NT Wright almost took away my simple Christmas joy in his article: The Revolutionary Politics of the First Christmas. He writes,
The Christmas story in Luke’s gospel climaxes with Jesus in a feeding-trough because everywhere else was full. Matthew’s version ends with Joseph and Mary whisking the baby off to a foreign country because the authorities wanted to kill him. Putting these together, the heart of the story is precisely Jesus the homeless asylum seeker.
The original, historic Christmas stories are about power. They are about the kingdom of God breaking in, dangerously and unexpectedly, into the kingdoms of the world. [I read it that NTW here has in mind political systems in contrast to the kingdom preached by Jesus in his ministry]
As usual, NTW is refreshing as he tries to highlight ‘neglected’ truths – but these truths sometimes become ‘neglected’ precisely because they are secondary truths in the good news of God’s salvation. NTW rightly seeks to set aside the sentimentality of his Western Christmas traditions, but I think he has veered again into his one of his favorite hobby horses – the fulfillment of Israel’s earthly mission of working towards God’s new creation with its social-political consequences. As usual, NTW is partially correct, but his approach is no less bias as he skews towards a political interpretation of the Christmas story. I am surprise that NTW gets away with his usual provocations. It is undeniable that he is one the most distinguished New Testament scholar today. But this doesn’t mean he is always right or wise, that is, seeing things the way God sees them and acting accordingly. If I may add, God’s wisdom is more likely to be preserved in the living tradition of the historic Church rather than in any individual, regardless of how talented that individual may be.
It is significant that NTW is silent about Jesus coming for the salvation of his people from sin. “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” (Matt. 1:21-23) Regardless of how one traces the tradition history of the Christmas story, reading it in the context of the whole gospel of Matthew and Luke gives a wider perspective that NTW ignores – the focus of the birth of Jesus is to confirm that God is bringing salvation from sins which was repeatedly promised in OT prophets (e.g., Isa. 40:2; Jer. 31:31–34; Ezek. 36:25–27; Dan. 9:24; Zech. 13:1). Instead of the political liberator that many Jews were longing for, this new baby in Bethlehem will grow up to die and bring spiritual salvation to Israel.
I am aware that the original text in Isaiah 7-11 is about the messianic king and his kingdom which has political dimensions. As such, Jesus’ birth is the fulfillment of God’s messianic prophecies about God initiating his program of liberation of his people from her oppressors. Likewise, the social-political dimensions are also clear in Mary’s Magnificat. The theme of reversal runs through throughout the gospel of Luke. In social terms, this includes the poor and marginalized experiencing God’s deliverance (Luke 4:18; 6:20–22; 7:22; 14:13, 21). However, we should not miss the fuller dimensions of salvation found in Mary’s and Zechariah’s songs that is, they are about God fulfilling his covenantal promise given in the OT: God will restore the fortunes of his people as he remembers his covenant with Abraham (Luke 1: 55). God’s salvation is multi-dimensional. As such, to regard contestation of political power and revolutionary politics as the central theme of the birth narratives is surely hermeneutical excess.
It is the recognition of God’s fulfillment of his promise that brought joy to Simeon who was looking for the consolation of Israel (Luke 2:25). For Simeon, the comfort of Israel is the hope that God would come to rescue and comfort his people. Simeon’s messianic expectations is also shared by other Jews (cf. Luke 2: 38; 23:50–51; Mark 15:43; Acts 10:22). Indeed, one may discern that Luke is echoing the wording of messianic prophecies in Isaiah (Isa. 40:1; 49:13; 51:3; 57:18; 61:2).
It is fully understandable that NTW seeks to deliver Christmas from the cultural captivity of Western tradition. But his interpretation equally misses the mark. It is certainly an exaggeration to say that “the heart of the story is precisely Jesus the homeless asylum seeker.” Neither is the new creation that NTW refers to be found in the immediate context. The new creation is indeed the final consequence of the flow of events, but Christ’s birth is primarily about God fulfilling his promise of bringing holistic salvation to the world. As Simeon exclaims, Jesus’ salvation brings light to the Gentiles, and glory to Israel as the people through whom the Savior came.
I appreciate the timely reminder by NTW that we must not lose sight of the social-political implications of the Christmas story. Citizens of the messianic kingdom should always work against political oppression, social discrimination and economic injustice. Nevertheless, the Christmas story is certainly not about homeless asylum seekers – Wright is hitching onto a fashionable political trend & virtue signalling. Admittedly, traditional Christians could miss the social-political dimensions of the narratives; but the equal and opposite danger arising from NTW’s political reading of the Christmas story is that the reader could end up missing full dimensions of God’s holistic salvation that clearly run through the story. As Luke emphasizes, the messianic hope involves salvation (Luke 2:30), the “forgiveness of their sins” (Luke 1:77), and the saving of the lost (Luke 19:10). God’s salvation is multi-dimensional. The messianic blessings include spiritual, emotional, political, and social elements.
Do we have to politicize the Christmas story? Everything is politics, but politics is not everything. It is right to acknowledge the social-political dimensions of Christmas, but this should not stifle the spontaneous celebration of Christmas. I personally don’t care much about the cultural trappings of Christmas. However, I won’t be a Grinch and stifle the once a year innocent Christmas joy of my politically unsophisticated Christian friends, especially friends who in their own simple and quiet ways seek to bless their more needy neighbors during Christmas because they are grateful for God’s salvation through Jesus’ birth. We don’t have to be always learned, sophisticated and politically engaged. Let’s just celebrate.
The Social Impact of Christian Salvation