Advent Alphabet: S is for “So what?”

so-what-babyS is for So what? (It’s also the title of my favourite track on the classic Miles Davis jazz album, Kind of Blue.)

Over the last twenty or so years, when I have taught the material in yesterday’s letter about the “real story” of Jesus birth, I have encountered three basic responses.

People have asked, “Why have I been involved with church most of my life, and never heard that Matthew and Luke tell different stories?”

They find it hard to believe there are significant factual differences between the two gospels. The best way to check it out is to read Matthew chapters one and two, and then read Luke chapter one, and chapter two up to verse 20.

The second response, fortunately less common, has been anger. “Why are you telling me this? I like the story the way I remember it.”

The story as many of us remember it from Sunday School pageants, and story-book retellings is a “conflation”- which is what scholars call it when two or more stories are fused into one.

The third response, the one I secretly hoped for in these teaching situations, is part of the title of today’s letter. “So what?” Why does it matter?

The differences in the stories of Jesus’ birth serve to remind us Matthew and Luke were written as gospels, rather than history. The authors were doing theological, rather than journalistic work.

Matthew was written at least 50 years after Jesus’ death. Luke may have been written a little later. The authors were at best 2nd generation members of the Jesus movement- not amongst the original disciples. (It was common in the ancient world to attach the name of an honoured figure to a religious document- in tribute, and to claim some of the authority of the person.)

Matthew’s author was probably a Jewish scribe (perhaps trained in the Jewish religious system), who lived in Syria, and was a Jewish convert to Christianity. Scholars see hints that he wrote after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Rome in the year 70 C.E.

Luke’s author was probably a Gentile who became a follower of Jesus. He wrote his gospel in “koine’ ”, the ancient greek that was the common language of government and trade in the Roman empire.

Each Gospel writer used stories from the Jesus movement’s oral tradition, as well as hymns and sermons, and other documents shared amongst the early congregations. They wove them together with their own style, and agenda. They wrote for specific audiences, and aimed to be accessible, and sensible to the people who would hear their words read aloud in worship.

The authors of Matthew and Luke were not eyewitnesses to any of the events they described.

What they were witnesses to, was the effect Jesus and his ministry had on people whose lives were touched. They saw the movement that grew around the first disciples, and quickly began to spread. They were aware of God at work in human history- of God being with them through Jesus of Nazareth. They experienced the spiritual presence of “the risen Christ”, which they saw as fulfillment of ancient promises about a Saviour. They were passionate about spreading the “Good News”- the Gospel.

Spreading the Good News is not the same thing as reporting on “the news”. When we try to talk about the reality of God, and the work of God in our midst, and our response to God, we rely on allegory, and metaphor, and images and concepts that are already part of our vocabulary. Many scholars are convinced that in the ancient world, those listening to a “religious story” would not expect it to be factually true- they would be listening for the underlying truth more than for facts.

I think gospel writers have more in common with jazz musicians, painters and poets than reporters. They used human language to communicate the meaning and power they saw in the Jesus movement to change lives. Jesus is still at work in the world, bringing hope, and healing, and meaning, purpose and joy.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

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