During this Year A of the Liturgical Calendar, which follows the Gospel of Matthew on Sundays during Ordinary Time, Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm addresses some basic questions about Matthew’s gospel to show how it is relevant to our lives today.
In the previous two articles in this series I have considered Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus as part of the answer to the ‘what’ of Matthew’s gospel. In this article I will discuss Matthew’s portrayal of Mary, Jesus’ mother.
Matthew includes two distinct types of passages about Mary. The first is the Infancy Narrative. The second are texts with Markan parallels concerning Jesus’ ‘family’ and rejection in his own country.
But first, a brief reminder of Matthew’s audience.
Consisting of a Jewish base with an increasing number of Gentile converts, Matthew’s community needed a Jesus convincing to both groups. For Jewish Christians Matthew had to prove through many Scripture citations that Jesus was always part of God’s plan. For Gentiles Matthew had to demonstrate their inclusion was planned from the beginning too. In the Infancy Narrative, Matthew addresses both groups. His heroes are Joseph, the just Jew, and the Magi, the Gentiles who responded to God’s revelation.
Mary in the Genealogy
Matthew interrupts the steady (some would say, boring) rhythm of the genealogy (1:18-25). I’ll discuss the genealogy in more detail in December – four times by references to women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. They all bore sons in unusual circumstances, were outsiders – on the ‘peripheries’ – but like Mary all were vehicles of God’s messianic plan. Through these five women, Matthew explains that the God of Israel and the God of Jesus is on the side of the outcast, the endangered woman and her child. God works through them to bring about salvation. Mary is ‘illegitimate’ royalty, that is, she is not a true member of David’s line but became one through Joseph. Matthew introduces her as the last and most important link in the genealogy. Therefore, even before Matthew has begun the story of Jesus’ birth, he has already revealed Mary as an instrument in God’s messianic plan. Like the other women she is certainly not marginal to the history of Israel or of Christianity.
Mary’s Role in Jesus’ Conception and Birth
Matthew begins Jesus’ conception and birth story at verse 18, perhaps drawing from earlier material. He makes explicit that the marriage of Joseph and Mary is irregular. According to Jewish custom Joseph had a right to expect his betrothed wife to be a virgin – in fact she was but the pregnancy could be scandalous. Under the law she should be punished. Matthew links Mary to Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, and just as God had used them to bring about God’s messianic plan, so now in an even more extraordinary way, God will use Mary. Through the power of the Holy Spirit Mary conceives Jesus. Joseph, the main character throughout, names Jesus just as the angel in his dream commanded, thereby becoming Jesus’ legal father. Hence Jesus is both son of David through this naming, and Son of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Matthew doesn’t tell us how Mary feels about things. After Jesus’ birth, she remains silent and passive. With Jesus, she is the object of Joseph’s care and concern. Apart from the Magi’s visit (2:11), Mary has no real role in Chapter 2. She is merely there for Joseph to take to Egypt and then back to Nazareth. Matthew assures us that Joseph had no sexual relations with Mary until Jesus’ birth (1:25). We don’t know what happened after the birth because this was not Matthew’s interest. His interest was the fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14. While Isaiah himself was not writing about Jesus’ birth but about a child to be born very soon, Matthew interpreted it this way. Mary, though voiceless throughout the Infancy Narrative, became the agent of God’s saving action in history by becoming the Messiah’s mother. How does Matthew portray her in the second of his two types of Marian passages?
Mary in the Public Ministry of Jesus
Keeping in mind that Matthew borrowed heavily from Mark whose gospel is earlier, Matthew makes significant changes in the two passages with Markan parallels, softening Mark’s rather harsh portrayal of Mary.
In the first passage (12:46-50), describing the membership of Jesus’ family, Matthew mentions only once that Jesus’ physical mother and brothers are outside. It’s the disciples, near Jesus, who constitute Jesus’ family. The physical family serves more as a catalyst than as a contrast as in Mark. Matthew softens Mark’s message by omitting the family’s aggressiveness. They don’t come to take Jesus in hand but only to talk to him. They don’t think he’s lost the plot as they do in Mark. Logically speaking this makes sense: Mary had virginally conceived Jesus, knew the angel’s message that he would be a saviour and had seen how God protected him from Herod. Therefore she could hardly think Jesus was crazy!
In the second passage (13:53-58), paralleling Mark’s scene (1-6a) where Jesus returns to Nazareth and is rejected, Matthew omits mentioning Jesus’ own family among those who don’t honour him. Again, logically speaking this makes sense because – for the reasons outlined above – Mary would honour her son. In contrast to Mark who mentions only Mary, Matthew identifies Jesus by both parents. For Matthew’s theology Jesus must be Joseph’s son so that he could be of the House of David (the Jews were expecting a Davidic messiah).
Matthew leaves Mary here somewhere in Galilee. We hear no more about her. Luke, and more particularly, John give us more developed portraits – although John doesn’t name her. When you pray to Mary what name do you give her?
Brown, R, E, Donfried, KP, Fitzmyer, JA, & Reumann, J (Eds.). (1978). Mary in the New Testament: A collaborative assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic scholars. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.
Byrne, B (2004). Lifting the burden: Reading Matthew’s Gospel in the church today. Strathfield, NSW:
St Paul’s Publications
Dr Elizabeth Julian rsm is a lecturer and Distance Education Coordinator at The Catholic Institute of Aotearoa New Zealand.
WelCom August 2017