Lesson: Jeremiah 31:7-14
7 Thus says the LORD: Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, “Save, O LORD, your people, the remnant of Israel.”
8 See, I am going to bring them from the land of the north and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor, together; a great company, they shall return here.
9 With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel, and Ephraim is my firstborn.
10 Hear the word of the LORD, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away; say, “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and will keep him as a shepherd a flock.”
11 For the LORD has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him.
12 They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again.
13 Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.
14 I will give the priests their fill of fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my bounty,
says the LORD.
After the righteous and reforming King Josiah was killed in battle at Megiddo (from which we get the Greek word Armageddon) in 609 BCE, the fortunes of Judea took a sharp downward turn. Babylon threatened Judea’s existence, and Judea had a series of hapless kings from 609 until Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The Babylonians deported many Judean leaders to Babylon in 597 and a larger number in 586 (the Babylonian Exile). Jeremiah’s prophesy (i.e., speaking for YHWH) began around 609 and continued until 586 BCE when he died in Egypt.
Most Bible scholars agree that the Book of Jeremiah underwent substantial revisions between the time of Jeremiah (627 to 586 BCE) and the First Century. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, there were different versions of the Book of Jeremiah. The Greek Septuagint Translation (the LXX – dating from 300 to 200 BCE) has some chapters that are not in the Hebrew versions.
Sections in the book that are in “poetry style” are generally attributed to the prophet, and parts in “prose style” were added later by writers whose theological outlook was closely aligned with the Deuteronomists. (In fact, Chapter 52 in Jeremiah is virtually word-for-word with 2 Kings 24:18 to 25:30 written by the Deuteronomists after the Exile.)
Today’s reading is in “poetry style” and comes from a two-chapter section of Jeremiah called “The Book of Consolation.” It described a return from Babylon by the Judeans and the reunification of Samaria and Judea, called “the remnant” (v.7).
In this reading, the prophet spoke for YHWH (translated as LORD in all capital letters) and went so far as to say that YHWH would reunify all Israel. The prophet used “Jacob” and “Israel” interchangeably (“Jacob” in vv. 7 and 11) because Jacob’s name was changed to “Israel” when he wrestled with an angel/God in Genesis 32.
The prophet urged the people to sing with gladness (vv.7 and 12), and to pray to YHWH to save the “remnant” (the usual term for those taken away in the Babylonian Exile).
Ephraim, called YHWH’s firstborn (v.9), was the largest of the 10 tribes in Northern Israel and was also shorthand for Israel (the Northern 10 Tribes) after the division of the nation in 930 BCE. Ephraim was one of Joseph’s sons (Gen.48).
Epistle: Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
15 I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17 I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18 so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.
Ephesus was a large and prosperous city in what is now western Turkey. In the Acts of the Apostles and 1 Corinthians, Paul is said to have visited there. In Ephesus, there were Jesus Followers who were Jews and Jesus Followers who were Gentiles, and they did not always agree on what it meant to be a Jesus Follower.
Because the letter contained many terms not used in Paul’s other letters and gave new meanings to some of Paul’s characteristic terms, most scholars believe that this letter was written by one of Paul’s disciples late in the First Century. The letter was intended to unify the Jesus Follower community in Ephesus. The first three chapters are theological teachings, and the last three chapters consist of ethical exhortations.
In today’s reading from the first chapter, the author was working his way up to the main theme of unity. He emphasized that the Christ mediates all the blessings we receive (v.3), that the Christ was at the “foundation of the world” (v.4) and that the Jesus Followers were adopted as God’s children through the Christ (v.5).
He went on to give thanksgiving for the faith of the community (v.15) and prayed that the “eyes of their hearts” will be enlightened (v.18).
Gospel: Matthew 2:1-12
1 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 `And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
Although the Gospel According to Matthew is the first gospel presented in Christian Bibles, most scholars agree that it was written about 15 years after the Gospel According to Mark – which was written around 70 CE, the time of the destruction of the Temple. It was written primarily for a Jewish Jesus Follower audience as shown by the numerous references to prophets in the Hebrew Bible as “predicting” aspects of the life of Jesus the Christ.
Matthew’s Gospel follows the same general chronology as Mark’s and is one of the “Synoptic” Gospels. Over 50% of Matthew comes from Mark, and the other two sources for Matthew are (a) “sayings” that are also found in Luke’s Gospel (but which are not in Mark) and (b) material that is found only in Matthew.
“Special Matthew” material includes a genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth (1:1-17) that is different from the genealogy used by Luke, particularly in that it begins with Abraham (not Adam, as in Luke) and includes four women (Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba, Rahab) who acted scandalously at times but played a significant role in the Davidic line.
Other materials unique to Matthew are the unstated assumption that Mary and Joseph resided in Bethlehem where Jesus was born (2:1), the appearance of angels in dreams to Joseph (1:20, 2:13 and 2:19), the visit and gifts of the Magi, the flight to Egypt, the decision to move to Nazareth after Herod’s death, the Slaughter of the Innocents by Herod, and the extended Sermon on the Mount (Chapters 5 to 7).
Herod the Great was the king of Judea from 37 BCE to 4 BCE, so if there is an historical basis for the story that is today’s reading, Jesus would have been born in or before 4 BCE. In Greek, the “wise men” are Magi, a word related to the English word “magic.”
The prophet on whom the chief priests relied in stating the Messiah would be in Bethlehem was Micah 5:2 – which was a recent reading (Fourth Sunday of Advent).
Although there are traditionally said to be three wise men because of the three symbolic gifts suitable for a king (v.13), the text does not identify the number of Magi. Calling the wise men “kings” did not occur until substantially later, perhaps as a way to assert that secular kings were to be subservient to Jesus the Christ.
Matthew’s account of the flight to Egypt (vv. 13-15) cannot be harmonized with Luke’s account of the Holy Family’s actions after the birth of Jesus. In Luke, Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem 40 days after his birth for Mary’s purification and for Jesus to be presented (Luke 2:22-38). At that time, Simeon and Anna offered public prayers of praise.
There is no evidence outside Matthew’s Gospel for Herod’s killing children under age 2 who lived in and around Bethlehem.