The Birth of Jesus: Solidarity with the Outcast
We typically portray the story of Jesus’ birth in a very romanticized way. It’s all very cute and happy. There’s no blood or sweat or tears or troubling social dynamics. That is pretty far from the truth, as anybody who has had a baby even with today’s technology could tell you.
Jesus the Bastard
I don’t use the word “bastard” to be crude. Before becoming more of a generic insult in recent years, bastard meant somebody who was conceived before his or her parents were married. According to Matthew, Jesus was a bastard: Mary was pregnant before she married Joseph. An even bigger problem was when Joseph found out because he knew that he hadn’t slept with her. As an honorable man who didn’t want to unnecessarily hurt her, he decided to call off the wedding quietly before an angel stopped him.Well played, t-shirt, well played
Having a child outside of marriage was a much bigger cultural taboo then than it is now, although like now it was almost entirely the woman who bore the brunt of the social consequences, probably being outcast from her community if not stoned to death. An angel appearing and telling Mary she was pregnant outside of marriage was probably interpreted as a death sentence; the angel’s “do not fear” was much more than just acknowledging how challenging pregnancy is or how weird it is to see an angel.
If we believe that God choose this exact scenario to enter the world, God is deliberately making himself about as outcast as possible. The fact that Joseph stuck by Mary saved her life and provided for her in many ways, but the rest of their community likely continued to look down on them.
Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth. This was a small town, probably no more than 500 people. It was outside of the seat of power in Jerusalem, in the Galilee region. It was never mentioned in the Old Testament and had no real historical significance. When Nathaniel is told that the Messiah has come from Nazareth, his response would have been pretty typical:
Can anything good come from Nazareth? (John 1:46 CEV)
Some have even suggested that this was a common phrase. Nazareth might have been quite literally the brunt of jokes from more sophisticated people.
I grew up in a small cottage country town which hits about 40% unemployment in the winter, low education rates, low incomes, and high teenage pregnancy (like Mary). I feel like I have some sympathy for the people of Nazareth having lived in various cities since then, sometimes complete with a range of hick jokes or “people actually live there, not just cottage?!”
Yet even there, there was a hierarchy in the county. Haliburton was probably at the top, the largest of the towns and the same as the county’s name. Minden was next, close enough that there was still a bit of a rivalry once we went to high school together (in Haliburton). Near the bottom was Gelert where the stereotype was basically drunk welfare bums. We lived just outside of Gelert, and yes, we specifically said we lived just outside to differentiate from those people. Even lower, though, was Kinmount, and really all you have to do is look at the name to understand why that one gets made fun of.
That whole tangent was simply to demonstrate that this attitude of judging people based on where they live is just as true today. Here’s a few more that I have encountered or sometimes believed myself:
- Toronto people are all stressed out, hating life but still think they’re better than everyone else.
- Americans are all angry flashing their guns around, especially in the South. American Christians are even worse.
- Haliburton is all welfare bums who don’t even want a job.
- Queen’s (my alma mater) is made up of rich white kids who are irresponsible and living off their parents’ money.
- University of Waterloo (near where I now live) are all anti-social geniuses in Math or Engineering
You probably can name many of your own stereotypes, some of which probably have some overgeneralized basis in reality and others completely unfounded.
Why would God choose to be born to an unwed mother in a hick town? Why not be born as a prince, praised by everyone immediately from birth (we’ll get to the story of the magi soon)? Why not give himself the social, political, and religious influence right off the bat? Instead, he did the exact opposite.
Throughout the Old Testament, we’ve seen God say that he stands on the side of the poor, the widow, the orphan, the slaves – in general, the outcast. We’ll see that more throughout the New Testament. Being born in this way puts skin on this idea. He doesn’t just side with the outcast from a comfortable distance. He sides with them so much that he became one of them. Jesus’ life would not be some comfortable floating by, abstractly observing the struggles of his people. From the start, Jesus was getting his hands dirty.