Year A – Advent 4

Isaiah 7: 10-16[1]

1. Discussion

Today’s passage from Isaiah is famous because of its association with The Gospel According to Matthew, in which Matthew, at 1:23, quotes verse 14 from today’s reading. However, to simply associate those two readings and see the passage from Isaiah as a “prediction” that is “fulfilled” in Matthew is to very much miss the point of this reading from the Hebrew Scriptures. For in truth there is a deep ambiguity in this passage that, once we appreciate its presence, enables us to understand that nothing is as cut and dried as we think.

The historical context for the reading is that the kingdom of Judah is being threatened by hostile neighbours to the north, especially the Syrian kingdom of Aram and the northern Hebrew kingdom of Israel. Faced with these threats, Isaiah is commissioned to bring a word of hope to Ahaz, the king of Judah: the evil perpetrated by these menaces will not stand. Therefore, let Ahaz ask of God any favour, and it shall be granted.

Curiously, Ahaz seems reluctant to take up Isaiah’s offer, citing the ancient prohibition against mortals putting God to a test of faith. Normally, this would be considered appropriate humility from a human, even one as elevated as a king; yet, on this occasion, it seems to spark God’s irritation – perhaps because it is God openly making an offer to the king, rather than the king pleading God for favours. In the face of the king’s reluctance, Isaiah speaks prophetically: God will provide a sign of God’s providence, a child born to a young woman, whom she shall name Immanuel – “God with us”.

Now, with the wisdom of hindsight, it seems obvious that the child spoken of as the sign of God’s providence is none other than Jesus. And certainly that’s what the author of Matthew was thinking in 1:23 – “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” And certainly that’s how many people have, and continue, to read this passage. But in doing so, they overlook certain critical aspects of the text.

The first is that the Isaiah text refers to a “young woman” and not a “virgin”. This is the product of a long process of translation from Hebrew, through Greek, and into Latin, in which the nuances and ambiguities of “young woman” are re-configured into the more concretised “virgin”. Indeed, the Hebrew word translated as “young woman” – almah – may not hold any connotations at all with respect to whether or not the woman in question is a “virgin”. She might be; but, then again, she might not. So viewing the “young woman” as a symbol of purity and unworldliness who accordingly bears a child who is a gift from God is missing the point.

Indeed, Isaiah seems remarkably unconcerned with the identity of the “young woman” – which, again, is contrary to those who read this text as a “prediction” of the events of Christmas. Biblical scholars have speculated and conjectured on who the “young woman” might be, but her identity remains elusive. The prophet’s concern seems to be focused on what the child, Immanuel, will mean for the People of God: relief from the evil that threatens them, liberation from the oppression of barbaric invaders.  But the obscurity of this “young woman” and her child also indicates that this liberation will come from an unexpected quarter, overturning all our expectations and assumptions about power and greatness. Indeed, it even suggests that the nature of the “liberation” will not be what we think it is; God is doing something in the world, but it is not in the conventional political-military terms under consideration by King Ahaz and his advisers.

Indeed, this unconventionality may be the source of God’s irritation with Ahaz’s refusal to take up Isaiah’s invitation. Ahaz is considering a military alliance with Assyria, a nation that will eventually destroy both Aram and Israel – but which will also, albeit unsuccessfully, threaten Jerusalem. Ahaz’s inability or unwillingness to trust in God and seek a sign of hope is indicative of a narrow-mindedness and spiritual poverty that wearies both mortals and God. This in turn will have consequences for the people of Judah in that it will simply replace one threat with another.

The longed-for peace will not arrive until the people and their leaders open themselves to the possibilities of hope in God and God’s faithfulness. This is a liberation that will occur over the longer term, and in ways both unexpected and unsettling. It will overturn our assumptions about power and greatness; but it will reveal, decisively, the loving faithfulness of God, that works in and for the world, out of love for the world, and in commitment to covenant between God and the whole of creation.  

2. Reflection

Almost from childhood, we are conditioned to think of work – of “getting a job” and “paying our way” – as the end to which human life is directed. Waged employment is viewed by our social norms as the primary way in which an individual can “make a contribution” to society: through their work, they are “productive” and assist in the process of providing goods and services; through their income, they can become a consumer of goods and services, thereby helping to sustain economic growth, generate further employment, and further the cycle of social well-being. Being “in work” – being in waged employment – carries a moral value: the exchange of labour for income is indicative of personal integrity and legitimacy, marking out the individual as a “lifter” who contributes to social welfare, rather than a “leaner” who expects society to work for them.

Attached to this moral injunction, however, are various forms of inducement, or expectation, about all the personal benefits we can expect from entering the world of waged employment.  An income, afterall, will enable us to buy things: everything from personal gifts to a home, a car, a holiday. Having an income will enable us to support a family. Having an income will make us an attractive prospect for potential romantic partners. Having an income will liberate us from dependency on our parents – indeed, upon anyone else. The promise of waged employment is glittering and enticing.

And there are, indeed, blessings that come to us from work. Work, afterall, helps humans sustain their physical existence, it enables us to utilise the resources of the non-human ecology for our well-being, and it allows humans to express their creativity and ingenuity. However, the way in which modernity constructs work and economy – and the way, in particular, in which waged employment has come to dominate they way in which we understand what ‘work” is – comes very much as a mixed blessing. The benefits of waged labour are accompanied by destructive and dehumanising detriments that make the picture more complex than we might otherwise assume; certainly, it is a picture we need to examine with a far more critical eye than is allowed for by the superficial wash of moral injunction and personal inducement.

A single example will suffice to illustrate this point. When many of us enter the workforce – or start a new job – we do so with a sense of excitement and trepidation; everything is new and novel, and contains an element of the mysterious that must be learned and come to terms with. However, we quickly discover that once we do come to terms with these things, what was once mysterious and novel becomes tedious and mundane. And that’s because modernity’s institutional construction of work forgets that an aspect of work’s purpose in human life is to assist in the expression of human creativity. But the process orientation of waged labour ignores this dimension: what is prioritised is the end result achieved as efficiently and as economically as possible. The sense of drudgery and ennui that many people experience through waged employment is a direct result of this elimination of creativity from modernity’s construction of work and economy.

The ambiguity that echoes through today’s reading from Isaiah is reflected in the ambiguity of the “blessing” of work in human life – especially when our construction of that blessing skews work into various forms that dominate or distort our understanding of the meaning and purpose of work. Just as to simplistically read the passage from Isaiah as a “foretelling” of the event of Christmas would be to ignore the complexities and fluidities involved in the process of translation, as well as the long history within the Hebrew Scriptures that speaks of the “darkness” of God and the fact that the presence of God in human life was not an unalloyed “good” (when viewed from the human perspective), so to simplistically accept modernity’s construction of work and economy as an unambiguous “good” will be to ignore its negativities and ambivalence.

But the fact that this text also subverts the structures of power and authority to vest the blessing of God in an unknown “young woman” and her son also alerts us to the fact that what we think constitutes human legitimacy and fruitfulness – as dictated by modernity’s construction of work and economy – is, in fact, not the case. Indeed, the very things we think will liberate and release us might in fact cause our destruction. The unspoken but looming presence of the Assyrian empire in this text, which will destroy both Israel and Aram but also threaten Jerusalem, could very well be a metaphor for all the dangers that loom over our lives at presence. The dangers of economic inequality and the concentration of power; the dangers of dehumanisation and alienation; the dangers of ecological destruction and climate change. These are all dangers posed by the manifestation and use of oppressive power.

The text, however, posits true power, the power of hope and faithfulness, in the child of the unknown “young woman”.  Immanuel – God with us – speaks to the “weak” power of solidarity, of love and faithful relationship that may not possess the immediate strength of oppressive power, but which over the longer term proves decisive. And so it is with our understanding of work and economy. From the standpoint of Christian faith, both are elements of our relational co-existence, and not ends in themselves. The all-pervasive ideology of corporatist capitalism mocks this notion of relational work and economy, all the while ignoring the disaster it threatens to bring down on our heads. But the promise of God as articulated in today’s reading from Isaiah carries with it, despite all its ambiguities, the assurance of a faithfulness that weathers all the temporary threats of oppressive power, and which contains within it the seed from which can spring a new, reconfigured understanding of work that will in turn re-shape our understanding of what it means to be human.

Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19

1. Discussion

These verses from Psalm 80 constitute a lament in the midst of suffering, and a plea for God to remember God’s faithfulness to Israel and deliver the people from their distress. But within that plea is an acknowledgement of wrongdoing, of having turned way from covenant; the suffering of the people is a consequence of their own sinfulness, and not of any arbitrary or capricious anger on God’s part. In this context, a plea for deliverance might seem presumptuous; but that plea is itself part of the dialogue between God and humankind, one in which God is reminded of God’s own promise that human foolishness will not have the final word in human destiny.

The Psalm begins with an evocation of God as the shepherd of Israel, the one who both guides and protects the people. As such, God is endowed with power and glory, which, if stirred on behalf of the people, will cause their deliverance because no other force or power could match or prevent it. The verses then plead with God to set aside divine anger at the people, describing their predicament as a diet of suffering that causes them to be shamed and ridiculed before their neighbours. In this it replicates the “shame culture” of the period: “losing face” before others was not simply a matter of social embarrassment, it was to be excluded from the life of the community. The humiliation of Israel represents their exclusion from the community of nations, all the more egregious given their calling is to be a light to the world.

The verses conclude with a mysterious reference to “the one” at God’s right hand, whom God has made strong for God’s own sake. Is this a reference to a Messiah – perhaps a “saviour” who will replace the corrupted line of kings who came after David and Solomon, and who will restore the unity of the divided kingdom? Or is it a reference to one begotten of God, a divine “deputy” who acts as God’s decisive agent in worldly affairs? At this remove, the passage is obscure, but it clearly points to a source of hope located in God. This is a hope that will give life to the people of Israel, a life in which they can turn back to God and re-orient themselves to covenant.

These verses from Psalm 80 are a lament in the midst of suffering which, even as it acknowledges responsibility for sin, looks to God for hope and the possibility of renewed life. As such, it gives expression to the reality of suffering in human life, as well as looks beyond that reality toward a horizon of liberation and release.

2. Reflection

One of the salient characteristics of the culture of modernity is its insistence upon a “celebratory” approach to life, one in which the cults of “achievement” and “celebrity” reduce life to a narcissistic parade of self-indulgent “joyful” experience. Moreover, this approach admonishes those who refuse to “celebrate”: they are “party-poopers” or “too negative” or don’t display the “right spirit”. Even in the face of death, our denial of tragedy and sorrow prevails: funerals are no longer occasions of grief and mourning, they are “celebrations” of the life of the deceased, events in which the re-telling of funny stories and the playing of uplifting music masks our sorrow and prohibits reflections on our mortality.

Perhaps this is why “upbeat” churches in which worship becomes an “experience” are so wildly successful – that is to say, successful in the terms which the world recognises as “success”. When worship becomes a concert in which we celebrate our “personal relationship” with God and give thanks for our particular “salvation”, we don’t need to consider the reality of sin or suffering or loss in our lives. Indeed, we can re-cast these realities as things that apply to other people, which are reflective of their moral turpitude and need for “deliverance”. For ourselves, we are “shiny, happy” people for whom the experience of faith solves all our problems and makes all our troubles disappear. Perhaps this is the same reason why such churches also have a good deal of trouble attending to those for whom faith is not an escape hatch into a happy, trouble-free life.

This same cult of celebration infects our approach to work. The hold which the idea of “achievement” as moral vindicator has on our lives induces us to buy into corporate organisational techniques that harness human creativity and sociability to the ends of profit making and market capture. People who don’t buy into the corporate culture are dismissed as “trouble-makers” who don’t have the “right attitude”. Work is something which is to be uncritically celebrated as the mechanism through which human desire is actualised: our desire, not for a genuinely flourishing life marked by a relational co-existence with one another and with the non-human ecology, but for the “stuff” which modernity tells us we need in order to be “happy” and “fulfilled”.

But not only does this process capture human desire for the purposes of corporatist capitalism, it also marginalises and hides the experience of those for whom work has been a source of harm and suffering. Our insistence on “celebration” and “achievement” means we likewise recoil from the reality of work’s destructive potential, and view those who experience this potential as a reality with mixed feelings of revulsion and fear. Even those processes within modernity that are supposed to prevent and ameliorate work’s destructive potential – such as workers’ compensation systems – are actually operated on the basis of processing case loads rather than attending to the suffering of those harmed by work. “Crunching the numbers” is the thing, not any actual analysis of what caused the harm in the first place.

Today’s reading from Psalm 80 reminds us, however, of the necessity of lament as a means of giving voice to our grief and despair in the midst of suffering. The suppression of those voices which speak of the harmful effects of work ultimately harms us all, precisely because it buys into the negation of our human need to grieve and to acknowledge loss. In the face of death, the ultimate negation, the injustice of silencing does not enable us to assert the reality of our being; it simply masks over our confrontation with mortality with a phoney and superficial “celebration”.

Tellingly, however, Psalm 80 also reveals that lament is an avenue into genuine self-responsibility and accountability. It enables us to, as it were, put up our hand and acknowledge our own responsibility for sin. Perhaps this is why modernity is so frightened of lament: the cults of “celebration” and “achievement” become a way for us to avoid taking a good look at ourselves and acknowledging the ways in which we contribute to all the destructiveness which work entails. The legalism in which modernity’s construction of work and economy are enmeshed embodies the concept of culpability, but not of responsibility or accountability. Thus it is that the law enables revenge and retribution, but not justice. This in turn promotes a culture of avoidance characterised by finger-pointing and buck passing: we are all too terrified to acknowledge responsibility, because we are all well aware that the result will not be justice but revenge.

But Psalm 80 also points the way toward the response to acknowledgement of sin that marks out the difference between justice and revenge when seen from the standpoint of Christian faith. In the Psalm, the acknowledgement of sin leads to the recognition of hope – hope that is founded in an understanding of God’s commitment to covenant, and the unremitting love by which that commitment is undergirded. When we acknowledge our sin and turn ourselves back to God in humility, we are not then humiliated; rather, we are given hope for new possibilities and new ways of being. We are given the hope of new and restored life. These possibilities do not whitewash the past or pretend that harm did not occur; rather, they emerge from the fact of that harm, and the reality that God’s love is such that our lives are not bound to, or circumscribed by, by the experience of suffering and injustice. Acknowledgement of responsibility, acknowledgement of sin, leads ultimately to liberation: for ourselves, and for the victims of our harmful behaviour.

Psalm 80 reminds us that beneath the superficial celebratory mode of modernity’s construction of work and economy, there lurks a deeper truth which, left unacknowledged, leads only to a festering that blights human lives. This is the truth that the acknowledgement of harm is more important than corporate prerogatives, and takes precedence over the demands of “brand reputation”. The acknowledgement of sin is the truthful acknowledgement of the harm embedded within the human experience of work; and it is also the restorative act of bringing into the centre of communal life those voices which are otherwise marginalised and silenced. Lament in the context of work is not “negativity” or “troublemaking” – it is the righteous cry for justice which must be heard if we are to realise the hope of reconfiguring our experience of work out of its present enslavement to sin and into something more covenantal and more facilitative of genuine human flourishing.

Romans 1: 1-7

1. Discussion

The opening verses of Paul’s Letter to the Romans are, as it were, a declaration of purpose. In these verses, Paul identifies himself, his ministry, and the calling of the church to be witnesses to the Gospel as it is revealed in the person of Jesus. This Gospel – “good news” – is not just the word of hope that was given to the people of Israel through the prophetic tradition, but an extension of that hope to all the peoples of the world. In other words, the “good news” is twofold: firstly, the covenant promise made by God to the Hebrew people as set out in the Law and the Hebrew Scriptures; and, secondly, the inclusion of the whole of humanity into the grace of covenant through the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Paul describes himself as a “servant” of Christ who is “set apart” for the “gospel of God”.  The word “servant” is rendered in some translations as “slave”. Whichever translation you use, and whatever qualms either phrase may trigger for our modern sensibilities, Paul (who was both a devout Jew and a Roman citizen) is clearly identifying his status by reference to the socio-economic structures of his time: he is not one who commands, but who obeys. He is, as it were, a man “under authority” who is subject to a greater power.  Thus, Paul – like John the Baptist before him – is abrogating any claims to messiahship or divinity; that authority is God’s alone, whose gospel Paul serves.

Likewise, Paul’s description of himself as one “set apart” touches on both aspects of the “good news” he proclaims. Firstly, it reaches back into Hebrew identity as the “chosen people”, the ones who were “set aside” to be a “light unto the nations” that would draw the people of the world toward relationship with God. Secondly, it identifies his own sense of being one who has “departed from” the norm; his calling to proclaim the “good news” of the inclusion of Gentiles into the promise of God’s grace is one that clearly distinguishes him from the Jerusalem leadership of the early church. Their proclamation was to fellow Jews; Paul’s, however, reaches out to a far wider audience. This sense of calling will involve him in controversy and dispute; but it will also reconfigure how the early church understood the messiahship of Jesus and the nature of promise fulfilled which he embodied.

Next, Paul identifies the gospel he serves as being God’s “good news” about Jesus, who is both born of the flesh in descent from the line of David (and thus embedded in fulfilment of God’s promise to Israel), and is also the Son of God as attested by his resurrection from death through the power of God’s holiness.  Here, again, Paul links the sacred history of Israel to the expansion of covenant promise embodied in the person of Jesus. Born of the line of David, Jesus personifies the ancient hope of Israel; raised from the dead, he signifies the re-setting of human history and destiny. He is the Immanuel – God with us – foretold by the prophets, the decisive act by which God forever reconciles the life of the world to God’s own reality and being.

It is through the Sonship of Jesus that the grace of God extends to humankind; and our response to God’s invitation into grace comes in the form of apostleship. This apostleship takes the form of orienting our lives toward Christ as the One who stands at the fulcrum through which heaven and earth are joined; and one form which this apostleship takes is to proclaim to other Gentiles that they, too, are included within the orbit of God’s grace. This is the “obedience of faith” of which Paul speaks: not a “submission” to an overlord God, but a response in faith that seeks to remodel life in new ways, new directions.

In this passage from Romans, we see the beginning, within the very early church, of a Christology which declares that Jesus is not merely sent from God but is of God. Consequently, as Immanuel, “God among us”, Jesus joins the life of the world to the life of God; and Jesus likewise becomes the conduit through which humanity can respond in faith to God’s invitation into grace. Thus, the calling into faith isn’t simply a matter of personal “salvation”, it’s a commitment to the discipleship of proclamation, of declaring to the world the “good news” that belongs to all. Paul is the first disciple of this expanded and re-oriented Gospel; we are called to do likewise.

2. Reflection

One of the injustices perpetrated by modernity’s construction of work and economy is the exclusion which it practices against those who lack power, or who are otherwise marginalised from access to the fullness of human dignity and flourishing. Even those within the “mainstream” of society are captive to this process of exclusion, precisely because the outcome which modernity posits as “salvation” – the absolute autonomy of the fully self-realised individual – is available to only those who are the primary beneficiaries of the status quo. Corporatist capitalism might promise any manner of “salvations”, from upward socio-economic mobility to greater individual freedom and “choice”, but in truth what it delivers is the captivity of most of the population to those processes and structures that already result in economic inequality, labour exploitation, and myriad forms of work-related harm.

The “good news” of modernity is that we are our own salvation, provided we comply with the strictures and dictates of modernity’s narrative of achievement, celebrity, self-reliance, and competitiveness. Salvation is the product of exclusion and division. That 10% of the world’s population control more resources than the bottom 60% of humanity; the fact that the 100 wealthiest people on earth control more wealth than the 2 billion poorest people on the planet – these are the indicators of those who have been “set aside” for salvation, and those who have been marked for condemnation.

But the Gospel proclaimed by today’s passage from Romans declares something different. It declares that “covenant” and “promise” and “salvation” are not the exclusive property of whoever can grab the most the fastest. It declares that the invitation into grace is not a trademark belonging to the most productive or the most efficient, let alone the most ruthlessly competitive. It declares that the cult of achievement and the myth of autonomy are not the vehicles through which God’s word of grace is spoken. Instead, it declares that “exclusivity” and “scarcity” and “use value” bear no relationship to the abundant, overflowing love of God that seeks engagement with all, that seeks the fulfilment of covenant for all. This is the abundance that defies the theory and practice of modernity in order to draw the marginalised and the excluded into the centre of human fullness and flourishing.

But today’s reading also says much more than this. The gift of God’s grace comes to us, not as a passive invitation which we can take or leave, but as an injunction to likewise declare to others the “good news” embodied in the person of Christ. In other words, this invitation is not something we can pocket and keep to ourselves; it is something we need to bring to the attention of our neighbour, and our neighbour’s neighbour.

This said, this is not a permission-giving to associate the Gospel with colonialism or cultural appropriation; the Kingdom of God is not like the earthly empires of autocrats and tyrants. Neither is the Gospel a slick sales or marketing campaign, oriented toward recruiting “believers” into some kind of theological pyramid scheme based on personal salvation. The Gospel cannot be bent to serve the needs of human ambition or avarice; it is its own message about the sovereign prerogative of God that seeks humankind out for the purpose of engaging in relationship and encouraging response to that invitation.

In other words, the call to faith is a call to speak to the world from the standpoint of faith, as servants of the Gospel of God that comes to us through discipleship to Christ. It is not a presumption that we act in God’s stead or speak with knowledge of God’s will. Rather, it is focused on the person of Jesus, who was himself committed to a servant leadership that raised up the broken and the wounded; and who, through his Incarnation, death and Resurrection, brought the whole realm of human experience under the sovereignty of God’s grace.

However, with respect to the world of work and economy, the church fails in its missional purpose in two respects:

  • Firstly, when it constructs theologies of work that equate the spirit of the Gospel with the spirit of corporatist capitalism. This is another form in which the Gospel becomes associated with colonialism and imperialism: appropriated by the prerogatives of consumption and production, this “good news” in turn appropriates the human heart for the purpose of redefining “salvation” as those things which consumerism and the myth of the autonomous individual says it is. This is “capitalism theology” which speaks from the perspective of the beneficiaries of the status quo, but which marginalises and silences the voices of those are harmed and dehumanised by modernity’s construction of work and economy.
  • Secondly, when the church remains silent on the issue of work and economy, and retreats from the field, leaving it in the hands of technocrats, politicians, business leaders, and professional economists. Indeed, this often occurs because the church itself replicates capitalism’s structures of abusive power; its silence stems from its appropriation by the forces of institutionalism. But it also occurs because the church itself buys into modernity’s assertion that the “private” realm of faith has no place in the public world of “work”. The church in these circumstances becomes a centre for the privatisation of faith, rather than for its public engagement with the world at large.

Today’s reading from Romans is a reminder that the call into faith is not a call into a self-satisfied, insular pietism that focuses on “my” relationship with God and “my” personal salvation. Rather, it is a call to speak to the world in a way that articulates a different understanding of life, one that is not governed by the structures of abusive power or the siren songs of popular culture. Rather, this is life oriented toward God’s invitation into covenantal relationship, focused on the person of Jesus who brings together the life of God and the life of the world. Thus our own lives become relational co-existences with ourselves and with the non-human ecology – and this in turn sparks a new understanding of the role and meaning of work and economy in human existence.  This is the “good news” which the church is called to proclaim, even when that news rubs up against the privilege of the powerful or the inducements of complicity.

Matthew 1: 18-25

1. Discussion

Today’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew gives us an account of the Nativity that focuses less on the event itself, but on the person of Joseph and his relationship with Mary. In doing so, it points toward Jesus as the one who brings us into relationship with God, and with what “relationship” involves in the context of covenant.

As has already been pointed out in the discussion concerning this week’s reading from Isaiah, this passage from Matthew is often seen as the “fulfilment” of the Isaiah reading, inasmuch as Matthew quotes the prophet and clearly links the birth of Jesus to the promise contained in the Isaiah text. But as has also been discussed, such simplistic linkages are fraught with complications: there is an ambiguity in the Isaiah text that cautions us against a superficial reading that ignores the hidden depths.

And we see allusion to these hidden depths in today’s passage from Matthew. Joseph, of the house of David, is to be married to a young woman named Mary. Now, the text itself does not say anything about Mary’s sexual status, about whether or not she was a virgin; but given it uses the phrase “was found to be with child”, we can conclude that there was some assumption – at least on Joseph’s part – that this would be the case. We are not told how it was that Mary was “found” to be with child; but the use of this phrase, with its sense of unexpected discovery, alerts us to the reality that Joseph and Mary, at least, had not been sexually intimate, and that he therefore had no reason to suspect she would be pregnant.

The text describes Joseph as a “righteous man” whose righteousness made him unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace. It is worth noting Matthew’s characterisation of “righteousness” at this point: that it is not the self-righteous judgementalism that condemns other people for actual or perceived wrongs. Rather, it is the “righteousness” of compassion; which, even in the face of apparent wrongdoing (which, for Joseph, would have appeared to be the violation of his marriage contract with Mary), does not seek revenge against the perpetrator. Rather, in the context of a “shame culture” in which “losing face” meant being exiled to the margins of society and to the community of faith, Joseph looks for a way in which he can dismiss Mary quietly so that she may avoid shame and thus continue to be integrated into the life of the community.

From the standpoint of modernity, this might hardly seem like a compassionate response: afterall, to be a single woman (never mind a single mother) was to be consigned to economic poverty and dependence. However, it should be noted that in modernity, it was common up until recent times for women with unwanted pregnancies to be sent to “hospices”, where they were often separated from their new-born children in tragic and traumatising circumstances. And within the context of the times, Joseph’s response at least offers Mary and her family the opportunity to envelop both mother and child within the family fold, providing for both a life narrative and backstory that might eventually lead to reintegration into the community.

At this point, the narrative recounts an event of divine intervention: an angel of God appears and informs Joseph that the child with whom Mary is pregnant is conceived of the Holy Spirit. The angel also addresses Joseph as “son of David”: implicit within this response is that the child within Mary’s womb is also the human child descended from the line of David, the promised Messiah who will restore David’s kingdom. However you want to understand this passage, it’s purpose is to again illustrate the nature of Joseph’s “righteousness”: his faith is not only one that inclines him toward compassion, but also toward a dialogical attitude in which he is attentive to the presence and word of God in his life. Whether you call this his “conscience” or something else, the underlying reality is that Joseph’s faith opens him to the possibility that there might be more going on in his life than the dictates of conventional wisdom or social expectation might imply. And this openness in turn makes available new and different responses to the situations in which he finds himself.

The upshot is that Joseph does take Mary as his wife; and the Nativity occurs almost as an aftermath of Joseph’s change of heart. But what the internal struggle depicted in today’s reading points toward is the realignment of human relationships which the life of faith and “righteousness” calls us into. That realignment involves a movement away from viewing human relationships in instrumental or contractual terms, in which what we “get out of” or what the other party’s “obligations” are become paramount, toward a relational co-existence in which the dignity and participation in human flourishing for all parties becomes the defining characteristic of the relationship. In conventional terms, had Joseph dismissed Mary, he would have been both justified and righteous, given that from a legalist perspective he was arguably the “injured” party. However, his attentiveness to the spirit of God moved him to understand both the vulnerability of Mary and the wider context of covenant: of a faith that was more than just his “personal relationship” with God, but which also extended the grace of that relationship to others.

Today’s reading from Matthew reminds us that human relationships are not ultimately an expression of social convention or legal construction. Rather, they exist as an expression of God’s desire for relationship with humankind, one that draws all people into the heart of human fullness and flourishing. Righteousness in this context is not the kind of legalism that proclaims one’s own sanctity, and measures to a fine degree the sanctity in others. Rather, it is the recognition in self and other of the innate dignity which all people share through their creation in the likeness and image of God, and which our faith calls upon us to make the basis of our relationship with one another. Human relationships are to be neither instrumentalised, nor reduced to the terms of a contract, but are instead to become the very instrument through which the covenantal relationship with God becomes realised in the world.

2. Reflection

One of the key principles in Karl Marx’s political economy was the notion that the exchange of cash for labour commodified the human worker, as well as the work which they performed.  By this, Marx meant that the “contract of exchange” which became the basis of the relationship between the employer and the employee, essentially reduced human workers to commodities whose “value” (their labour) could be purchased like any other material good. Thus, the very basis of modernity’s construction of work and economy was a dehumanising one: people were no more than marketable “goods” whose “value” depended on the type of work they could perform, and the conditions under which they were prepared to perform it. Inevitably, such a process resulted in those who had the power to determine the “value” which the “labour market” was prepared to assign to work setting those values in such a way as benefited their own interests.

The result, Marx argued, was that people became “alienated” from their work. By this, he meant that the process of dehumanisation which they experienced through their participation in the labour market estranged them from the emotional and psychological role of work in human life. Because both the work performed by workers, as well as the workers themselves, were reduced to tradeable commodities, work was stripped of its human value and purpose: it was simply a servant of profit margins and market shares, rather than of human dignity and flourishing.

Interestingly, the idea of “alienation” was shared with Karl Marx by Adam Smith, the so-called “father of capitalism”. Both Smith and Marx regarded alienation as inevitable in an industrialised and corporatized economy, precisely because it separated people from the human reasons for their work, and subordinated it instead to the prerogatives and interests of the “market”. Smith believed that the only way to escape this process was to become rich enough to not have to work – a dream that remains implicit within capitalism’s cult of “achievement” to this day. Marx, on the other hand, believed that the only way out of alienation was for workers to take control of the means of production – and if necessary, by violent means.

The power relationship at the heart of human labour has remained problematic throughout human history. Even in economies where the notion of waged labour as such did not exist, power has always determined who has the capacity to dictate the conditions under which work was performed. Masters dictated conditions to slaves. Feudal lords dictated conditions to serfs.   Landholders dictated conditions to the landless. In a sense, even before market economies developed, people have been alienated from their labour, precisely because the power imbalance between people cut off those who worked from the human reasons for their work.

In today’s reading from The Gospel According to Matthew we see an implicit power imbalance also at play. The text tells us that Joseph considered “dismissing” Mary, albeit in a way that didn’t cause her public disgrace. But the very fact that Joseph was able to undertake this consideration also tells us that he was the only one of the two who had the capacity to do so. As a woman – and as an unmarried pregnant woman – Mary had no such power. She was entirely subject to Joseph’s whims. Such were the social conventions of their patriarchal society that only Joseph had the option of whether or not to dissolve their relationship, and the terms and conditions under which it might be dissolved. He could, had he chosen to do so, driven a very hard “bargain” – one that emphasised Mary’s powerlessness and her subjection to him.

But then Joseph decides to do something which, from the standpoint of “conventional wisdom” is utterly unthinkable. Joseph decides to forego his “contractual rights” and enter into relationship with Mary. His “righteousness”, which is grounded in compassion and empathy, leads him to be attentive to that call of faith which describes covenantal co-existence – and not power relationships – as the end and meaning of human life.  And while it might be reasonably argued that because Joseph was the only one who had the capacity or the freedom to make this decision, this demonstrates that Mary was still in a position of powerlessness and vulnerability, nonetheless, what it does demonstrate is Joseph’s capacity to understand his faith as something other than the basis upon which to exercise oppressive power or control over others.

In other words, even when conditions of power imbalance exist, the abuse of this imbalance is not an inevitable outcome in human relationships. Humans can displace the prerogatives of power with the relationality of covenantal co-existence. The Gospel proclamation runs counter to the message implicit in the structures of conventional power: alienation is not the normative condition of human existence. Contrary to the gloomy assessment of both Smith and Marx, human work need not be a wasteland of dehumanisation and alienation – it is possible to imagine work and the human relationships by which it is surrounded in terms other than those of the contractual and the instrumental. But that in turn requires a preparedness to listen to the spirit of faith – one that is prepared to set aside the imperatives of self-interest in favour of the wider interest of human dignity and flourishing.

Modernity’s construction of work and economy is implicitly dehumanising and harmful precisely because it reduces human relationships to the status of a means to the end of productivity, profitability, efficiency, and capturing market share. These prerogatives serve only the self-interest of those few who benefit from the status quo; everyone else becomes a “necessary” evil adding to the “cost of production” until they can be replaced by automation or a cheaper labour force. Under such conditions, alienation is inevitable. However, today’s reading from Matthew is a reminder that the call of faith is also a call to lift our vision of human relationships away from the contractual and the instrumental toward the covenantal and the co-relational, away from the alienating prerogatives of corporatist capitalism toward the redemptive promises of God’s faithfulness. Joseph, whose righteousness enabled him to set aside his self-entitlement in favour of inclusive grace, models for all humanity a vision of human work which does not normalise oppressive power and the dictating of conditions that dehumanise and commodify the human worker, or which alienate them from the human bases upon which they perform their work.


[1] The discussion of this week’s reading from Isaiah is deeply indebted to Howard Wallace’s analysis of this text, “Year A: Advent 4. Isaiah 7: 10-16” located at http://hwallace.unitingchurch.org.au/WebOTcomments/AdventA/Advent4Isa7.html

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