My guess is that very few of us have ever heard a sermon on a genealogy. Although I’m still on the younger side, I know I never have. In fact, there almost seems to be a part of us that shies away from genealogies as much as possible. I mean, when was the last time you actually read the book of Numbers for example. And if you’re like me, you tend to skip the genealogies of Genesis – and Matthew – to get to the things that are more interesting and exciting. For whatever reason, over the years we’ve come to see these parts of Scripture as mostly pointless filler that seems to have virtually no value for us today. They may have been important to the people 2,000 or 4,000 years ago, but to us it’s just a big waste of time.
My prayer is that this morning I can change your opinion a little – at least of Matthew’s genealogy.
In the way of introduction there are a few things to keep in mind as we look at this text. First off, we absolutely cannot underestimate the fact that each of the four gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – are written from a particular perspective. This might make some of you uneasy to think about. When each author sat down to write his gospel, he did so with the intention of making a point. In other words, the gospels are not simply relaying the cold, hard facts of Jesus’ life and teachings. That’s why the gospels sometimes put the same story in different places or present slightly different versions of an event. There was something in the life of the author or early church that necessitated the author to write what he did. We then discover clues to what that thing was and it helps us understand what we’re reading better.
That also doesn’t mean that Scripture contradicts itself or that you can’t trust what you read. Ultimately all it means is that each author is looking at the events from a different angle and we get the most complete picture of Jesus when we put all the gospels together. The gospels are best understood not as biographies of Jesus’ life, but as interpretations of Jesus’ life.
All of that just to be able to say that Matthew has a point beyond just telling his readers what Jesus did.
Matthew was a missionary. I don’t mean that in the sense he went oversees proclaiming the good news of the cross – although he probably did. He was a missionary in the sense that, over and above any of the other gospel writers, he recognized the full scope of God’s plan. And throughout this gospel, we see him emphasizing that scope over and over again. But it starts here in chapter 1…with a genealogy.
A few thousand years ago genealogies were a way to prove a person’s “pedigree.” In other words, the best way to prove that someone was who they said they were was to present a genealogy, tracing that person’s lineage from the distant past to the present day. It was well-known in Jesus’ day that the messiah would be from the tribe of Benjamin, a descendant of David. One of the defining characteristics of Matthew is he was a wonderful apologist – he made more references to the OT and offered more proof of the validity of Jesus than any of the other three. And so in that sense, it’s completely expected that he would include a genealogy in his gospel.
However, Matthew does something very unexpected in his genealogy: he includes five women. A person’s lineage – their inclusion into a particular tribe – was always determined by their father. If you were to go through the other genealogies of the Bible what you would find is that women are never listed in any kind of prominent role. But here, Matthew lists five. One would be shocking enough to his Jewish readers – but five was darn near blasphemy. For Jews of the day, just the inclusion of five women would have been enough to cause them to stop reading and discount everything else Matthew said.
But Matthew goes even further; you see, four of these five women aren’t even Jewish. Two are Canaanites, one is Moabite, and the fourth is Hittite. Jews were very particular about preserving their purity as a people. And here’s Matthew – the great missionary apologist who uses the sacred Scriptures more than any other gospel writer – demonstrating his audacity to suggest that the long-promised messiah, sent to deliver God’s people – the Jews – from the tyranny of evil is not a pure-blood Israelite himself! For Jews of that time, this was the worst kind of heresy.
But nevertheless, Matthew does it and he does it for a reason – there is a method to his madness. And all these little details that we are so quick to skim over and pay virtually no attention to are serving a higher purpose of emphasizing Matthew’s over-all message: Jesus and good news of the cross is available to everyone.
Let’s take a few minutes to review what the five women Matthew refers to did. Each of these women are featured rather prominently in the OT and the history of Israel; they each play a role in getting the Jewish people and religion to where it was during Jesus’ earthly ministry. But more importantly, they all filled a significant role in God’s bigger plan of salvation.
The first woman Matthew mentions is Tamar. I think it would be fair to say that Tamar was a desperate woman who knew Jewish customs and sought to uphold them. Tamar was married to Judah’s first son. That son died, and according to custom Tamar was married to the second son, who also died. Judah, wanting to spare the only son he had left, told Tamar to live as a widow who will be married to his third son at a later date. Although she obliged, Tamar was rather irritated by this request and the delay in marrying her to Judah’s youngest son.
Then one day, Tamar hears that Judah is on his way to a near-by town, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Desperate people do desperate things; and out of desperation, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute. She then went out and sat beside the road and waited for Judah. When Judah saw her, he hired her services and Tamar became pregnant. Without a doubt, Tamar acted in violation to God’s law, but in Genesis 38, it’s Judah who is held responsible for refusing to give Tamar to his youngest son.
Jewish tradition views Tamar as anything but honorable. But it’s through her “sin” that God continued to work out his plan of salvation.
The second woman is Rahab. Rahab is probably more familiar to us than Tamar. Whereas Tamar merely disguised herself as a prostitute, Rahab actually was a prostitute. Prostitutes were not by any means respected members of society; they were frequently abused, dehumanized, and kept away from any religious observances. Virtually every culture to ever exist has viewed prostitution as the lowliest of occupations – the level of uncleanliness just one step above lepers.
Rahab lived in Jericho, a Canaanite city. When Joshua sent spies into Jericho before one of the goofiest battles in the Bible, Rahab took the spies in and hosted them as they scoped things out. In exchange, the spies promised that she and her family would be spared because of her kindness and recognition of Israel’s God. What is so striking about her story is that, in the midst of an ethnic cleansing, she is welcomed into the covenant community on the basis of faith. But that doesn’t mean that she was considered an equal; because she was a prostitute and a Canaanite, she was still considered an second-rate citizen.
The third woman is Ruth. In the Jewish version of the OT, the book of Ruth immediately follows Proverbs 31. This suggests that for Jews, Ruth is seen as a real-life example of the “wife of noble character” described in Proverbs 31. Generally speaking, we all have a positive view of Ruth. She was from the land of Moab who, after becoming widowed, committed herself to the nation and religion of her mother-in-law Naomi. The step of faith required to make such a commitment is virtually unprecedented. While her mid-night tryst in the hay-barn with Boaz is suspicious, Matthew is most likely bringing attention to her because she was a Gentile.
The most infamous in Matthew’s genealogy is “Uriah’s wife.“ Matthew’s personal view of this woman is so low that he doesn’t even give her a name. But his reader’s knew very well who he was referring to: Bathsheba. This is an interesting twist to the story of David and Bathsheba. We typically consider David to be the guilty one in this story; but Matthew seems to implicate Bathsheba.
Here’s the thing, during David’s time, modesty was given a tremendous amount of attention. People seldom bathed for the simple reason that they seldom had the opportunity to do so and still maintain their modesty. At the same time, the building of a typical village in that part of the world were often built within feet of each – usually only 10-15 feet apart. Ken Bailey – and expert on middle eastern culture – suggests Matthew’s low view of Bathsheba is because Bathsheba knew what she was doing. Bathsheba wasn’t a prostitute like Rahab trying to make a living; she was actively seeking to entice David into an affair. For Matthew, Bathsheba represents the worst sort of impropriety, putting her own lusts and desires before her modesty and pulling the greatest king down with her. Her sin is seen as so severe that she doesn’t even deserve to have her name mentioned…and yet she’s still included in Jesus’ genealogy.
The fifth woman is Jesus’ mother, Mary – someone whom I’m sure we are all very familiar with, and who seems to defy the pattern left by the others. She was also the only Jewish woman listed.
If we want to get at the heart of what Matthew is going after, we have to try to understand how his original readers would have reacted to this passage. The ancient Jews believed that women were saved on the basis of their relationship to their husbands. Gentiles were rarely saved and even then, were never considered full members of Israel.
Matthew has a habit of speaking very positively of Gentiles throughout his gospel. Only Matthew includes the story of the magi coming to worship Jesus; the magi were Gentiles. Matthew tells about Jesus’ many encounters with Canaanite women and Roman centuries, holding them up as examples of faith. On several occasions in Matthew, we read about Jesus sending his disciples out to preach the good news. This sending out culminates with the Great Commission where Jesus specifically sends us out to the entire world, not just Judea. There is a pattern of Matthew focusing on groups that traditional Jews considered to be unclean, unworthy, and incapable of being in good standing with God. The Jews preached a very narrow gospel in which only a select few were lucky enough to receive salvation.
By highlighting both women and Gentiles – even one woman who was considered so bad as to remain un-named – Matthew is forcing his readers to accept the fact that eternal life is available to everyone. I’m sure every one of us feels a sense of comfort in that; no matter what we have done or how bad we’ve been, God’s grace is abundant for every single person here. The power of the cross is not for only a certain type of person; it’s not for Americans only or Protestants or Republicans or straights. Rather we can find the Spirit at work in the hearts of every single people group, in every community, in every country, throughout the entire world. And that is truly something to praise God for!
Women, Gentiles, and Jesus – oh my! For first century Jews it was inconceivable that salvation would be so freely given to so many unclean. But it’s exactly that point that makes the gospel so great. Jesus came to save them, he came to save you, and he came to save those that we may consider unworthy here in Tacoma. For that we can always confidently sing “Blessed assurance! Jesus is MINE!”
Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the Sunday Before Christmas (Genealogy of Jesus Christ)
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