“When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (Matthew 1:24-25)
There you have it – our Christmas story! If that seems like an abbreviated form of the story, it’s not. It’s just Matthew’s version. If you’re wondering what happened to the shepherds and the angels and the manger and the inn, all that is in Luke’s version of the Christmas story, but Matthew’s version is relatively terse –no trip to Bethlehem, no ‘no room at the inn’, no stable, no manger, no animals, no shepherds, and no little drummer-boy (who actually doesn’t turn up in any of the Gospels).
Was Matthew trying to conserve space by keeping the story short and simple? I don’t think that’s it, as Matthew precedes his nativity narrative with one of the most lengthy and turgid passages in the entire New Testament – namely, his genealogical history of Jesus that takes up the first seventeen verses of his Gospel.
We never read that part of the Gospel in church and there’s a good reason for that. It’s just too boring. I’ll give you a two-verse snippet:
was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram” (Matthew 1:2-3)
OK. I’m stopping there and, as I say, that’s two verses. The genealogy as a whole stretches on for seventeen! It’s not because Matthew was trying to be succinct that he left out all the elements of those Christmas narrative that we hold closest to our hearts. It was because his version of the story had a different emphasis. For Matthew, the birth of Jesus is all about family!
It’s all about family! That sounds like an appropriate Christmas theme, doesn’t it? That’s what most of us think about when we think of Christmas – getting together with family – and that’s also why there’s such a high suicide rate at Christmas time, because a lot of us don’t want to be reminded of what’s happened to our families.
I can understand why so many of us feel humiliated and alone at Christmas time. Many of us started out with hopes of building a family that would be worthy of its own nativity scene. For some of us, that family simply never came. For others of us, it came and went. Even for those of us who still have families that are holding together, we known full well that so many parts of that working machine are dysfunctional, such that the cogs are barely turning over. We have skeletons in the closet. We have members of the family that we try to keep from the public. We have whole chapters in our family history that we really wish could be erased. We really don’t look too good alongside Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus … or do we?
As I say, I’m not going to read out the full genealogy of Jesus as outlined by Matthew in the first chapter of his Gospel. Even so, it’s a list that is worthy of careful scrutiny, particularly when it comes to some of the women who are listed.
Matthew’s genealogy is very clearly a history of Jesus’ male lineage. Luke has a genealogy too, and it focuses on Mary, but Matthew’s version is entirely male-centric. Even so, four women are mentioned –Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – and each of these four were highly controversial figures. Perhaps ‘controversial’ is not the best word. Perhaps ‘tragic’ or ‘notorious’ would be better in some cases.
The story of Tamar is in Genesis 38. She pretends to be a prostitute and has sex with her father-in-law, who then tries to have her burnt alive! It’s a sordid story where Tamar is repeatedly abandoned by all the men in her life, though she does go on to become the mother of Perez, the father of Hezron, the father of Ram …
Rahab was the sole survivor of battle of Jericho, as recorded in the book of Joshua, chapter two. She was spared by the Israelite army because she sheltered their spies – the army who slaughtered every other man, woman, child and animal ln Jericho.
Whether you can ever truly survive an experience like that is, of course, open to question. Either way, Rahab was not thereafter known as ‘Rahab the survivor’ or ‘Rahab the protector’ but was always referred to with reference to the profession she had in Jericho before its fall – namely, as ‘Rahab the prostitute’.
That would not have been an identity that could have been easily erased. People would not forget. Even so, Rahab did go on to become the mother of Boaz, the father of Obed, the father of Jesse, the father of David, who went on to become king!
My point, or rather Matthew’s point, is simply that there were some skeletons in the closet of Jesus’ family too. Indeed, it would have been quite a colourful Christmas gathering if they had somehow all managed to come together.
“Oh, Tamar! Good to meet you at long last. I’ve heard so much about you! And Rahab … you look great! Uh … sorry, I don’t mean that in any inappropriate way!”
It’s not just the women, of course, though Ruth, the Moabitess, is mentioned (a woman from the wrong land and wrong religion), as is Bathsheba, King David’s wife who went on to become the mother of King Solomon.
I mention Bathsheba here by name but, interestingly, Matthew does not. Matthew, chapter one, verse six, refers to her only as the woman who “had been Uriah’s wife”.
We know the story. King David got Bathsheba pregnant while she was still married to Uriah, the Hittite. Whether she was complicit in that or whether she was raped is hard to know, but David’s attempt to cover up the pregnancy and his subsequent murder of Uriah is well known.
Matthew is making a point. The birth of King Solomon was surrounded with pain and controversy, as is the birth of Jesus – and that is where all this is leading, of course.
The story of Jesus does not begin well, and if you look back at the family of Jesus, it is full of problems. Perhaps Jesus’ family is a lot more like ours than we first thought!
When I was a young man – not even twenty years old – I started doing voluntary work with what was then the ‘Sydney City Mission’ at a place called ‘Swanton Lodge’ in Surry Hills. It was a shelter for alcoholic men and women that was largely not rehabilitation orientated. In other words, most of the people there were never going to get better and many didn’t want to get better.
I used to organise my youth group to go and sing Christmas carols there at this time of year, and we used to get into some interesting conversations with the residents. One chat I had with one elderly man has always stayed with me. Being young and idealistic, I tried to talk to him about the possibility of rehabilitation – getting off the grog. He told me that he wasn’t interested and when I asked him why he said, “because this is the only way I can get back at my family”.
That’s how families work – a lot of families. Maybe that’s not your family exactly but we all have our issues, our skeletons, our failures. Jesus’ family was no exception.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the story of Jesus begins in controversy. Mary is found to be pregnant and Joseph knows he is not the father. The two of them were engaged at that time, which made it all quite serious.
If Joseph had followed in the line of his forefathers, we might have expected violence to follow! After all, Joseph was the descendent of Judah, the father-in-law of Tamar, who tried to have her burnt alive when she became pregnant out of wedlock, even though it was his child! Certainly, according to the Deuteronomic code, Joseph was within his rights to have Mary dragged into the public square and stoned to death!
We are told though that Joseph was a good man, and so he decided to separate from Mary quietly (Matthew 1:19), which is interesting in itself for it suggests that being a good person means that sometimes you have to disregard God’s law.
Is this a turning point in the family history – a movement from violence and legalism towards love and mercy? Not really. There are plenty of examples of love and mercy in the genealogical history of Jesus’ forebears too. There was plenty of good mixed in with the bad. Even so, Joseph’s merciful attitude is a reminder that none of us needs to be controlled by our history.
And it’s pure speculation, of course, but is it possible that this example set by Joseph had a formative influence on Jesus Himself? Jesus, as an adult, would go on to teach people that mercy is greater than sacrifice (eg. Matthew 12:7) and that they needed to focus on the spirit of the law rather than on the letter.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighborand hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:43-44)
We don’t want to underplay the extent to which the character of Jesus was formed by His Heavenly Father. Even so, it seems to me quite plausible that God might use some of the wisdom of Jesus’ earthly father to help establish Jesus on the right path.
We know very little of Joseph from this point in the story onwards. Mary, Jesus’ mother, goes on to play a significant role throughout His earthly life, while Joseph apparently disappears from the scene quite early on. Even so, while his contribution was short-lived, it may nonetheless have been formative.
This is our Christmas story. It’s a story about a mother and a father and a baby. It’s also a story about family and about history. Our Christmas story is also a story about shepherds and sheep and the baby in the manger, but not today! Today our story stops short of those details and focuses just on family.
Today we remember the family of Jesus – not just His immediate nuclear family, but the greater family line to which Jesus was connected – and the key point is that it is all highly dysfunctional.
It was a family with a history of violence, deceit, misery and failure. It was also, of course, a family with a history of godliness, love and hope. It was a family where the good, the bad and the ugly were all mixed in together. In other words, it was a family much like ours. The good news, and indeed the great news, is that out of the chaos of this archetypally dysfunctional family line, salvation comes!
God is not going to be limited by our history. God is not going to allow the future to be a simple repeat of the past. The salvation of the world is coming, and it is coming through the line of David, through the line of Tamar, through the line of Ruth, of Rahab and Bathsheba. Emerging from that dark tunnel where there has been so much pain and suffering and all the collateral damage that is the fallout of human frailty, love and joy and peace are on their way! Merry Christmas!
First preached by Father Dave Smith, at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill on Sunday December 22nd, 2019.