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S is for Story

DecLETTER-S-PNG-FREE-ALPHABET 19, 2019 3rd Week of Advent – Day 19 of the Advent Alphabet

S is for story. As my children used to love to point out every year in pageant rehearsals, there are two distinct Nativity stories. Matthew and Luke’s stories are often “conflated”. That is the term scholars use when two stories are fused into one. (So that you end up with the shepherds from Luke and the Magi from Matthew all crowded on the same pageant stage.)

People often find it hard to believe there are significant factual differences in the two stories. As I suggested in yesterday’s letter, a good way to sort that out is to read Matthew chapters one and two, and then read Luke chapter one, and chapter two up to verse 20. Before you do your reading, (or re-reading!) let me try to address why these two stories are so different.

Both Matthew and Luke were gospels, rather than historical accounts. The writers were doing theological, rather than journalistic work. Matthew wrote at least 50 years after Jesus’ death. Luke may have been written a little later. They were most likely 2nd generation followers of the Jesus movement- and not amongst the original disciples. (Scholars note that it was common in the ancient world to attach the name of an honoured figure to a religious document- this was at the same time a tribute, and a way to claim some of the stature of the person.)

Matthew was probably a Jewish scribe (perhaps trained in the Jewish religious system), who lived in Syria, and 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 was probably a Gentile who became a follower of Jesus. He wrote his gospel in “koine’”, an ancient greek dialect that was the language of government and trade in the Roman empire.

Matthew and Luke were not eyewitnesses to anything they wrote about, certainly and especially not the birth of Jesus. What they were witnesses to, was the effect that Jesus and his ministry had on the people whose lives were touched. They saw the movement of people 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 the fulfillment of ancient promises about a Saviour. They were passionate about spreading the “Good News”- the Gospel.

A gospel writer has more in common with a song-writer or poet than a reporter. They used human language to transmit the meaning and power they saw in the Jesus movement to change lives. They used stories that had survived in the movement’s oral tradition, hymns and sermons that were collected, and other documents that were shared amongst the early churches. They wove them together, each writer with their own style, and agenda. Matthew and Luke were writing for specific audiences, and would have wanted to be accessible, and make sense to the people who would hear their words read aloud in worship.

Spreading the Good News is not the same thing as reporting “the news”. When we try to describe the reality of God, and the work of God in our midst, and our response to God, that happens within us, we rely on allegory, and metaphor, and images and concepts that are already part of religious vocabulary. (Try describing an everyday wonder like a sunset, or a baby’s smile, and you’ll see what I mean- words are limited!) In the ancient world, those listening to a “religious story” would not expect it to be factually true- they would be listening more for truth than for facts.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, the minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario. Each day from November 30 until December 25, a different letter of the English Alphabet will be a jumping off place for a reflection. 

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