Wednesday, December 1
The Murphy-Richardson Class just finished studying Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography by John Dominic Crossan (HarperCollins paperback, 1995). The author deepened our understanding of scripture passages by showing what they meant in the historical and social context of the time in which Jesus lived.
"[A]n infant," he writes, "was quite literally a nobody unless its father accepted it as a member of the family." (p. 71) A baby born with physical deformities - or just because it was female - could be rejected by the father, resulting in "exposing it in the gutter or rubbish dump to die of abandonment or to be taken up by another and reared as a slave." Children of Jesus' day were among the most vulnerable members of society.
It is a natural tendency to project our values and experiences when we try to comprehend different times and cultures. We read the story of Jesus' birth each year during Advent and it usually evokes warm feelings of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus in an outbuilding among animals, but reasonably comfortable with lots of straw around. What we usually miss, though, is how precarious their situation was. When most babies today are born in hospitals, attended by nurses and physicians, we do not worry about whether they will survive, nor whether they will be loved and cared for. We know that Jesus was accepted by Joseph as a member of the family and believe he was cherished in a nurturing home.
What we are not usually aware of is how early Christians reacted to the birth narrative that circulated among them. If Jesus was indeed the Messiah, why did he arrive as a vulnerable infant in uncomfortable surroundings and dependent upon Joseph's acceptance? The message they must have understood is that God cares especially for those who are vulnerable by identifying himself with them in the manner of Jesus' birth. That meaning is still important for Christians today as we seek to show God's love to those who need our help.
- George Pruden