Referential

When I drive around Abilene during the day, I like to listen to sports radio.  I find that it is a helpful distraction that allows me to transition smoothly from one pastoral call to another.  And so as I got to know the people of Abilene and the Church of the Heavenly Rest, I also got to know the ESPN Radio personalities.  I came to appreciate their various quirks and began to look forward to hearing their reactions to events in the world of sports.  Back in January, however, the station I listen to switched from ESPN Radio to CBS Sports Radio.  The main issue I’ve had with the change is that the format of the radio shows is totally different.  It seems that instead of talking about sports, most of the hosts on CBS Sports Radio talk about talking about sports.  Not only that, these programs regularly refer to things that have happened on previous shows, leaving unfamiliar listeners completely without context.  One show in particular is so self-referential, so full of jargon and inside jokes that there are times that I have no idea what the host is talking about.  I’m sure this can be satisfying for loyal listeners of his program, but for neophytes like me, all of the inside jokes can make listening to the show a frustrating experience.

Today we commemorate the Feast of Saint Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.  Most of what we know about Joseph comes from the first few chapters of the gospel of Matthew, in which Joseph is depicted as a righteous man who decides to marry his espoused wife in spite of her suspicious pregnancy.  For the most part, then, Joseph is basically known for being a good guy.  But there is much more to Joseph than meets the eye.  Like the shows on CBS Sports Radio, Matthew’s portrayal of Joseph is incredibly self-referential; knowing Joseph and his significance requires the reader to know the story of Israel.

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There’s less singing in Genesis

In the first two chapters of his gospel, Matthew tells us two important things about Joseph: 1) God communicates with him through dreams, and 2) Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape from Herod the King by fleeing to Egypt.  If we are familiar with the story of Israel (as Matthew expects us to be), we would remember that there is another Joseph we meet in Genesis 37 who also interprets dreams and spends time in Egypt.  It is Joseph who ultimately brings Israel down to Egypt, which eventually leads to Moses leading Israel out of Egypt in the Exodus, the defining event in Israel’s history.  By presenting the earthly father of Jesus as a dreamer who brings his family down to Egypt, Matthew indicates to his audience that Jesus is the prophet like Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18:15, that the story of Jesus is actually the story of a new Exodus.  By presenting Joseph in the way that he does, Matthew makes it clear that while the gospel is the story of God doing something new in the world, it is also continuous with the story of Israel.

This is a reality that the Church has struggled with for centuries.  On one hand, Christians make the claim that God has changed the world in the person of Jesus Christ.  On other hand, the Church asserts that the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are consistent with the tradition of the Hebrew Bible.  As Christians, we are called to remember where we have come from while being open to new possibilities.  This is a tough needle to thread, but it is really the only way that we can live faithfully in the world.  If we unflinchingly cling to tradition, our practice will become stale and irrelevant.  If we blindly embrace innovation, however, we run the risk of forgetting the purpose to which we have been called.  During Lent, we are called to return to where we have been through repentance, but we are also called to renew our relationship with God, which may lead us to a different place.

One thought on “Referential

  1. I’m reading Richard Rohr’s book, Falling Upward right now. I’m going to assume familiarity with that book and simply say this made me think of the two stages of life and of the two stages of our relationship with God. The Hebrew Bible begins to make sense to a ‘new Christian’.

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