God Works in Mysterious (and Gracious, Surprising,
and Challenging) Ways
I have two reasons for being a little nervous today.
First, during my growing up years here in Barnesville, my family attended a blue collar Baptist church out in the country. As a student at Gordon Grammar School during the 1960s, I’d stare in awe at the massive white sanctuary across the street, wondering what marvelous experiences the people who worshiped there must have. Some of my teachers even worshiped there. Now here I am, preaching in that impressive place. Outwardly, I’m a confident fifty-nine year-old, but inwardly my ten year-old self is trembling.
Second, when your good pastor invited me to preach here today, she told me that I could preach on whatever topic I wanted. But she also told me of the series she planned to preach on the Sundays leading up to Christmas, which has to do with the supporting characters of the Christmas story. She furthermore told me that if I felt so led, I could preach on the women in Jesus’ genealogy as Matthew presents it, which is what she’d be preaching on if she were here. I said I thought that sounded interesting so I’d just do that.
But doing so requires that I say some things about the dealings of men with women, and that makes me nervous because of the recent flood of revelations about the ways some men have harassed and abused women.
So I ask you to join me in taking a breath and saying a prayer. Here we go.
Matthew’s Gospel opens with a genealogy that is interesting in its arrangement and in its content. Its arrangement is interesting because Matthew structures it so that there are fourteen generations from Abraham to King David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian exile, and fourteen from the exile to the birth of Jesus. That’s Matthew’s way of saying that Jesus is the Messiah who fulfills God’s promises to Israel that began with Abraham and that Jesus belongs to the line of David as people expected the Messiah would.
The content of the genealogy is interesting because it includes women, which was unusual in ancient genealogies. But what’s really interesting is the particular women it includes.
Be advised that this part of the sermon is rated PG-13; parents are strongly cautioned.
The first woman in the genealogy is Tamar, with whom Jacob’s son Judah fathered twins named Zerah and Perez. But there’s much more to it than that. Tamar married Judah’s son Er, who died without fathering any children. Under the terms of a practice known as levirate marriage, Er’s brother Onan married her so that they could have children who would be considered the deceased Er’s children and heirs. When Onan also died without fathering any children, Judah told Tamar to wait until his youngest child Shelah got older. When Tamar realized that Judah had no intention of letting Shelah marry her, she dressed and veiled herself as a prostitute and had sexual relations with her father-in-law Judah. He was not aware of her identity. When she became pregnant, Judah ordered that she be executed, but when she presented evidence that Judah was the father, the verdict was withdrawn and she bore the twins, one of whom (Perez) would be an ancestor of David.
Next is Rahab. Rahab worked as a prostitute in Jericho. When Joshua sent two spies into the city ahead of the Hebrews’ attack, they found shelter in Rahab’s establishment. Before helping them escape, she secured a promise from them that she and her family would be spared when Joshua’s army conquered the city. They are indeed spared, and she goes on to marry and give birth to a son named Boaz.
That brings us to Ruth. Ruth was Naomi’s daughter-in-law. She had married one of Naomi’s two sons when the family moved from Bethlehem to Moab during a famine. After Naomi’s husband and both of her sons died, she decided to go back to Bethlehem and Ruth went with her. Once they got settled, Ruth went out to glean in the fields, a practice that was part of ancient Israel’s social contract to help provide for the poor (the kind of contract any decent society must have). As providence would have it, she gleaned in the field of Boaz (Rahab’s son). Following her mother-in-law’s guidance, Ruth makes some moves to reach out to Boaz. He responds positively and after a bit of legal maneuvering they marry. She gives birth to a son named Obed, who becomes King David’s grandfather.
Last but not least is Bathsheba. She was married to a soldier named Uriah who was off fighting King David’s battles. While taking a leisurely stroll on the palace roof, David saw her bathing. He sent someone to find out who she was. When he was told that she was Uriah’s wife, he sent for her and had sexual intercourse with her. This may have been rape in the literal sense; it was certainly rape in the sense of a powerful man misusing his power to coerce a woman to submit to him. When Bathsheba became pregnant as a result of David’s act, he tried to cover it up and finally resorted to having Uriah killed. He married Bathsheba, but their child died. They later have another son whom they name Solomon; he will succeed David as king.
So those are the women in Jesus’ family tree that Matthew chooses to name. Why does he name them? They have a few things in common.
First, they all have interesting, and in some cases, scandalous sexual histories that lead to their bearing sons from whom Jesus is descended. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize what kind of talk was going on about Mary and about the fact that she became pregnant before she and Joseph consummated their marriage. Joseph at first thought that Mary had behaved improperly and he planned to divorce her quietly. It took the Lord’s direct intervention to help him understand what was happening. And even if Joseph and Mary tried to explain the situation, do you think anybody believed that story? Would you? So maybe Matthew included these particular women in the genealogy to say, “Look, Jesus is hardly the only one in David’s line to be born under unusual (and even scandalous) circumstances.” We should also remember that the grown man Jesus will spend a lot of his time with people whose reputations caused the good religious folks to keep their distance.
Second, all four women in Matthew’s genealogy may be Gentiles. The text doesn’t identify Tamar as such, but the context points us in that direction. Rahab is Canaanite. Bathsheba’s husband is Hittite, so she may be too. And Ruth is Moabite. So by their inclusion in the genealogy, Matthew may be saying that while Jesus came as King of the Jews, he also came as the Messiah of the Gentiles. After all, look at all the Gentile women in his family tree! In a similar vein, only Matthew tells us about the Persian or Arabian wise men that came to visit young Jesus and his family. And it is in Matthew’s Gospel that the resurrected Jesus tells his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations” (28:19).
We should notice a third thing about these women. All of them were used by men (even Ruth is treated like a piece of property that two men decide what to do with), and most of them were misused and abused. Still, given the social conventions and strictures of their time, all of them stood up for themselves and took steps to preserve their legacy. (A later story tells us that Bathsheba participated with the prophet Nathan in a plot to make sure that her son Solomon would succeed David.) One reason they are included in Jesus’ genealogy is that they took control of their own situation. We’re seeing women do a similar thing these days, and we hope they help lead us to a social context in which such using, misusing, and abusing no longer occur. Christians should be in the forefront of such a movement.
Hear the good news. Sometimes we religious folks look at people and think that because of who they are and what they’ve done, there’s no way God will use them in God’s purposes. And sometimes God says, “You think so? Watch this!”
No doubt Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary all got talked about in their day. People talked about their scandalous treatment, their scandalous behavior, or their scandalous circumstances. We’re still talking about them in our day. But when we talk about them, we talk about the ways that God worked through them to bring Jesus into the world to be the Savior of everybody—no matter who they are—who trusts in him.
We should be very careful about making statements about who God can’t or won’t work through. God works in mysterious, surprising, challenging, and above all, gracious ways.
Thanks be to God!