The idea has often come into my mind that in accepting the birth stories of Matthew and Luke and the theology that surrounds them we miss the stark truth of two remarkable women and the way they educated their sons. Mary and Elizabeth were both Levites brought up in the knowledge they had the special task of educating their children in the spiritual and moral standards God expected of their nation. Elizabeth married into the priesthood, would educate her son in his responsibility to give moral leadership in honesty, caring, generosity and strict sexual relationships in marriage. Her teaching of strict moral conduct would be out of line with the priestly tolerance of sin, dishonesty, divorce and bigotry against foreigners, accepted by the priesthood in general.
Mary, although a Levite, found herself pledged by her father to marry outside the priesthood but directly in line of David from whom, if scripture was correct, the Messiah, God’s spiritual leader for all people, had to come. So when Mary went to help Elizabeth, carrying her first born, she realised the uniqueness of their situations because of their priestly backgrounds and probably talked of the situation and even planned accordingly. Their backgrounds would suggest education and conscience would make them aware of a tremendous responsibility, so the gospel writer’s visitation of Gabriel would be to help readers clearly understand both women are God-inspired and lead, and the virgin birth story of theologians is unnecessary. If Elizabeth taught her son John the need for the moral values of honesty, fairness, caring, toleration and the need for integrity in marriage then when John found a toleration of all these things by the priesthood it would bring about a crisis of conscience for John.
There was much bigotry against foreigners, so when Elizabeth pointed out the messenger who cried ‘prepare ye the way of the Lord and make his path straight’ was that second Isaiah who saw virtue in a foreign king Cyrus fighting the tyranny and evil of his day, John would realise not all foreigners are evil. As the author of that second Isaiah had written, God said ‘thou Cyrus has been my servant although you have never known me’. He would realise, as Paul said later, ‘pagans have no law but obey by instinct what the law asks’ This understanding of the task of the messenger would lead John into a rejection of the priesthood and its fine linen of authority. Then his later dress of animal skins shows his utter rejection and revulsion of what the priesthood stood for.
It would seem that Elizabeth’s teaching had emphasised a priest’s main duty to God was not just to take services of praise and worship but to show spiritual and moral standards had to be applied in the market place and home to bring in the kingdom of God.
Before I reflect on Mary and her guidance of Jesus from a human view fully reflecting on God, may I explain why I reject the theological interpretation. The theological interpretation is that Jesus existed as a complete and perfect personality sitting beside God since the world began. Why reject this? First Jesus would have had within himself complete knowledge of the mission from his birth. It would make his natural birth an unnecessary gimmick, the temptation experience completely unnecessary and the agony and uncertainty in the garden of Gethsemane both unreal and untrue. Next he would have known with his complete foreknowledge the rules of the universe, of the use of plants for drugs, of the shape of material progress in years to come. There is no indication that any of this knowledge was his nor is it given him in the temptation stories. He comes out of the temptations with the psychological knowledge on how to solve man’s problems and then gives us the examples of how to live and the God solutions to our lives.
If anyone reads this and wants to throw at me the theological interpretations of the opening chapter of John ‘In the beginning was the logos, the logos was with God, the logos was God’ then here is my response. This is a perfectly logical explanation to the Greeks to whom it was written. The word logos was an inventive description by Zeno the Greek stoic philosophy leader to describe the spirit of wisdom, self-control and suffering which man has to accept to solve his problems. The understanding was about 500 years old. John quite rightly saw it as an explanation of Jesus’ life the Greeks could accept. So his bold description of the life of Christ as the ‘logos was made flesh and dwelt among us’ would be understood as the mission of Christ after the temptations, not as a manifestation through a miraculous birth.
When you read in Proverbs 8 that wisdom existed from the beginning, it saw all things were good, but it was the guide of man. So any man who surrendered fully body, mind and spirit would have been the ‘logos’. The virgin birth story as a normal event of the first born to any woman is true to fulfil prophecy. But the interpretation in Luke and Matthew’s gospels after the destruction of Jerusalem seems to me more an attempt to square a situation that was unnecessary. Caesars had claimed a virgin birth by God ever since Augustus Caesar was voted a God by the senate. So Luke’s version emphasises Caesar was a lesser person than the Christ who gave life that was spiritual to all men. To go beyond that is to make Christ’s life more superstitious and supernatural than necessary.
Before looking at Mary’s conception of her first born son’s potential destiny we should consider an observation of Psalm 110 which was regarded as the Messiah’s reward ‘Come thou and sit at my right hand while I make your enemies into a footstool’. It reads as if from times beginning that place had remained empty waiting for a man worthy to fulfil it. If the theology of the eternal son was right God would have said ‘Come resume your seat’
So now to look at Mary’s insight., she knew her bible, its history, its story of man’s painful progress, its prophecies and its growing understanding of the psychology of the type of man God needed. She knew that once married to a descendent of David in Joseph she was in a position to fulfil it. Hence that outburst of joy and praise we know as the Magnificat. It is not an ingenious invention by Luke but an outcry of joy by Mary as to what is possible. But she has a problem. In scripture there are different types of Messiahs. She has to teach clearly all types to her as son. He has to choose. If you read the temptation story with that in mind you see the difficulty of Christ’s choice.
Everyone expected a military messiah. It was the great desire of the people, empires were built this way. Could the spiritual desire combine with the material desire? I expect Mary pointed out to her son that Israel had been a subjugated nation ruled by others for more than six hundred years, first Babylonian, then Persian, then Greek now Roman, and had survived. Empires perish, a nation lives on because of its character, whoever rules. There were prophecies of the Messiah being the bringer of peace and plenty, of great intellectual power. Isaiah describes all the world coming to Jerusalem to learn.
Did Mary tell Jesus that if you had all knowledge, all power, but lacked love you would fail? Then there was the second Isaiah’s death story of the suffering servant. It is the history of the death of a man who tried to stop a nation compromising with paganism (they had become idol makers) and materialism, who tried to turn them back to spiritual values. He was killed for his pains. Jesus said later ‘which of the prophets did you not kill?’ Although Ezekiel was to die at their hands he had painted a picture of spiritual influence Mary would have pointed out to her son.
It was a river of grace which started as a trickle at the altar, accepted by the people it grew into a stream in the streets of Jerusalem, became a river in the countryside and purified and made fertile everywhere it went cleansing the Dead Sea. One of the options of the Messiah was to bring the grace of God to the hearts of man.
Consider then the choices to be a Messiah. A military one would be short term. The conquered resented and hated the situation. An intellectual and affluent one meant people became shallow and lost concern for each other. The suffering servant at the beck and call of all could by love create a relationship with God. He could create relationships of trust, destroy greed and ambition taking away the motives of sensuality and pursuit of happiness. We know the eldest son of a Levi priest or Rabbi inherited his father’s position, other children had to find an alternative career. John gave up the priesthood on moral grounds to become a pioneer of a better higher life. Mary had to marry out of her class but brought ideals and destiny to her family. Sometimes dedicated women are more valuable to God than their male counterparts.
There is a passage in Isaiah 2 which Mary must have taken very seriously. ‘A shoot will grow out of Jesse’s stump’. The old ideals, the old standards had been cut down, a new shoot with vigorous life and new ideals for the changed circumstances must be born. The past standards and solutions had not been deed enough to meet the circumstances, new ones had to come into place. The passage shows all types living together peacefully. The vicious, the cunning, the devious and the brutal all changed their nature. Because of the way this starts it must have been written by the second Isaiah; it is possible to be seeing every creature representing a nation. So it becomes a prophecy of a world living in harmony and peace, accepting the God-given wisdom and knowledge applied to every situation.
The second Isaiah, whose life is recorded from Isaiah 40-53, is different in his approach to a lot of other prophets in his thinking. Like Elisha he realised a pagan can be used by God for his purposes, hence his statement in 45 ‘Thou Cyrus has been my servant although you have never known me.’ Someone had to be used to break the evils of Babylon, no Judaian king of that period was strong enough in wisdom and morality to serve God’s purpose for the exiles, yet this Cyrus had both that wisdom and that morality. The captives themselves seem to have accepted in the man the standards of their captors. He accuses them of making idols and of worshipping these idols, it means they had dropped the spiritual moral standard and become greedy, materialistic, sensual and pleasure loving, none of which will create peace on earth.
The teaching of a need of a spiritual Messiah as against a political Messiah becomes clearer. Did Mary point this out? In the temptation story where Jesus examines every type of Messiahship this one is always in the background. It is as well to remember a spiritual Messiah will be both positive and creative in all he does. There were two common yearnings for a Messiah in Christ’s day. The first to throw off the repression of the empire, although Roman rule created laws, roads, protection to make trade easier, taxes to pay for all this were not popular. Foreign rule always seems to damage any hope of friendly relationships. Jesus would see empires come and go, that they break the idea that all people are children of God and belong to one family.
Next the resentment against those who rule leads to suspicion and hate, in the end every empire has fallen as personality is eroded, corruption becomes rampant and war follows. Then the common desire for a happy society with all well fed, well clothed and comfortable while a dream is achievable. One prophet talked of everyman sitting in peace under his own fig tree (referred to in a sermon in my youth as every family owning three acres and a cow as self-sufficiency). In this age of computers, robots, etc., we know we can produce enough to clothe, feed and provide for comfort more than the world needs.
But the profit motive and its worship of money limits compassion and stops the expression of love. We become concerned for the future, lose confidence in our ambitions, shorten our vision. It is a sobering thought that Jesus knew every possible dream of man wanting easy solutions, but realised the personality of man had to become loving and unselfish, not materialistic, to achieve what he desired. Probably the miracle of the loaves and fishes demonstrates this best. Some suggest it was some sort of conjuring trick to prove God cares for people and as proof that Jesus is the chosen one. But this comes close to accepting a line of thought rejected by Jesus in the temptation story. It is easier for me to accept that Jesus by accepting the boys very generous offer showed by sharing generosity is a God talent we all have and the crowd followed his example. The trouble with this explanation is the crowd next day follows Jesus because they want free bread, it is more important some than learning to create and share. It brings up a problem in our own society, everyone has a right to work to create. But a lot of inventions reduce the opportunity to work and money is more important than people, it seems our priority is wrong when people are seen not as personalities but as commodities to make profits.
It is not the church that has priorities the wrong way round but political parties. Jesus’ concentration on personality as the objective of society so long before psychology came into the mind of man is a miracle in itself. Why do I believe that? I have spent nearly eighty of my ninety seven years looking at the teaching of Jesus. Generation after generation needed them but ignored them, the short solutions always seemed more attractive, but never worked in practice. Yet in spite of generations of failure, people still think politicians have an answer, but education never addresses the flaws in personality.
There is a conundrum in Mary’s story that is impossible to solve. She had other children, both Luke and John mention them. Yet in Luke’s story of the 12 year old Jesus going missing there is no mention. Was she able to concentrate all her religious knowledge on one child for that time? Then after Joseph died, did Jesus have to keep a business going and act as surrogate father to learn from experience the problems and attitude of mankind?
The hidden years? There is a poem which asks this question but does not try to answer, yet common sense and logic demands we ask ourselves the question. The poem starts ‘ What was he doing all those years?’ From 12 years old to manly pride Mary taught him the prophecy of the Messiah, but Joseph had to teach him through work the nature of mankind. Joseph was not a ‘poor carpenter’ as some suggest, as a working man descended from royalty but most probably a master carpenter owning his own business. Luke suggests they made the religious trip to Jerusalem yearly, which probably meant six weeks off work. Joseph would train Jesus as his eldest son to take over the business. So from an early age Jesus was taught carpentry, probably as a boy he visited his father’s workshop and at the age of twelve had to earn his living. But once in the business he would have to meet the customers and begin to make judgements on the type he met.
The carpenter’s business of making ploughs, yokes, ladders for farmers and, as he was near the water, sometimes repairing boats and sails for fishermen, but also making chairs, tables, beds and doors would put him in touch with every kind of mankind. The trade of carpenter was the greatest school to understand the motivation and psychology of humanity. When later in parables he illustrated how greed and selfishness slowed down the progress of the kingdom of God he was drawing on past events not propagating theories. Some of his more telling parables are stark in what they reveal.
In the Good Samaritan story he shows how religious prejudice and wrong ideas of God hinder the advance of the kingdom. It reads as something which happened and was the talk of the market place. Again in the parable of the owner who built a vineyard and let it out to tenants who would avoid paying the rent and would commit murder. It was a sharp reminder to not only Pharisees and Sadducees but also to zealots, nationalists and the hard headed and heated. You pay the rent by developing a God personality of love, compassion, care and generosity. Profit is not a God motive, it’s a human invention that should have limits. Jesus reveals this in two parables of labouring men.
In the first men agree on a fair days pay for a fair day’s work, then object when the owner pays the same wage to those who have done less time. Jesus reveals in this we need the same things and have the same basic costs whatever our abilities. Aiming at greater luxury is a human motive which can put God in the background. Those hidden years were probably where Jesus was educated in all human motivation. There are parables based on human contradictions of life which need more thought, but show a very human sense of fun.
The story of the dishonest steward is a good example. The steward has a split personality, so has his employer (luckily he has a tolerant sense of humour). The steward’s wages are not enough to meet his assumed needs, so he cheats. Found out, he is given notice, so faces a bleak future with no income. So calls in his employer’s debtors and reduces their bills by a considerable amount. His employer hears about it, thinks, then bursts out laughing and commends him. The law forbade the lending of money. The Pharisees, priests and others got round this law by lending commodities. Profit was still the motive of action, but excess profit is not a God one. The dishonest steward reduces each amount to fit into the demands of the law. The employer sees the funny side. His dishonest steward keeps him in line with the purpose of God. Whether God would use dishonesty to fulfil his purpose I do not know, but he does seem to bend events sometimes to thwart evil, but it is a difficult theology to study.
There is one other parable which is deeper than it first looks. It concerns a man who finds treasure in a field then buries it until he can buy the field and digs it up again and reclaims it. Why not just reveal it in the first place? It seems spiritual truth cannot be thought of as an abstract. For people to understand its background is essential, and foundations are necessary. The interpretation that you have to give your all to get it, as the church teaches, is completely true. You cannot take what you like and leave the rest. We have seen this borne out in the political field by both socialists and communists. Both tried to create a just and fair society and both failed because they regarded the spiritual qualities as unimportant. The conservative party thinks that by emphasising profit it is bringing in a creative society. But in making money the goal it creates divisions, the gap between rich and poor widens. It brings in greed at one end and envy and resentment at the other. It was a conservative government which created the lottery which gave the poor false hope of quick riches, it was the right wing which created easy credit and gambling mania. No political party aims at first creating a spiritual man to be its foundation.
Yet in that parable Jesus told his generation that was the first priority. But I wonder do Catholics or Protestants ever recognise its importance. What was he doing all those years from 12 year old to manly prime? Studying mankind’s ambitions, systems and ideologies and working out none would ever work without the right personality. Every public activity depends on it. The Messiah’s work or vocation was to prove it by living but if he found out all this by work, studying people and systems, one experience would be denied him like it was denied Ezekiel.
The opposing of political and national attitudes brings persecution, not just for the one but also friends and family. So the marriage and propagation of children was in both cases out of the question. Yet the bringing up of children, the training of them spiritually at an early age surely had to be part of the Jesus training? As we understand the gospel story we are taught there was a wide age gap between Joseph and Mary, possibly twenty years. It is also said the life expectancy was in the high 40’s or low 50’s. We are told in the gospel stories that Jesus had brothers and sisters. As there is no mention of them in the story of the twelve year old Jesus there must have been a wide age gap between Jesus and these siblings. Sometime after that trip to Jerusalem Joseph died and it d meant Jesus would have to take over the business to provide for the family. He would have to become the surrogate father for his younger brothers and sisters.
The circumstances would create the conditions where Jesus would learn how to cope with encouraging children to develop a loving, caring and compassionate God-centred personality. It would seem that the presence of God dominated the home and the wisdom of God guided every step. Nothing in the planning was left to chance. Again in those hidden years we are not told if, or how often, the cousins John and Jesus met. Jesus lived in a patriotic and zealot area, John in a sophisticated city area of corruption of priest and leaders. From country town to city Jesus was made aware of the spiritual personality needed to bring people to real freedom and trust. On reflection, if you take out the symbolic angels and look at how strong the guidance, events seem even more remarkable.
Because the gospel stories tell only of the mission of Jesus we have no real idea as to the friendship or affinity of John and Jesus. But in the gospel of John the evangelist we have a clue. In his account of the baptism of Jesus, when John the Baptist saw Jesus coming he exclaims to his followers: ‘Behold the Lamb of God.’ It suggests there had been long discussions between them of their destinies, that Jesus realised the opposition would not accept what he taught and would kill him. So John knew of the decision between their thinking and Jesus’ understanding of God, knew that was unacceptable to those who would oppose Jesus.
Then according to that gospel John was convinced Jesus had a purer understanding of the nature of God. He was heard to say, ‘I should not be baptising you, but you me.’ Jesus pointed out the crowd accepted his baptism as a dedication to God, so when John did it the baptism would be recognised as Christ’s public recognition of God and how he was to live. It suggests John had knowledge of how much Christ’s theology differed from what was accepted by the priests. The Old Testament suggested that God gave a double punishment for sin in this life and the hereafter. If you look at the punishment served for doing wrong, God inflicted in this life plagues, wars, starvation, floods, droughts and destruction of crops by locusts. Love and forgiveness were difficult to imagine and then when you died you received further punishment for failing.
There is a contradiction the priesthood accepted, an absolutely loving God who controlled and used every catastrophe! There are still remnants of this thinking in the ‘why does not God stop wars, plague and cruelty?’ Because all this was punishment an idea grew into a theology that to help the victims of any disaster was to reduce the sentence, reduce the length of punishment God had decided. It was this theology the Pharisees and priests had which is behind the refusal to help in the Samaritan story and also the accusation ‘he does miracles by the power of the devil or Beelzebub.’ A God of two natures, good and evil.
To combat such theology miracles were essential, but what about such stories as the prodigal son and the tenants of the vineyard. What can they teach us? Both stories show men have free will to choose their destiny, it’s individual and national. We have to learn selfishness breeds disasters, it’s our failure to learn the lesson, to repent and co-operate which brings the later judgement. Only by a change of heart and nature can judgement not turn into punishment.