One of the last things many Christians seem to think about at Christmas time is the difference between the Nativity in Matthew's Gospel and in Luke's Gospel. A couple of habits of the church help us not to confront this difference. One habit is that we do not read both gospel versions at the same service (the honourable exception being a service of Nine Lessons and Carols). Another habit is following one gospel one year and the other gospel another year.
The two accounts, we must be clear, do have elements in common: Mary, Joseph, a baby on the way, the baby being born in Bethlehem, the name Jesus, notable visitors attending, and a sense that prophecy is being fulfilled. We perhaps could also make the point - though some would argue against it - that the two stories can be read in a complementary way rather than a contradictory way. For example, we can imagine that each writer knows all that happened* but Matthew chooses to tell about the wise men coming and to ignore the shepherds, and vice versa for Luke. (It is not far-fetched to suppose that Luke, who gives the impression that he has interviewed Mary in depth, did know all that happened). Yet honesty compels us to recognise that there are significant differences between the two stories. In Matthew, the decisions are made by Joseph and he does nothing unless an angel tells him to; whereas Luke seems to know nothing of angelic guidance to Joseph (though angels appear in the Lukan pre-Nativity story).
These differences are the catalyst for gospel scholars to ask the question, is there some significance to the Nativity that one writer is trying to draw out while the other is trying to draw out another significance? Some relatively easy answers present themselves: the Wise Men, for example, are part of a Matthean emphasis on Jesus being Saviour for the whole world (i.e. Jews and Gentiles), an emphasis underscored by the presence of Gentiles in the Genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17) and by the Great Commission (Matthew 28:20). By contrast, Luke offers an emphasis on Jesus being King/Lord of the whole world, who is born in obscurity and extends his kingdom to incorporate the capital of the 'world' (i.e. Rome). In support of this idea, note the way Luke carefully details the date and circumstances of Jesus' birth in terms of an instruction of Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1-2), and then follow the story of Jesus to its conclusion in Acts 28, where the Apostle Paul, the chief successor to Jesus, according to Luke, preaches the Gospel of Jesus in Rome.
Now for those of us preaching this Christmas, we might like to continue this reflection on difference between Matthew and Luke, and see where that reflection leads us. Its always tempting to let the commentaries do the work for us (a temptation this writer often does not resist), but its very rewarding to come up with insights original to ourselves. Give it a go!
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