Sermon: The greater righteousness (2)

Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church

18th of December, 2016

Matthew 1:18-25

Two weeks’ ago, in a somewhat R-rated sermon, I talked about four rather badly-behaved women other women included by Matthew in Jesus’ genealogy: Tamar; Rahab; Ruth and Bathsheba. They were women who behaved in ways that I’m going to politely describe as ‘sexually adventurous’. They were women who were either themselves Gentiles or who were married to Gentiles. And they were women who themselves or, in the case of the wife of Uriah, through their husbands, broke the law in the service of greater righteousness. It’s important to remember their stories as today we hear the conclusion of Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy. Their scandalous stories prepare Matthew’s readers and us for the scandal we hear today. Our idealisation of the story of the birth of Jesus, shown in the cuteness of many Nativity plays, distracts us from the fact that Jesus’ mother Mary became pregnant out of wedlock in a time when that was definitely not acceptable.

‘When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’ At the time engagement was the equivalent of marriage; infidelity while engaged was adultery. As far as Joseph was concerned his betrothed was an adulteress, like his ancestress, Bathsheba. And Joseph was a righteous man, a man who obeyed the law. It’s important to us to know that at the time the law did not allow the husbands of unfaithful wives to simply forgive them. The penalty that the legal code in Deuteronomy prescribes for women who are found not to be virgins at marriage is that ‘they shall bring the young woman out to the entrance of her father’s house and the men of her town shall stone her to death, because she committed a disgraceful act in Israel by prostituting herself in her father’s house. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.’ (Deuteronomy 22:21) This probably wasn’t happening in first-century Judaism, which is interesting given the emphasis that some people still place on following biblical rules around marriage. But at the very least Joseph would be expected to divorce Mary, and a divorced woman had very little value.  If Mary was lucky, she might have been taken in by her family and supported; otherwise her alternative would have been to support herself through prostitution, as Jesus ancestress’ Rahab did; as his ancestress Tamar pretended to do; and as his ancestress Ruth might have had to do had she not attracted the honourable eye of Boaz.

This harsh punishment makes sense when we realise that in a patriarchal society adultery undermines everything. In the days before paternity testing the only way that a man could be sure that his wife’s child was his own was if she came to his bed a virgin and never, ever, had sexual intercourse with anyone else. Only that way could men be sure that they were bringing up their own children, and not the children of another man, and that any inheritance was going to the right offspring. You can imagine how important that was in a patriarchal society. So adultery wasn’t just a private sin; it was a public danger. Joseph has a duty to his society when he discovers Mary is pregnant.

As a righteous man, Joseph is prepared to do what the law demands, although he prefers to do it quietly, rather than publically disgracing Mary. But God intervenes.  God’s angel addresses Joseph in a dream, encouraging him not to be afraid to go through with the marriage and take Mary to be his wife. The angel goes on to prophesy the birth of a son, the name he is to be given and the role he is to play. The story finishes simply. Joseph follows the instructions. He goes through with the second stage of the marriage. He takes Mary home. He refrains from intercourse until the son is born. He gives the baby the name Jesus, and by giving him his name, Joseph acknowledges the baby to be his son, making him legally part of the house and family of David.

What seemed to be a potential scandal, a situation completely unacceptable to the society in which it happened, turns out to be God acting and intervening in the world. Mary is said to be ‘with child from the Holy Spirit’, that is, from the Spirit of God who brings about new things. In the incarnation God has become part of the world in a new way; as ‘Emmanuel’ which means ‘God is with us.’ Had Joseph simply acted as a righteous man, as the law demanded of him, everything would have gone wrong. But Joseph listened to God, did something totally contrary to the rules of his society, and a potential scandal became God alive and at work in the world.

As I reminded us two weeks ago, over the coming year we’ll see that the Gospel according to Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses, the authoritative interpreter of the law. This is why Matthew’s version of the nativity starts with a dreamer called Joseph, son of Jacob; why the announcement of Jesus’ birth is followed by the story of a king who kills the baby boys, as Pharaoh did; and why ‘Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.’ (Matthew 2:14-15) The nativity echoes the story of Israel in Egypt and of Moses’ liberation of his people. For Matthew, Jesus, like Moses, is a liberator and law-giver; a law-giver with a particular way of interpreting the law. Twice Matthew’s Jesus quotes the prophet Hosea: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (Hosea 6:6) We’ll talk further about that in this liturgical year, but for now we can just note that Joseph has it right. In Joseph’s response to Mary’s pregnancy we see someone who, prompted by God, chooses mercy.

So, to sum up, two weeks ago we heard the stories of the women in Jesus’ genealogy; stories of sexual scandal and impropriety through which God was working. Today we hear the final and most important story of potential scandal, Mary’s unexpected pregnancy, and find that here, too, God is at work. And in Joseph’s response to Mary’s pregnancy, his willingness to act with mercy rather than to simply carry out the letter of the law, we get our first hint of the way in which Jesus will act as law-giver and the greater righteousness that can come from breaking the letter of the law and obeying its spirit.

The two nativity stories that the Bible gives us, the stories according to Matthew and Luke, are different stories with very different emphases. Matthew’s story is a story of social conventions being overturned and of mercy outweighing merely-legal righteousness. This Christmas, I invite us to look for the way God is present in people and situations we might otherwise condemn, and remember that God offers mercy to all people, everywhere, including us. Let’s not be like the Pharisees that Jesus condemned, saying: ‘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) Let us live out the Christmas message we hear in Matthew’s gospel in justice and mercy and faith. Thanks be to God. Amen.


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