Thursday, October 6, 2011

I'm Back...And Jesus Has Women In His Lineage!

Well, I'm back, and it just so happens that having fallen behind in the month of September, I should now be in the Gospel of Matthew.  So, rather than trying to read the Prophets in a blaze of glory to catch up to where I should be, I've jumped ahead to Matthew and caught up there.  I'm not sure how I'll catch up on the prophets yet, but I'll figure that out next week.  So, Matthew....
In the last two days I've read the first 12 chapters of Matthew, so there was some speed reading going on.  Normally I read slowly and let my mind absorb and wonder.  This week has been more of a read, read, read...no, don't get distracted by the birds in the bush outside my window...read, read, read...oh, that's really interesting.  Don't forget that idea...read, read, read...what was that idea I just had?  Rather than try to comment on all the stuff I've read, I'll just make two observations.  One from the beginning of Matthew and another from where I stopped reading today.

After all the warnings, oracles, and promises of the prophets, it's understandable to arrive at Matthew with a sense of relief.  But once we get to Matthew, what do we get?  We get a genealogy!  Way to go Matthew.  Genealogies are about as anticlimactic as you can get.  So I'm guessing that when most people open up the Gospel of Matthew, they immediately skip to verse 18, which is where the narrative picks up.  But if we do that, we miss out on something very important that Matthew wants us to know.  Women are important to the story of Jesus, and not just any women.  Women who pretend to be prostitutes, actual prostitutes, foreigners, adulterers, and women accused of adultery are at the core of Jesus's story.

There are five women mentioned in Jesus's genealogy: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (actually referred to as Urriah's wife), and Mary.  Tamar, we might remember, is the daughter-in-law of Judah.  Her husband died before giving her a child.  In the ancient world this was a major problem.  Interesting story cut short, her husband's brothers fail to do their legal duty, and she is left childless.  At this point, Judah refuses to give her his youngest son as a husband, which he was legally required to do.  What is her solution?  She pretends to be a prostitute, sleeps with her father-in-law, gets pregnant, and has twins.

Next we have Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho that hid the spies Joshua sent to gather information on the city.  Following her is Ruth, the Moabite.  The book of Ruth is an interesting story.  Other than Boaz, all the Hebrews are either bitter, shrewd, or unfaithful.  Who is the faithful, trusting, positive heroine?  Yep, the foreigner God commanded his people not to marry.

It's important that Matthew doesn't refer to Bathsheba by name.  He wants to intentionally draw our eyes to the scandal of Solomon's birth.  Matthew intentionally puts distance between David and the mother of his son.  She is not David's wife, at least in this context.  She is Urriah's wife, and we know what that means.  How we think of and treat adulterers hasn't changed all that much over time.  And right alongside Urriah's wife is Mary, the backwater girl from a backwater village who was almost divorced before she was even married for getting pregnant.

That's Jesus's lineage, and let's think about what this means.  In a first century context women were property, so it is odd that Matthew would include women in Jesus's genealogy to begin with.  But if all Matthew wanted to do was be gender inclusive, he could have used any woman in Jesus's lineage.  It takes two to tango after all.  Why does Matthew point out these five?  He points out these five because Matthew wants to make it very clear that God is working in Jesus to bring the marginalized, ostracized, and disenfranchised into his Kingdom.  That is, after all, exactly what Jesus points out later in Matthew chapter five with the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. -Matt. 5:3,10

What Jesus is saying about how God is working through him shouldn't surprise us, because that is how God has always worked.  God is the god of an upside down kingdom.  The bottom is at the top.  The Messiah, his Anointed, is the son of prostitutes, adulterers, or people who were at least accused of those things.  And if that's the case, or so it seems Matthew thinks, then there is more than enough room in God's kingdom for people like us.  Who has been invited into God's Kingdom?  Well, sinners like you and me.  And how do we know that?  Well, Matthew makes it a point at the very beginning to tell us that that's who he used to bring his son into the world.  If that's the starting point, what do we have to worry about?

Okay, so that's the first thing I wanted to write about from Matthew.  What about the second.  In Matthew 12, Jesus tells the parable of the returning evil spirit, for lack of a better title.  I've always found this to be a rather odd parable.  Should it be taken literally?  Is he talking about a plan of attack the demons came up with at the previous year's demon convention?  Or, as is often times the case, is the parable a story about a much bigger issue.

Now I don't know if my thought today has any significance or validity whatsoever, but after spending time reading through the prophets I had an idea.  Jesus is speaking to the people of Israel, and what was the personal "demon" of Israel's past.  Well, to summarize a whole host of issues into one word: idolatry.  Idolatry was the thorn in Israel's side, the bur in their shoe.  But after the return from the exile, after the Maccabean Revolt, and by the time Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee, idolatry in the ancient sense is largely absent in Israel.  No one worships Molech anymore.  That "demon" had "gone out," and the Pharisees had certainly made sure that at least the everyday Jews of the villages were keeping Israel, "empty, swept, and put in order."  Every I was dotted and every T crossed.  And what was the result?  Abuse, corruption, arrogance, hipocracy, greed, cruelty...just to name a few.  Yes, one demon had been purged from Israel, but seven others more evil than the first had moved in, and the last state of the person was worse than the first.

As I thought about this I couldn't help but think of many congregations I have seen and experienced.  Far to many congregations are reactionary.  They get rid of A, B, and C, because they're deemed bad or evil, but they don't put anything good in their place.  "Well, we don't want to be like ______, "they say, but if pushed to express what they do want to be like they don't really have an answer.  The end result is always the same.  At best, they end up being exactly like what they said they didn't want to be.  At worst, they end up being far worse.

It's not enough for congregations to purge and clean their closets.  They have to figure out what they want to fill their closets with.  To use some of Paul's language.  It's not enough to rid yourself of works of the flesh.  You have to fill yourself with fruits of the Spirit.  Otherwise, new works move it, usually worse than the ones before.

Stopping point: Matthew 12

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