Growing in Faith Christmas message from Rev. Ann Perrin, Circle Advocate
For the Growing in Faith Circle, 2019 has been a year of newsletters and discerning what the shape of this circle might look like. Next year we hope to canvas our circle and the wider church to ask what theological work needs to be done and how might that be shared in the life of the church. One area we will be looking at in depth is how to resource our communities to make theological sense of climate change.
We are looking for new circle members and panel members, theologians and educators to be part of ongoing rigorous conversations through 2020 and also to help develop processes and resources for sharing ways of being transformed by God in and for the 21st century. You might like to go to our Facebook page and let us know what those theological issues are for your community and yourself. If you know of others who you think would like to be part of our circle please send them to uniting.church/growinginfaith to register and join us for this important work in the life of our church.
As we move into the year of Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary, we share this piece by panel member Rev. Dr Kylie Crabbe about that gospel as a way of readying ourselves for this coming year.
Also, you might like to hear Kylie talk with Robyn Whitaker and Fran Barber in an excellent podcast timed for Christmas preaching.
May the child who comes and changes everything greet you all with the love we know that is God. And may the wild star that led the magi to the manger and keeps on leading, point to the transformation God wants for us through 2020.
Christmas Blessings to all from the Growing in Faith Circle.
The unexpected resilient women who came before Jesus
By Rev. Dr Kylie Crabbe, Growing in Faith Panel Member
There are plenty of surprises in the opening of Matthew’s Gospel. Although it starts with some things we might expect of an account of the life of an important individual — like a genealogy, or narrative of the events around their birth — even here, there are unexpected elements just under the surface.
For instance, a list of names that traces a single ancestral line to an individual is a way of demonstrating the legitimacy of a character in Greek and Latin literature, as well as in the Hebrew Bible (see, for instance, Gen 11.10-28 or Ruth 4.18-22). And that is surely part of what Matt 1.1-17 achieves. Jesus’ lineage is traced back to Abraham, via other key people like David. By the time readers reach verse 16, where Jesus is declared Messiah, they know his heritage fits with expectations of a royal Messiah from the house of David.
But at the same time, the ancestral line includes some names that a first-century reader might not have expected. If, perhaps as a child, you ever decided to read the whole New Testament and then found yourself floundering a few verses in with the monotonous list of names with which this first book begins, you might also be surprised to hear that there is the odd radical inclusion tucked away in there! As the text moves from one generation “begetting” the next in turn, it incorporates the names of four women from the Hebrew Bible (Mary, who appears in v. 16, will make a fifth woman in the list). The presence of women here may seem surprising enough. But they’re an interesting group: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Biblical scholars have disagreed over the possible links between these women, but from the outset it has to be of interest that Matthew doesn’t go for the traditional matriarchs, like Sarah, Rebekah, or Rachel. Rather, he makes what Ulrich Luz describes as the “provocative” choice of these four biblical women.
Tamar appears in Gen 38, in a troubling story which recounts her marriage to successive brothers who die through punishments and then her later conception of twins with her father-in-law, Judah, who mistakes her for a prostitute. The narrative shows her to be resourceful and patient. A Jewish writer of the early first century CE, Philo, describes Tamar as an example of virtue — and a gentile proselyte. So we might consider that Matthew sees similar connotations in including her here. Rahab is described as a prostitute and among those living in Jericho prior to Joshua’s victory over the city; she becomes highly honoured because she hides Israelite messengers and expresses reverence for their tradition through a long account of Israel’s history. As a result, she and her family are spared when Joshua and the Israelite army take the city (Josh 2, 6). Ruth is also famously a gentile outsider, following her mother-in-law Naomi when she leaves Moab for Bethlehem, and there marrying Boaz. The end of Ruth likewise offers a genealogy that traces the connections from Ruth to David (as in the verses given above, Ruth 4.18-22). And, the fourth woman, Bathsheba, is described by Matthew not by name but as “the wife of Uriah” (Matt 1.6b; Uriah, readers of 2 Sam 11.3 know, is a Hittite). Nonetheless, of course, Bathsheba enters the genealogy through her connection to David, who in the 2 Samuel narrative manipulates the situation so that he can exploit Bathsheba sexually and then orchestrate the death of Uriah. It’s a series of moves for which Nathan later reprimands him (2 Sam 12.7-12).
With the inclusion of these four women, then, there is immediately a tension in the opening chapters of Matthew. This is on many levels a thoroughly Jewish story and a continuation of Israel’s history. Some even point out that the genealogy itself functions as a summary of Israel’s history, which then functions as the launching point for the story of Jesus. And yet, nestled within Israel’s story here are some remarkable outsiders—outsiders who are, of course, already there in the tradition. These are known as gentile women, survivors with courage and resilience, and the recipients of divine support.
Similar tensions continue through Matthew’s infancy narratives. Jesus’ birth occasions further surprises about who recognises the significance of what is taking place. This becomes ultimately a clash of kingship claims, between Herod and the one the gentile travellers claim is to be the “king of the Jews.” These magi recognise God’s activity in the child’s birth. Herod troubleshoots what he perceives as a threat. And when the horrors unfold of murdered children to protect the reign of an insecure ruler (a political move, in which the vulnerable are left for dead, with a cadence we also might recognise) again Israel’s story is at the forefront. Matthew spells it out as he takes Jesus and his parents back into Egypt and, recasting earlier prophecy from Hosea, announces: “Out of Egypt I have called my son” (Matt 2.15).
Of course, the threat against the baby boy’s life and time spent in Egypt makes Jesus a bit like Moses — a comparison that will come up again and again, as Jesus teaches from mountain tops across Matthew’s Gospel. But before we run on with that symbolism, we might notice the dual claim that Jesus comes from the heart of the Davidic tradition, Bethlehem (the city of David), and from Egypt, the site of oppression — and liberation.
This is Emmanuel, “God with us”. Rooted in the earlier story of those God liberated, from a line that includes King David, and Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. The promise of divine presence bookends the whole of Matthew’s Gospel, with Jesus named as Emmanuel at the beginning (1.23), and his (mountain-top) promise at its end: “Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age” (28.20). In between runs a narrative of consolation and challenge, for both insiders and outsiders. Where readers are told that “not one iota” of the Law will pass away (5.18), yet judgements will be made not on the basis of membership of a particular insider group, but on practising care for the other (e.g. 25.31-46).
Matthew’s opening chapters set the scene. Israel’s story and Jesus’ heritage are shown already to include outsiders, and it is outsiders who are actively seeking Jesus at his birth. It immediately challenges us to wonder where we will notice Emmanuel, God with us, this Christmas. Where are we looking for signs of the child’s arrival, perhaps out of habit or assumption? This Christmas, may we notice the unexpected, prophetic voices present already in our own tradition — women like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, and plenty more recent examples if we can attend to their witness. May we be careful not to overlook something Matthew apparently saw as essential to the Messianic claims — that they are grounded in the experience of liberation from oppression. And, when strangers come to us looking for Jesus, may we point them in the right direction. In doing so, we will surely find ourselves also encountering afresh both the challenge and consolation that “God with us” brings.