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From The Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

  The Foremothers of Christmas

The Gospel of Matthew begins, and begins its account of Jesus' birth, with a genealogy (1:1-16). The purpose of this genealogy is to substantiate the assertion that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of David, but also to link Jesus to Abraham (v. 1). The link to David would suffice to show Jesus' messianic credentials; but as we will see, the link to Abraham serves a further purpose of the genealogy to present Jesus as a Messiah who overcomes the barriers that exclude people from God's community.

A striking characteristic of Matthew's genealogy is its inclusion of four women (in addition to Mary). Women are not usually included in biblical genealogies. The four women are not the one's that some would want to mention in demonstrating Jesus' credentials to be the Messiah.

The first woman is Tamar. Tamar is included, yet the celebrated and beloved Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel are not. Matthew in mentioning Tamar (and later Ruth) may have been influenced by Ruth 4: 11-12, 17-18, yet that passage does include Rachel and Leah. Tamar's inclusion, however, is more striking than the omission of the others. When Tamar had intercourse with Judah and become pregnant with Perez, she was not Judah's wife. He thought that she was a prostitute. She was the widowed and childless wife of Judah's son Er. Judah had failed in his levirate responsibilities of providing another of his son's to be her husband (Gen. 38:7-11, 26; cf. Deut 25:5-10). Judah acknowledges the justice of her desperate actions to avoid disappearing into her father's home (Gen. 38:26).

The second woman mentioned is Rahab (Matt. 1:5). Rahab was a Canaanite and a prostitute (Josh. 2:1). She protected the Israelite spies as a result of her faith in God's deliverance of the people (Josh. 2.8-11; 6.25).

The third woman is Ruth (Matt. 1:5). Ruth also was a Gentile, a Moabite. She also attached herself to the Israelites by her faith (Ruth 1:16). By her initiative she provided for both herself and her mother-in-law Naomi, both widows, through her levirate marriage to Boaz.

The fourth woman, Bathsheba, may not belong in this series since she is not mentioned by name: "And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah" (Matt. 1:6). She and David had committed adultery; and her husband was a Gentile, a Hittite (2 Sam. 11.3). Professor John Heil suggests that this reference is part of another theme in the genealogy, the sinfulness of the Davidic line, from which the superior son of David delivers the people (Matt. 1:21) (in Biblica [1991], 538-45).

These three, and possibly four, foremothers of Jesus are cited by Matthew to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham (from whom the genealogy begins) that the covenant with him would be extended in its blessings to all peoples, as Professor Heil also notes. The Magi who feature in Matthew's birth account are further examples of this mission that will be Jesus'. The inclusion of the Gentiles is a theme of Matthew, which ends with the Great Commission (28.19-20).

Jesus broke through human status barriers in other ways in this Gospel. The questionable character and conduct of some of the foremothers anticipate Jesus' acceptance of prostitutes, tax collectors, and others scorned for their public behavior. Those who receive the joy of Christmas will know that this is a joy that should arise from new human alignments based on justice and equality.


From The Word

 by Stephen Charles Mott

The Foreigners at the Manger

Two of the groups deeply involved in the nativity account were marked by low status in their society. We find women who were closely related to the peasant culture and shepherds, who were not welcome in royal courts. The Magi, prominent in Matthew's account, were hardly poor or humble. There is no persuasive reason to doubt that the narrator would not share the traditional view that they were people of some wealth. They had the means to travel from a distance and to present gifts of value. Although they were probably of upper class origins, they like the women and shepherds were humble in status. The Magi were foreigners. They introduce a theme continued by the tax collectors (cf. Matt. 9:11). People who had means yet who lacked social standing were sought out by Jesus.

The Magi were from the East (Matt. 2:1), which could be Arabia or Mesopotamia or other parts of the Orient. The form of their question indicates that were not Jews. "Where is the one who is born king of the Jews?" The Magi represent the Gentiles.

The Magi portray the typical position of Gentile people. Professor Raymond Brown demonstrated that the Magi represent the Gentiles, who for the Jews and for Matthew did not have the direct, explicit revelation which the Jews received in the Scriptures. The Gentiles received their revelations indirectly through nature. "God's invisible attributes have perceived since the creation of the world as they have been understood through the things that have been made" (Rom. 1:20). The Magi's understanding came through their observation of the stars.

The revelation that Magi had received from nature was incomplete, however. They knew of the birth but not where they could find the King. The final understanding about the King of the Jews had to be discerned from the special revelation of God to Israel, in the Scriptures, in "what was written by the prophet" (Matt. 2:4).

Matthew's portrayal of the situation of the Gentiles through Magi does not end with their humility as inquirers before the Scriptures of Israel. The Magi learn what they need from the Scriptures and go and worship the new saviour king. Those who possess the Scriptures, the ruler and the Jerusalem aristocratic hierarchy, "the chief priests and scribes of the people" (v. 4), however, are not willing to worship the infant king. Professor Brown suggests that the plural, "those who sought the life of the child are dead" indicates that not just Herod but the others of the aristocracy joined in the plot against the newborn king.

The Magi's presence at the manger, and the religious hierarchy's absence, anticipates the theme that the last will be first. The good news of Christ is for all people. The leaders, who were confident that they possessed the things of God but did not return to God the fruits of justice (cf. also Matt. 3:8; Luke 3:8, 10; Isa. 5:7) found that it was the humble of the land and responsive foreigners who were the recipients of God's new society. "The Reign of God will be taken from you and given to those who produce its fruits . . . . And when the chief priests and the Pharisees heard his parable, they knew that it was about them; and they sought to kill him" (Matt. 21:43, 45; cf. 20:18).

At the manger, however, the Magi foreigners as they humbly worship are for Matthew the forerunners of the reception of Christ's salvation by anyone who has eyes to see.


From The Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

Two Towns of Christmas

"After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judah in the days of Herod the king, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem" (Matt. 2:1). The tension of the text is not only the signs that a new king had been born, but that the birth was in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem. As Professor Philippe de Robert demonstrates (in Ce Dieu qui vient [1995]), a longstanding polarity existed between these two symbolic towns.

On one side is Bethlehem, the little village from which one originates, the land where one has roots. In contrast is Jerusalem, the great city which attracts, the prestigious metropolitan center toward which all look. Already in Judges 19, the Levite from Ephraim, who experiences perfect conviviality with his father-in-law in Bethlehem, bypasses the Jebusite city of Jerusalem, "a city of strangers in which there are no people of Israel" (v.12). Bethlehem represents a tradition of Israelite hospitality in contrast with the Jebusite city which inspires fear and mistrust.

Professor de Robert shows how the tradition expanded with David. David was a child of Bethlehem to which he returned for an annual family feast (1 Sam. 20:6). He retained a nostalgia for the water of its wells (2 Sam. 23:15). There his great grandfather Boas opened his fields and his home to a young Moabite widow. Bethlehem is the homeland of origins, the guardian of tradition. It is the deeply grounded representative of Israel. Jerusalem is the cosmopolitan metropolis, the seat of the new power.

Micah shows the tension at a deeper ethical level, Professor de Robert demonstrates. Micah, the prophet from a village, vigorously denounces the culpability of the ruling classes of the city. With their social injustice, its rulers, priests, and prophets have built Jerusalem with blood (3:10-11). Even Jerusalem of the future, with its peasants' ideal of each sitting under one's own vine and fig tree (4:4), is an implied criticism of the present land depriving city.

The Messiah will not come from the the dynasty installed in Jerusalem. The new promised king will come in a return to the origins of the dynasty where David was chosen over against the power of place and privilege of his elders. The still hidden Messiah will arise from the obscure, humble village of Bethlehem (Micah 5.2, quoted in Matt. 2:6). To pass from the proud, actual Jerusalem, tainted with injustice and war, to the new Jerusalem requires an indispensable detour through the humble cradle of the royal family.

This polarity of Bethlehem and Jerusalem explains the threat to the mighty in the wise men's coming to Bethlehem. "Those" (plural, not only Herod) seeking the child's life (Matt. 2:20) were the rulers, priests, and scribes (v. 4), corresponding to the rulers, priests, and prophets who received the sentencing from Micah. The new king comes from a base at odds with Jerusalem; it is centered in the people. Jesus' coming to restore the people began in a place symbolizing the people's tradition and roots. His opposition was located in a place associated with injustice.

Indeed Jesus' life revealed the polarity at its extreme. He came into the world at Bethlehem. He condemned, like Micah, the failure of Jerusalem's leaders to provide the fruits of justice. That city did not receive his message, and there the leaders brought him to his death.

The Book of Revelation, however, revives the vision of the new Jerusalem of Micah 4 and Isaiah 2. It is based in the resurrection of the Messiah, the lamb that was slain. As Professor de Robert argues, for the New Testament too, the path from the actual Jerusalem of injustice to the new Jerusalem of peace, justice, and the presence of God must detour through Bethlehem.


From The Word

by Stephen Charles Mott

  The Lowliness of Mary

In her Magnificat song, Mary, referring to herself, speaks of "the lowliness of God's servant" (Luke 1:48). The Greek word rendered "lowliness" (NRSV, "humble state," NIV) is the common word for humility. We speak of "Mary meek and mild" and think of personality features--sweet, humble Mary. Such humble trust, however, is only part of the concept. In the background in the Hebrew Bible and in the context in the Magnificat, it also speaks of the social position of oppression.

In Luke 1 and 2, Luke presents the expectations which were fulfilled by Jesus. The humble people in these chapters lived what Luke regarded as the genuine piety of the Hebrew Scriptures. From them came the mother of Jesus, the shepherds who greeted him, and John the Baptist, the prophet who presented Jesus. For Luke, they show that Jesus was in continuity with the scriptures and hopes of Israel. These people manifested the valid expectations that Jesus fulfilled in his ministry and death. The characteristics that Luke presents for them provide a significant indication of how Jesus is to be interpreted and accordingly how Jesus is still to be received today.

The Magnificat is packed with allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures. The term lowliness itself, as Professor H. Wansbrough demonstrated in his treatment of the lowliness of Mary (Way, 1980), is based on two of the basic Hebrew words for the lowly and the poor.

Professor Wansbrough pays particular attention to the Psalms. They are helpful for understanding the people of the land of Luke 1 and 2. The Psalms provided the expression and the nourishment of their faith. These terms for the lowly include both attitude and social position. They contain the current of confidence in Yahweh's eventual will to their salvation. In their fifty-two occurences in the Psalms, these words, Wansbrough argues, point uniquely to those whose social position is also passive--those who are oppressed, wounded, deserted, devoid of help, orphaned, and in a state of need. Wansbrough states, "There is a very real basis of actual oppression in the sense of the word itself; one which cannot be reduced to a mere spiritual disposition" (pp. 179-180). The lowliness of Mary, the servant of God, was one of social plight as well as spiritual trust.

The Magnificat also makes that clear. In proclaiming what God was accomplishing for her through the child which she is carrying, Mary expands on "the great things the Mighty One has done for me." She speaks not only of those who have attitude of trust and fear of God. She also describes their social position as "lowly" (same term) in contrast to the powerful on thrones and as the hungry in contrast to the rich. Professor Richard Horsley writes that Mary in her "low estate" "is thus a representative of the people, 'the lowly' generally" (The Liberation of Christmas, 111). She is the recipient with many others who share in her social need. In the hymn, as Horsley notes, she is also the instrument by which this salvation is being effected.

The deliverance which is about to be accomplished is presented in terms of the most radical form of social justice in the Scriptures, that of social reversal. The oppressed and the oppressor will exchange places in liberation and punishment. The hungry will have enough; the rich will be deprived. Jesus, who himself declared that he had come to let the oppressed go free (Luke 4:18), now send us (John 20:21). Like Mary in patience, trust, and love we wait for God's work of restoration. God acts through us and for us, as we live in solidarity with the lowly.

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