Sermon: The greater righteousness (1)

Sermon for Williamstown
4th of December 2016

Matthew 1:1-25

This is a repeat sermon, so if as you listen it seems familiar to you, there’s a logical reason. You haven’t suddenly developed the psychic power to predict my preaching. I did preach a very similar version of this sermon three years’ ago, when we were last in the Year of Matthew. It may seem surprising that I’ve chosen to repeat a sermon on a passage of the Gospel that is so dull that it isn’t even in the lectionary, but I have very good reasons for it. I must apologise to Celia, who this week worried that she didn’t know how to read Jesus’ genealogy so as to make it interesting. It’s a bit mean of a minister to give the Bible reader a reading designed to make a congregation drift off and start thinking about Christmas shopping, but that’s what I’ve done today.

The Gospel of Matthew, alone among the four gospels, starts with Jesus’ genealogy, which tells us that Matthew considered it to be of some importance. Unfortunately, we twenty-first century Christians don’t have the same intimate familiarity with the characters of Jewish history that Matthew’s first readers had, and so we miss how important this genealogy is. That’s why I’m preaching on the genealogy today. In this list of what used to be called ‘begats’ is the theme of Matthew’s entire gospel. But we only know that when we notice the breaks in the genealogy’s pattern.

Most of the genealogy tells us that so-and-so was the father of such-and-such, but there are four places where this pattern changes and mothers are mentioned as well as fathers. We are told that Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar; that Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab; that Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth; and that David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah. Four women are mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy. None of them are obviously shining heroines of the faith; there is no mention of Sarah or Rebecca or Leah. These are all women from the margins; women whose stories involve potential shame. They are also women whose actions in breach of the laws of Israel turned out to be actions of great righteousness – and it is this greater righteousness that is Matthew’s theme.

Tamar’s story is told in Genesis chapter 38, and it’s one we don’t often get to hear, so get comfortable as I tell you the whole tale:

Judah, son of Jacob, brother of Joseph, had three sons: Er, 4Onan and Shelah. Judah took Tamar as a wife for Er. When Er died, Judah married Tamar to Onan, and told him to raise up sons for his brother. But Onan didn’t, and he died, too. Anyway, Judah told Tamar to: “Remain a widow in your father’s house until my son Shelah grows up”. But when Shelah grew up, Judah didn’t marry him to Tamar. She was left as a childless widow in her father’s house, a woman without any status at all in her society. So Tamar acted.

When Tamar heard that her father-in-law, Judah, was going to Timnah to shear his sheep, she took off her widow’s weeds, disguised herself, and sat by the road. This is how it’s written in Genesis:

When Judah saw her, he thought her to be a prostitute, for she had covered her face. He went over to her at the roadside, and said, “Come, let me come in to you”; for he did not know that she was his daughter-in-law. She said, “What will you give me, that you may come in to me?” He answered, “I will send you a kid from the flock.” And she said, “Only if you give me a pledge, until you send it.” He said, “What pledge shall I give you?” She replied, “Your signet and your cord, and the staff that is in your hand.” So he gave them to her, and went in to her, and she conceived by him. Then she got up and went away, and taking off her veil she put on the garments of her widowhood.

tamar-of-judah
Tamar of Judah
by Francesco Hayez (1791 – 1881)

Judah did send the kid to the prostitute, but she couldn’t be found, and when Judah asked the people said that there had been no such woman. Again from Genesis:

About three months later Judah was told: “Your daughter-in-law Tamar has played the whore; moreover she is pregnant as a result of whoredom.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant.” And she said, “Take note, please, whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” Then Judah acknowledged them and said, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not lie with her again.

Tamar has twins by Judah, Perez and Zerah, and Perez is the ancestor of Jesus.

‘She is more in the right than I,’ is Judah’s judgement of Tamar, and this is the reason that Matthew includes her name in the genealogy. She has shown the greater righteousness, which is not following the letter of the law, but the spirit of it. This is the same greater righteousness that Joseph will show when he doesn’t obey the law and divorce his pregnant fiancée Mary, and it is the same greater righteousness that Jesus will reveal when he preaches the fulfilment of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. As Jesus will say to the Pharisees: ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.’ (Matthew 23:23)

The next woman mentioned is Rahab, and it is generally accepted that the Rahab mentioned is the prostitute of Jericho mentioned in the Book of Joshua. Her story is as fascinating as that of Tamar. Joshua sent two men as spies to Jericho, who entered Rahab’s house and spent the night there. The king of Jericho was told about them and he sent orders to Rahab to give them up. But she hid them on her roof under stalks of flax, said that they’d already left, and sent the king’s men on a wild goose chase to the Jordan. She then let the men out of her window on a rope, because her house was within the city wall itself, and when Joshua and his army invaded Jericho Rahab and her family were spared. Matthew tells us that this Gentile prostitute who disobeyed the commands of her king was also an ancestor of Jesus.

We don’t often hear the stories of Tamar and Rahab; but we do know the stories of Ruth the Moabite and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah who became the mother of King Solomon. Ruth gets a whole book to herself so I’m going to assume you know the story, and Ruth taking Naomi’s advice and going to lie down at Boaz’s feet. David sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof of her house and, as the book of Samuel tell us: ‘David sent messengers to fetch her, and she came to him, and he lay with her’. Bathsheba becomes pregnant and tells David. David, after first trying to get Uriah to sleep with his wife, has him killed. It’s not a very edifying story, as the prophet Nathan points out to David. But David marries Bathsheba, and Solomon is their son.

Rahab and Ruth are clearly non-Jewish, Tamar was often regarded as non-Jewish, and in the list of names Bathsheba is identified not by her own name but by the name of her Gentile husband. Here at the very beginning of the gospel we are shown that God’s plan included Gentiles as well as Jews. The Messiah himself had Gentile ancestry.

These are four stories of potential sexual impropriety: Tamar behaved like a prostitute; Rahab was a prostitute; David and Bathsheba committed adultery; and Ruth made advances to Boaz.

These are stories of people who disobey the law in order to fulfil greater righteousness. We can see this theme clearly when we remember that Matthew refers to Bathsheba as the wife of Uriah, and it was Uriah who disobeyed King David when David commanded him to go and refresh himself with his wife after coming home from the fighting:

Then David said to Uriah, “Go down to your house, and wash your feet.” Uriah went out of the king’s house, and there followed him a present from the king. But Uriah slept at the entrance of the king’s house with all the servants of his lord, and did not go down to his house. When they told David, “Uriah did not go down to his house”, David said to Uriah, “You have just come from a journey. Why did you not go down to your house?” Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah remain in booths; and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field; shall I then go to my house, to eat and to drink, and to lie with my wife? As you live, and as your soul lives, I will not do such a thing.”

Sadly for Uriah, David was just trying to make it plausible that Uriah was the father of Bathsheba’s child, and when Uriah fulfilled the weightier matters of the law by disobeying David it led to David arranging his death. But this horrible story of betrayal and murder leads to the birth of Solomon and the continuation of the line of Abraham, of Judah, and of David, that culminates in the birth of Jesus, who is called the Messiah.

This is the story of Jesus’ ancestry that Matthew gives us. It is the story of women, and one man, who go beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable or safe. It is the story of Gentiles as well as Jews. And it is the story of a righteousness that doesn’t stand on the letter of the law, but instead offers justice and mercy and faith. The good news of Jesus that Matthew tells us, the fulfilment of the law, begins long before Jesus begins his ministry, even before Jesus is born. The gospel begins in the list of Jesus’ ancestors; in a God who does new things; and in a law that commands justice and mercy and faith. Let us celebrate this during Advent, at Christmas – and during all the days of our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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