When I was 8 or 9 yrs old, our little mission church launched a Read Through the Bible in One Year effort. I was in, especially since the kids got a dispensation to read only the New Testament. I was the son of the minister so…how hard could it be? I couldn’t wait to start so, sometime during the service, I cracked open my New Testament and started with Matthew Chapter One.
My enthusiasm ran into a brick wall. All those begats… Is this any way to start a story? This is the Greatest Story Ever Told! I knew that because we had a tract in a rack by the front entry of our tiny church building that said so. Why would you start a story this way? (Besides, we did a lot of scripture reading aloud in worship and I was terrified that I would be handed that chapter. Why would a loving God allow that to happen?)
Later, I learned the standard answers: 1) Jews have their own ways of telling stories. What seems annoying to us was just setting the scene for them. 2) Matthew’s gospel is all about Jesus being the Promised Messiah and King so Matthew had to establish his kingly line early in the story. I have no reason to doubt either of those answers but, over the years, I think there is more to it than that.
Matthew 1 is history, but it is much, much more than history. It breaks my heart when I hear people say that they don’t like history. Often, it is traceable to a boring history teacher who forced names and dates on them without revealing the drama and context of the times. But history is us! When you go through the list of names in Matthew 1, it is imperative that you remember that each of these were individuals, real people with hopes, dreams, fears, successes and failures.
They were people. Jesus entered a people story.
Allow me to stupefy and disappoint many of you: I don’t care for super hero stories or movies. I enjoyed the first Iron Man and loved the spiritual, theological issues in Wonder Woman but, other than that, they leave me cold. I think it is because I have a hard time embracing the characters or their physics-free lifestyle. That is why, when I enter Matthew 1, I am blown away by the fact that Jesus entered a human story – a badly broken human story.
We see Tamar here. Abraham was no superhero and, if he lived today, he’d be named in the #metoo movement and for good reason. David? Can we say “murder, treachery, adultery” for starters? There’s Ruth, the Moabite, when Moabites weren’t allowed anywhere near the worship of God (Deuteronomy 23:3). We can talk about Rahab and Manasseh if you’d like, but I’d rather not. These aren’t the kind of ancestors about which one might brag on Facebook.
When I was a boy, it amazed me how many Americans claimed to have a “Cherokee princess” in their bloodline. Especially since they didn’t have princesses. The claimants were merely trying to borrow glory and a sense of “specialness” from having high placed, Native American royalty as a grandmother. There is none of that in Matthew 1. Sure, it is a royal line and there is royal blood there but there is also an inordinate amount of commoner, stranger, foreigner, and “questionable individual” blood there, as well.
That’s the story Jesus entered.
He entered through the body of a very young girl who was engaged to a man named Joseph. Joseph, this real person, was torn about how to respond to this situation into which he was cast. As a “tsadiq”, a righteous man, he wanted to do the right thing but…how? And what would that be, exactly? God makes sure that Joseph knows that Mary is telling him the truth, so he stays with her and they become a family.
It gets even messier. Mary’s own sons didn’t believe her story until Jesus was resurrected. They grew up thinking their mother was a liar and a loose woman (at least, loose once). If they believed that about their mother, what did those around them in their village think of her? Jesus would be taunted with “where is your father?” and “we know who our father is” in public places (John 8 for one example).
Is this the kind of story you expected? I didn’t, and all those begats almost kept me from seeing it in the rush to get to the “good parts.” But it gets even more interesting…
Joseph is told to “give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Preachers told me that Jesus was named Jesus because that name means “the Lord saves.” Actually, the name Joseph means that, and “Jesus” is a variant but let’s not get picky. Instead, let’s look at a cultural and historical fact: Joseph, Jesus and Joshua were the most common names in that area. Jesus’ name would not have stuck out and people wouldn’t have heard his name and thought “well, a savior is among us.” Almighty God entered a messy, broken, human story and took on a name that was the most common available. God asked us to call His Son Joe, or John, or Tim…you get the point.
And then comes Matthew to add this: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel.’” In parentheses (which did not exist when Matthew wrote his gospel) we see a note explaining that Immanuel means “God with us.” I can remember that verse bothering me because Joseph didn’t name his son Immanuel but Jesus. What’s up with that? And, before I try to answer that, let’s mention a controversy that blew up pulpits in the last century…
The translators of the Revised Standard Version didn’t use the word “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14, the passage Matthew quotes here. They put “young woman” there instead. I am old enough to remember preachers getting red faced and yelling about “so called versions” that ripped the miraculous out the story. The fact is, the word means “young woman” and it means “virgin,” because, in that world,they were presumed to be one and the same if the young woman was not married. Purity was assumed and strictly enforced by a wide-ranging set of laws and cultural norms.
So, I want to do something that might make some of you uncomfortable; I want to say this means “young woman” and that is more weighty and exciting than we were led to believe. Here we go:
God entered a very human story full of broken human beings, people with good intentions, some people with evil intentions, women of questionable provenance with histories that make us blink, and some men that, in my opinion, should have been lopped off the family tree a long time ago. God didn’t lop them off and for good reason.
He then gave His Son the most common name around. He wasn’t “Mega Holy, the Soul Saver.” He was Bob. And he was named that way because he was going to save the Bobs, Tims, and Joes of the world. He wasn’t here to cut swathes of blood and vengeance through the world; he was here to save us so he, first, became one of us.
And that is why the sign of a young woman giving birth to him is so dear to me. I can remember being at a Christian college lectureship when I was a young teen. My dad brought me along on the long trip and I was surrounded by “big names in the church” the entire time. I listened as the speakers used amazing scholarship or passion in their presentations and I was impressed. This was a whole new world for me. And I remember a long keynote lecture about Isaiah 7:14 where the speaker said “what kind of sign is a young woman having a baby? That makes no sense!” He went on to use humor and sarcasm to attack the RSV and I laughed along with everyone else. I’m not laughing now because I think that we may have missed the whole point…
God is with us. He isn’t with just the super holy. He isn’t just with those who have many generations in “the church” and who are known for being “sound.” He is with all of us. He is with the woman whose past shames her (even if she had little or no control over what happened to her). He is with David whose good name is forever sullied by his treatment of those around him and his shameful use of power to get what he wanted. He is with Tamar when no one else was. He is even with Manasseh. Let that one sink in for a bit.
He is with us. He entered our story as one of us. He continued to live and walk and teach as one of us. And in the next world, we will be called his brothers and sisters because that is what we are.