Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.
Read: Matthew 1:1-17
“Call me Ishmael.” “’To be born again,’ sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, ‘first you have to die.’” “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” These famous opening lines (can you guess which novels they come from?) arrest us, intrigue us, and invite us into the story which they will tell. As we begin to look at Matthew’s Gospel, though, we find that he starts not with a witty one liner, but with a genealogy—a summary of the ancestry of the narrative’s main character, Jesus of Nazareth.
In a different way though,—one much more familiar in ancient Israelite culture (and in still in many culture’s today!)—this list of names stretching back to Abraham intrigues and invites us into Matthew’s story. If we listen carefully, there are a number of clues to how the Gospel will play out. Firstly, the genealogy grounds Matthew’s Gospel firmly in Israel’s story of being an exiled people. The deportation to Babylon is mentioned three times, recalling the people’s movement from being a sovereign nation to one conquered and taken from their own land. Even as Matthew writes, his people live both scattered through the Roman empire or in their own land under foreign subjugation.
Secondly, the genealogy traces Jesus’ lineage through two important figures: David, the popular Israelite king who became a symbol of Israelite nationalistic hopes; and Abraham, the ancient patriarch not only of Israel, but who was “the ancestor of a multitude of nations” (Genesis 17:4). How will the hopes centred on these two figures play out in Matthew’s Gospel?
Lastly, and perhaps most shockingly, the genealogy includes a number of people, all women, associated with scandal. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (referred to as “the wife of Uriah”), and Mary. The first four of these figures are foreigners, and all are associated with sexual impropriety. Their inclusion in the ancestry of “Jesus the Messiah” might cause us to ask questions about the moral norms of the story—what kind of people will be included in Jesus’ community and what sort of values will be considered “good” in Matthew’s story?
We will have to read the rest of the story to find out.
- Are there questions that Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 raise for you about the rest of Matthew’s Gospel?
- Are you comfortable with the names included in the genealogy?
- What hopes do you imagine the genealogy would bring up for those Matthew’s audience?
- What hopes does it bring up for you?
Pray: God, help us to see where we fit into Matthew’s story.
Close with the Lord’s Prayer.
Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s unfailing love for all of creation.
Read: Isaiah 43:14-44:8
This passage, spoken as the people of Israel endure the oppression of exile under Babylon, is arranged in a typical Hebrew fashion, working from the outsides inward and reaching its climax in its centre. It boldly addresses the situation under Babylonian rule, declaring that the tables will be turned on Babylon (42:14-17), and that Yahweh is the only true God (43:6-8), subverting the claims of Babylonian imperial religion, which gave divine legitimation to the harsh rule of the empire.
Yahweh, the prophet proclaims, is about to do a “new thing”—to make a way for Israel to return to its own land, to be restored from exile (43:18-21). Not only will they be restored to their land, but they will be formed into a new community, upon whose descendants Yahweh’s “spirit” and “blessing” will rest (44:1-5).
The middle section recounts the reason for Israel’s exile under Babylon—they had sinned against Yahweh (43:22-24, 26-28). Though the nature of Israel’s sin is not here stated, those who heard this prophetic word might remember the earlier words of Isaiah the prophet.
“Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:16-17)
Now, in exile, and living under the consequences of their own sin, a new word comes—one which forms the climax of this passage: “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” This is the word which changes everything. For Israel in exile, it is the word which makes return and restoration possible. Yahweh will “blot out” their sins and release the people from their consequences. N.T. Wright makes the connection clear: “Forgiveness of sins is another way of saying return from exile.”
- Israel’s exilic prophets envisaged God’s activity as restoring the people from exile. How do you encounter people in situations of exile?
- How might we envisage what it means for God to “blot out” the sins of those in exile?
- How might we participate in God’s activity of restoration and return?
Pray: Close with the Lord’s Prayer.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.
Read: Matthew 1:18-25
In this account of the birth of Jesus, Mary is found to be “with child”, and while Matthew’s readers know that this is “from the Holy Spirit”, those in the world of the story do not. Moreover, in the telling of the story, which no doubt reflects Matthew’s patriarchal culture, Mary has no say—Joseph is the one who exercises all agency while Mary is voiceless and powerless (Perhaps we should also ask how “dismissing her quietly” will avoid exposing her to public disgrace. After all, she will still be a single mother with a baby in a patriarchal world! Dismissing her will, however, save Joseph from public disgrace!). Mary, a pregnant peasant girl from Judea is in every way marginal.
The story, though, ends up being good—but dangerous—news for Mary. This baby, we are told, will manifest “God with us”. This name, “Emmanuel”, invokes a story told in Isaiah chapters 7-9, in which the people of Judah—Mary’s people—are under threat from foreign powers. Now, as Jesus is born in Judea, Israel is still subjugated by a foreign power—only the name has changed from Assyria to Rome. They are exiles in their own land.
But to these exiles, Jesus is born as one who will “save his people from their sins.” For Matthew’s readers, familiar with the writings of the prophets of centuries before, this signals the end of exile, just as it had done for Israel under Babylon. This baby will be God’s agent to bring about the end of foreign domination under Rome. For Mary, who is doubly marginalised as an Israelite and a woman, this is indeed good news!
- Who are those in your world whose voices are not heard? Why?
- In what ways can we rob others of their agency, or power to act?
- How is Jesus’ coming good news for those who are marginal?
Pray: Close with the Lord’s Prayer.
Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.
This week’s Common Value: Inclusion
Read: Isaiah 56:1-8
- How might we practice this kind of radical inclusion this week?
Pray: Close with the Lord’s Prayer.