I was pottering around a local op shop last week; and while I was there, I overheard some pretty strong affirmations of Christian family values. It was clear to those chatting that, if we all lived like Christians, things would be a whole lot better than they are now. Families would stay together; kids would be properly disciplined; and no one would be on the dole. I’m not entirely sure what they meant by ‘Christian’, but I do know that, at this time of year, the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, and Jesus—is often held up as a model for the Western nuclear family.
In the story we just heard, Mary, at least, is said to be a virgin; Mary and Joseph don’t have sex before marriage; and their firstborn is a son: how perfect! But I’m not convinced that the people who use the Holy Family as the model for the Christian family are reading the Gospel of Matthew, or at least not the full first chapter. And so I want to take a step back. The story we just heard follows on from the genealogy of Jesus; that is, his family tree. We don’t read the genealogy out in church, because it sounds long and boring, and some names are difficult to pronounce. But it’s fascinating! And one of the things that makes it fascinating is the interruptions. What you have is a long list of fathers: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah … and so on—kind of like a skipping rhyme.
But every now and then, the rhythm is interrupted; every now and then, you get a mother: first Tamar, then Rahab, then Ruth, then Bathsheba. Who are these women? Well, Tamar was a foreigner. She dressed as a sex worker and slept with her father-in-law in order to publicly shame him into giving her her rights as a widow. Rahab was also a foreigner, and a sex worker. Ruth was a foreigner, who seduced a Jewish man and got him to marry her. And Bathsheba? Well, she is not actually named in the genealogy: instead, Matthew writes “the wife of Uriah the Hittite”. He does this to remind us of a few things. First, Bathsheba was the wife of a Hittite: a foreigner. Second, King David ordered Bathsheba into his bed while her husband was still alive. Third, she became pregnant to the king, and so, fourth, David ordered the murder of her husband to cover up his own wicked ways.
These, then, are the mothers of Jesus: foreigners, not Jews; women whose sexual histories were chequered, not what we think of as good wives. And this mattered a whole lot more back then: this is red-hot stuff. (For that matter, the men in the list are also a mixed bunch: Jacob was a scoundrel and a trickster; King David was an adulterer and a murderer; and some of the others were known for child sacrifice, witchcraft, and sorcery. Read 2 Chronicles 28-33 for some gory details.)
Then we come to Mary. And she, too, was found to be pregnant before she slept with the man she was going to marry. Even these days, this can raise a few eyebrows; back then, it could lead to her being stoned to death. Because she was pregnant to somebody else, Joseph knew that, according to law and custom, he shouldn’t marry her—and we can only imagine his feelings of hurt, betrayal and humiliation. However, being a kind man, he decided not to expose Mary to public disgrace and the risk of execution; instead, he planned to divorce her quietly. But then an angel came and told him that the baby was a gift of the Holy Spirit, and that he should marry her. And he did. And when he named Jesus, he claimed the baby as his own child.
So Jesus is born into a long line of outrageous scandals, where the wrong sort of woman has a baby with the wrong man, and the baby is called their own. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, even Mary: religious outsiders, sex workers, women pregnant outside of marriage: I hardly think this is what my friends in the local op shop had in mind last week when they were trumpeting ‘Christian family values’!
Yet these scandals aren’t hidden away; Matthew’s Gospel begins with them. So how are these stories good news? Well, if you think faith is about enforcing a set of rigid social codes, Matthew’s gospel probably isn’t good news. But if you’ve ever been told by the religious police that you are on the outer with God—if you were conceived out of marriage, if you’ve been divorced, if you’re gay or trans or otherwise queer, if you’ve used porn or maybe had an affair, if you once rejected God or engaged in practices criticised by the religious—then this story is bursting with good news. Because Matthew’s Gospel tells you that God works through everyone, and not just the pure. Not just men, but also women; not just the morally upright, but also people with chequered histories; not just the rich, but also the poor; not just the cultural and religious insiders, but also the outsiders. Everyone is invited into God’s story; there is nothing we can do that makes us ineligible to participate in God’s salvation history.
That’s great news: but I think you know it. Pretty much everyone here gets that Jesus was born into poverty and scandal; pretty much everyone here rolls their eyes at the phrase ‘Christian family values’; pretty much everyone here understands that God is using religious outsiders and always has and always will. I’m preaching to the choir—and yet, this is a choir of white, middle-class Christians who are, for the most part, married with children. None of us are single parents; none of us identify as LGBTI; none of us marrieds have been unable to have children; and I gather that only one of us has been divorced.* We assert that Christ is born in surprising places but, when we gather, we look like a congregation of perfectly unsurprising white middle class families. I know that there are cracks, I know that there are shadows—but that’s not what it looks like to anyone who just walks in the door.
It’s ironic, then, that our faith that Jesus was born into poverty and scandal, and came to serve outsiders, draws many of us to what is a pretty same-same congregation. And so I wonder how, as a congregation, can we live this faith more fully? Is it possible that our inclusive theology makes us, paradoxically, exclusive? Or can we offer Sanctuary to the many in this city who have also felt marginalised, even excluded, by the religious, because of their personal histories, their sexual or gender identities, their work, their politics, or their doubts and questions about God? How can we bring love to birth in this region? How can we share this beautiful baby around?
As we approach Christmas, I suggest that we ponder these and similar questions in our hearts. Let us reflect on how Sanctuary might be a gift to the wider community, and how we might further participate in God’s reconciling action in the world. And as we do, “may God grant us courage to wait, the strength to push, and the discernment to know the right time; that we might give birth to God’s joyful presence through Jesus Christ our Lord”: God-with-us, Immanuel. Amen. Ω
*Update, December 2022: How much has changed since this was written! Six years later, and our congregation has shifted enormously. We are no longer a bunch of straight marrieds with children. Now many of us are single parents and/or queer and/or divorced and/or have children conceived out of wedlock – a much more diverse group! As they say, preach it and they will come.
A reflection on Matthew 1:1-25 for Sanctuary, 18 December 2016. Prayer by Janet Morley All Desires Known (3rd ed). Harrisburg, PA/New York, NY: Morehouse Publishing, 2006: 15. Image shows a particularly gorgeous Holy Family, from The Nativity by Julie Vivas.