Who is in and who is out?

Epiphany 2014

Matthew 2:1-12

Marian Free

In the name of God, whose love knows no bounds and creates no boundaries for those who would love God in return. Amen.

I imagine that many of you have seen the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It is a wonderful, light-hearted look at a family of Greek migrants in the United States. Like many migrants, they have formed their own sub-community and have done what they can to maintain their culture in a new and strange land. One of the ways in which this extended family can ensure that their traditions are maintained is to insist that their offspring marry someone of Greek descent who will be like them. The movie follows a young woman, her desire to build her own life and to marry the American man with whom she has fallen in love. We watch in agony as her Father parades a number of less-than-attractive but suitable Greek men before he is persuaded to give in and allow her to marry the man of her choice. Along the way we observe the difficulties of two different cultures coming to grips with each other and the migrants letting go of their rigid insistence on remaining apart.

 Of course, the movie is an exaggeration but I grew up in a Brisbane in which recent Mediterranean migrants mostly lived in West End with others who shared their language and ate their food. The supermarket in that suburb was stocked with huge tins of olive oil and the fruit shops introduced us to exotic vegetables like zucchini (which as a child I could have well done without)!

It is human nature to seek out those who support and encourage us, to find those with whom we have something in common, to mix with those who share our background, language and history. Migrants in particular often form communities in the new countries in which they find themselves. Living close to those who have shared their past and their journey to another world provides a sense of continuity, makes the present less strange and makes it easier to practice one’s faith, to cook the foods one is used to and to speak a familiar language and be understood. 

From what we can glean from the New Testament Judaism, in the first century at least, had very clear boundaries and cultural identifiers. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus claimed to have come for “the lost sheep of Israel”, and all the Gospels make a clear distinction between those who are Jews and those who are not. Paul’s letters to the Romans and Galatians indicate just how strong Jewish ethnic boundaries were and how effective they had been in keeping others out. These included adherence to the law – including dietary regulations and purity laws – the circumcision of every male and belief in the one God.

These borders appear to have been fiercely guarded. Outsiders who admired and practiced the faith usually only obtained the status of “God-fearers” and were never fully included as members of “God’s chosen people”.

It is difficult to know if this was always the case, but almost certainly the experience of the exile (500 years before Jesus), would have served to define and harden national identity. It would make sense that those living in exile in Babylon would have placed an emphasis on those characteristics that distinguished them from the culture around them. (We see in the Book of Daniel a description of how some people responded to living in a culture vastly different from their own. In the face of great opposition, and at the risk of his life, Daniel holds fast to his identity and refuses to compromise his beliefs and the practices associated with his faith.)

When the exiles return home they have a clearer vision of who they are, but it is not long before they are again under foreign rule – this time in their own land. By the time that Jesus is born, Palestine has been ruled by foreign powers for over three hundred years. It would be reasonable to suppose that this too created a need for them to preserve their unique identity, to stress their distinctiveness and so claim their place in the world. Those who had left Palestine and settled in other parts of the Empire may (like today’s migrants) have drawn in on themselves and stressed the importance of the things that made them different from the world around them.

For Christians reading the Old Testament, the exclusiveness of first century Judaism is harder to understand. Books like the book of Ruth and Jonah tell, in different ways, the story of God’s concern for and desire to include every nation in the covenant that God made with Abraham. Ruth is a Moabite (non-Jewish) woman who becomes the forebear of David and therefore of the expected Saviour. Jonah’s task is to warn the Ninevites (non-Jews) of God’s wrath and to urge them to repent. According to the Book of Kings, the Queen of Sheba travels to meet King Solomon, to pay homage and to listen to his wisdom and according to the prophet Isaiah, Cyrus, the Persian King is God’s anointed or Messiah. In more than one Psalm, the author sees a time when the whole world will stream to Jerusalem. As we read the Old Testament, it seems clear that God’s intention was always to include the Gentiles.

 By the first century, possibly because the Jewish people were feeling so embattled, they had not only drawn clear lines around themselves but, from what we can tell, they had come to the conclusion that a Jewish Saviour would only save the Jews – or those who were prepared to become Jews. This created a dilemma for the early believers. Many Gentiles had come to faith in Jesus just as they had and what is more, they too had received the gift of the Holy Spirit as a result of that faith. Could they be excluded from membership in this new community simply because they were not Jews by birth? The answer was “no”. Both Acts and the letter to the Galatians tell us that the issue was resolved at a council held in Jerusalem. Rather than be compelled to become Jews, Gentile converts were required only to observe a minimum number of practices in order to belong.

A different dilemma faced the Gospel writers who, some twenty years later, had to confront the reality that Jesus, the Jewish Saviour, had made a greater impact on the Gentiles than he had on the Jews. In order to resolve this puzzle, it was important that they discover and record the evidence that Jesus’ ministry clearly demonstrated an intention to include the Gentiles. In the Gospels there are accounts of Jesus commending Gentiles who exhibit more faith than the Jews, of a Canaanite woman who argues that her daughter deserves to be healed, Jesus’ command to make disciples of all nations and his promise that the disciples will receive the Holy Spirit and be his witnesses to the ends of the earth.

It is in this context that we are to understand Matthew’s account of the coming of the Magi. The author of Matthew, whom we believe was writing for a primarily Jewish community, needed to make it clear that right from the very beginning of the story, Jesus was recognised and worshipped by Gentiles. Furthermore, these magicians – astrologers or scholars – were no ordinary people, but, like the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, they were people of significance and wealth who come to pay homage to a Jewish Saviour. In this way the author of Matthew establishes that, from his infancy, Jesus was identified as the Saviour not only of the Jews but of the whole world. The implication being that if Jesus is the Saviour of the world, then those who are not Jews by birth or practice can and should be included in the worshipping community. Anyone who has faith in Jesus can belong.

It is always a mistake to try to second-guess God, to believe that we can determine who is in and who is out, who to include and who to exclude. If we are rigid and exclusive, if we insist that only those who behave in a certain way can belong, we are in danger of drawing our boundaries too close and of failing to see what God is doing in the world.

Who do we exclude and why? If anyone who has faith can belong, who are we to decide who is in and who is out?




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