“A well-crafted story shares with the most elegant theories the ability to bring a version of the world to light that so transforms the way people see that it seems never to have been otherwise.” – Lisa J. Disch
As I have said before, I come from a family of storytellers, a very long line of people who have shared their experiences from one generation to the next for better than one hundred years to my knowledge. My father and I continue to tell the stories that his father and his father’s father told and my mother has been studying our family’s genealogy for more than three decades. There are stories of saloon-keepers, prison guards, farmers, ministers, lawyers, doctors, and even a line of descendants that connects to royalty (somewhat diluted at this point). My children have and will continue to hear these stories, as they are old enough to hear them in some cases, as will their cousins in the hope that the people and their memory live on.
The purpose of storytelling is to convey an idea in a common language and common understanding. Story becomes the method and means for creating culture around specific ideas that are important enough to want to share for successive generations. Jewish storytelling is about conveying the Jewish experience to the next generation, especially in the ancient world. It was a means of passing the religion, culture, and experience of being a Jew to their children and children’s children. Peninnah Schram, a professor of Speech and Drama at Yeshiva University and shelihat tzibbur or communal prayer leader writes,
“The first and best reason to learn anything worth knowing is to share it with someone else, to plant trees so that the future generations will be nourished with their fruit. Each generation in turn plants for the next one, and the next one, and the next one.”
When we come to the story of Jesus birth, we so often look at it as a simple little quaint tale, a sweet little bedtime story to tell the family before we go to sleep on Christmas Eve. But if we understand the ideas of Jewish storytelling, especially in ancient times, we will know that every element of the story conveys something greater, perhaps even counter-culture. As Marcus Borg writes,
“Like his parables, the birth stories are subversive. They subverted the “world” in which Jesus and early Christianity lived. As stories told by his followers later in the first century, they are part of their testimony, their witness, to the significance that Jesus had come to have for them. That significance had at its center a different vision of life, a vision they got from Jesus – from his teaching, his public activity, and his life, death and vindication by God. The vision was embodied in Jesus, incarnate in Jesus.”
So, what is this subversive story, the story beneath the story that gets buried in tinsel, wrapping paper, and simple platitudes?
What is Jesus birth actually about?
Good storytelling is not really about fact but truth. In the ancient world, the point of the story was to convey a truth about life, death, spirituality, or the other aspects of being that were part of the human experience. The story of Jesus life, the gospels do precisely that with each version being a telling of the story specific to a people, in a place, and at a time. If we take a moment to look beneath the surface and dive below to the meaning, we will find not only a great story, but a greater truth to be understood and lived.
To do this, we should understand some ideas in the story that are important to the Jewish people of the time and place. It’s not an exhaustive list, but I can see a couple of ideas that make the beginning of the gospel story more than we give it credit for.
According to ancient practice, it was common to offer certain privileges to the oldest son in the family and in the Jewish context both the firstborn or animals and people were regarded as the property of God (Exodus 13:2). The oldest enjoyed a preferential status, receiving a double portion of the inheritance, a special blessing from the father, and the right to succeed his father as head of the household. At times, the bible notes that the removal of these rights and privileges are a punishment for not living up to the expectations of what was essentially an ‘office to be held’ within the family structure.
For Mary, Jesus is firstborn of what will be a large family for her and Joseph, although his parentage is different from the rest. Not only will Jesus come to be the head of the household, succeeding his earthly father Joseph, but Jesus was “conceived” or brought into being “by the Holy Spirit.” In the spiritual sense, this makes Jesus heir to an earthly household and heir to a heavenly kingdom. Therefore, people can say Jesus is ‘God with us,’ or Emmanuel, because according to the gospel he born of, as John would later say, “water and the spirit.” Because of this ‘dual birthright’ of heaven and earth, the gospels are trying to say that Jesus has authority over the household of man and the household of God. As well, Jesus acts as intermediary between the two houses by virtue of his position in both.
Poverty and Patronage
In the time of ancient Rome, it is estimated that between eighty and ninety percent of the population lived in day to day poverty. That means that the majority of the those who lived in Palestine and other remote parts of the empire, had a subsistence lifestyle: no 401Ks, no social security, just eating whatever they could work for day in, day out until the day they died, which most likely was before they turned forty. Joel Green and Lee McDonald put it this way,
“…the vast majority of inhabitants of the Greco-Roman world, who lived “at or near subsistence level, whose primary concern it [was] to obtain the minimum food, shelter, and clothing necessary to sustain life, whose lives [were] dominated by the struggle for physical survival…This picture forms an important background for discussing the social context of the early Christian movement, reminding readers of the NT that subsistence existence and poverty would have been the norm for the vast majority of contemporaries of Jesus and his earliest followers.”
Joseph was a craftsman, and maybe even a good one, but even with that, the best they may have been based on the gospel record was ‘making ends meet.’
There is also the question of Jesus parentage from the standpoint of those around him. While we have the viewpoint of two-thousand years of theological discussion and debate, history and culture, those who lived in Jesus time must have heard the rumors, must have known the human reality that Jesus father may or may not have been Joseph. The Jewish sage and writer Ben Sira writes, “A person’s honor comes from his father.” If Jesus’ parentage could be questioned, and there is speculation that it was, Jesus would have held a place of dishonor in Jewish society, the founding culture behind the Christian movement.
What makes it significant?
So, what makes these ideas of being the firstborn son, poverty, and patronage important when considering the gospels? What makes these ideas worth exploring in our day and time?
To begin with, they make the story of Jesus a relatable story to most people who were living then and now. While the poverty levels are different from region to region, country to country, the idea of one who came from nothing to greatness is something we can all look at with some degree of aspiration. David deSilva writes, “…honor can be achieved as well as ascribed,” something that is accomplished by living a life of virtue before others. In the gospels, Jesus overcame the social stigmas of his time despite the cultural handicaps that were inherent in his circumstances.
Part of the message of the gospel is that in being new creations we are no longer bound to the past, good or bad; no longer imprisoned by the supposed future. Our calling becomes not to live down who we were or think we can be but to live a life of following Jesus, of being as he was, of doing as he did. The message that we see as the gospel begins with and continues to follow the same path, bearing the same message. From its beginning the message is ‘Come, follow me. Come, walk in a new life. Come, leave what was and embrace Jesus as he was, is, and will be.”
The birth of Jesus is how we can engage God as God intended, relationally, having been redeemed or restored to a life worth living; a life that is marked by being children of God, overcoming the poverty of poor spiritual and emotional choices.
What do we do about it?
So, what do we do about it? How do we do this?
I’m going to invite you to do something ancient, something that ties the faith of today with the faith of the time we have been talking about tonight, the first century. In the first century, the early church had no bible, no liturgies, no written polity to follow. They had stories, stories passed down from one person to the next, like the nativity stories and others that taught a lesson beneath the story. As I quoted Lisa Disch in the beginning,
“A well-crafted story shares with the most elegant theories the ability to bring a version of the world to light that so transforms the way people see that it seems never to have been otherwise.”
So, I want to encourage you to let the story of the nativity transform you. But I want to encourage you to do something that I have asked a friend and fellow disciple to do. I want to encourage you to read this particular story, one that shows up a little later in the gospel of Matthew. It’s called The Sermon on the Mount and it’s found in Matthew chapters five to seven. I want to challenge you to take a few moments each day and follow in the footsteps of the early church who told this teaching to one another and lived by this teaching in a time when they had no written words to go on. I want to challenge you to do as the early followers of Jesus did after his death and live The Sermon on the Mount, the easy stuff, the hard stuff, all the stuff in there. If we really want to know the meaning of the nativity, we can see it plainly there and if we can live that life, we are living the meaning of the nativity before the world.
Let us go and live a subversive gospel for the Kingdom of God to carry on, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.
 (Disch 1993), p.665
 (Schram 1988), p.19
 (Borg 2007), p.37
 (King and Stager 2001), p. 47-48
 Matthew 1:20
 John 3:6; 4:1-42
 (Green and McDonald 2013), Kindle Location 4169
 (de Silva 2000), p. 28
 (Disch 1993), p.665