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In the company of Mary

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 21 December 2004


According to Matthew, the life of Jesus begins with a scandal. His mother was found to be with child while she was engaged to Joseph. And it is obvious that Joseph is not the father and so, and we are told, that Joseph, being a righteous man, planned to dismiss her quietly. Mary is to enter the ranks of those teenagers who become pregnant with all that that entails, no marriage, no husband, living with family and forever shamed. Here we have in microcosm a picture of how the world of men and women works.

A man was not expected to raise children that did not carry his genes, it was expected that Mary be jettisoned. Joseph had been cuckolded before he was even married and the talk around the town would have been rife. Who was the father, was it that handsome young shepherd we saw hanging around her parents place. Was she was just another victim of youthful passion played out in a haystack somewhere away from her parents' chaperone. She had ruined her life by giving in to passion. This is how the world of men and women works, no seconds chances, only humiliation and guilt.

But God opens another future and sends an angel to speak to Joseph in a dream and reverses the way of the world. As is usually the case with God, things are not as they seem. A disgraced young woman becomes theotokos, God bearer. Out of a future that could only be one of misery, God acts, and disgrace turns to favour in the eyes of the Lord. It is only Matthew who begins his gospel thus, with a scandal. Only Luke of the other gospels gives us an infancy narrative and tells us that Mary was engaged to Joseph and pregnant. There is no hint that Joseph is not the father. Mark and John refrain from giving us an infancy narrative at all.

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So why did Matthew begin his gospel in this way? We find a hint in the preceding chapter that enumerates the genealogy of Jesus. Amid all of the details of the lists of men: Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Aram, Aram the father of Aminadab, Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, there appear four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah’s wife - Bathsheba. These four women have one thing in common, their union with their men were all scandalous or unusual. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute so that her father-in-law would have intercourse with her. Instead of being burned for adultery she gave birth to twins Perez and Zera. Rahab was a prostitute who hid the Israeli spies in Jericho. Ruth took the initiative with Boaz at night on the threshing floor when she and her mother-in law were destitute after the death of their men folk. Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba committed adultery with David and then gave birth to Solomon.

All of these women behaved immorally or seductively but rather than being hushed up as skeletons in the cupboard of Israel, they are included, obviously on purpose, in the genealogy of Jesus. And now we have Mary, pregnant by some other and about to be dismissed by her fiancé: Another woman placed in less than advantageous circumstances.

So Mary is connected to the four women in the genealogy, she, like them, exists on the margins. They are prostitutes, adulterers, seducers, tricksters and she is unmarried and pregnant.

There is a link here between these women and the Holy Spirit. Matthew is telling us that we find God, or the work of the Holy Spirit, exactly in the places we would never suspect, on the margins of normal society, among those whose future seems unsure and whose position in society is decidedly shaky. This is the same point that Luke makes when he finds no room for Jesus in the inn; and Mark makes when his family try to restrain him because people say he is out of his mind; and that John makes when he says that his own people did not receive him.

While for most Christians, God is wholly other, in that He is supernatural and His presence is expressed in miracles against nature; in the biblical mentality, God, being wholly other, is expressed by events on the periphery of human social and political expectations. Having no understanding of “nature” as we do, they could not share our notion of supernature. The otherness of God is expressed in the strangeness of human events, births that come about through seduction and trickery, a famous king of Israel out of murder and adultery, the birth of Jesus to an unmarried teenager.

Revelation is thus not about rending the fabric between nature and supernature but a revealing of what men and women would not look for or expect. It is a working out of the saying that we who see with our eyes and hear with our ears do not see and hear what we absolutely need to see and hear. God comes to us as a surprise, He comes to us from outside of all our expectations. That is why the Holy Spirit is implicated in the lives of the four women in the genealogy and in the pregnancy of Mary. The Holy Spirit is other, God’s thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways.

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It seems that our God pops up where we least expect Him, especially in the circumstances of sexual impropriety. This is interesting in itself because it underlines the importance of genealogy. Matthew knows this because he is the gospel writer most connected to the traditions of Israel and the centrality of genealogy in the Old Testament. The genealogies of the Old Testament - the first one is in Genesis 5 - are yet another indication that Israel is an historical nation in the sense that it lives with its forefathers. Deviations, scandal, unexpected births, are understood as the work of God because they are outside human expectations.

The problem with a supernaturalist construction of the birth of Jesus is that it erases the scandal. An unfortunate teenage pregnancy is changed into an act of God against nature and all is well. The four women in the genealogy must be there by accident. By including these four women in the genealogy of Jesus, and by including Mary among them, Matthew tells us something important about our relationship to God. When we think we have it all nailed down, the most famous of theologians will be set on their heel. As Karl Barth said, “The angels will laugh at my theology. Kings will shut their mouths”. This is an invitation to intellectual humility. While we think we see what is real about ourselves and the world, we are mistaken. That is why we could never have thought up the gospel at home in our favourite armchair as if it could be list of good intentions.

It is also why all of the noblest schemes of men and women to improve the world and make the kingdom of God in their own image will fall flat on their faces. Another name for this program is political correctness in which anything that does not contribute to the ideal society is suppressed. Religious people are in most danger here because they tend to congratulate themselves on their good intentions.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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