Second Sunday in Advent
Rev. Kit Billings
December 5, 2004
The opening of Matthew's Gospel reads curiously to modern eyes: "A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham" (verse 1). Matthew then proceeds to detail the lineage of Jesus Christ, an exercise of the irrelevant to modern eyes. But to an ancient reader such an introduction would not seem so strange, for a genealogy can reveal a great deal about a person and it would be read with interest.
The Old Testament contains many genealogies, four long ones in Genesis alone. To the ancient Hebrew, lineage was crucial. If your veins held even a trace of foreign blood, you'd lose your right to call yourself a Jew. For example, by the first century, priests were required to produce an unbroken and pure lineage that stretched all the way back to Aaron; and the women they married needed to show pure lineage for a mere five generations! Herod the Great, despised by Jews because he was half Edomite, consequently had the official records destroyed so no one could produce a purer pedigree than his own. Jews were typically able to recite their lineage, for it was central to their identity. It made the difference between success or failure on the socio-economic ladder of ancient Israel.
So how does the lineage of Jesus stack up? Is it impressive? Matthew begins by stating that Jesus descended from Abraham and David (verse 1). So far, so good. Abraham, the father of all Jews; and David, Israel's greatest king, cast impressive shadows across Israel's historical landscape. But then you begin to notice some intriguing entries. In addition to Mary, the mother of Jesus, there are four other women included in the lineage. That in itself is unusual in an ancient genealogy, for women's names usually don't appear unless their inclusion would enhance the purity of the lineage.
Women had few legal rights in Israel, as they were considered the property of their husbands. A common morning prayer for a Jewish man, in fact, was to thank God that he "was not born a Gentile, a slave, a dog, or a woman," in THAT order! So listing women in our Lord's lineage would be apparent folly to Matthew's predominantly Jewish audience.
But even more remarkable is the identify of the women: Tamar (verse 3), Rahab (verse 5), Ruth (verse 5) and Bathsheba (verse 6)! Commentators often call these "the four irregular women," and for good reasons. Tamar was the Canaanite widow who disguised herself as a prostitute in order to seduce her father-in-law and have children by him (Genesis 38). Rahab, a Gentile from Jericho, was actually a prostitute whom God used to help in Joshua's conquest of Jericho (Joshua 2). Ruth was similarly an alien, specifically a Moabite, a descendent of the incestuous Lot, and thus quite low on the social register of the racially proud Jews. Even the Law of Moses had disparaging things to say about the Moabites: "No Moabite, nor any of their descendants to the tenth generation shall enter the assembly of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 23:3).
And lastly, we see Bathsheba, a Hittite, whom King David seduced, and whose husband he had killed in order to have her for himself (II Samuel ll). Notice that Matthew emphasizes (verse 6) the nature of David's tryst with her: "David was the father of Solomon, whose mother HAD BEEN Uriah's wife," thus underlining the sinfulness of that link in the lineage. Even Matthew blushes at the thought and can't bring himself to mention her by name, though all of his readers would know who he meant.
Why did Matthew choose to emphasize these four "irregular" women? Why these, rather than some respectable, Jewish ladies like Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the four great matriarchs of Israel? If Matthew searched the entire Old Testament for ancestors of the Messiah, it's unlikely he could find more questionable ones for Jesus than Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. Three of the four were immoral and Ruth was a little aggressive. They are clearly not role models for moral instruction. All were Gentiles and all were outside of the mainstream of salvation history. What is Matthew up to?
By merely human standards, Jesus' lineage doesn't make the grade by the long shot. Yet that's just the point! The inclusion of these four women is obviously deliberate--for it establishes a theme Matthew follows throughout the rest of his Gospel.
In a radical departure from what's expected in genealogy, Matthew proclaims the Good News of the Gospel: God's Divine Love, manifested in the life and lineage of His Son, breaks down and transcends the barriers erected by human pride and sin.
Including the four alien women, challenges the racial barrier between Jews and Gentiles, anticipating that Jesus "is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility." (Ephesians 2:14) The genealogy of Jesus also breaches the sexual barrier between men and women. In no ordinary, respectable lineage would the names of such women be found, but such are found in the family tree of the Lord, the One who will treat women with deference and dignity.
Like the other evangelists, Matthew is unembarrassed to show that it's the women among Christ's disciples that remain near the Cross (Matthew 27:55, 56) when the going gets tough. And while the disciples cower in fear after Jesus' death, the women are found at the Tomb, caring for the body of our Lord. Consequently, women become the first witnesses to proclaim the news that the Lord had risen from the dead (Matthew 28:1, Luke 24:9-11)! God isn't sexist, and this dramatic inclusion of women in the Gospel record would not been overlooked by the 1st century reader.
However, THE MOST SIGNIFICANT BARRIER CHALLENGED BY THE GOSPEL OF THE GENEALOGY IS THAT OF SIN AND HEREDITARY EVIL.
These "four irregular women" tell us that not only is Jesus born for sinners, he is also born through sinners, a message that spells hope for you and me! This is a constant theme for Matthew, for Jesus "came not to call the righteous, but sinners." (Matthew 9:13)
If we are honest with ourselves, however, this simple truth creates some dissonance for us. For it seems the longer we are Christians, the more tempted we are to please God and earn His approval by our "religious" behavior and "religious" language, rather than through changed hearts and lives. Thankfully we have two powerful sources of “anti-judgmentalism” within the Lord's New Church that make it harder for us to skate through life being mostly concerned with EXTERNALS.
You know, that vile little evil that's so easy to get caught up in—the one where we care more about how someone dresses and whether or not he or she speaks the same words we do. But God's Word reminds us that Jesus chose to spend time with and work spiritually with the outcasts of His time. And secondly, our church teachings remind us that the truly external aspects of our lives mean nothing to the Lord—that is, our outward appearance, our social background, the color of our skin, the way we talk, et cetera. What He cares about is the quality of your affections and thoughts, and how you are willing to bring your religious principles into action in every aspect of your life.
The inclusion of the foreign women DEMONSTRATES THE ALL-EMBRACING WIDTH OF THE LOVE OF GOD! In this way, Matthew gives a preview of the Great Commission in Matthew 28, where the Risen Lord commands his disciples to take the Gospel to all nations, including the Samaritans, who the Jews despised. This, in fact, is a "bracketing" of The Gospel of Matthew, for added emphasis, as his first words and his last propose to extend the Good News of God's Love beyond the prideful and sinful barriers of humankind.
The barrier between Jew and Gentile is down. Rahab, the woman of Jericho, and Ruth, the woman of Moab, find their place within the pedigree of Jesus Christ. Already the great truth is there that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. Here, at the very beginning, there is the universalism of the Gospel and of the Love of God. The barriers between male and female are down as well. In no ordinary Jewish pedigree would the name of any woman be found; but such names are found in Jesus' pedigree. The old contempt is gone; and men and women stand equally dear to God, and equally important to His purposes.
There is a kind of peace, a deep and penetrating peace, which can grow within our hearts and minds as we reflect and gain greater illumination about the awesomeness of the Lord's infinite Love for all humankind. The bottom line: for the Lord, there are no barriers for His Love. Therefore, there is no one you cannot love! And it is THIS GREAT SPIRIT OF UNIVERSAL LOVE for all that permeates the true spirit of Christmas. No wonder the angels did say, “Peace and goodwill to all.”