There are so many interesting, beautiful, perplexing stories told around the birth of Jesus. But one that has fascinated me for a long time is the genealogy of Jesus, which opens the Gospel of Matthew. I have never heard anyone preach about it. As Marilyn said in the introduction to the scripture lesson (Matthew 1:1-17), it isn’t even in the common lectionary. And so I decided that if I was ever asked to preach in the season of Advent, I would talk about Jesus’ genealogy. And poor Marilyn was the one who had to read it as the scripture lesson this morning. She may never volunteer to read scripture in a service, ever again!
To set the context, it seems to me that two questions are raised when we look at the passage. The first is, “Why did Matthew write it the way he did.” It raises all sorts of questions, for which, I think there are no answers. And I’m not going to attempt to get into the mind of Matthew, to figure out what he was doing in this passage. But when I lay facts aside, this passage feeds my imagination with all sorts of images of why Matthew wrote it the way he did, and, more importantly, what it could mean for me. And when I decided that it would be the theme for this morning’s reflection, I was shocked to realize its important connection with events of this week. But I’ll talk more about that later.
There are three aspects of the passage that I want to reflect on this morning, and the first is that the genealogy of Jesus ends with Joseph the husband, as all good Jewish genealogies did. And so, one would assume that Matthew believed Joseph to be the father of Jesus. And yet the very next passage of Matthew’s Gospel begins with: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”
So then, is Joseph, or is he not, the father of Jesus according to Matthew. It seems to me that nothing is to be gained by trying to reconcile these two accounts, but as I thought about them, my imagination took me to a different place – to speculate on how the Spirit, the presence of God, is at the centre of all births.
It brought to mind, the story of a couple who are friends of Norrie’s daughter, who had tried for a long time to get pregnant. They were under a doctor’s care to try to make that happen, when the husband was offered a job in Fort McMurray. He took the job on one condition – that when he got a phone call that his wife was ovulating, that he would come home right away. The company who wanted him must have really needed his skills, because they agreed to the condition. He must have gotten a razzing from his co-workers every time he left for home, but my mind goes to the wonder, the love and the commitment that that couple showed to each other, and to their desire to bring precious life into the world. It feels like the Spirit was alive in their relationship. I believe the angels were singing with joy, the day that their first son was born. He has since been joined by a younger brother.
The celtic saints said that God is incarnate in every baby who is born. That God is born into the world once more, with every birth. Every time a baby is born, we have the opportunity to get it right this time – to bring love, joy, hope and peace into the world as we welcome God in this new born life. How would we treat children in our society, if we really believed that?
I’m going to leave that there, and go on to the other aspects of Matthew’s genealogy which seem to speak to me here and now, in the ways in which we might live our lives
In Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, five women are mentioned. That would never happen in a Hebrew genealogy, and yet here it is. And one might understand if it were some of the matriarchs of the people – Sarah or Rachael, or Rebeccah, who were named. But they weren’t. Instead, the women of Jesus’ genealogy are Tamar, and Rahab, and Ruth, and Bathsheba, and of course, Mary herself. And what about these women? Who were they, and why did Matthew include them in his genealogy? Let me say a little about them.
First there was Tamar. She was the daughter-in-law of Judah, the wife of his eldest son. Tamar’s husband died early, without a son to carry on his family line. At that time in Israel, there was no belief in a life after death, and if a man died without an heir, his name would disappear and he would be forgotten. That was a terrible calamity. To prevent that, the law said that one of his brothers should impregnate his widow, and the child born from that union would carry his name, and his family line. But none of the rest of Judah’s sons were willing to honour that obligation. If the obligation was to be met, it would be Tamar herself who met it, and so she dressed as a prostitute, and made herself available by the side of the road when Judah himself was passing by. Later, when it was discovered that Tamar was pregnant, Judah ordered her burned to death in accordance with the law. But she sent a servant to Judah, to show him the ring of the man who was the father of her child. When Judah saw that it was his ring, he relented and Perez was a twin son of that union, and part of Jesus’ line. Tamar was mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy.
Then there was Rahab. We first meet her in the book of Joshua, and unlike Tamar, she really was a prostitute. When Joshua was preparing to bring the people of the Exodus back into the Promised Land, he sent two spies into Jericho to assess the military strength there, and they stayed in Rahab’s house which was built into the city wall. It doesn’t say why that was the house they chose to stay in – you’ll have to use your imagination for that one – but it was a good choice, because Rahab protected the spies when the soldiers of Jericho came looking for them. Because of her actions, we are told that she was seen by the Jews as an example of a person of faith and good works, and her family was spared when the walls of Jericho were brought down. She apparently integrated into Jewish society, and she appears in Jesus’ genealogy as the wife of Salmon and the mother of Boaz, though many of the apologists for the faith in later centuries, tried to make the case that it was a different woman who was mentioned by Matthew. Let’s remember that as a sign of the way patriarchy tried to change facts they didn’t like, and to reassert the reality they felt comfortable with.
We like to think more kindly of Ruth, but patriarchy treated her in anyway but kindly. She is mentioned in the genealogy as the wife of Boaz. When I was married, Ruth’s commitment made to her mother-in-law Naomi, was one of the scriptures read at our wedding:
“Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”
It sounds romantic and beautiful, but Naomi and Ruth lived desperate lives. Both widows, and without sons to care for them, they were at the bottom of the social ladder in Israel, and doomed to death by starvation and neglect. And to make matters worse, Ruth was a Moabite, the sworn enemy of the Jewish people. Naomi and Ruth had all strikes against them, except for their commitment to each other, and their combined intellect and good sense, and Ruth’s beauty, with which they made for themselves, a place in Boaz’s house. And in that place, Ruth eventually gave birth to Obed who was King David’s grandfather. And Ruth appears in Jesus’ genealogy.
Finally we find mentioned in his genealogy, Bathsheba who was an adultress, though admittedly not something that was her’s to control, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, who Joseph was going to quietly dismiss because of her seeming infidelity.
You can go back to the commentaries and the church scholars, to find elaborate explanations about why Matthew wrote his genealogy this way. And they may be right. I want to focus on two aspects that are, in my imagination, extremely important and significant.
I was talking with Shirley Grabinsky the other night. Her U.C.W. unit has been doing a study on the Uppity Women of the Bible. I asked her if any of these women were included in that study, and she said that Ruth was. I think they all should be. By Uppity Women, I don’t mean, and the study didn’t mean, that they were snobs – living above their social class or flaunting their station. Rather, these women were all hemmed in by a patriarchy which sought to control and limit their lives, however meager their prospects. But they didn’t allow that to happen. They didn’t have many resources to call on, but what they did have, they used to great advantage. I’m struck by the strong women who were named in Jesus’ genealogy. Interestingly, they are much more vivid in my mind – in most of our minds — than many of the kings and princes who were part of that family tree.
I said at the beginning, that I was shocked by the relevance of this story, to the events of these days. I’m referring to Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, which was announced this past week. The Silence Breakers are the women who have broken their silence to name the men of power and control who harassed and exploited them in the workplace. Like the women of Jesus’ genealogy, they did not have much power. But the thing they had was courage. As a result, many people are beginning to think that this may mark the end of patriarchy. Many are saying that this is the beginning of a revolution, and by the time it is finished, society will be forever changed, and moving ahead, the future may be forged by men and women working together, with power and resources shared. It all seems a lot to hope for, but then, if Matthew is to be believed in his genealogy of Jesus’, there might not have been a royal lineage without the courage and resources of these five powerless, but resourceful and courageous women.
And the other observation I want to make, is that when Jesus was reaching out to the lowest and marginalized of his society, he wasn’t reaching down to help them. They were his kin. He was one of them. They were flesh of his flesh and bone of his bone. There weren’t many in their society who were lower than these woman, but they were Jesus’ ancestors.
We are warned that if we begin to search out our ancestors, that we might find someone there that we hadn’t expected – perhaps someone we would rather not want to be associated with. And that is a good thing. It means that we are all in it together. That it is our connectedness and not our differences that matter. And maybe this can be one more way in which the Christmas story becomes our story.
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