Sunday, December 18, 2016

Matthew 1:18-24, Revised for Modern Americans

(Fourth Sunday of Advent (A): This homily was given on December 18, 2016 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Matthew 1: 18-24.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Fourth Sunday of Advent 2016]

The words we just heard in this gospel were written by St. Matthew sometime in the mid-to-late first century.  He wrote them primarily for Jewish converts to Christianity. 

But what if he were writing this same gospel story today, for a modern, American audience?  (This was the thought that occurred to me as I pondered this gospel passage during the past week.)  If Matthew were writing this story for American citizens in 2016, could he tell it in the same way that he told it here in this passage?

I don’t think so.

If he wanted to tell the story of Jesus’ conception and birth and make it understandable to the vast majority of people in our nation right now, I’m convinced that St. Matthew would be forced to modify the text in several ways.  Basically, he would have to make the story longer by explaining certain things—certain very important things: things that he did not have to explain to people back in the first century.

First of all, he’d have to mention the basic and foundational truth that marriage is between a man and a woman—that is to say, one man and one woman.  He would also have to explain the Jewish marriage customs of his day.  For example, it says there that Mary was “betrothed” to Joseph.  That’s an important point.  The betrothal period in first century Israel lasted for about a year—and it was more than an engagement.  If you were betrothed to somebody, you were legally married to that person, but you were not yet living together as husband and wife.  That’s why it says that Joseph was thinking of “divorce” and not of breaking off an engagement.

St. Matthew would also need to explain that having sexual relations outside of marriage is a serious sin (which, of course, many people today don’t believe it is).  The whole reason why Joseph considered divorce was because he thought that Mary had committed that sin and been unfaithful to him.

Which leads to something else that Matthew would need to mention.  In his expanded gospel story he’d have to note the fact that Joseph initially believed that Mary’s child had been conceived in the normal way.  Matthew would need to make that point to an audience in 2016 because nowadays you can’t presume that’s how a child is conceived.  Even though the Church teaches that every child has the right “to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents,” (CCC, 2378) that’s not always the way it happens.  Sometimes conception results from the use of immoral reproductive technologies.  It should be noted here that not all reproductive technologies are bad.  But some are.  And those bad ones often lead to terribly difficult situations—like the one actress Sofia Vergara finds herself in at the present time.  In case you haven’t heard, she and her former fiancée are in a big legal battle right now over frozen embryos that they created through in vitro fertilization back in 2013.

Here we have innocent human lives being treated like commodities.  How sad—and how tragic.

Oh yes, that’s another thing Matthew would need to mention in his modern version of the story.  He’d need to make it very clear that the entity inside the womb of Mary was actually “a baby.”  Not “a cluster of cells” or “the product of conception”, but rather “a baby”—a living, distinct human being.  Matthew could presume that people in the first century knew that; he could not make that same presumption in 2016.  I thought it was interesting, on his television show the other night Jimmy Kimmel said (and here I quote), “Another thing I wanted to mention.  My wife is hosting a baby inside her body.  So that’s exciting.”

He’s absolutely correct, of course.  His wife’s pregnancy is exciting.  I mention it here because I think it’s highly unusual for someone in Kimmel’s position in 2016 to describe a pregnancy in that way.

However, I’m very glad he did—since it’s the truth.

It’s also unusual for a man and a woman to have the kind of relationship that Mary and Joseph had—love without sex.  Actually, it’s not unusual—although a lot of people nowadays would say it is.  They don’t believe you can deeply love a member of the opposite gender without physical, genital intimacy.  (It just goes to show how our society has twisted the idea of love.)  This would be another issue that Matthew would have to address in making this gospel reading understandable to a modern audience.

Finally, Matthew would have to deal with Joseph’s response to the message that God gave him here—the message of God that came to him through the angel.  Specifically, Matthew would have to explain why Joseph had to obey the instruction to take Mary into his home, and why it would have been a sin—a very serious sin—for him to do otherwise.  In other words, Matthew would need to make it clear to his modern readers that when Almighty God gives an instruction like this to somebody, it’s a command.  It’s not a suggestion; it’s not a recommendation.  It’s an order to be obeyed.

That would clarify the matter for all those who think that the Ten Commandments are just the Ten Suggestions or the Ten Recommendations.

So, what exactly would this passage of Scripture sound like after it was revised by Matthew for a modern audience?  Well, I can’t say for sure, but I can certainly venture a guess—which is what I’ll do to close my homily this morning.

I think Matthew’s revised story would sound something like this:

This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.  It all centered around the permanent and exclusive bond between one man and one woman that we call “marriage.”
Sometime during the year that Jesus’ mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph—that is to say, in that time period when the couple were legally bound to one another as husband and wife, but before they lived together, Mary was found with child through the Holy Spirit.
Initially, of course, Joseph was unaware of the miraculous circumstances surrounding the child’s conception.  Consequently, when he learned that Mary was pregnant, he felt betrayed, since he naturally presumed that this new human life had been conceived in the normal way.
Yet Joseph was a righteous man, who was unwilling to expose Mary to shame as an adulteress.
He was unwilling to expose her because he still loved Mary with an intense and chaste love—in spite of her apparent infidelity.
He decided instead that he would divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
 “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home.  For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.  She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”

When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him
and took his wife into his home—because when God gives a command like this, we human beings must obey!  Disobedience is not an option.  Ever!

There you have it—a story that every American in 2016 should be able to understand.