by Ched Myers
Isaiah 62:1-5 | Acts 13:16-17, 22-25 | Matthew 1:1-25
(Readings are for the Vigil Mass)
As tempting as it may be, we ought not skip over those boring “begats” that form the prologue to Matthew’s Christmas story. For this “family tree”, despite rarely getting airtime in holiday pageantry, has a few surprises — and a lot to say about how God works in human history.
In most traditional societies, persons derive their identity from their clan — in stark contrast to the rampant individualism of modern urban culture. Thus Matthew’s genealogical roll call would have been the normal way to introduce and commend Jesus to his Jewish audience. But it is in the way that Matthew departs from what should have been a strictly patriarchal line that invites our attention. Five women, inclusive of Mary, appear in the list! Even more disturbing to tradition is the fact that these are women of “dubious” character!
There is Tamar (1:3), who posed as a prostitute in order to trick Judah into fulfilling his obligations according to Levirate marriage (Genesis 38). There is Rahab (1:5), a Canaanite brothel owner who saved Joshua and his spies by hiding them and then lying to royal security forces (Joshua 2). There is Ruth (1:5), a Moabite who tried to seduce Boaz to gain entry to his clan (Ruth 3). And there is the “wife of Uriah” (1:6, Bathsheba), the object of King David’s adultery and attempted cover-up (2 Samuel 11).
Matthew seems to be associating Mary, the peasant-girl mother of Jesus (1:16), with other women of “unusual” sexual circumstances. The first scene of his nativity story explains why. Marriage was arranged between families in first-century Jewish culture. A “contract of consent” was drawn up when the girl was about 13; she continued to live at home for up to a year until she was “transferred” to her husband’s house. It is during this period of “betrothal” that Mary is found to be pregnant (1:18).
Jewish law required that adultery be punished by death (Deuteronomy 22:20f). Joseph, however, chooses compassion and plans to divorce without pressing charges (1:19). He is instructed in a dream to become the legal father of the child, since to publicly name Jesus functions as an acknowledgment of paternity (1:21-25). Joseph has “covered” for the Holy Spirit.
In light of this apparent village “scandal,” Matthew’s twists to the genealogy suggest that whatever believers may affirm about the virgin birth, the appearance of Jesus’ illegitimacy remains. This he places Mary in an extraordinary line of women who, despite (or perhaps because of) “questionable circumstances,” have played key roles in salvation history. He reminds us of the central truth of incarnational theology: God’s redemptive purpose works in and through real human situations, in all their ambiguity.
*This reflection is from Pax Christi USA’s Advent reflection booklet, Discovering God With Us: 1999 Pax Christi USA Advent Journal, by Ched Myers.