I like to remind people, around this time of year, that we have the story of Jesus – his birth, life, teachings, acts, death and resurrection – in four voices, which we call the Gospels. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is the traditional order, though actually Mark was written first. Our Sunday Gospel readings each year come mostly from one of the four – specifically, Matthew, Mark, and Luke; John is scattered around in pieces for some reason. The Church’s new year is the first Sunday in Advent, so we are just a few weeks into getting re-acquainted with the gospel of Matthew.
Each Gospel has its own voice, its own lens on the shared story. These authors – writing thirty to sixty years after Jesus’ death – are working with different memories – their own or others’ – of what Jesus did and said. And they have somewhat different understandings of who he was, and what his life, death, and rising meant for the world.
In each Gospel, you get a sense of its voice and priorities in the very first chapter – and that’s certainly true for Matthew. One of Matthew’s big themes is that Jesus is the completion of the Old Testament – the Hebrew Bible. He quotes the prophetic literature often – like the bit of Isaiah in today’s text. He uses these quotations to say, Jesus is the fulfillment of these ancient prophecies. But it’s not just the prophecies: for Matthew, Jesus fulfills and completes all of Jewish history and tradition. That’s obvious in the first seventeen verses of his Gospel – which are printed on the back of your Sunday Supplement, if you’d like to take a look!
Matthew’s Gospel begins with a genealogy of Jesus. In first-century Palestine, as in many human cultures, who you are depends a lot on who you come from. In a patriarchal society, that’s generally reckoned by naming fathers and grandfathers and great-great-great-grandfathers. And that’s exactly what Matthew does here. He starts with Abraham – the first Jew, the founder and father of it all, in human terms. And he works his way down through the centuries: Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Perez, Hezron, AND so on. He keeps going through King David and his lineage, and through the exile and return.
And he ends in verse 17 with some interesting math: By his count, there are fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen generations from David to exile, and fourteen generations from exile to Jesus. That might just seem odd to you, but numbers were a big deal in Jewish thought, including interpretation of Scripture. For Matthew, those fourteens are part of his case that Jesus is the fulfillment of all of this history, the Messiah – the Savior sent by God – at whom everything that went before has pointed.
The Sunday lectionary never gives us these verses, and maybe that’s wise; it does take a little explaining to understand their significance for Matthew. But they are an important preface for the text we do receive today. I said, a minute ago, that in a patriarchal context, like Biblical Judaism, genealogies are generally lists of fathers, grandfathers, and so on.
But this list… has some grandmothers in it too. Did you notice that? Do you remember them, from meeting them three years ago? Their names are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba – though Matthew calls her the wife of Uriah.
Tamar is the first of these interesting grandmothers of Jesus. Her story is in the book of Genesis – chapter 38. She married one of the sons of Judah – a great-grandson of Abraham. But her husband dies before they have children. Now, if a man died childless, his brother was supposed to take on his wife and raise children for his dead brother’s sake. But apparently not everybody was on board with this idea.
Judah orders his second son to “perform the duty of a brother-in-law”, but that son, Onan, refuses to give Tamar a child. Then Onan dies too. In classic victim-blaming style, Judah starts to think maybe Tamar is the problem. He tells her, “Go live with your father as a widow until my younger son is old enough to marry,” and sends her away. Now, in this time and place, without a husband and children, Tamar has nothing. No social standing. No security. No future. So. She waits. And waits. And waits. And then she decides to take matters into her own hands. I don’t have time for the full story – it’s Genesis 38; look it up! – but she tricks Judah himself into getting her pregnant – and into admitting that he was wrong in his treatment of her.
Then there’s Rahab. Her story is in the book of Joshua, chapter 2. The Israelites understand that God has given them a new home, a land of milk and honey. Only trouble is, there are people already living there – Canaanites, whom they’ll have to violently displace. Rahab is a Canaanite, living the city of Jericho. And she practices what is sometimes called the oldest profession. The Israelites send out a couple of spies into Canaan, to figure out how hard it’s going to be to conquer this territory.
The spies go to Jericho and decide to spend a night with Rahab. The local leader hears there are two strangers in town and demands that Rahab present them. But she sends them up on her roof to hide, and tells the men who came to find them, “Oh, yes, they were here, but they just left! If you hurry I bet you can catch them!” Then she goes up on the roof and tells the spies, “Listen: I know that God has given this land to your people. I can feel it. The people of Canaan are terrified. Your God is indeed the Lord of heaven and earth, and we cannot stand against God. So, because I saved you, please save me in turn. When your people come to conquer this city, spare me, and my parents and brothers and sisters and their families. Let us live.”
And the spies agreed. Rahab helped them escape the city – and when Jericho was conquered, she and all her family were saved, and lived among the people Israel from that time forward. According to Matthew, Rahab marries an Israelite named Salmon. Their son Boaz grows up to marry Ruth – perhaps the best-known of the grandmothers named by Matthew. Ruth, like Rahab, is an outsider who marries into an Israelite family – she’s from the land of Moab. And like Tamar, her first husband dies before they have children. But she’s become so attached to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, that she refuses to go home to her own family. She more or less vows herself to become Naomi’s daughter: Your people shall be my people, and your God my god.
I love Ruth’s story too – read the book of Ruth! It’s only four chapters long! Spoiler alert: Through the connivance of Naomi, the decency of Boaz, and the grace of God, Ruth becomes a wife and mother – and the grandmother of David. David, the shepherd boy chosen by God to be Israel’s king; David, the poet so in love with God that he danced in the streets; David, the scrappy military leader who led his band of misfits to defeat King Saul; David the ladies’ man, David of the wandering eyes… who’s gazing out his window one morning and spots a beautiful woman, taking a ritual bath on her rooftop, and decides he has to have her. Her name is Bathsheba, and she never has the chance to say no. She gets pregnant with David’s child. Did I mention that she’s married, and her husband, Uriah, is a general in David’s army? David arranges to have him “accidentally” killed in combat. It’s not David’s best chapter. Bathsheba becomes one of David’s wives – and much later, she advocates for David to choose her son Solomon to become king after his death, reminding him: You owe me.
These are all amazing stories; it’s painful for me to tell the nutshell versions! But it’s also important to hold them up together, as Matthew does in his genealogy.
He knew all these stories – and he calls them to his readers’ minds intentionally.
Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba: These are women whose histories of sexuality and child-bearing do not meet ideal patriarchal standards. None of them had the life course their parents would have chosen for them. And yet, they all become part of God’s story.
And not just because they have babies; but because of their insight, their courage, their determination and faithfulness, their refusal to settle.
Matthew names these women – and their sons – to set the stage for telling us about Mary and her son. Look at verse 16: “… Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Matthew is saying, YES, this is another irregular hop in the genealogy. YES, this is another place where parentage is not quite as tidy as everybody would like it to be. But it’s not like it’s the first time. This is part of God’s MO.
And lest we miss the point, Matthew makes it clear that Mary’s pregnancy was awkward. “Mary was found to be with child – pregnant – by the Holy Spirit.” Notice that passive voice – “found to be with child.” This is not a version of the story in which Mary meets an angel, agrees to become the mother of God, and then runs to her friends, family, and fiancé to say, “Hey, everybody! A wonderful thing just happened! God has looked with favor on me, and all generations shall call me blessed!” This is a version in which she keeps it to herself as long as she can, until some nosy neighbor spots the curve of her belly under her robe, and sounds the alarm: A young woman has crossed the line.
In the year of our Lord 2019, many families would still find it a source of dismay and shame for a daughter to become pregnant without a socially-sanctioned partnership. How much more so, in Mary and Joseph’s time! The consequences for a young woman found pregnant without a man willing to claim the child could range from ostracism to death. No wonder Mary kept her mouth shut. She knew this angel story wasn’t going to convince everybody. And indeed, the person she most needs to believe her – her fiance, Joseph – is not on board.
In his book Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bible!, Jonathan Goldstein re-tells today’s Gospel from Joseph’s point of view. I love how he fleshes out the emotional subtext of the spare Gospel narrative. Listen to Joseph’s words, per Goldstein: “Being chosen by the Lord is an honor. I’m not saying it’s not… It’s flattering to think that your girlfriend is good enough for God, and on some days I can convince myself well enough that it is an honor indeed, but if the guys at work don’t act like it’s an honor, and none of your friends or family act like it’s an honor, then it doesn’t feel so much like an honor.”… ‘How’s the holy baby?’ Ezekiel, my foreman at work asks me, like, ten times a day, and I have no choice but to bite it. It’s either that or be out of a job…”
A couple of pages later Joseph describes his own angelic encounter: “Mary had never lied to me before and I knew her heart like I knew my own, but when she told me this business about being visited by an angel, I had an honest-to-God conniption… After a whole night of screaming and crying,… I went outside to try and cool off. Sitting on a tree stump, I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned around and there he was: an angel. The whole bit. Wings and everything, just squatting there….’Are you the one… with Mary?’ I asked, not looking at him. ‘No,’ he said softly. ‘I just came here to tell you that what Mary tells you is the truth.’ ‘This is a lot to digest,’ I said. The angel withdrew his hand from my shoulder and left me sitting there outside my house, digesting until morning.”
I appreciate that Goldstein’s retelling makes clear that while Joseph agrees to stay with Mary, the angel’s reassurance wouldn’t have made it all fine. Whatever people assumed about Mary’s untimely pregnancy, there would have been winks and sneers and cutting remarks.There would have been a shadow of shame cast over this couple before they even fully began their life together.
That’s why Matthew reminds us of Jesus’ grandmothers. Reminds us that God’s purposes are bigger than human propriety. That redemption matters more than respectability. Matthew tells us that Joseph is a righteous man – with an ambiguity I suspect is intentional: Joseph’s righteousness is shown by the fact that he doesn’t want to ruin Mary’s life, but it’s the same righteousness that makes him decide he can’t possibly go on with the wedding, either. Pregnant with a mystery baby, she is no longer an appropriate wife for a righteous man.
Biblical commentator Richard Swanson writes, “The word dikaios, in this scene, means that Joseph has a good name that he will defend any way he can. He has a good reputation… By putting Mary away quietly, he preserves his good name. He is willing to say publicly (if silently) that HE has had NOTHING to do with making Mary pregnant. Not a thing. And that leaves Mary alone and exposed, whether he does it publicly or privately. What a guy.”
But the angel’s visit calls Joseph to a deeper and truer righteousness: the righteousness of going along with God’s purposes even when it’s confusing and painful. Even though it exposes him to sneers and winks; even though it commits him to a fatherhood that wasn’t his hope or his choice.
Mary, like Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, doesn’t have the life most parents would choose for their daughters. Her trajectory from maiden to mother is not clear and tidy. And yet, like those holy grandmothers, she becomes part of God’s story – and so does Joseph, confused, resentful, tender Joseph.
Matthew is my least favorite Gospel – let me say that right now. There are things I really struggle with about his voice. But I love this first chapter – I love what he does, here.This genealogy is structured and clean; it does what genealogies tend to do: create an artificially tidy picture of family and history. Father begets son, generation succeeds to generation.
But when he names Tamar, and Rahab, and Ruth, and Bathsheba, he reminds us that life and love, family and belonging, respectability and redemption, are not tidy. Indeed, they can be pretty messy. And God shows up in that mess – working, always, through our struggle and confusion, our shame and our yearning, our hurts and our healing, to accomplish holy purposes on earth.
Swanson’s thoughts on Mary’s pregnancy and Joseph’s reaction:
Jonathan Goldstein, Ladies and Gentlemen: The Bible!, Riverhead Books, 2009.