Matthew 1:18-25 – Fourth Sunday of Advent
I’m not sure that people often think of Matthew as a provocative gospel. I think that designation usually goes to Luke’s gospel as people will cite Jesus’ interactions with women, his stance on money, and the mission to the Gentiles in Acts. However, if you’re willing to sit in the tension, Matthew is a wonderfully provocative gospel.
Before getting to our scene today, I want to lift up what has taken place just before this. The very beginning of Matthew begins with a genealogy. Many genealogies at this time were patriarchal (if you look at Luke’s genealogy that is the case – cf. 3:23-38) meaning that only the men are listed. But Matthew’s genealogy includes four women: Tamar (Gen 38), Rahab (Josh 2), Ruth, and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah (2 Sam 11-12; 1 Kings 1). These women were crucial to the to the continuation of the Davidic line and crucial to God’s story with God’s people. And yet, for generations, these women have been viewed as scandalous. They are often forgotten or intentionally ignored in the story because their part in the story has been viewed as problematic and falling outside of tradition. Much of that is because of blatant misogyny and deference toward male authority. However, even if we distance ourselves from the archaic and derogatory interpretation that these women are “scandalous”, these stories do contain scandal because they are examples of misuse of power, war, sexual violence, and unknown heritage and ancestry (there are debates about all four women being Jewish or Gentile). In including these four women, Matthew is jumping right into the thick of the scandal. In just this introduction, to someone who is keenly aware of the Hebrew scriptures, there is already a lot of tension and Matthew is drawing us to look at that closely. Matthew wants us to know, in spite of the scandal, and because of the heroic actions of these women, the Davidic line continued, and God’s story (as told in scripture) continued through them. In short, God is still moving and acting in the midst of scandal. God is not afraid of our scandal and at times uses it to show where power is misplaced and where true authority and humanity is found. These women, chosen by God, live faithfully and heroically in order to continue the story of God with the people of Israel. **There are numerous commentaries that look at these women and give proper understanding to their role in God’s story and I urge you to read more about them in those sources (see footnote below).
Remembering this genealogical introduction is crucial for our text in the fourth Sunday of Advent because Matthew is throwing us immediately back into scandal. Many commentaries remind us that pregnancy out of wedlock would have been devastatingly scandalous at the time. Although stoning would have been mostly done away with by this time, a public dismissal would have put Mary and her baby in a terrible position with little support from the community (a death sentence of a different kind). And yet, our text seems to show us that Joseph had a more tender heart, “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [he] planned dismiss her quietly.” This would have ended their betrothal and allowed Mary to remarry without the matter becoming public.
But that is the misinterpreted “scandal” of this story. The powerful movement of this text is not that Mary is pregnant out of wedlock, for we know that is God’s doing. But the scandal that God is introducing is the radical change in power and authority that flows in this text.
At this time, power is supposed to reside in the patriarchy. Joseph is supposed to represent power. But even as early as the last line of the genealogy indicates that’s not where the power resides: “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Joseph the husband of Mary. Even before the text begins, we are to understand who actually holds the power in this story. And to make it even more evident, Joseph is told in a dream that he is not to dismiss Mary but instead to marry her.
If we follow the power of this text, Matthew takes power away from the patriarchy and gives it to a young woman who appears to the world to be wrapped up in scandal. And rather than following the line of Joseph, it is Mary who will be the central character of righteousness and honor. It is Mary who is the mother of Jesus. Joseph is only the husband of Mary. It is Mary that will hold true power in her womb and bear “God who is with us.” It is Mary who will hold the baby when the magi kneel before Jesus at their home.
From the very beginning, Matthew wants us to shift perceptions of power and authority and to shift our perceptions of scandal. Matthew wants us to already be more comfortable recognizing that matters of tradition are less important than the movement of God’s kingdom. Scandal is not the breaking of unjust laws and tradition. Scandal is the misuse of power, the threat of violence, and the neglect of people in need. Righteousness is being able to understand this difference and continue to follow the movement of God’s kingdom even when tradition, societal law, and institutional structure try to hold onto power and authority. This will be immediately placed in tension by Herod’s example of power in the manipulation of the magi (2:7-8), the slaughter of the Holy Innocents (2:16-18), and then further exampled in the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas.
This reinterpretation of scandal, power, and authority will be critical to the interpreting the teachings of Jesus as we move through this prophetic Gospel.
In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are not in the same position that they are in Luke. They are not poor, or traveling, or subject to Roman oppression right at this moment. They are an ordinary family that find themselves wrapped up in the midst of scandal. The rules of society at the time call for disciplinary action or for Mary to silently be cast away. And yet, through God’s messenger, mercy is called for and Joseph does not dismiss her. Scandals are moments when we perceive our traditions to be violated. But what would it look like for us to be less afraid of changes to our traditional and societal expectations? What would it look like if we were instead “scandalized” by misuses of power and authority?
Displaced Power and Authority
We usually talk about power flipping in the Gospel of Luke, but there is a lot of authority language in Matthew as well. What does it mean to analyze power and authority in our society vs the power and authority of God? What does it mean for us as the church when they are not the same?
 Michael D. Coogan, Ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 9 NT.
 Bathsheba – Wil Gafney, “Restoring Bathsheba,” The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. | Womanists Wading in the Word™, December 29, 2012, https://www.wilgafney.com/2012/08/19/restoring-bathsheba/.
2) Tamar – Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012).
3) Rahab – Wil Gafney, “Remixed Gospel of Rahab: Who Are You Calling a Whore,” The Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D. | Womanists Wading in the Word™, November 19, 2020, https://www.wilgafney.com/2016/05/21/remixed-gospel-of-rahab-who-are-you-calling-a-whore/.
4) Ruth – Wilda C. Gafney, “Ruth,” in The Peoples’ Bible Companion, ed. Curtiss Paul DeYoung et al (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).
 R. Alan Culpepper, Matthew: A Commentary (Westminster John Knox Press, 2021), 36.
 Culpepper, 36.