Matthew is by all accounts the most ‘Jewish’ of the Gospels. This is evidenced not only in the kind of detail that the author provides and its structure (i.e., teaching segments arranged around covenant, blessings, and curses – more on this at a later date), but by the enormous number of OT quotations and allusions. Nevertheless, in this very Jewish document we see early on a couple of details that might seem counterintuitive. In Luke’s Gospel, for instance (one with a Hellenistic focus), we see the a more detailed account of John’s birth (directly connecting him with Samuel and Elizabeth with Hannah), the presence of older, pious Jews welcoming the child, and the homage of lowly Jewish shepherds (although, most of the movers and shakers of the land would only grudgingly acknowledge their status as such). Yet, in Matthew we see a couple interesting tidbits like the homage paid by the magi/wise men in ch 2 (decidedly non-Jewish figures) and a reference to Is 9:1,2 later picked up in Is 42:7, at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry (Galilee of the Gentiles/Nations – as opposed to Jerusalem & Judea). So, what are we to make of this contrast?Without going into ANY background, Luke’s agenda seems straight forward enough. In order for the claims surrounding Jesus to be taken seriously in a Hellenistic context, there must be a tie to antiquity (thus sufficient ties to a continuity with Jewish faith) and an accounting for why the majority of Jews rejected the claims surrounding Jesus (or put another way, an acknowledgement that at least SOME Jewish contemporaries recognized early on what was being claimed concerning Jesus). But what might be Matthew’s motivation in making Gentile connections in the introductory sections of his Gospel?
With respect to the wise men, their origin is of little concern beyond understandable curiosity. Whether they are Bedouin chieftains or Persian court advisers (or some similar thing), the fact remains that they are decidedly Gentile and not Jewish. Also conspicuous by their absence is the lack of representation from the priesthood, scribes, or even a representative from the would be Idumean king of the Jews (who instead plots the child’s elimination). The ‘establishment’ in Jerusalem’s religious and political life are nowhere to be found while observant outsiders recognize what could apparently be discerned by one so inclined to look. Gentiles discover and embrace what Israel’s leaders did (and would) not. For a people who, after the exile, had expected God’s deliverance to result from an adherence to cultural and national purity – this is an unexpected change in the guest list. But should it have been? We’ve already seen in how the opening section of Matthew’s Gospel the priority of viewing covenant through the lens of Abraham and David. This theme is picked up again by the joining of the images from the quote of Is 9:1,2 and the allusion to Is 42:7. Here we have the marrying of the anticipated Davidic son with the servant of Isaiah’s Second Exodus. Meaning the enlarged, prospering Israel of the coming age – the Kingdom of Heaven – would come as a result of an influx from the nations. Perhaps even from among the very nations involved with Israel’s humiliation in the first place. The tragic part of the story is that this was not a new idea to the guardians of Jewish life and faith. It had been discussed and debated for quite some time prior to Jesus’ arrival. In fact, the concluding chapters of Isaiah detail Israel’s tragic rejection of God’s plan. These chapters show that Israel’s leaders did not want to play the role of God’s servant to the nations, they wanted to rule over the nations in the manner of the nations – uninvited guests, outsiders, were not welcome. One might well anticipate this outcome at this point in Matthew with respect to Jesus and the nation’s leaders with the imprisonment of John in ch 4 – if Isaiah’s voice in the wilderness designated to prepare the nation and its leaders for Yahweh’s arrival is rejected, what’s to come for the one he heralds? Make no mistake, no matter what a riverside revivalist might say about him and his wife, Herod does not risk imprisoning the popular John (risking an uprising among the people – wouldn’t look good to his Roman benefactors) without the support of the religious leaders of the people. All this to say, Matthew’s inclusion of these Gentile references indicate Jesus’ mission to reconfigure Israel as an enlarged entity to include the nations. The only question is will the reconfiguration include the whole of the people (by embracing John’s call to humble repentance) or merely a remnant? Remember, Is 9 is not just a picture of the future Davidic reign, it’s also part of the Immanuel judgment we discussed in an earlier post.
For what its worth, it seems rather poetic (and just like God) to introduce the Kingdom in Galilee of the Gentiles. This was the region first devastated by the invading Assyrians, scattering the northern tribes. It was the region further ravaged by the Babylonians on their way to Jerusalem. In was the place of first contact for every invading army not originating from Egypt. It was the region that was home to the rebellious northern kingdom (though ultimately no more rebellious than the Judah proved to be). It was the initial region of the nation’s shame and humiliation. And, of course, it was NOT Jerusalem – the center of Jewish pride and identity. As such, it was always the region where Israel had to engage the nations and could not insulate herself. A reminder of the God who always fulfills His purposes – be it with our cooperation or in the midst of our weakness and failings. A reminder of the God, who in the aftermath of David’s great shame and failure, chooses to honor His covenant through the offspring of Bathsheba. A reminder that we serve a God who does not simply obliterate us in our failings – or the world in its fallen state. Nor does He simply turn to work through the center of our perceived strength and self-sufficiency. Rather, He breathes new life (resurrection) into the ravaged bone-yard of our lives – be it personal, church, nation, or world.
– Pastor Jim Kushner