Christmas is for Outcasts
“Judah, the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar… Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth… David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife… and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah” (Matthew 1:3-16).
Ancient genealogies often did not include any mothers’ names. Fathers alone were sufficient to demonstrate someone’s lineage. So why do five mothers appear, nestled within the forty-two generations Matthew provides to connect Jesus with David and Abraham (cf. Matthew 1:1)? Some have suggested it was because the first four were Gentiles, for whom the Messiah came as well as for Jews. But Mary’s Jewish credentials were impeccable. Others suggest it was because of sexual sin on the part of all of them, but this requires disbelieving the story of the virginal conception and putting the worst possible spin on Ruth’s coming to Boaz in the middle of the night at the threshing floor, which was more likely her proposal of marriage. What all five did have in common, however, was the suspicion of illegitimate sexual behavior and the stigma attached to that, whether or not it was deserved. Tamar played the prostitute once, with Jacob, to raise up an heir. Rahab was a prostitute. Not all would have believed that Boaz and Ruth remained pure that night. Bathsheba was the victim of David’s adultery. And Mary’s story was far more incredible than Ruth’s in the minds of many.
I published a short article on Matthew 1 that includes this material, expanded, in the Biblical Theology Bulletin way back in 1991, so I will not elaborate it here. But what are we to make of this as part of the Christmas story, especially this time of year? The answer is clear, as all of his ministry would corroborate: Jesus is a Messiah for outcasts, whether or not they deserve the stigma others attach to them.
Growing up in a wonderful Christian home, I have almost exclusively happy memories of Christmastime. It was a family time, often involving relatives we saw only once or twice a year. It was a time filled with lots of “warm fuzzies.” Although my parents were very generous to a variety of poorer friends and in giving to charities that cared for the poor, Christmas was not a time during which we involved them in our lives.
My first three years of married life were also the first three in which neither my wife’s nor my families were with us at Christmas, because we had moved to Scotland for grad school. It was there that we first learned about celebrating the holiday with others who had no families accessible. In the years since, Christmas day gatherings have been very unpredictable—sometimes with extended family, sometimes just with a few close friends, sometimes with a big gathering of “castaways,” and sometimes mixing “castaways” with close friends—often an adventure, sometimes a challenge, and seldom a dull moment. One constant has been that my wife’s and my relatives have always remained far enough away that we have not automatically been with them at Christmastime. When we haven’t, we then ask, “Then who?” And we’ve asked that sometimes even when we have been with them, at least when it’s been on “our turf.”
What does your Christmas portend this year? If you have the choice, try to include some folks who can’t be guaranteed “warm fuzzies” at Christmas and try to give them some. They’re the kind of people who made it into Jesus’ genealogy. They’re the kind of people Matthew went out of his way to have us remember in his Christmas story.
Perhaps that’s part of what it means to wish each other a “Merry Christmas.”