narrowed down to Bethlehem, so he has all the infant boys massacred.
The Holy Family flees to Egypt as refugees to wait out the tyranny, and only go home after Herod has died. Receiving word that his son is just as bad, the family hides out in the north, in the small village of Nazareth.
The Upshot in Matthew
Some of the things to take note particular to Matthew’s version.
The Would-Be King
– The tyranny of Herod and his paranoia about Jesus far overshadows the birth itself: a passive clause at the end of chapter 1. The location of Bethlehem (David’s city) and the genealogy of Jesus as a descendant of David puts him up as a contrast with Herod–the Roman-appointed, not God-anointed king. The unlikely status of Jesus then is contrasted to his divine status.
Joseph Breaks the Law
– In seeing Joseph do the “right” thing, we see him breaking the law. Not just civil law. The Law of Moses. In protecting Mary and the baby-to-be, he is going against centuries of tradition and Godly teaching.
The Holy Family Were Refugees
– To escape persecution and violence, they fled to a place which would receive them and stayed until it was safe to return home. This embodies the reminder throughout Scripture that we are to honor the refugee because we as a people were once refugees.
God Said Never to Return to Egypt
– In the Hebrew Scriptures, the people are commanded never to return to Egypt. It is the nation to which they were enslaved. And when Solomon makes deals with Egypt, it leads to the downfall of the monarchy. But in true redeeming fashion, Egypt, literally the last place Jews would turn to for protection, becomes the source of salvation.
Echoes of Moses
– This whole birth story serves as a reminder of the liberation from Egypt and casts Jesus in the role of Moses, prophetic leader and means of liberation. From being saved from massacre and Egyptian childhood to a quiet return home, the Egyptian refuge serves to connect Jesus to the biggest figure in Jewish teaching and the symbol of liberation from oppression.
The Birth in Luke:
In some of the most inspiring and fantastic prose in the whole Bible, the writer of Luke crafts a profound origin story which connects Jesus to his people, his family, and his place within society.
We have a parallel miracle birth story of John the Baptist and Jesus by cousins: Elizabeth and Mary.
Mary and Joseph, come from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, have no place to sleep, and give birth to the Son of God without the safety of a home or a midwife to attend to them.
Angels come to the shepherds in the field, calling them to come see what has happened–to visit their messiah (anointed), their savior. It is their visit and testimony to the glory of God which spreads the news of his birth.
Then Jesus has the full Jewish rabbi experience: named and circumcised on the 8th day, presented at the Temple, and at 12, Jesus hangs with the rabbis at the Temple, sharing his knowledge of the scriptures like a rabbinical student at the top of his class.
The genealogy comes after John the Baptist has grown, begins his ministry, and baptizes Jesus in the Jordan. This sets Jesus’s birth story up to cover, not only the physical birth but the essential moments of his life up to the birth of his ministry.
The Upshot in Luke
There’s Something About Mary
– While Matthew focuses on Joseph’s struggle with doing the “right” thing, Luke focuses on Mary’s uncommon wisdom of who God favors. Her song, the Magnificat is a subversive song of redemption which belies the message we often attribute to power and wealth as a blessing.
Favor in Struggle
– The Magnificat begins:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Mary considers herself blessed in spite of the trials this pregnancy will create. She sees it as proof of God’s love and preference for the oppressed. And that she is the living embodiment of who God favors.
– For a couple from the royal family, their impoverished lifestyle in the northern backwoods is a subtle reminder of their station. Home for the family is Bethlehem. So their return home for the census reveals their physical distance and separation from their family.
Kicked Out of Their Home
– We read a lot into the “no room at the inn” and that Jesus was laid in a “manger”. We think of tourists unable to stay at a motel because they’re all full and break into someone’s barn. That’s a whole lot of assuming.
A more direct reading includes the idea that they may have been denied service. And given the fact they were going home, there had to be someone with a couch. The statement that there was no room for them highlights the denial of a place for them in their own home city.
Out On the Streets
– And to that same point, the manger, a feeding trough, does not only suggest that they must have left the city to go find a farm. And given that no animals or barn are mentioned, but the lack of a place to lay their heads is, the clues paint a different birth scene: the street. Perhaps the trough in which Jesus is laid is for travel animals.
A Message to the Working Class
– The angels, rather than appearing to the Temple leaders, scribes, or Pharisees, come to a bunch of shepherds. They don’t appear to the wise and the scripturally knowledgeable, the ones keeping the law. The working class; the ones who don’t get regular baths receive the angelic message.
The Birth of Jesus Upends Expectations
Rather than tell a story about a particular moment in time and place, the particulars of the time and place reveal the revolutionary character of the gospel. They set the stage for both gospels to tell of all the ways Jesus came to upend that place and time, but also to keep coming back to upend the new place and time.
The birth of Jesus isn’t about that one sweet time of Jesus’s coming to earth and we can be thankful for what happened 2000 years ago.
The birth of Jesus is the spark of a rebellion.
A shifting of power from the top to the bottom, from the powerful to the powerless. It is the reversing of roles and the transforming of social systems of oppression.
Every detail reveals a message of liberation for the oppressed or the frantic fear of the oppressor to maintain his power.
These overturned expectations are built on a singular issue with the way human beings process our relationship to power: It’s one way or it’s another.
Jesus’s Birth Reveals Our False Choice
We’re all dualists. We can’t help it. It is built into our DNA, and thanks to the lizard brain, it is hardwired into our decision-making.
The Bible reveals the false-choice character of the dualistic mindset. From Cain and Abel to the Parable of the Prodigal Sons, we see complex stories of unmeasured and unequal relationship, not simple dualisms. We’re wrong to read these stories as showing one win and the other lose. For they reveal more complex truths about relationships.
Relationships in which some win and others have been winning already.
Cain is jealous that Abel gets a gold star from God. He’s pissed! It’s like he spent all week working on the science project and then his kid brother, who threw something together at the last minute gets a better grade. We know that sense of insecurity. It feels like rejection.
But God hasn’t rejected him.
Cain’s pissed that God gives Abel something special. Love and affection. Something younger siblings are less likely to feel.
And recognition for doing something new and creative. But that wasn’t the assignment! God told him to work the fields! Why is he getting praise for breaking the rules?
Because it isn’t zero-sum. God doesn’t have a finite amount of love.
The story’s parallel in Jesus’s parable of the Prodigal Sons opens up this dynamic even more. While most of our attention goes to the reunification of the lost son to his father, the story culminates with a jealous older brother breaking relationship with his father.
Over a false choice.
He rejects his dad because he feels rejected. The older becomes the prodigal because he hates the win-win situation.
The same dynamic present in the birth of a Messiah in poverty.
It’s present in the anxiety of the powerful and the exaltation of the powerless.
We struggle to hear how Jesus comes to be present for all people when the message itself is also about upending power.
We Make the False Choice to Ignore Rebellion
Like the need to hear some pastoral preaching after a couple weeks of prophetic sermons, we long to be comforted by the birth story.
But its very nature brings discomfort to the comfortable and comfort to the uncomfortable. This seems dualistic, but only if one’s loss of power is tied to the loss of God’s affection. Only if jealousy overrides the acceptance of God’s love for the poor, the outsider, and the refugee.
If we believe God’s rebellion of love is about bringing pain to the powerful or maintaining inequality so our families can live in luxury and comfort, then we’re living a false choice. One which doesn’t come from Scripture or Tradition. One that doesn’t come from the Holy Spirit.
It comes from our selfishness and fear. That level of anxiety and distrust isn’t the gospel. It’s the rejection of the gospel.
This seems to be our most persistent vice and the source of our greatest division, even now. Especially now. Our scarcity mindset. A belief in the world as a zero-sum contest of winning and losing. My winning depends on your losing. We even inject that into the gospel when it isn’t there.
Particularly in the revelation of Jesus. From the birth story, through the teachings, to the truly anti-zero-sum moment: the crucifixion.
Nothing about the gospel is zero-sum. Nothing.
The gospel is about sufficiency. About making sure all have enough. Not just enough to survive. Enough. Not that we all get crumbs, but that we all get fed our fill.
The manna in the desert? Everyone had enough. Sufficient to fill them. Not more. Not less. They ate their fill.
Jesus did the same in the feeding of the multitudes. They all ate their fill. There was sufficiency. Enough for all. Enough, too to take for the journey to feed more people. Every one of the twelve getting their turn to feed.
This is the Gospel Rebellion.
The end of the zero-sum. A rejection of selfish and petty power. A stand against oppression and with the oppressed. A big tent for all who reject the false-divisive character of human power.
In the birth story, we receive the seeds of rebellion; the spark, the match which ignites the holy fire of God’s presence. In both versions, it is out of humility that a true power grows. They inspire the rejection of the powers-that-be and their self-obsessed preservation mindset. And they give birth to a vision of redemption for those unredeemed by society.
Ultimately, we have the subversive reminder that light comes, not into our well-lit palaces and temples, but to the darkest street corners; not to our most well-heeled leaders or despicable tyrants, but to our meekest lambs and rejected monarchs.
Love and redemption come to all because it comes to those we’d never redeem.
It is a trope to focus then on our enemies, or worry about the redemption of the powerful, but that isn’t in the birth story.
What’s there is a rebellion against power and oppression. A rebellion born in poverty and a rejection of a family. And a revelation in the most unlikely of places. That’s where the conversation always begins.
And it’s through our bodies, the incarnate is enfleshed and revealed. A love, a gospel rebellion.