St Matthew 1: 1 — 17 – That’s the text; I’m sure you will have memorised it, and I don’t need to read it again! In fairness, we read only the first 6 verses and the last!
I hope you had some surprises on Christmas Day; our God is the God who surprises us, and the closer we walk with him the more surprises there are. God is not predictable; he is utterly reliable, but he’s not predictable. Predictable is boring, as our children or grandchildren may have told us, but surprises are exciting, bringing joy, giving life; just as our God is
exciting, joy-bringing and life-giving, full of surprises.
But to our text, because there are some surprises in it.
It is, as the first verse puts it, a table of the descent of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. It’s a family tree, like you used to see in family Bibles.
To us nowadays, this seems a strange way to start a story. It would put you off, it’s like reading a telephone directory. But not for Jews of Jesus time; to them this is riveting stuff; they would pore over it, we would skip it. They were much more interested in ancestry than we are to-day. There are books of the Bible devoted to names. If a Jew wanted to become a priest he had to be able to trace his family back to Aaron; if he married, his wife had to show that for five generations there were no gentiles in the family. As my mother would have asked about a potential son/daughter-in-law; ‘What is he/she for a Thomson, or whatever?’ This is a question often asked in a small community like Arran.
This would be one way of Matthew getting the attention of his fellow Jews, and they would read on. In fact of course they wouldn’t read on, they would listen on, because there would be very few written copies. So people memorised whole books, and recited them.
However, there are discrepancies, but what is important is that for the Jewish reader Jesus could trace his family tree back to David and to Abraham. If he could not do that he could not be the Messiah. This is the first claim that Matthew makes; Jesus meets the first requirement. He is the Christ.
It is worth pointing out that the people named here were not all rich and famous and virtuous and powerful; some were, but most we know nothing about.
But by far the most interesting feature of this genealogy is the fact that there were women in it. To Jews of Jesus’ day, this was unheard of. If you scour the lists in the Old Testament, you may find one or two. You may think this is a man’s world, but it was a hundred times worse in the Palestine of Jesus’ day.
Women had no legal rights, they were the property of their father or husband.
The regular form of morning prayer for a Pharisee was; ‘I thank thee Lord that I am not a gentile, and thou has not made me a slave or a woman.’ So Paul – after his conversion, and remember he had been a Pharisee, could write in Galatians; ‘In Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, slave or free, male or female.’
So there are women in Jesus’ family tree. And not
only are there women, which is surprising enough, but a Jew would immediately recognise who they were, and would be shocked, scandalised even.
There’s Rahab [v5] who was the harlot of Jericho, who sheltered the two men Joshua had sent in to spy out the promised land before they attacked it.
There’s Ruth, who was a righteous woman, but she wasn’t a Jew. She was Moabite, and the law stated in Deuteronomy; ‘An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter the congregation of the Lord – not even after ten generations.’ Her race was despised and outlawed.
Then there’s Tamar. And I couldn’t tell you her story without blushing, but you can find it in Genesis38; that’s one way to get folk to open their Bible!
And lastly there’s Bathsheba whom David saw bathing, sent for her, and seduced her; then David went further by ensuring her husband Uriah was killed in battle; bringing shame on himself, and on his lineage.
As Professor William Barclay wrote, ‘If Matthew had ransacked the Old Testament for improbable candidates he could not have found four more unlikely ancestors for Jesus Christ.’
This is precisely the good news of the gospel. You don’t have to be a Jew to be included, you don’t have to
be male to be counted, and you don’t even have to be good, for Christ came for sinners. Martin Luther said, ‘Christ is only found among sinners.’ All we have to do is trust him, believe in him, walk in his way, do the Father’s will – and we are part of the family of God. God’s love is redeeming, God’s love is for everyone, God’s love is for you and me.
And the lesson we learn from Matthew’s opening verses is continued in the gospel, because Jesus’ attitude to women was way ahead of his time. Jesus broke through the social conventions, just as he broke through the religious conventions, opening up a new way of relating to God, and to one another, of man to woman, woman to man, rich to poor, Jew to gentile, friend to stranger. In Christ we become a new creation.
It is to do with mutual respect, honouring, forgiveness; helping one another, complementing one another, building one another up, encouraging and loving one another. Co-operating with God, and co-operating with one another. Neither ever dominating, or taking advantage of the other.
It has been said that you could tell a lot about a man by the way he treats women, and I suppose you could also say you can tell a lot about a woman by the way she treats men.
In Jesus’ time, respectable Jewish men were not permitted to speak to women in public; but Jesus chatted easily with women frequently; as we see in the story of the woman at the well: ‘At that moment Jesus disciples returned, and they were greatly surprised to find him talking with a woman. But not one of them said to her ‘What do you want?’ or asked him ‘Why are you talking with her?’’
A woman was forbidden to touch a man, except her husband. Jesus allowed himself to be touched by women and he himself touched women. On one occasion a known prostitute gatecrashed an all male dinner, knelt at Jesus’ outstretched feet, and began to kiss them, washing his feet with her tears, tears of remorse, tears of relief, tears of joy; and wiping his bare feet with her hair. The other guests, and the host, were shocked – not just at the woman’s action, but at Jesus’ reaction, or indeed, non-reaction. Despite their disapproval Jesus accepted what she had done, understood her intentions, and sided with her against the men, even though, by the law, she had now technically defiled him, making him unclean, and scandalising the guests. Jesus does not shoo her away, does not make fun of her, and does not take advantage of her.
And then there’s Mary and Martha. Mary sits at his feet, which was the prerogative of a male disciple, but not a female disciple. Martha disapproves, so accustomed is she to the traditional female role of being in the kitchen.
Jesus permitted women to accompany him, we read in Luke ch 8, and though they are not described as disciples, they provided the funds for his ministry; and these are women across the social spectrum, from Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons, to Joanna, aristocratic courtier, the wife of Herod’s chamberlain. And others. Jesus allowed himself to be dependent in a practical way on women’s generosity. There was the woman with the haemorrhage, Jairus’ daughter, Peter’s mother-in law, and there is that extraordinary encounter with the Syro-Phonecian woman who appealed to Jesus for her daughter to be healed. And at first Jesus refuses, on the grounds that he had come only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. But she presses her case, and Jesus concedes, and heals her daughter.
This has huge implications; can it possibly be that this unknown foreign woman persuaded Jesus that the gospel was not just for Jews, but for Gentiles, like you and me?
On one occasion Jesus called a woman, bent double with a spinal disorder for eighteen years, out into the middle of the synagogue, laid his hands on her, and healed her from her illness. In the synagogue men and women are strictly segregated, so by doing what he did, Jesus was bound to antagonise the men.
In the ensuing controversy — remember it was also the Sabbath — Jesus refers to her as a `daughter of Abraham’; actually an expression found nowhere else in Jewish writing. Remember the genealogy? To call her ‘a daughter of Abraham’ was to give her full status alongside men in the scheme of things, equal with the men, the sons of Abraham, all his descendants.
By healing her on the Sabbath he restored the Sabbath to its original celebration of release from bondage; but he upset the traditionalists.
By touching her, he dismissed all the male scruples about women enticing men to sin. By speaking to her in public Jesus dismissed the man-made restrictions on women’s freedom, treating them like second-class citizens. He treated her as an equal, as a sister.
By placing her out in front, right in the middle of the men-only part of the synagogue, he challenged the male monopoly on power, or on the atoning power of
the cross, or on the means of grace. Men are no longer centre-stage all the time; women are too, in the eyes of God, together we are all daughters and sons of Abraham, and of the Most High God. This tiny drama in the synagogue where Jesus was teaching begins to take on far, far wider proportions. A seismic shift is taking place in the order of things. A new order is inaugurated; the kingdom of God is coming, where women will be equal with men.
Jesus not only frees her from her illness, but frees her from a male-dominated society, a religious elitism, that bent women double, broke their backs, bowed them down. For her to stand up straight in front of these insecure and threatened men is not only a miracle of the healing power of God over illness and disease, but also over society’s malaise and sickness. This is the kingdom. Where all can kneel before our Maker, everyone can stand tall in the presence of Christ, and the Holy Spirit is poured out on your sons and daughters alike.
At a time when women in a court of law were regarded as unreliable witnesses, where it required the evidence of four women to match the evidence of one man, who did God choose to be the first witnesses of the resurrection of the Saviour of the world, but
women. And the disciples, when they heard the women’s report, thought it was nonsense. But it was true. The women were right.
First at the cradle, last at the cross, first at the tomb, and first to meet the risen Christ.
Planned from the beginning of time, our God surprises us once again. The coming of Christ means the coming of the Kingdom, and it’s on its way. We can all join in. Our Lord has ushered in a new world order, a new Godly order, where the power and the glory belong to God and God alone in this kingdom of love, where there is a place for everyone, every man, woman and child; and the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together.