Advent 4: 18 December Matthew 1:18-25
Or why not begin at verse 1? Probably this will not be an option so close to Christmas, but it is worth planning some day to preach on 1:1-17, commonly held to be one of the most ‘boring’ passages in the Bible. Put it on an overhead for all to see. Note the pattern: 3 x 14. In other words 6 x 7; the 7th 7 is about to begin. The structure is an attempt to say: God’s will is involved here, even though we, today, give little credence to such numerics (just like the astrology of chapter 2). Genealogies are traditionally male. So is this one, but note the oddities: the women. This, too, contains a message: breaking the male paradigm, it includes women, a theme that reappears in Matthew and still needs asserting against the dominant paradigms. Note that these are not the heroic virtuous women. They all have Gentile connections, another Matthean theme. These women are also all associated with sexual activity some of which is highly controversial. That may reflect a typical male tendency to view women in terms of their sexuality. It also reflects the need which Matthew (or someone who gave him the genealogy) felt to justify Mary against the rumours about her sexuality. God includes Mary!
Finally the genealogy does not work literally. The line stops flowing at Joseph. Rather than abandon the genealogy, Matthew exploits its symbolic value: Jesus, a son of Abraham, is indeed Son of David and Messiah. God provides the missing seed. Through secular eyes Mary is pregnant before she lives with Joseph, which would either mean premarital intercourse (which Joseph denies) or sexual intercourse with someone other than her betrothed Joseph. Without further information imagination goes wild to fill the gap, depending on one’s sympathies. From much later we learn of anti Christian propaganda which alleged rape by a Roman soldier. What would then have been understood as the worst kind of slander has caught the imagination of some moderns who have learned that rape means someone is being violated. Mary then becomes the violated one from whom is born hope. It is a magnificent image, confronting the values of the time, but historically with little if any basis in reality. We don’t need to colonise historical traditions with our values to be able to affirm those values. We can affirm solidarity with victims of rape without needing the warrant of ancient texts in a fundamentalist kind of way like this.
Remaining at the level of ordinary experience, Joseph finds Mary is pregnant and he is not the father. Swirling around behind the text are cultural and moral values. She must have committed adultery is his conclusion. She is no longer a virgin which makes her ‘less valuable’. She is pregnant with someone else’s child. That is a disaster in families of the ancient world where keeping the family intact was vital and where inheritance was endangered by children born of men outside the extended family. Virginity was worth a high price, monetarily. Nothing like it applied to males. Women were at worst a commodity. Joseph had been cheated by another male. The whirl of values carries with it assumptions which we rightly question today, as we question what the real issues are with rape. The value of a woman is not her virginity but her being a person. If there is wronging it is not just men who are wronged.
For Matthew Joseph is a model. He is ‘righteous’ (1:19). For Matthew that means Joseph will choose the less demeaning option: not public humiliation, but private divorce. Adultery required divorce; it was not an option. This was also true in cultures beyond Judaism. Here, too, we have come a long way. We have been learning about the possibilities of reconciliation. We have also learned that it is madness to make sexual intercourse so central; attitudes are just as significant, as Jesus, himself, taught.
Read in its world the drama does not end with divorce but a divine intervention. God created the pregnancy. This does not assume intercourse, but it does assume a botanical understanding of reproduction according to which the ‘seed’ has to be planted in the woman who is like the garden in whom the seed grows until birth. The quality of the soil contributes to the product; people also saw likenesses in those days between mother and child, but the person was in the seed and that was male.
In the wonder at what Jesus became Matthew’s community has merged memories of divine interventions in the Old Testament to enable sterile woman to become pregnant with popular stories of miraculous pregnancies to offer another explanation of how Jesus, born of Mary, could become who he became and without slurring Mary. It is a wonderful story of a conception created by God, developed to celebrate a concept: God was in Christ. Some will sustain belief in the story; others will read its fabulous assertions with a faith that affirms its intentions while not espousing the botanical biology.
Using one of those Old Testament prophetic passages which may already have graced the story, Matthew overlays the story with a popular etymology of Jesus’ name. He comes to save his people from their sins and the consequences which sins bring. The disaster of 70 CE, the destruction of the temple, illustrates the failure of that aim with many of his people, according to Matthew. But some did respond. Matthew’s community treasured Isaiah 7:14. Unlike the Hebrew, the Greek unambiguously speaks of a virgin and her child as Emmanuel. Originally a promise that Judah would gain relief from the impending threat from the alliance of northern Israel and Syria through the march of the Assyrians, the verse, excised from that context, becomes a promise of God’s presence to bring deliverance in any age and linked with the Mary story fits Jesus well. In Jesus’ ministry God is with us! That is the point of the tapestry of allusions here and in what follows in chapter 2. The birth narratives are not really about the baby Jesus; they are about the Jesus whom we see in ministry and crucified under the banner ‘King of the Jews’.
The Christmas stories always need connecting with the grown up Jesus if they are not to be sentimentalised. Don’t put tinsel around the cross at Christmas. The magic of angels and the virginal conception are the embellishments to enable us to celebrate that life of compassion and self giving. In their own way they give us the radical message of inclusiveness: of the women, of the Gentiles, of the sexually suspected, of the pregnant girl. They lay before us the violence which grace confronts: the all maleness, the righteous Law observance, the willingness to abandon the pregnant girl, the murderous ruler, the slaughtered children, the aspiration to kill ‘the king of the Jews’. We have to work hard to keep it all from being reduced to jingles to promote shopping sprees or being perpetuated as just a bit more Christian naiveté in a world where the same geography and the same issues exist.
See also The Christmas Stories
Epistle: Advent 4: 18 December Romans 1:1-7