Does Matthew or Luke tell a better Christmas story?

Every year, Stephen Kuhrt, vicar of Christ Church New Malden, writes an all-age drama for Christmas, as a way of engaging the whole community with the story and meaning of Christmas. His last play was focussed around a debate between Matthew and Luke about who wrote the best version of the nativity. Enjoy! Use!

Matthew enters

Matthew: Well, good morning and welcome to our Children’s Carol Service at Christ Church for [year]. In case you’re wondering who I am, I’m the person who put this whole wonderful story into writing so that you could have it forever. Yes I am the famous gospel writer Matthew! There is a picture of me from when I was younger. Yes, you’re extremely fortunate to have me with you this morning and I’m really chuffed that you invited me!

Luke enters

Luke: Well, good morning and welcome to our Children’s Carol Service at Christ Church for [year]. In case you’re wondering, I am the person who put this whole wonderful story into writing so that you could have it forever. Yes I am the famous gospel writer Luke! There is a picture of me from when I was younger Yes you’re extremely fortunate to have me with you this morning and I’m really chuffed that you invited me!

Matthew: What??!!! Hold on a minute. Are you having a laugh?

Luke: Of course not. I’m here for the very serious business of telling the Christmas story. I’m in quite high demand around this time of year because I’m Luke, the one who wrote it down!

Matthew: I beg your pardon but I think there must have been some mistake. I’m the one who gets to tell the Christmas story. And that’s because I’m Matthew, the one who wrote it down!  

Luke: (genial) Oh no you didn’t.

Matthew: (genial) Oh yes I did!

Luke: (more annoyed) Oh no you didn’t.

Matthew: (more annoyed) Oh yes I did!

Luke: (really annoyed) Oh no you didn’t.

Matthew: (really annoyed) Oh yes I did!

Luke: Well OK maybe you did write it as well as me. Look, clearly the Parish Administrator at this church has double-booked us for this morning, so why don’t we both tell the Christmas story?

Matthew: What! Together?

Luke: Yes together. There are bound to be some bits that you missed out Matthew and I can make sure that everyone knows about them!

Matthew: And there are bound to be some bits that you missed out, Luke, and that I can make sure that everyone knows about! And I bet everyone thinks that my version is better!

Luke: And I bet everyone thinks that my version is better!

Matthew: Well we’ll see about that.The Christmas story begins with a man called Joseph engaged to be married to a woman called Mary and of course we all know that their baby was born in Bethlehem. So let’s stand and sing our first carol this morning ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. And, as we sing it, let’s have all those who have come dressed as Joseph or Mary or angels up here on the platform.

Mary’s, Josephs and Angels on the platform

Carol: O little Town of Bethlehem

Matthew: So the story of the birth of Jesus. Once upon a time there was girl called Mary who was pledged to be married to a man called Joseph. But before they were married, Mary discovered that she was going to have a baby. Joseph was rather concerned about this and thought that they perhaps shouldn’t get married after all. But then an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and told him not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because she was going to have a baby called Jesus who would save his people from their sins. And so the two of them were married.

LukeErm, excuse me Matthew?

Matthew: Yes Luke, what is it?

LukeWell that story is good as far as it goes but… haven’t you let quite a bit out?

Matthew: I don’t think so? All the essential bits about Joseph and Jesus are there, aren’t they? I’m not sure what you’re implying!

LukeWell you included the bits about Joseph and Jesus, perhaps… but not about Mary!

Matthew: I’m sorry but I don’t think I follow you. What’s there to say about Mary?

Luke: What is there to say about Mary!! Loads! Honestly Matthew you’re a typical man, aren’t you?

Matthew: Well I guess that’s true. But I do include five women, including Mary in Jesus’ family tree but are you saying there is more to be said?

LukeWell yes there is. And what you need is me totell you the story more from Mary’s point of view. Yes you’re right that Mary was engaged to be married to a man called Joseph. But it was the angel Gabriel who, at a crucial moment, appeared to Mary and told her that she would become pregnant and have a baby called Jesus. You’re right that he came to save people from their sins and another way of putting that is that he came to receive the throne of his father King David and reign over this world forever and ever.

Matthew: Ah I see. So I’m telling the story more from Joseph’s point of view and you from Mary’s? That’s quite a nice match up, isn’t it?

LukeIt sure is, Matt, my boy! Some people say I got the story directly from Mary herself years later when I was waiting for my friend Paul to finish his two years of imprisonment in Caesarea. But of course, I’m much too modest to disclose my sources! And we also mustn’t forget the bit in the story about Mary going to meet with her cousin Elizabeth when she heard that she was also pregnant with the son who later became John the Baptist. And how that baby leapt for joy causing Mary to then sing the most wonderful song of praise to God about all of these events showing his determination to put the world right.

Matthew: Well Luke this is all fascinating and it’s really filling out my knowledge of the Christmas story and what happened in that little town of Bethlehem.

LukeBut you know the story didn’t start in Bethlehem, don’t you?  

Matthew: Really? That’s where Jesus was born so I assumed that’s where Mary and Joseph came from.

LukeWell possibly Joseph… but definitely not Mary. She came from Nazareth ‘up north’.  Mary and Joseph travelled south to Bethlehem because of the census.Caesar Augustus, it was who ordered a census or big count to be done of the whole Roman world and that meant that everyone went to their own town to register.Which for Joseph and his new wife Mary was Bethlehem! The town of David!

Now I don’t say anything in my account about a donkey taking Mary to Bethlehem but let’s now sing about it anyway and, as we do, we want the angels to go back to their places and the Mary and Joseph’s to do the journey to Bethlehem down this aisle and up the other side until they’re back on the platform.

(Mary and Joseph’s walk around church and come back around the manger)

Carol: Little Donkey

Matthew:  Well I may not be used to telling all that stuff about the census or Mary and Joseph’s journey. But I’ll take over here because what I can tell you quite a lot about Bethlehem – the town in which Jesus was born.

LukeReally? Fire away then Matty!

Matthew: Well and that was the place where ever since the time of David, Israel’s rightful kings came from. And 700 or so years before, the prophet Micah had declared that even though Bethlehem was much smaller than any of the other towns in Judah, it would one day, once again, produce a ruler who would shepherd God’s people Israel. There are the words that he used!

LukeWow I knew that Bethlehem was the town of David but all that stuff from Micah really reinforces what God was up to in fulfilling the story of his plan for rescuing the world through the people of Israel. You do know your Old Testament well, don’t you Matthew?

Matthew: Well I guess it is a bit of a specialism of mine, yes.

LukeSo it there anything else from the Old Testament that is fulfilled in the story of Jesus’ birth?

Matthew: Well yes there is actually.You know that stuff we both said about Mary getting pregnant even though she was a virgin?

LukeYes, that was something that both of us said, wasn’t it?

Matthew: Well that was fulfil a passage from another of the Old Testament prophets called Isaiah when he said this ‘The virgin will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel – which means ‘God with Us’.

LukeYes I’ve never really understood that bit of Isaiah which is why I guess I didn’t include it. A tinsy bit complex!

Matthew: Well it is complex but what it’s saying, I think, is this. Years before, when Isaiah was around, Israel was facing total disaster. But God had said through the prophet Isaiah, in the midst of that disaster the people of Israel would give birth to a new community that would show that God was with them. And with the coming of Jesus, that promise of God being with his people to rescue them was now coming true in the largest way possible!

LukeSo you’re saying that the birth of Jesus represented God bringing a new community into being in which he would dwell forever.

Matthew: Spot on Lukey! Meaning that both Jesus and those who belong to his people are ‘Emmanuel’ – ‘God with Us’

LukeWow!! Do you know what? I wonder whether I need to read my Old Testament a bit more if it explains all these things about Jesus so well.

Matthew: Well I’ve said quite a bit. Over to you Luke, for your account of what happened in Bethlehem.

LukeSure thing. Well you’ve told us loads about why Bethlehem was chosen to be the place of Jesus’ birth, Matty, but I guess I concentrate more on what actually happened there. And of course once Jesus was born, he was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger because there was no room in the inn.

Matthew: Ah, so what is all that stuff about a manger and an inn all about Luke? Why do you see it as so important?

Luke: Well it’s often rather misunderstood. Despite what a lot of people think, the Christmas story never mentions a stable … or an innkeeper … or his wife. The so-called ‘inn’ may well have simply been the part of the house in which animals were kept. Hence Jesus being placed in an animal feeding trough rather like the one that we have here.

Matthew: Fascinating! I didn’t know any of that?

LukeWell it’s quite important really, especially in terms of what is coming up next. We’re going to sing again everyone – the carol ‘It was on a Starry Night’. And as we do that, we need the Mary and Joseph’s to go and sit down.  And we need the angels back up plus anyone dressed as shepherds

Carol: It was on a Starry Night

Matthew: Emm! Shepherd and Angels. I don’t think I know much about this at all Luke. I include angels in my story but they only appear in dreams rather than quite as obviously as your ones do. I think you’d better take over for this bit.

LukeWell it was the night that Jesus was born and there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby to Bethlehem keeping watching over their flocks by night. And then suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around.

Matthew: Wow, what was that all about? What did the angel say?

LukeWell much the same as what you said earlier from the prophet Micah when you quoted him. That that day, a Saviour had been born in the town of David. It was good news!!

Matthew: Now I do know that term because it’s another one from Isaiah and speaks of the day of God’s amazing rescue!

LukeYes and the angel uses it because he wanted to emphasise that this good news was for all of the people. That’s why the angel appeared to poor shepherds and those shepherds were directed to find the baby Jesus in that manger. What it’s all saying is that the rescuer, the Messiah or Christ, that God had finally sent, was Lord of the whole world and rescuer to all of its people.

Matthew: But you know what Luke, there might be another significance as well?

Luke: Oh yes? What’s that?

Matthew: Well do you remember that passage from the prophet Micah that I quoted earlier?

Luke:Yes I do. You did very well there.

Matthew: Well that passage spoke of that ruler coming from Bethlehem to shepherd my people Israel, didn’t it? David had been a shepherd boy and Israel’s kings were meant to be like shepherds caring for God’s people – not that many of them did that very well. So do you think that that is also the reason why shepherds visited the baby Jesus? To reinforce that Jesus came to be the perfect Shepherd-King?

LukeWell do you know, I’ve neverthought about it that way but perhaps you’re right. Do you know what, at the start I’ve was a trifle miffed to hear that another biblical writer had written a Christmas story that was different to mine.

Matthew: So was I, if I’m honest! Hopping mad!

LukeBut now I’m realising the real value of these stories being told side by side, noting their differences but also how they inform one another.   

Matthew: Yes! You’re so right Luke! And it’stime to tell you about the visitors that I speak of coming to see baby Jesus – or he may even have been a bit older by then – the wise men. It’s time to sing again – the Carol ‘We Three Kings’. And during this, can Luke’s Shepherds and Angels go and sit down and let’s have my wise men – plus any Herods that we have here this morning – up here on the platform

Carol: We Three Kings

Matthew: Well this is very definitely my bit. After Jesus was born, Magi or Wise Men came from the east looking for ‘the one born king of the Jews’. They had seen his star and came to worship him.

LukeNow I’m getting to know you quite well, Matthew, so I’m guessing that there is some Old Testament significance to this, as well?

Matthew: Absolutely Luke! And once again it’s the prophet Isaiah. You see when Isaiah spoke about God bringing his rescue to Israel, he also spoke about kings coming to Jerusalem to bring gold and incense and it’s so important to recognise that this was becoming fulfilled in the coming of Jesus at Christmas.

LukeAnd its significance?

Matthew: Well it’s sort of my equivalent of your shepherds, Luke. You said that you included them in order to show that God had sent Jesus for ‘all the people’ and that’s why I include my wise men. The wise men weren’t from Israel, they were pagan outsiders. But now with God becoming King in the child born in Bethlehem, all the nations and their kings were being summoned to worship him and bring him gifts.

LukeAh the gold and incense mentioned by Isaiah? Representing what? Jesus being both a king and a priest?

Matthew: Well perhaps! I don’t make it explicit because I think it’s good for Christians to have to do a bit of work for themselves! And there is one gift I mention that Isaiah didn’t in myrrh.

LukeWhat – the stuff put on bodies when people had died? That’s strange gift for a new born baby?

Matthew: Yes something for the grown-ups to ponder as well!

But, you know Luke, there is something else that’s also important about the wise men coming to see Jesus and worship him… something that, if I’m honest, I’m a bit too scared to mention…

(Herod storms onto the platform)

Herod: You may be scared to mention me, Matthew, but I’m not because I’m the real king who appears in your pathetic story – yes I am Herod the Great, King of Israel, builder of the fortress at Masada and the Jerusalem Temple – just look at its magnificence – all part of the way in which I show the world that I am God’s anointed king of Jews. (laughs wickedly)

LukeMatthew! You didn’t really say this maniac was the real king of Israel, did you?

Matthew: No I certainly didn’t! He isn’t even from the line of David which we’ve both agreed was so important in Israel’s king. In fact he wasn’t even properly Jewish!

Herod: What did you say? How dare you! Those supposedly wise men saw it like that as well. They came to me in Jerusalem looking for ‘the one born king of the Jews’ and headed off for Bethlehem to find him. But I hatched a plan to snuff out that little life by telling them to come back and tell me where he was so that I could go there and give him what he deserved as well. (laughs wickedly)

Matthew: Oh dear! Why did I put a villain like Herod in the story?? Perhaps I should have been like you Luke and not included a villain!

LukeWell actually I did include a villain. It’s just it’s more subtle so most people don’t notice him – my equivalent of Herod is the Emperor Augustus, the one who ordered that census.

(Augustus appears on the platform)

Augustus: Yes that’s right. I’m Augustus, the Saviour, the bringer of peace, the Lord of the whole world. Just look at my magnificent achievements.

LukeYou see what I mean? He was just as much as a megalomaniac as Herod. That’s why I take titles that Augustus used like Saviour and Lord and give them to Jesus instead!

Matthew: So we both put false kings into our account in order to show our readers what the true king was all about?

LukeYes … and if we can get people to proclaim that Jesus is King and Lord loudly enough we may be able to drive these horrible, false kings away.  

Herod: What are you whispering about! Don’t you know that I am Herod, the Messiah, the true King of Israel! I’ll put to death any who challenge my power. (laughs wickedly)

Augustus: And don’t you know that I am Augustus, the Lord of the World? I’m known for bringing peace … but just try and challenge my power and you’ll find out that it’s not quite that simple! (laughs wickedly)

Luke& Matthew: Oh no you’re not! Jesus is Lord and King!

Herod & Augustus: (angrily) Oh yes we are!!

Luke& Matthew: (leading congregation )Oh no you’re not!!

Herod & Augustus: (even more angrily) Oh yes we are!!

Luke& Matthew: (leading congregation) Oh no you’re not!!

Herod & Augustus: (getting scared) Oh yes we are!!

Luke& Matthew: (leading congregation) Oh no you’re not!!

Herod & Augustus: (getting even more scared) Oh yes we are!!

Luke& Matthew: (leading congregation) Oh no you’re not!!

Herod: (scared) I don’t like this. I can feel my power slipping. I have the power of death to back up my position but every time they proclaim that Jesus is King, I feel that I’m losing that power.

Augustus: (also scared) I feel the same. I have the power of death to back up my position but every time they proclaim that Jesus is Lord, I feel that I’m losing my power. Let’s have one more go at showing them who is in charge – us rather than that ridiculous baby in the manger!

Herod: I tell you once again: I am Herod, the Messiah, the true King of Israel!

Augustus: And I tell you once again: I am Augustus, the Lord of the World!

Luke& Matthew: (leading congregation) Oh no you’re not!!

Herod & Augustus: (desperate) Oh yes we are!!

Luke& Matthew: (leading congregation) Oh no you’re not!!

Herod: (in a huge panic) Oh no!! They’ve rumbled that we’re the very false kings that Jesus came to replace. Jesus has begun the defeat of our evil. Let’s run for it Augustus!!

(Herod and Augustus run shrieking out of the church)

Matthew: Well, well done Luke!

Luke: Well done Matthew! But do you think we’re right to include the scary bits. Some do say that Christmas is mainly for children, don’t they? And others say that we shouldn’t make Christianity too political.

Matthew: And of course they’re talking cobblers on both counts. Jesus, the baby in the manger came to defeat the power of evil and that’s what makes Christianity inescapably political … and totally relevant to all of us our lives. Herod and Augustus may have done terrible things … as their successors still do today … but part of the message of Christmas in your story and mine is that sort of evil, oppressive power is living on borrow time!

Luke: Amen to that Matthew!!

Matthew: And I’ve got to admit, Luke, that you certainly have some really vital things to teach us about the Christmas story!

Luke: And I’ve to admit that about you too Matthew! Two is certainly best than just one when it comes to the Christmas story. And I hear that that some guy called John has written a prologue that might have something to speak into it as well! A bit wordy, from what I’ve heard, but we’ll leave that for another year!

Matthew: Well as we finish let’s sing two more Carols now with all of those in costume coming up to the platform as we do so…

Carols: Away in a Manger and See him lying on a bed of straw

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7 thoughts on “Does Matthew or Luke tell a better Christmas story?”

  1. Well I never! I never knew that Matthew didn’t know what Luke knew and that Luke didn’t know what Matthew did.
    The central conceit of the play, of dialogue between two gospel writers , to me, would be better served by omitting the above, perhaps by Matthew and Luke, being news reporters of events with roots in scripture, from different from “places”, perhaps passing the mic, as it were, from one to another, dovetailing, moving from one to another.

      • David,
        Please look up the meaning of the word, and context in which it was used. I still have to do that sort of thing myself. You can use concept of you wish. Perhaps the use of conceit was conceited, but it was just the word that came to me. It’s a little different but not much cop if it distracts from the main point I was hoping to make.

  2. Fun! Reminds me of George Bernard Shaw’s last script, a puppet show called Shakes versus Shav where he pits his achievements against Shakespeare’s.

    I see 2 Peter ch1 as in part extolling Mark’s virtues against those of John. If so, it is the first in this genre.

  3. Wouldn’t it be more fun if two whole communities, so beloved by some theologians as writers of the gospels got together and had transferable, weighted voting systems to decide what to write, include and exclude, with figureheads Mark and Luke as facilitators of interested focus groups, perhaps by secret ballot. Or even on a stage around two tables, with power points, white boards, and, so esteemed by some facilitators, a “post-it” graffiti wall of sayings and member contributions.
    And we could have the head scratching, hair- pulling -out ponderings of Mark and Luke as they go through the editorial process in the middle of various drafts and as they set out a disputational manifesto, to the ridicule and falling out of some in their own little bubble communities. Even, custard pies could be thrown , shoutings and mocking tweets could be read out.
    The Jesus Seminar would be rendered boring, fuddy-duddy.
    We could even have separate scenes, umpteen Acts in the play, with different versions, different drafts.
    Now that would be fun Christopher.

    • The close relationship between the gospel texts is precisely what allows us to reconstruct the overall process in some detail – though there is also so much we do not know.


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