Reading for Monday, June 11: Matthew 1
Matthew’s Gospel begins with the birth of Jesus, preceded by a typical Ancient Near-Eastern genealogy. While we’re tempted to skip through this list of names, this would’ve been very important in Matthew’s time (or else he wouldn’t have included it in his writing). He identifies Jesus as “the son of David, the son of Abraham” (v1), locating Jesus within the stream of Jewish history. For Matthew, it is impossible to dissociate Jesus from his particular Jewish heritage. This is important for modern readers to remember. Jesus isn’t an American; he isn’t an Anglo-Saxon; he isn’t middle class, he doesn’t live in the suburbs, he doesn’t drive an SUV. He’s the Jewish Messiah. Matthew won’t let us lose sight of this important detail. Jesus has a legal claim to the throne of Messiah by right of his lineage from David. He has a promissory claim to the people of faith by right of his lineage from Abraham. This is the kind of Messiah Matthew writes about in his Gospel.
What is striking about the genealogy Matthew records is the inclusion of five women. This was not a common practice; genealogies were typically reserved for the names of the patriarchs, the prominent men in a person’s family line. But these inclusion of these women in the genealogy of Jesus indicate a deeply significant theological point rife with Gospel. We find Tamar (v3), the daughter-in-law of Judah who takes matters into her own hands in one of the most scandalous passages in the Old Testament (Genesis 38). We find Rahab (v5), the Canaanite prostitute. We find Ruth (v5), the faithful widow redeemed by Boaz. We find Bathsheeba, listed only as “the wife of Uriah” (v6), in yet another scandalous moment from Hebrew history. Finally, we see Mary, the virgin, the improbable mother of Jesus (v16). In the stories of these women, we find some of the best and worst of humanity. We see women who have been forgotten and mistreated, objectified by the men in their lives. We find women of questionable character, taking great risks to secure their position, even their very lives at times. And we find women of great faith, women who look beyond their circumstances to a God of covenantal loyalty and abiding promises. No, the inclusion of these women’s names in the genealogy of Jesus says something about the kind of Messiah that is to come in the story. Jesus enters into human history — a history fraught with messiness and desperation and frailty and sin. These are precisely the kinds of conditions Jesus enters into on our behalf. He enters into OUR stories to render the possibility of salvation for the world. It is only by acknowledging this checkered and messy past that Jesus could possibly be Immanuel, God with us, God for us in spite of our brokenness. This is the foundational identity of Jesus that Matthew portrays in the opening credits of his Gospel.
A word is in order with regard to Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. The text says he was a “just man” (v19). The Hebrew word is “tzedakah”, meaning a righteous man, a man of integrity, committed to God as revealed in Torah. Joseph emerges as this kind of man, contrasting him with Judah and David and Solomon — men known for some of the more sordid episodes in the life of Israel. As a just man, Joseph seeks not to shame Mary, even though she has shamed him with what he believes to be an illegitimate pregnancy. This man of character and integrity is chosen as God’s steward for the life of his Son. As a father, I can’t imagine not being there for my children one day. It brings me great pain to think of someone else raising them in my stead. Yet, God carefully chooses Joseph, this “tzedakah”, as His proxy, a faithful steward over this most precious gift. Many often look to Mary and her significance in the life of Jesus. But we should also acknowledge the importance of Joseph as God’s righteous man, an embodiment of paternal love and mercy in the life of Jesus.