Tuesday, December 29, 2020

"God's work must truly be our own.”

 Sixty years ago, on January 20, 1960, America’s first Roman Catholic president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, took the oath of office. Even those who are too young to have heard his inaugural address live know its most famous line, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” And most of us have heard “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.”

The last sentence of his address gets relatively short shrift from contemporary media:

“With a good conscience our only sure reward, with history the final judge of our deeds, let us go forth to lead the land we love, asking His blessing and His help, but knowing that here on earth God's work must truly be our own.”

Thurston Clarke, in his book, “Ask Not: The Inauguration of John F. Kennedy and the Speech That Changed America,” dismisses it by saying, “it is customary for an inaugural address to call upon the Almighty for His blessing and assistance, and Kennedy adheres to the formula in his concluding paragraph.”

Yet it goes beyond simply calling on the Almighty—the final clause turns that request on its head by reminding listeners that they are the ones who must do the Lord’s work. At first glance, they don’t seem to be the words of a Catholic. And they aren’t. While Kennedy outlined the basics of what he wanted to say, his principal writer for the speech was Theodore Sorensen, a Unitarian, His mother, though, was of Russian Jewish descent. And Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, in his blog, “Martini Judaism” (May 29, 2017), writes that “God's work must truly be our own” was “the most Jewish thing JFK ever said.” Salkin goes on to explain:

“We can’t recite motzi (the blessing over bread) over wheat. And you can’t recite kiddush over a cluster of grapes. Here is why. God makes wheat and grapes. But people have to transform those raw materials into bread and wine.”

For Episcopalians (and Roman Catholics), that same logic applies to the Eucharistic Prayer. And Salkin goes on to give another example:

“As the Talmud states, ‘Every judge who renders a fair decision is like a partner of the Holy One in the act of creation.’  (Talmud, Shabbat 119b). The Talmud also promises that ‘a judge who decides a case in accordance with true justice causes the Shekhinah, God’s Presence, to dwell in the midst of Israel.’ By seeking justice, we can bring God into the world.”

And in that sense, JFK’s final sentence clearly applies to Christians. It echoes Micah 6:8, which Presiding Bishop Michael Curry regularly invokes in his call for his Way of Love:He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (NRSV) And it surely reflects Jesus’ summation of Jewish Law, which recite in the first Eucharistic Rite:

“Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

This January 20th, we’ll witness the swearing in of the second Roman Catholic president. No one is expecting Joe Biden to echo President Kennedy’s inaugural. For one thing, the nation is deeply divided today. Vice President Richard Nixon, who might have challenged the election over voting irregularities in Illinois and Texas, did not, in order to help unify the nation in the Cold War. (There are others who say he knew there was as much vote stealing for Nixon in the Chicago suburbs and Downstate as there was in Cook County for Kennedy, but in any case, he didn’t challenge the election.) Today we have an outgoing president who refuses to concede, with millions of followers who believe him unquestioningly.

So when it comes time to “to call upon the Almighty for His blessing and assistance,” President-elect Biden could do worse than to recall the last sentence of President Kennedy’s inaugural.

Note: I wrote all but the last two paragraphs for "The Tower," the newsletter of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church. While the Episcopal Church is no longer "The Republican Party at Prayer," even in Elkhart, Indiana, there are enough diehard Trump supporters in the congregation that I wanted my audience to consider the JFK's 1960 remarks without directly bring up the world of January 2021. Photo from History.com

Monday, October 19, 2020

Luke the Social Justice Warrior


St. Luke, the Social Justice Warrior


Each of the four Gospel writers has a distinct point of view. St. Mark, the first to write a Gospel, gives us the basics. St. Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience. St. John’s mystical view begins at the very beginning—the Creation. St. Luke, whose feast day is October 18, portrays Jesus as a social justice warrior in the tradition of such Old Testament prophets as Isaiah and Amos. In fact, in the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, Mary, before she gives birth, sings the Magnificat, based on the Song of Hannah from First Samuel. Of the Lord, she sings:

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
    and sent the rich away empty.

A few years before Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire proclaimed the “good news” of Augustus Caesar and lauded him “as Savior, who  has put an end to war and has set all things in order;  and (whereas,) having become (god) manifest, Caesar has fulfilled all the hopes of earlier times.” (from the inscription at Priene). In Luke 2, an angel proclaims “good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” Luke is issuing a direct challenge to the Roman Empire, as anyone of his time would have recognized.

In the Sermon on the Plain (Luke 6: 17-49), Jesus preaches “Blessed are you who are poor” without the comforting “in spirit” of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. And while the Jesus of Mark and Matthew both proclaim the Two Great Commandments, which we recite in the Rite I Eucharistic service: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” But only Luke goes on to ask, “who is my neighbor?” He then gives us the story of the Good Samaritan, in which a foreigner is the good neighbor. (Luke 10: 25-37)

The Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles, also written by Luke, have many other examples of Jesus and his disciples as the social justice warriors. But one passage initially suggests Jesus was calling for literal warriors. On the night before he was crucified, and after the Last Supper, Jesus, who earlier had told his disciples to go out “without a purse, bag, or sandals,” tells them “’the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one. For I tell you, this scripture must be fulfilled in me, ‘And he was counted among the lawless’; and indeed what is written about me is being fulfilled.” They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ He replied, ‘It is enough.’” (Luke 22: 35-38)

Luke’s Jesus is calling for the fulfillment of scripture—Isaiah 53:12—that the Lord’s Anointed “was numbered with the transgressors.” Later after Jesus’ arrest, one of the disciples “struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.” Thus, we can follow Presiding Bishop Michael Curry’s call to work for social justice through the Way of Love. No swords required.

(All Scripture quotations from the New Revised Standard Version.)

 Image: Jan Brueghel the Elder, Harbor Scene with Christ Preaching (Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, April 27, 2019

Saint Thomas the Human

Of Jesus’ twelve disciples, Thomas, to me, is the most intriguing. There’s the mystical Thomas, of the Secret Gospel of Thomas, to whom Jesus chooses to divulge his secrets:(1)   Jesus said to his disciples: "Compare me, and tell me whom I am like."
(2) Simon Peter said to him: "You are like a just messenger."
(3) Matthew said to him: "You are like an (especially) wise philosopher."
(4) Thomas said to him:
"Teacher, my mouth will not bear at all to say whom you are like."
(5) Jesus said: "I am not your teacher. For you have drunk, you have
become intoxicated at the bubbling spring that I have measured out."
(6) And he took him, (and) withdrew, (and) he said three words to him.
(7) But when Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him:
"What did Jesus say to you?"
(8) Thomas said to them: "If I tell you one of the words he said to me,
you will pick up stones and throw them at me,
and fire will come out of the stones (and) burn you up."

-Saying 13 Patterson/Robinson translation 

And then there’s the other mystical Thomas, of The Book of Thomas  the Contender, who is portrayed as the twin brother of Jesus:  

The savior said, "Brother Thomas while you have time in the world, listen to me, and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered in your mind.

"Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself, and learn who you are, in what way you exist, and how you will come to be. Since you will be called my brother, it is not fitting that you be ignorant of yourself. And I know that you have understood, because you had already understood that I am the knowledge of the truth. So while you accompany me, although you are uncomprehending, you have (in fact) already come to know, and you will be called 'the one who knows himself'. For he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the all. So then, you, my brother Thomas, have beheld what is obscure to men, that is, what they ignorantly stumble against."  

-from the John D. Turner translation 

The Acts of Thomas, a third-century writing, portrays Thomas as a missionary to India, as well as a twin brother of Jesus, who performs miracles and admonishes a newly-married couple to abstain from sex. This Thomas makes the Puritans look like free love advocates. 

But, of course, the Thomas we know best is the Thomas of John’s Gospel, the disciple who was not present in the Upper Room when the risen Christ first appeared to the other apostles. When told of this miracle, he took the disciples’ tales with more than a grain of salt: 

 “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”    

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

(John 20:25b-29 (NRSV) 

Thomas does not go so far as to put his hand in Jesus’ side, but he got the point. It’s always seemed unfair that Thomas is singled out and admonished by Jesus because of his doubt, while the other disciples were never so tested. Professor Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003), argues that the author of John’s Gospel was familiar with the Gospel of Thomas, and used the story to discredit the disciple as insufficiently trusting. 

The theologian Marcus Borg made a distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus, with the Gospel of John portrait of Jesus being very much a post-Easter one. John does not follow the narrative of the three synoptic Gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but presents us with a mystical Jesus who says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” -John 14:6 (NRSV) John’s Christ puts a premium on belief, as opposed to, say, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, or Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, where actions and attitudes are the focus.  

Perhaps Pagels is right—that the author of John wanted to discredit the Thomas of the Gnostic Gospel. But even if he did the Thomas portrayed in John’s Gospel is a sympathetic character because he’s so human—of course he’s unwilling to believe a dead man could come back to life. (In the synoptic Gospels, the male disciples don’t believe Mary Magdalene when she announces the Resurrection, but Jesus never admonishes them for unbelief.) Yet for someone raised as an agnostic and still having a difficult time with belief, I identify with this Thomas. I was confirmed at Trinity, Iowa City, in 1979, which was not Anglo-Catholic enough at the time to require confirmation names. If it had, mine would have been Thomas. 

In the Anglican Communion, the feast of St. Thomas is December 21, so he’s lost in the pre-Christmas anxiety. The Roman Catholics celebrate him on July 3, which means he loses out to Independence Day in the United States. So the most reliable celebration of St. Thomas is the Second Sunday of Easter, when the Gospel reading is the story of Thomas’s doubt and belief. And, of course, the service ought to include the singing of “O Sons and Daughters, Let Us Sing!” 

I’m still fascinated with the mystical Thomas of the Gnostic Gospels and curious about the Acts of Thomas. But the all-too-human Thomas of John’s Gospel resonates with me.

Image: St. Thomas by El Greco (Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, December 28, 2018

On the Fourth Day of Christmas: Life isn't fair--the Holy Innocents

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
Matthew 2;16-18 (NRSV)

The selection of December 28 as the Day of the Holy Innocents seems out of place--the story takes place after the Epiphany, which we celebrate on January 6. A quick Google search found a concise answer to the question by Michelle Arnold, "staff apologist" for the Catholic Answers Forum:

The arrangement of the Church’s liturgical calendar is not always intended to be in chronological order. Sometimes feast days are arranged by theological significance.

In this case, there are a slew of feast days right after Christmas that emphasize the fact that the events surrounding Christmas were an anticipation of Christ’s eventual passion, death, and resurrection. On December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen Protomartyr the first Christian martyr after the establishment of the Church. December 27 is the feast of Sr. John the Evangelist the Beloved Disciple who stood at the foot of the Cross and received the Blessed Mother from Christ to be his own Mother. December 29 is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr. In the midst of this is December 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs after the birth of Christ.

In short, the Church’s placement of a slew of martyrs’ feast days right after Christmas is intended to remind Catholics that Christ was, as Bishop Fulton Sheen once pointed out, the only man born to die. Christmas is important because it made possible Easter.

While Matthew's gospel is the only source for the Massacre of the Innocents, historian Thomas Madden points out that such a slaughter would have been consistent with what we know about Herod the Great, the king of Judea. Even though Herod was "king of the Jews," though under Roman oversight, many did not consider him Jewish, because his mother, Cypros, was the daughter of an Arab sheik, and thus a Gentile. Jewishness, then as now, was matrilineal. His father was an Idumean--someone who was considered racially impure by many Jews.

Herod, perhaps because of his questionable parentage, went out of his way to direct Roman wealth to his domain, engaging in numerous building projects, including the rebuilding of the Temple, new walls around the city of Jerusalem, the port city of Caesarea. But these projects cost money, and his high taxation made him hugely unpopular--he hired mercenaries and maintained what amounted to a secret police to prevent rebellion. And he placed a golden statue of an eagle--a symbol of Rome and a violation of the Commandment against graven images--atop the gate of the new Temple. When two popular teachers, Judas and Matthias, persuaded their pupils to take down the eagle, Herod had teachers and students burned alive.

The story of the Holy Innocents may not be literally true, but it's certainly in keeping with Herod. Matthew, who was writing to a Jewish audience, has the Holy Family flee to Egypt, in a reversal of Moses' flight from Egypt. After Herod's death, the family returns not to Bethlehem, but to Nazareth.

But surely Matthew is also reminding us that life isn't fair--that in the human realm, those in power will commit enormities to maintain their power. One can hardly look at the last hundred years to find countless examples of the massacre of innocents in the name of power, prejudice, and fear.

As Michelle Arnold explains, the Day of the Holy Innocents is one of "a slew of martyr's feasts right after Christmas" to remind us that Christmas leads inevitably to Golgotha and to Easter.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Third Day of Christmas: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

"Nathaniel said to him, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Philip said to him, 'Come and see.'"
-John, 1:46 (NRSV)

In the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, the Gospel reading for Christmas morning is John 1-14. For me, who had a secular upbringing, the reading initially seemed out of place. Why do we read the Prologue to John's Gospel on Christmas? There was no mention of Bethlehem, or Jesus' earthly birth. And later in the same chapter, we have Nathaniel make the quip about Nazareth, a remote town in Galilee. Philip doesn't say, "The man was born in Bethlehem--he's a proper Messiah," but "Come and see."

We celebrate the author of the Gospel According to John on December 27, the Third Day of Christmas. Like the other three canonical gospels, the earliest manuscripts of John are anonymous. Ancient tradition has attributed it to John, one of the Twelve Disciples, identified with the anonymous "disciple whom Jesus loved" in the gospel. Artists usually portray him as a beardless young man. In "The Da Vinci Code," by Dan Brown the author argues that the beardless figure on Leonardo's "The Last Supper" is actually a woman, whom the book identifies as Mary Magdalene. But it's clearly the figure of John, as any historian of Renaissance art can explain.

But back to my initial question: Why do we read the Prologue to John on Christmas. It's a reminder that Christ was, as we say in the Nicene Creed, "eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God." If Matthew and Luke write of Jesus' birth on earth, John tells us the eternal Christmas story:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being  in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [the Baptist]. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1-14 (NRSV)
The late theologian Marcus Borg made a distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. The three synoptic Gospels--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--focus on the pre-Easter Jesus--his earthly life, mission, death, and the reports of his resurrection. And while John gives us stories from Jesus' earthly life, they don't follow the pattern of the first three.  Without the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who expands his ministry to Gentiles. With John, Jesus is "the way, the truth , and the life"(John 14:6).

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Second Day of Christmas: a blunt reminder

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends,[b] select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task,  while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
-The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6:1-6 (NRSV)

On the day after Christmas Day, the Church throws us a curveball. From the magical story of the Lord coming to earth in the form of a sweet baby, we celebrate the church's first martyr--a man who, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, speaks out against the powerful--and is killed as a result.

I recently heard that a poll of historians named Alexander the Great to be the most significant figure in Western history. Jesus and Paul were tied for fifth. The reason: Alexander imposed Greek culture and language all over the eastern Mediterranean. Christianity could not have spread so rapidly without the first "lingua franca." By the third century B.C. Jewish scholars in Egypt began translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek; by Jesus' time, the resulting book, the Septuagint (seventy), so named because 72 men were supposed to have translated it, had supplanted the Hebrew text in some communities. The book was written, appropriately enough, in Koine, the dialect of Alexandria, Egypt, which had become the language of commerce throughout the Near East.

Thus there were Jews in Palestine whose sole language was Koine Greek, and it appears that many of them became followers of Jesus. And one of the first rifts in the church was over language--the Greek speakers felt the Hebrew (Aramaic) speakers were neglecting their widows. The matter was handled quickly enough by the twelve disciples, though with a certain arrogance: "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables," which doesn't seem in keeping with Matthew 20:28: "Just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve..." The seven men included one Stephen, who turned out to be an effective preacher as well as a servant.

Stephen's preaching led to accusations of blasphemy, and as a result, he was brought before the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish elders. His speech to them may not have been politic, but he was literally speaking truth to power. After giving a synopsis of Jewish history from Abraham through Solomon, and pointing out the Chosen People's, stubbornness, he aims his rhetoric at his audience: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53)

Stephen is immediately condemned to death by stoning for blasphemy. Like Jesus, he asks forgiveness for his killers. And the author of Acts mentions that a man named Saul is among Stephen's persecutors.

After the joyous celebration of Christmas, the Church gives us a blunt reminder that proclaiming the Gospel can have deadly results. But the story of Stephen's martyrdom also gives us a reminder that the most adamant foes of Christ can become his allies. Saul the persecutor, or course, becomes St. Paul the Apostle.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

On the First Day of Christmas: An audacious proposition

“My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take the literally.”

~John Dominic Crossan
In what we now call the first century, there was a small sect of Jews and "God-fearers"--people who attended the synagogues, but weren't willing to submit to circumcision, Jewish dietary laws, and other rules of that faith--who accepted an audacious proposition: that God himself had come down to earth to live among us in the form of an itinerant rabbi named Joshua, or Jesus, from the backwater town of Nazareth.
And what was worse, this man had accumulated a ragtag army of followers, including fishermen, a tax collector, and an anonymous woman of ill repute. He singled out the poor, the mournful, and the hated as blessed, while condemning the rich and favored. He showed up in Jerusalem just before the celebration of Passover, and went on to outrage both the Jewish and Roman authorities by attacking the money-changers at the Temple--an action which led to his execution for sedition against the empire.
His death by crucifixion should have been the end of his movement, but his followers claimed he had come back from the dead. And somehow, more and more people--especially the God-fearers--joined the movement, or the Way, as he called it. As the Way's adherents increased, and their leader had not yet made a promised second return, there was a need to write the story down.

The first narrative was the Gospel According to Mark--attributed to a friend of Simon bar Jonah, whom Jesus called Peter, "The Rock." It begins not with Jesus' birth, but with his baptism in the River Jordan. Mark was probably writing to Jesus' followers in Rome.

The next two Gospels, those attributed to Matthew, a Jew who was also a despised tax collector; and Luke, a Greek-speaking companion of Paul, a persecutor of the Way before his conversion, give us two conflicting birth narratives. Both place Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, and the place where the Davidic Messiah (Anointed of God) was to be born. And both proclaim a miraculous virgin birth. John's Gospel, like Mark's has no birth narrative, but we read the prologue to his gospel on Christmas morning, for it places Christ as, as we say  in the Nicene Creed, "begotten, not made, of one being with the Father." but let us consider the narratives of Matthew and Luke:

In Matthew's account, Mary and Joseph are betrothed (but considered married) and living in Bethlehem. When Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, he initially plans to "divorce her quietly" rather than shame her and perhaps subject her to death by stoning, but an angel comes to him in a dream, saying that Mary will bear a son conceived of the Holy Spirit, who will save the people from their sins. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, cites the prophets, and then references the story of the Exodus, though with a twist. The baby Jesus, after being proclaimed a great king by wise men from the East, survives a plague of the firstborn, though brought about by the false king Herod, by the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. When the family returns, it is to Nazareth.

Luke is writing more to the Gentile God-fearers, who are less familiar with Jewish narratives. He places the birth in Bethlehem with the device of a census, in which each head of household must travel to the city of his tribe. The census is for the purpose of Roman taxation. Luke, in fact, goes out of his way put the onus on the Romans--it takes place during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Joseph and Mary can't even find a decent place to stay, so Jesus is born in a stable. Instead of Matthew's wise men, Luke brings lowly shepherds, summoned by angels, to see the infant king. And the angels proclaim Jesus to be a Savior--the same word used to describe the emperor. If Matthew's Jesus is greater than Moses, then Luke's is greater than Augustus.

The two birth narratives, if taken literally, not only contradict each other, but are at odds with the facts as we know them--the Census of Quirinius took place in 6 A.D.--about ten years after Herod's death. And the Romans never required people to travel to their tribal hometowns. Matthew and Luke weren't historians. They were writing to put the birth of Christ into perspective to their respective audiences. And their narratives must have connected. Nearly two thousand years after they wrote their narratives, we're still repeating them.