Pregnant. Unmarried. Teenager. Rarely something received as good news. More likely received as troubling news. Troubling for the family whose honor and reputation are now threatened. Troubling for the young woman who faces both the uncertainties of being a mother and of social isolation. Stigma. Rumors floating around about who the father is. The expectant mother could be altogether disowned by her family. More than just troubling, this is dangerous news for a first century young Jewish woman. The law taught, in Deuteronomy 22, that a woman like her could be stoned. Although Mary was barely even a woman. It’s very likely she was in her early teens, as it was common for girls to be promised for marriage at that age. Maybe around 14 years old or so. She would have been right among peers in the CMF youth Sunday school class. Probably not even the oldest member.
Even in the 21st century, Mary would have had a rough ride. There are still places in the world where it is considered the duty of the men in the family to kill a daughter or sister or niece who is no longer ‘sexually pure’ before marriage, even in cases of rape or incest. These are called ‘honor killings’ because the family honor, held by the males, is seen to be threatened by this kind of bodily violation. During my time of studying in the country of Jordan we visited an organization that works to protect women facing these kinds of threats on their life.
In our more tolerant, less patriarchal culture, Mary and the child Jesus would not have escaped difficulty. Stigma and rumors aren’t just for before the birth, but can follow you around through school and into adulthood. This was certainly the case for mother and child in the first century. Mark, the most raw and earthy of all the gospels, does not have a birth narrative, but does record an encounter of Jesus early in his ministry that gives some indication of what he must have gone through most of his life. In Mark 6, when Jesus is visiting his hometown of Nazareth and teaching in the synagogue, sort of like going back to your home church where you grew up and giving the sermon, the leaders are surprised and also offended. They respond, “What is this wisdom that has been given to him? Is not this the son of Mary?” In a culture where you were always referred to as the son of your father, this is a dirty insult. Our culture has its own dirty equivalents for insulting children with unknown fathers. Mark then says ‘and they took offense at him,’ which uses the same Greek word, scandalidzo, that we heard Jesus say last week in Matthew 11 when he said, “And blessed is anyone who takes no offense, or who is not scandalized by me.”
The gospel writer Matthew knows that in the back, or in the front, of his reader’s minds, is a struggle to accept a social outcast as a Savior. In his attempt to tell his story of Jesus’ life he knows he might lose people on page one who can’t quite swallow the idea that a person with this kind of shady origin could have anything to do with “Immanuel,” “God with us.” And so in the first pages of the first gospel, the very beginning of our New Testament, we see this confrontation with scandal. To communicate how something that appears sinful to us is actually a work of the creative divine Spirit in our midst that will forever shift our experience of God.
You’re welcome to open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 1 to explore how this is being communicated.
Before speaking of the birth of Jesus the Messiah through Mary in verse 18 of chapter 1, the passage that was read before children’s story, Matthew sets the stage. At first glance, the opening 17 verses of Matthew are a simple genealogy of Jesus. Sort of giving a quick tour of the ole’ family tree before we hear about this baby. Looking through the list, we see familiar names that show Jesus being of some pretty good stock. Of course he comes from Abraham, like all Jews, and then Isaac and Jacob, we have Boaz in there who was considered a righteous man. King David and Solomon begin a list of kings that demonstrates a royal heritage. The list of kings ends at the time of the Babylonian deportation, and we begin a list of mostly unfamiliar names, but given what came before, we can assume that these are good men. Soon we are up to great grandpa Matthan, grandpa Jacob, and then father Joseph and then son Jesus.
A quick glance, however, will not suffice to understand what Matthew is doing here. First of all Joseph is not the father of Jesus. He does become married to Mary, Jesus mother, but the story is clear that Jesus has no biological connection with Joseph. Matthew has just given a whole list of ancestors, only to say that Jesus’ connection to them is through his step father. We don’t know what kind of lineage Jesus has because we don’t know Mary’s family tree. This prepares the way for the gospel message which challenges just what it means to be a child of Abraham and a child of David. John the Baptist will soon tell the religious leaders not to assume they can rest easy because they can trace their lineage back to Abraham, because “God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.” Jesus will teach that the meaning of being blessed has to do with being poor in spirit, hungering and thirsting for righteousness, being a peacemaker, and being merciful. Jesus will call his family those who do the will of God and will use Samaritan half-breeds and even some of the Roman occupying soldiers as examples of those who do this. Jesus is indeed a true child of Abraham and David, and it will be his mission to open up a global adoption program for everyone who would like to be his brother or sister regardless of biological ancestry. A family defined by an acceptance of God’s fatherly and motherly love for each sibling, and a family maintained through forgiveness of one another. The disconnect between Matthew’s genealogy and Jesus’ biological genesis sets up the entire New Testament’s good news which shall be for all people.
There is another feature of Matthew’s genealogy that is more to the point leading into the birth narrative. Within this list of A was the father of B was the father of C was the father of D… Matthew strategically inserts five mothers. We already know about Mary. The other four women have a couple features in common. They’re all Gentiles, not from the line of Abraham and Sara, and they’re all known for questionable sexual unions. The first, Tamar, disguised herself as a shrine prostitute to seduce her father-in-law Judah and get back at him for withholding his youngest son from her in marriage. Her sexual politicking leads Judah to admit that he has been wrong all along to not carry out the law and give his son to her. Rahab is the next woman mentioned, in v. 5. She is known in the book of Joshua as the prostitute who sheltered the Israelite spies when they were scoping out Jericho. In Israelite memory she is held as a righteous person, despite her occupation. Ruth comes soon after Rahab. Whenever she is mentioned in the book of Ruth, she is always named as Ruth the Moabitess. Despite her foreignness, being from Moab, the story portrays her as loyal to God. The Hebrew text also gives indications that she was an unusually sexually assertive woman during a particular night encounter with Boaz. The last of these four mentioned is in v. 6, “the wife of Uriah,” otherwise known as Bathsheba, the eventual wife of David. In the words of Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah”: “you saw her bathing on the roof, her beauty and the moonlight overthrew you.” Despite her being already married to Uriah, David can’t resist, and takes her into his bed. Through him she became the mother of King Solomon.
Why does Matthew include these women, of all people, in his genealogy of Jesus? He could easily have also mentioned Sara, Rebekah, and other women. Could it be that he is intending to show the reader that the story of God’s people includes righteous acts by those who don’t easily fit into our categories of what it means to be righteous? In case we weren’t paying attention, Matthew would like to remind us that God has always been working through people of questionable moral status. So that when we do get to Mary and Joseph and Jesus, we’re better prepared to accept that something miraculous might be taking place here. If this is how the story has gone so far, then maybe this is how the story continues. Could it be that Mary, as the fifth woman named in this family tree, is also an important part of God’s story, despite the scandalous nature of her pregnancy?
After laying this groundwork, Matthew then only uses one verse to talk about Mary. “When Jesus’ mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.” In Luke we get a window into the internal world of this young mother who ponders all these things in her heart. We hear her encounter with an angel who asks her to bear a child for God. After accepting, we see her visit to also-pregnant cousin Elizabeth and we hear her strong poem “My soul magnifies the Lord” that is paraphrased in the song we’ve been singing each Sunday. Mary rejoices in the weak being made strong, the poor being filled, and the mighty being brought down from their perch. The world turning around because of Jesus’ birth through her. But that’s Luke’s telling.
In Matthew, after one verse of Mary, we go directly to Joseph and stick with him to the end. The father who isn’t the father. In other words, Matthew does not end up focusing on Mary, but on the response to Mary bearing Jesus. How should one respond to this, to someone “found to be with child from Holy Spirit?” Joseph is the closest of anyone to this situation and the most easily scandalized. It is his honor that is at stake. It’s his reputation being threatened and it’s his right to completely cut himself off from Mary and this child of hers.
Joseph is merciful. Not only does he not pursue the penalty of death by stoning, but he also doesn’t want to have Mary publicly disgraced. He’ll dismiss her quietly – they’ll each go their way with as little public fanfare as possible. This is a merciful response, and the text calls Joseph righteous for considering this path. But Joseph is soon visited by a messenger. The angel sneaks up on him when his defenses are completely down, while he’s sleeping. During REM dream time, when his neurons are shuffling and sorting through all the chaotic information of life, there is a voice present within him that can only be interpreted as an angel of the Lord. “Don’t be afraid, take Mary as your wife, her child is from the Holy Spirit. The child will be named Jesus, and he’ll save people from their sins.” Maybe also firing through his brain, stored in some remote memory pathway, is an echo of the words of Isaiah. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” Which means “God is with us.” God. With. Us. That’s what makes all the difference. That’s the good news that trumps the troubling news. “Immanuel” means that after Joseph wakes up from sleep, the world is a different place. Because God is with us, we don’t have to save ourselves by preserving our honor at all costs. Things that appear sinful to us can be infused with Holy Spirit. We allow ourselves to participate in miracle, the unexpected presence of God in things deemed holy and unholy. Things aren’t as they appear to be on the surface because of Immanuel. We experience the tired old pathways of sin in our minds to be rerouted, reprogrammed by the Presence of the Saving One.
Going back on his initial, perhaps more rational and better calculated plans, Joseph decides to take Mary as his wife and be a step father for Jesus. And through Jesus, the one who causes scandal to those trying to preserve the old order of things, the world is made new. Embodied love is unleashed on creation and finds its way into our bodies, animating our hands for serving, our mouths for speaking truth, our minds for being amazed with the wonder of “God with us”. We find shards of this saving love everywhere we dare look. Even in the dysfunction of our own family histories. God is at work redeeming our sins and saving us through the love of Christ. From here on out, it is always Emmanuel, God With Us.