Matthew’s version of our favorite holiday [Matthew 1:18-2:23] is hardly recognizable except for the star and the wise men. Joseph nearly divorcing Mary, Herod’s diabolical ploy, the slaughter of the innocents, the flight to Egypt, waiting for a wicked king to die—none of these things make the cover of Christmas cards. We prefer idyllic pastoral scenes of shepherds tending their flock by night, winged angels hovering in radiant splendor, the customary Christmas crèche featuring parents attending the newborn, the quiet shelter of a wooden stable with barn animals reverentially witnessing the miracle.
In other words, we feature Luke’s story over Matthew’s. But even Luke’s account has been sanitized so as not to offend our holiday sensibilities of good cheer and great joy. (Whenever I read Luke’s account, I cannot help but hear the voice of Linus, Charlie Brown’s trusted friend, as the narrator. “Lights please.”) Yet Luke’s nativity story has its dark moments too—with poll taxes and displaced imperial subjects. Even the manger scene was not as comfy as we try to make it out to be. (One wonders what a “scratch and sniff ” Bible would do to bring us down to reality: [scratch, scratch] “Whew! That doesn’t smell like Christmas!”) Even in our world that prizes so-called “reality TV,” we don’t want the real Christmas story.
There’s a reason why such scenes, especially from Matthew’s nativity story, never appear on our Christmas cards. No one would buy them because no one wants to see it. Can you imagine staging the “slaughter of the innocents” during the Christmas play? Herodian soldiers enter stage right, bearing swords, murdering all the two-year-olds on the Bethlehem stage. Parents shriek in horror, covering the eyes of their children, “Don’t look, Johnny! I don’t know what they’re trying to do up there. Must have their holidays confused. Hey, this isn’t Halloween!” Yet there it is in Matthew’s story. In all of its glory. And, we turn our eyes away from the tragedy because everyone knows Christmas is about warm feelings, nostalgic recollections, and finding serenity in the midst of our chaotic lives.
So we center on the only part of Matthew’s story that works for us: the gift-giving wise men. Rather than play down the episode, we go to the other extreme and exaggerate the significance of what happened. Indeed, this may be the worst case of contrived justification bound up in all Christian holidays. (We don’t even try to justify the Easter bunny on Resurrection Sunday.) Once my children learned the truth about Santa Claus, they asked, “Why do we get gifts on Jesus’s birthday? Shouldn’t we give him a gift?” As I tried to justify the custom, appealing to the behavior of the wise men only made things worse. We all know why gift-giving has become the generating center of the holiday; the commercialization of Christmas is built on the foundation of greed. We always want more. Some families try to counteract our selfish inclinations stoked by holiday shopping with serving food to the homeless on December 25th. Others have launched a “war on Christmas,” trying to reclaim the religious significance of Advent, focusing our attention with the worn-out cliché “the reason for the season” and offering strangers the defiant greeting, “Merry Christmas.” Why do we try so hard? Perhaps it’s because Christians presume Christmas is our holiday, a holy observance that must be defended against the pagan influences of our corrupt society.
But Matthew would remind us—especially through the story of the wise men—that Jesus doesn’t belong to us. He was born for the whole world. That’s why the magi showed up in the first place, with their gaudy gifts and pagan astrology. In their own, flawed way, they recognized the significance of his birth. I think about that part of Matthew’s version of Christmas when I walk through shopping malls during the holiday season, taking in the irony of hearing “O, Come All Ye Faithful” as background music to the economic boon of the retail industry. “Even unbelievers know this matters,” I mutter to myself. There’s something strangely appealing to me about seeing all kinds of people—even the “wrong kind of people” in their pagan ways—celebrating Christmas. Jesus belongs to everyone, whether we like it or not. And as Matthew’s story reminds us, not everyone will like it—especially the powerful, the insiders, those who think they’re appointed to rule the world. Submit to King Jesus? Hardly. They have an empire to run, a kingdom of this world to rule, and they will do everything in their power—even shed innocent blood—to protect it. Oh, they may pay lip service to Jesus, promising to worship him. But we all know that you can’t take some politicians at their word. Feigning sincerity is their craft; power politics is their game. And they’ll destroy anyone who dares to oppose them. There’s no way on earth (perhaps in hell one day? Phil 2:10–11) they will bend their knee to another. Indeed, those who try to rule the world always reject the King. That’s what Christmas is all about, too.
So, despite the popularity of our sanitized versions of Luke’s account, I’m drawn to Matthew’s story—all of it—the parts we like and especially the parts we ignore. It’s not because I want to shore up the economic welfare of our country. It’s not because I have some peculiar desire for dwelling on the macabre realities of life. It’s not because American politics always leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
No; somehow I find hope knowing that even when Jesus was born, there were outsiders bearing gifts, politicians trying to hold onto power, and people in Bethlehem screaming, “Where is God?” Rachel mourning for her children. Mary probably grieved over the news down in Egypt, living off of the gold provided by the magi. After all, the Bethlehem women were a part of their little community—friends who shared resources, stories, and daily chores. They did life together. Their children played together. Such news may have even compelled Mary to ask the same question in the face of such human suffering, “God, where are you?”
He’s a vulnerable baby, hiding out in Egypt due to the generosity of pagans, waiting for a wicked king to die.
For some reason, I love that part of the story nobody tells during Christmas.
— Rodney Reeves, Matthew (Story of God Bible Commentary)
How to Use This Book
Matthew (Story of God Bible Commentary) will help you preach and teach fresh lessons from the gospel of Matthew. Scot McKnight (one of the series’ general editors) picked it as a 2018 Jesus Creed book of the Year, explaining, “this book exemplifies everything we wanted in this series: expository finesse along with pastoral sensitivity.”
The Story of God Bible Commentary examines each part of Scripture in three sections:
- LISTEN to the Story: Includes the complete NIV text, plus references to other texts at work in each passage. This way you’ll experience each passage as a part of the Bible’s grand story.
- EXPLAIN the Story: Explores and illuminates each text from within its canonical and historical setting.
- LIVE the Story: Reflects on how each text can be lived today and includes contemporary stories and illustrations. (Reeves’ article above is selected from LIVE the Story section on Matthew 1:18-2:23.)