This week school begins for many. The beginning of the school year is a scramble, whether you are a student or a teacher preparing to return to the classroom. And no matter how old the students are or at what level the teacher instructs, it often feels chaotic, a little out of control, and sometimes hard to see how both students and teachers will reach their goals many months down the road. But it is also the beginning, and beginnings carry so much promise.
Today is the Nativity of Mary and her life, too, carried so much promise that was brought to fruition. It did not, I suspect, always seem that way to her or those around her. Matthew’s genealogy highlights the uncanny way in which God’s promises are brought to fulfillment, in ways that confound basic human expectations. Matthew does this quite subtly in 1:1-23, by inserting the names of a number of women in his genealogy, a genealogy that is pronouncedly patriarchal. Who are these women? Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. An interesting group of women by conventional standards. Tamar became pregnant by her father-in-law Judah, because after two of his sons died during marriage to Tamar, he refused to give her another son so that she could give birth to an heir. Tamar took the matter in her own hands, dressed like a prostitute and became pregnant by her father-in-law. Rahab was a prostitute who gave succor and a hiding place to the people of Israel and aided them in their conquest of Canaan. Ruth was a Moabite woman, who remained true to her mother-in-law Naomi and her God, and who took the initiative with Boaz in continuing the family line, becoming an ancestor of David. Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, who King David spied while she was bathing, and who wanted her because she was beautiful and he was a king and that’s what kings do - the prophet Samuel had warned the Israelites about kings. Nathan denounced David’s sinful acts, both against Uriah and Bathsheba, and the child he had conceived with Bathsheba died. Another child was born to them, however, who would become the king Solomon.
The last woman mentioned in the genealogy is Mary, who gave birth to the Messiah. Why is she included in this group of women? All of these women are included because in some way God’s plan worked through them; however ill-conceived their actions were in particular cases, God used them to further his divine initiative. Initially it looked, even to Joseph, Mary’s betrothed, that something had gone very wrong with Mary, until God spoke to him and comforted him. Mary was innocent. God’s plan was to culminate with Mary.
We are not innocent in all that we do. In the same way that Tamar acted rashly, we, too, often want to drive forward God’s plan according to our own schedule or timetable. Yet, it is significant to remember that whatever our beginnings, however we have stumbled or acted sinfully, God can use us to bring forth his plan. Mary is unique, one of a kind, and God’s plan worked through her definitively, but when I think of Tamar, Ruth, Bathsheba and Rahab I think not only are we a part of God’s plan, but he is using us and preparing us when we least expect it, and even when those around us wonder about how anyone could use someone "like that". But to get to Mary, these women that Matthew notes in his genealogy needed to prepare the way, and though on many occasions it probably looked like their beginnings were dead ends, God knew better. He still does. Class is always in session for those who seek his ways.