If you’ve been here during the last four weeks, you know that we’ve been going through Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of his gospel, looking at the stories of the women he mentions. Though modern Americans usually consider it dull and boring, there are a couple very interesting things about this genealogy. One of course is the inclusion of women, which was a significant departure from normal practice—and particularly of these women, each of whom is scandalous in some way. There’s another way, though, in which Matthew’s genealogy is different from most, and in a rather subversive way. You see, part of the idea of a genealogy was that if you had important ancestors, that made you particularly significant, but he flips that: Abraham and David, who along with Moses were the greatest people in the history of Israel, are primarily of importance because God used them to bring about his plan to send Jesus. They are important because of Jesus, not the other way around.
This makes the inclusion of these women particularly interesting, because it means that we are to understand their stories, too, in light of Jesus’ life and work. In the story of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, violated by King David, we see that God doesn’t only use good acts and positive situations to bring about his purposes. Their marriage was begun in blackest sin, yet it was through them that Solomon, whom God had chosen to succeed David and carry on his royal line, was born. From Ruth’s story, I think it’s especially important to note her faithfulness. She went way above and beyond the call of duty to be faithful to Naomi—for what reason, we don’t know, but whatever her reason, it was through her extraordinary faithfulness, so very like his own, that God used her to carry out his plan for the blessing of Israel and the world.
With the story of Rahab, the thing which stands out is her faith. In a time of war, she converted from the faith of her people to the faith of their attackers, trading the gods and goddesses with which she had grown up for the God of Israel. That’s a hard thing to do and a very risky thing to do; it’s an amazing act of faith and trust. Similarly, Tamar’s battle of wits with Judah, her uncooperative father-in-law, highlights her faith, and also her courage. We see her faith in her desire to keep her place in Judah’s family, worshiping their very different God, rather than going back to her own family and the gods of her ancestors, even when it meant putting herself at the mercy of a man who had already shown himself unencumbered by morality or ethics; we see her courage in the fact that she followed through and took that risk, and had the nerve to pull off her plan.
In naming these four women, Matthew links them to Jesus; he also parallels them to Mary, Jesus’ mother, who was a scandalous figure in her own right. In some places, being unmarried and pregnant wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but her home region of Galilee was pretty conservative—there, even engaged couples were never allowed to be alone together. Put yourself in the shoes of Mary’s parents: your teenage daughter, who’s engaged to a good man, turns up pregnant (disgracing your house, incidentally), and when you ask her who got her pregnant, she says, “God did!” Do you believe her?
No, you probably don’t—and judging from the fact that the gospels never mention them, neither did they. In fact, nobody did, unless angels had given them reason to do so. Elizabeth believed her, being herself miraculously pregnant, but Joseph didn’t, until he had his own angelic visitation; in those days, being engaged meant all the responsibilities of marriage and none of the rights, so it took a full-blown legal divorce to break an engagement, and he was planning on doing just that, until God told him otherwise. It’s pretty clear that as far as the world was concerned, here was a teenage girl who had fooled around, gotten pregnant, and had now concocted an utterly ridiculous story to try to excuse herself; and this meant she had brought great shame on herself, Joseph, and both their families, which was no small matter.
This is probably why Mary went to visit Elizabeth, as we read in Luke 1, and stayed for three months, leaving only when Elizabeth was due to give birth: it got her away from her parents and their disapproval. When she did go back to them, she didn’t stay very long, since we know from Matthew that after Joseph had his dream, he took Mary into his home; it isn’t certain, but it sure looks like her parents kicked her out of the house for getting pregnant, shaming the family, and then lying about it (and perhaps committing blasphemy in the process). The only person Mary had who was both willing and able to care for her was Joseph.
That, I think, is why she went with him to Bethlehem. She didn’t need to, legally; she was neither a taxpayer nor eligible to serve in the Roman army, and thus wasn’t subject to the census. As far along as she was in her pregnancy, traveling to Bethlehem, whether by foot or on a donkey, really wasn’t medically indicated—better, if she had the option, to stay home. What’s more, if she and Joseph weren’t formally married at this point—Matthew would seem to indicate that they were, while Luke suggests they weren’t, but both texts can be taken either way—then traveling with him would be just one more breach of propriety. But she had no place else to go; her parents had rejected her, Elizabeth had a baby, and she had no other option.
If she hoped things would be better in Bethlehem, though, she was mistaken. I know we’re all used to hearing that there was no room for them in the inn, but that’s not really what’s going on here. For one thing, inns were uncommon in those days outside the big cities; Bethlehem was small, and close to Jerusalem, and it’s highly unlikely it had one. For another, the word here isn’t the one Luke uses elsewhere for a hotel; rather, it’s the one he uses for the upper room, the spare room, in which Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper. This fits with the rest of the picture, because in that day and age, people didn’t travel much, and when they did, they usually stayed with friends and relatives. Given that Joseph was going back to the home of his ancestors, where he would have relatives—distant cousins, perhaps, but kin is kin—no doubt he would have expected to be able to stay in a guest room in the home of a member of his family.
It was a reasonable expectation. To be sure, Joseph and Mary were far from the only members of their family headed into Bethlehem for the census, but there would be room enough to manage; and certainly, who would have a better claim on a bed than a woman in the last stages of pregnancy? And yet, it didn’t turn out that way; the very relatives on whom Joseph was counting didn’t let it. As Verlyn Verbrugge, a Reformed Church pastor in western Michigan, puts it, “Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock . . . would inevitably have brought shame to the family name—and Joseph’s willingness to believe her story and to support Mary brought the same shame on him. One can almost imagine the gathering of relatives in the [guest room] of that Bethlehem house, talking about the latest family gossip, especially the pregnancy of that young girl Mary. They certainly could not allow someone who has brought such shame to their family to enter into their midst; that would imply some endorsement of her situation.”
In other words, there was no room for Joseph and Mary in that guest room because their family refused to make room; it isn’t that there wasn’t room on the floor, there just wasn’t room in their hearts. Joseph and Mary had dishonored the family; let them be treated with dishonor, let them sleep with the animals, in the lowest part of the house. No respectable bed for such a disreputable woman, and certainly not for her illegitimate child, the fruit of her shame. And so the mother of God was given a place with the donkeys and the cow, and the Lord of the Universe was laid in a feed trough; the Messiah came home to his own people, and his own family rejected him, because he didn’t come on their terms.
That’s where Isaiah 53 comes in. At Christmas, we tend to focus on Jesus’ welcome, not on his rejection, but it’s important to realize that even at his birth, Jesus found rejection. His own family, outside his parents, rejected him, because he made them look bad. None of the respectable people showed up to hold the baby, only grubby shepherds fresh from the fields. And as for the local political types, when Herod, the governor in Jerusalem, heard the news, he immediately started plotting to have Jesus killed. Never too early to eliminate a potential rival, after all, even if he’s still in diapers.
This is what God let himself in for—and he did it on purpose. The God of all stars was born in scandal, an offense to most of his family, to a couple of no worldly significance whatsoever from a backwater town in a backwater country under occupation on the fringe of a great empire, in completely obscure circumstances as far as anyone who actually mattered was concerned. It’s hard enough to believe that the God of the universe would actually become human, confining himself in one of our bodies and one of our lives, but if he was going to do it, surely it wouldn’t be that way; and yet, that’s exactly how it happened. And did it get better from there? No; from the time he began his formal ministry, Jesus spent his years walking up and down Israel with no permanent residence, turning away from every chance at conventional success.
Instead of cultivating relationships with the rich and the powerful, Jesus chose to spend his time and focus his attention on the poor and the marginalized; instead of aligning himself with the important people of his time, he antagonized them at every turn, pointing out their hypocrisy and sin, and ultimately getting himself killed for his trouble. He didn’t come to experience only the good stuff—he came to know the hardest struggles, the greatest temptations, the darkest fears, and the worst agonies our world knows, and to take them on his back; he came to suffer them, and for them, for us, to take the cup of sin in which they’re brewed and drink it to the very dregs.
Jesus was born in scandal and he died in scandal, and he spent an awful lot of the years in between scandalizing somebody or other, because God’s saving mission couldn’t be accomplished with the world’s approval—but he didn’t care about the world’s approval. He cared about the world, to the point that he of infinite value and utter perfection allowed himself to be murdered and to bear the guilt of all our sin and shame, so that we might be redeemed from death and find new life in him. From a human point of view, this is crazy. From God’s, this is the ultimate wisdom; and it’s this wisdom, not ours, which brought the redemption of the world.