The only times I ever use the Narrative Lectionary for preaching are those occasional Sundays when I lead worship here at Hobart North.
It’s the passage that, in theological seminary, we called (using a bit of King James-ish terminology) “the begats”. (“Abraham begat Isaac, and Isaac begat Jacob,” and so on and so on.) And there was a whole lot of begatting going on. (Or, rather, there was “a whole lot of begetting”. It was one of those irregular verbs: beget, begat, begotten.) Anyway, the passages of scripture with all the “begats” were passages I never really studied as a theological student, and neither did most of my colleagues.
But, in the midst of all these men with polysyllabic names (from Aminadad to Zerubbabel) all begetting like crazy, it now seems (according to a growing number of New Testament scholars today) that the real meaning of this passage is found, not so much in the forty-two men begetting with enthusiasm, but in the five women who are also mentioned in the passage.
As a result, I gave my sermon a title which I think is best sung: “On the Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary gave to me: … forty-two blokes a-begetting, … five feisty females, … and a passage we ignored in Seminary.”
Two gospels give us a genealogy of Jesus, near or at the beginning of the gospel, Matthew and Luke. While there are a number of differences in detail between the genealogies, there are two big differences between these two genealogies:
- The first difference is that Matthew’s version of the genealogy of Jesus goes back to Abraham, while Luke’s genealogy goes back to the dawning of human life.
- The second difference is that the genealogy found in Luke is an all-male list, while Matthew’s version mentions five very significant women.
These differences can both be seen as a result of the different cultural contexts of these gospels. Matthew wrote his gospel for a congregation with a background in Jewish faith and culture, while Luke wrote for a congregation of Graeco-Roman gentiles.
- Matthew wanted to demonstrate that Jesus lived within the context of Abraham obeying the command of God to venture out into the desert with the message of God’s call to faith. Luke wanted to put Jesus into a more universal context of the life of the whole human race.
- Luke’s readers, though, were Graeco-Roman sexists who were not terribly interested in the accomplishments of women. On the other hand, Matthew’s readers came from a Jewish background and honoured those feisty women who, throughout the history of their people, stepped up to the plate and did God’s thing, particularly at times when their menfolk were faltering.
Increasingly, many New Testament scholars today – of a variety of denominations, and of both genders - say that the real key to the meaning of Matthew’s version of Jesus’s genealogy is found in these five women.
Anyway, let’s have a quick look at the “five feisty females” mentioned by Matthew.
Tamar provided an example in the scriptures of what we, in recent months, could call a “Me Too” moment. She had experienced incest, and it took place as part of a complicated story. She nearly was put to death because of her irregular pregnancy, but talked her way out of it in a way that led the man who caused her pregnancy to admit his own fault.
Then there’s Rahab. She was a prostitute, probably the “madam” of her brothel. She wasn’t Jewish herself, but a citizen of Jericho. She hid the spies sent by Joshua to check out the land, and lied about it when the authorities came looking for them. There’s no two ways about it. Rahab served God by betraying her country.
Like Rahab, Ruth was also foreign. She was an immigrant, one of that great class of people whom the less salubrious sort of politicians today, those who inhabit the sordid underbelly of politics, like to condemn, without looking at their solid contributions to society. The story of the romance of Ruth and Boaz (Rahab’s son, according to Matthew) became the great “romcom” of the Old Testament. Ruth herself became the great-grandmother of King David.
Speaking of David, we then come to Bathsheba, who isn’t mentioned here by name but is merely called “the wife of Uriah”. This is another “Me, Too” moment in the genealogy of Jesus. The rape of Bathsheba and the murder of Uriah definitely constituted the ethical low point of David’s reign. And, morally, it was rape. What with David being a king, Bathsheba would not have had the power to consent or not to consent. It was a definite “Me, Too” moment.
And then we come to Mary, who is really much more interesting than the demure young woman in the blue dress whom we see in statues, paintings, icons, and nativity sets. When she reflected on the significance of the child whom she was to bear, she celebrated the idea of the powerful being brought down from their thrones and the lowly being lifted up, of the hungry being filled with good things and the rich being sent away empty. This was one radical lady. As they say on the TV talk shows, “You go, girl!”
And the birth of Jesus took place in the context of the lives of these “five feisty females”, just as much as it did in that of the “forty-two blokes a-begetting”. And many scholars today believe the “five feisty females” are the real key to understanding why this list of polysyllabic names is found in the gospel, more than as an endurance test for people who read lessons in worship.
Anyway, what takeaways can we find from the “five feisty females” in Jesus’s genealogy, according to today’s gospel?
The first is this: We find God in the presence of those whom our society and culture despises.
The second is this: We find God in the presence of those who choose to live with courage and compassion.
I’ll repeat that. It’s important.
We find God in the presence of those whom our society and culture despises.
We find God in the presence of those who choose to live with courage and compassion.
“On the Sunday after Christmas, the lectionary gave to me: … forty-two blokes a-begetting, … five feisty females, … and a passage we ignored in Seminary.”