The Scandals of Men and the Work of God
Sermon preached by Dn. James Wilcox on Sunday, December 18, 2022
Matt. 1:1-25; Heb. 11:9-10; 32-40. Dec. 18th, 2022
Today marks the one week point from the Feast of the Nativity and our celebration of the Christmas holiday. And just so, the Gospel lesson we heard a bit ago may leave a few of us wondering, what exactly is “Gospel” about this extended genealogical list. How exactly does this list of names relate to the Nativity, after all? Well, in the first place, the Church has marked off today as a time in which we bring honor to Christ’s ancestors. Last week was the Sunday of the Holy Forefathers and so we commemorated those who foretold of, and prefigured the Christ. And today we follow by honoring all those ancestors of Christ from whom Jesus drew His lineage. Both of these days serve as preparatory days, then, and provide a fitting lead-in to our celebration of the Nativity next week — that is, Christ’s coming into the world as a human being.
It’s good for us to know, as well, that Matthew’s list of names also demonstrates how Jesus is the fulfillment of one type prophecy about the coming Messiah. Namely, that Jesus was from the line of David, and was an ancestor of Abraham, as Matthew explicitly states in his opening verse. The original Greek text of Matthew 1:1 quite literally translates: “The Book (Bible) of the Genesis of Jesus the Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” As some of you might have recognized on our icon of the Nativity, at the very top it states: γέννησις in Greek, or “genesis” which means “beginning.” In other words “the beginning of Jesus the Christ, son of David, son of Abraham.” The promised Messiah, after all, was expected to be from the line of David according to Jewish prophecy, and was foretold to be from the seed of Abraham. And this is why Matthew begins his Gospel in this manner, and proceeds to draw up an ancestral chart afterward, which properly leads us to Jesus Christ who is our beginning point.
Another reason for Matthew’s genealogical list is that it shows us Jesus was indeed a living, breathing, physical human with flesh and blood. If you were with us during Matins this morning, the Synaxarion that was read aloud stated the following:
“… the Church shows us [today] that Christ truly became a man, taking on human nature. He was not a ghost, an apparition, a myth, [or] a distant imagined god ... such a god does not have a family tree. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He has flesh and blood, human ancestors—many of whom sinned greatly, but like David, also repented greatly.”
Now all of that being said, if we simply look at this ancestral list and make it solely about Jesus’s humanity, there are certain points we miss. In the first place, we cannot draw a straight line through Jesus’ ancestry without noticing a few breaks in the actual genealogy. This pattern of “X being the father of Y”and so and so begetting so and so, breaks at 5 specific points to be exact. 4 of these breaks were women. From the reading you might remember the names of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba. These were 4 women whom Matthew chose to graft into Jesus’ family tree from outside the standard ancestral line. And Matthew choose to include them in the lineage from Abraham to Jesus despite each of these women having a rather scandalous story associated with them — at least from a social standpoint. Tamar, for one, pretended to be a prostitute, and Rahab actually was one. Ruth seduced Boaz after hours in a grain mill, and Bathsheba — as most of us know — was never David’s wife at the time he took her into his bed — and if were being true to the text he likely took her against her will. Matthew doesn’t even use Bathsheba’s name in his ancestral accounting, but only refers to her as the “wife of Uriah” — the name of her actual husband, whom David later had killed.
And to be fair we can’t view these 4 women and the scandals associated with them apart from the willing participation of the men in each instance, who are also included in Matthew’s lineage. Tamar may have disguised herself as a prostitute, but Judah solicited her wares without much of an inner struggle. Boaz, though caught by surprise at first, is a willing participant with Ruth, And David, as noted above, after seeing Bathsheba bathing from a rooftop, ordered his men to have her brought into his bedroom. In other words she was kidnapped out her home. And thus, the scandal associated with her was one, unfortunately, foisted upon her by the all-too-familiar social privilege of a man in power seeking to satisfy his sexual desire.
And so what are we to make of all this? These stories don’t sound like the versions we were taught in Sunday School, after all.
And I think each of us might be discomforted in hearing these stories told as such, because we don’t usually think of Bible stories being so foul or graphic in nature. And most of us were taught to use the Scriptures as a form of proper moral guidance after all. But as we’ve just seen, our Holy Book is not entirely filled with PG-rated stories. There is all manner of murder, rape, genocide, incest, varying forms of power-mongering, and all manner of skullduggery embroiled within the pages of our Divinely-inspired text. And this is why it is all the more imperative that we do not simply look to the Scriptural text alone for answers to all of the very complicated moral issues of our day. We as Christians always look to our beginning, or starting point, which, again, is Jesus Christ! As Orthodox Christians we cannot look back through the pages of the Old Testament without first seeing them through the lens of Jesus Christ. Consider the 15 Old Testament readings from Holy Saturday Morning, for instance. When we gather to hear these read aloud we are not looking for a precise historical accounting of what took place thousands of years ago, or for moral guidance on the how to conduct a chaste life. We are listening to these texts seeking the Christ within them. Each each of these 15 readings reiterate how God has worked through His people, to bring together His plan which leads us to the Christ coming to fruition!
And let it be stated that Orthodoxy from the beginning has never been concerned about ‘moralism’ or even ‘family values’ for that matter. These are modern social innovations — fundamentalist distractions actually — which detract from the very point of our faith. What Orthodoxy does care about is one’s own transformation IN Christ. That is where true morality begins!Remember, that our salvation is an inside job, and an inner working of the heart away from the selfishness of ego, and toward the self-LESS-ness of that person in imitation of Jesus Christ, who gave Himself up on behalf of all people! You can’t get more selfless than that. Thus, a heart transformed by the Holy Spirit and awakened in the likeness of Christ produces a natural morality that radiates outward. This process does not work in reverse. We do not seek to be moral that we may find Christlikeness. We seek only after Christ! (“Christ must be formed within us” as the Apostle Paul states! (Galatians 4:19)) And true morality naturally flows thereafter. If we note again what the Synaxarion taught us at Matins, it affirms that all these men & women in Matthew’s genealogical list, even in their scandals, “repented greatly,” and each of them did so after their own encounter with the Holy Spirit!
When we turn back to today’s Gospel text we may see 4 women outside the ancestral line often associated with scandalous behavior, but we must note that these women are not mentioned by Matthew for their impropriety. They are mentioned because they enabled the ancestral line of Christ the Messiah to come to fruition!
As Father John Behr states: "God works unexpectedly, through those who are thought of, in human terms, as stumbling blocks, triumphing over our best intentions and expectations. In this way He ensures the successful outcome of his plans for his coming Christ.” (John Behr, The Cross Stands While the World Turns: Homilies for the Cycles of the Year, 114.)
And so we come to two final names given by Matthew in his lineage from Abraham to Jesus. And in these two we find another woman who might have been thought of as “scandalous,” even though she was without sin. For Mary became pregnant before being joined to Joseph. But Joseph, having first had an encounter with God though the working of the Holy Spirit, acted rightly and morally toward Mary, enabling God’s work to once again come to fruition!
Now keep in mind that while Joseph is indeed from the stock of David, it is not Joseph’s seed that leads to Christ being born. Here again God works from the outside — just as He did with Tamar, Ruth, Rahab and Bathsheba — to bring about His perfect plan. God asks Joseph to accept the reality of Mary’s conception by way of the Holy Spirit. And Joseph cooperates in obedience to God naming the child “Jesus,” “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us,” (or as we like to say in our faith, “Christ in our midst.”)
May each of us have the faith, then, and the courage to know that God is working unexpectedly within each of us, just as He did in the lives of those named in Matthew’s lineage — and in the lives of Mary and Joseph — that we may also respond to the work of God born within our hearts, to become agents of His mighty plan!