Wineskins Archive

January 8, 2014

Christmas At Matthew’s House (Nov 1992)

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by André Resner
November, 1992

I’m at Matthew’s house for Christmas and Matthew is sneaky. He’s almost too matter-of-fact for me. I need some intonation. I need some exclamation marks. Maybe a couple of winks. A raised eyebrow here and there. A gasp. As he tells the story in his almost-documentary style I miss some things. I missed four women in the genealogy. I missed the whole genealogy the first 24 or 25 years that I read Matthew’s account, not to mention Rachel and her murdered children.

It’s intriguing. How do you begin a gospel of Jesus Christ? Each evangelist was faced with the dilemma. How would they frame the beginning? Where does the story of the good news of God’s incarnation best begin? For John you have to go back, way back, before time began. For Luke the beginning of the gospel is a full-fledged musical with sopranos and tenors, altos and basses all joining in a chorus of angels bending near the earth. For Mark, it’s no musical, it’s the gospel. For him the paradox of the good news is that it begins out in the desert, with a voice crying out amidst the hot, dry, barrenness of life.

For Matthew it begins in sexual scandal and it ends in political power plays. Before he can tell the scandal of Mary’s “immaculate conception,” he has to subtly remind us of other scandalous women. You remember Tamar, don’t you? The woman who couldn’t wait for the patriarch Judah to come through with his promised third son for her. Seems Judah didn’t want another of his boys dying in her bed. Two was enough. She was bad luck. But he underestimated the seriousness with which she took his promise. It is hard to know what powerful emotions possessed her that morning as she awakened, went to her closet and passed over the widow clothes she had been wearing day after day, week after week, year after year, since she’d been sent away to her father’s house to wait for Shelah to grow up. he had long since grown up. And she had long failed to see him walking up the dusty road to her house. This morning she took her red dress out and pulled on those fishnet stockings and began gobbing on the make-up. Sht put on her black, spiked heels and hobbled down the road to Timnah where, word had it, Judah was headed on business It seems Judah’s wife had died recently and he had fulfilled his mourning duties. After a while she saw Judah coming up the road. And he saw an entrepreneur, open for business. he figured he was making good time and could take a little break, and so after agreeing on a price, and leaving all his Ancient Near Eastern credit cards as collateral, we’re told that he “slept with her, and she became pregnant by him. After she left, she took off her veil and put on her widow’s clothes again” (Genesis 38:18-19). Judah tried to send the promised goat to the “temple prostitute” (although i’s clear that he considered her an ordinary whore earlier) and reclaim his “Everywhere You Want To Be” pledge. Perhaps he was looking at the experience in religious terms now, or maybe he just wanted everyone else to. But, no one else seemed to know of her, so the matter sort of blew over.

A few months later Judah received some of the best news he’d ever received: Shelah was safe! Tamar had lost her sexual patience and good sense, had “played the whore” and Judah had the power to pass sentence: “Let her be brought out and burned.” But while being dragged out she held aloft three items, saying, “It was the owner of these who made me pregnant. Take not, please, whose these are ….” Everyone could plainly see stamped across the bottom of the green one, “JUDAH, MEMBER SINCE 1750 B.C.E.” And it’s Matthew who can’t go three verses without obliquely reminding us that this scandalous story he’s begun to tell began a long time ago, and it too began in scandal.

But Matthew doesn’t stop there. he goes on to break more rules, raise more eyebrows, and make us wonder how much our Puritan Christian heritage has induced us to overlook these furtive reminders of scandal embedded in the text. He reminds us of Rahab. You remember Rahab. Prostitute in the promised land. The first place, interestingly enough, that the Israelite spies went when they went to explore the land. And Ruth … “dear, sweet Ruth.” We’ll, just what was she doing out there at the threshing floor at Boaz’s feet? And why did he want her to stay there all night, yet leave before daylight, and not let anybody see her. Hmmmm.

Matthew’s not done yet. He then brings up the most famous sexual mishap in Hebrew heritage: Bathsheba. He doesn’t mention her by name, choosing the circumlocution “the wife of Uriah.” But such a way of referring to her only heightens the scandal, for we are reminded of the lust which led to adultery, which led to deceit, which led to murder, which led to cover-up, which led to a history of these very same things with David’s own children.

Why does Matthew remind us of these people and their embarrassingly scandalous stories? How can “good news” start like this? And how could the early church think that this was the most appropriate way to start the “New Testament”? It could be because the most embarrassing scandal was about to be told and Matthew wanted to show that such an outlandishly embarrassing story was not out of line with the way God had always seen things done in this world. Maybe when God works in this world it is precisely these kinds of persons and events through which he works his will and grace. Maybe that’s part of the good news.

Though we’re still quite surprised by Matthew’s covert statement “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit,” Matthew has set us up for it. It’s a sort of “Here we go again, folks….” Another sexually questionable woman. And what about Joseph’s faith in the face of Mary’s story? For it was he, who after a single dream, went ahead and married her. A dream that was real, yes, but still a dream. Could it have been a message from God? Or, could it have been his won imagination, wanting to believe her so much that his subconscious produced a nocturnal justification for marrying her, even in the face of such an outlandish excuse? But there’s Joseph, crawling into bed with her every night the rest of his life, relying on a dream, believing in her word, that she really hadn’t slept with another man and used him to cover her shame. If we’ve paid attention to the women of Matthew’s genalogy we’re not entirely surprised by Mary’s (Joseph’s?!) predicament. If God used those of the Messiah’s family tree thus, why woudn’t the Messiah himself come from a similar situation?

But that’s not all for Matthew. There’s more than domestic trouble in Jesus’ birth; there are political troubles. It seems that Jesus’ birth signalled a conflict of kingship. And it would take a fragile, yet capricious man like King Herod to feel his power and authority threatened by an impoverished tradesman’s baby. So, a couple of dreams later, dreams which tricked Herod and put Jesus out of his psychopathic reach, Herod dispatched to Bethlehem troops ready for battle. They surrounded the city and targeted his most recent threat to the empire, all the children two years of age and under. I guess he figured he’d be sure to get Jesus if he expanded the target range to two years and included both male and female babies. Better safe than sorry, after all, when you’re dealing with such guerrillas. The Jews had known of such horror before. They had seen their little ones on the ends of spears. Jewish mothers had been forced less than 200 years earlier to wear their dead babies around their necks. But how could it happen now, now that the Messiah had come? How was this “Gospel”? “A voice was heard in Raham, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, for they were no more.”

Well, Herod died. Joseph had another dream and they came back home … well, almost home. Seems another dream landed them in Nazareth.

I’m starting to wonder, “Just how is this Christmas, Matthew?” Just how does this affect our season of anticipation and celebration? Do we want to perhaps flip channels to Luke’s musical and be done with Matthew’s docu-drama-tragedy, or conflate the two as we’ve normally done, thus shaving the edge off of Matthew’s story? If we hid the remote control and have the courage to listen to Matthew’s side of the story, I think our season of anticipation and celebration in faith is given an important cast. For we’re reminded that it’s not unusual for those rare times when God breaks decisively into this, his world, that it causes confusion, turmoil, great joy, profound misunderstanding, defensive posturing of people in powerful places, dividing even households against one another, and forcing unprecedented and lifelong decisions of faith. Having Christmas at Matthew’s house, we aren’t to be completely surprised if we experience such upheaval ourselves, but overawed, humbled, and expectant that in such times of tumult God is acting in ways that will forever change the way humans have viewed him, the world, and the community of faith.

With such a beginning to his story, the cross looms over every scene of Christmas at Matthew’s house. The cross isn’t alien to Matthew’s Christmas. Probably because the cross isn’t alien to the way most of life is lived in this world. The cross, in fact, gives us a lense through which to dream, to believe, to wail with Rachel and refuse consolation for our loss in this world. For such refusal of consolation in this world places us in a position to both receive what Jesus’ first coming meant and lean anxiously toward that which his second coming will bring. As George Steiner has recently suggested, that is the place we, along with most humankind, are in – a place in-between – a place called Saturday: a place between the reality of the cross on the one hand, and all the sufferng for sin and failure and power struggles that it embodies, and Sunday on the other hand, with all the hope, resolution, reunion and rest that it promises.

It could be that, like me, you’ll be having Christmas at Matthew’s house this year. If so, expect the incredulous, watch out for the paranoid and powerful, and most importantly, have pleasant dreams …

For further reading:
Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative.
Steiner, George. Real Presences.

In reaction to this article: A Christian Educator Revisits ‘Matthew’s House’
Andre Resner’s followup: A 1993 Note from Andre ResnerWineskins Magazine

by André Resner

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