Hidden Meanings of Christmas: The Mothers of Jesus

By Rev. Doug Gray

As you might guess, I have been thinking about Christmas a lot lately. As I have been reading, I was particularly struck by something Timothy Keller said in his book, Hidden Christmas. He writes, “Christmas is the only Christian holy day that is also a major secular holiday—arguably our culture’s biggest. The result is two different celebrations, each observed by millions of people at the very same time.” [1] So I was curious, is there a “hidden” Christmas, and what does he think it is? The more I read, the more I think he’s onto something, something that gets at the core of what it means to know and follow Jesus. Unfortunately, we can only have a taste of it Sunday morning, but if you would like the rest of the meal, you may want to come to Bible Study on Monday nights.

Today we begin with the “Mothers of Jesus,” and what I used to think was a really boring chapter in the Bible. Some things have changed my mind, one of them being that in ancient times people used their genealogies like a resumé. As we are reading along, let’s pay attention to who is in Jesus’ resumé.

Do you remember putting your first resumé together? What kinds of things did you include? If you were to give someone advice on their resumé, what would you say?

[take responses from the congregation]

Sure, I was told to do those things too. The goal is to make yourself look good, right? Have you ever known someone who “tinkered” with their resumé a little? Maybe they left off a job they didn’t like or that didn’t like them? Maybe they dressed up something that was not so glamorous. So in ancient genealogies, it turns out people would tinker with their family tree like some people tinker with their resumés—skip over that ne’er do well, accentuate the connections with movers and shakers and so on. As we are reading Matthew’s version of Jesus’ family tree, we should not be surprised that Matthew includes Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and David and Solomon. Right? They are famous parents of faith. But what’s really interesting to me are the mothers of Jesus, five women who changed the world. Who are the mothers of Jesus, and how does Matthew including them uncover some of the hidden Christmas?
The five mothers of Jesus are right there in the text. They are

     •    Tamar, the mother of the twins, Perez and Zerah (Genesis 38)
     •    Rahab, the mother of Boaz who marries (Joshua 2)
     •    Ruth, the mother of Obed and great-grandmother of King David (Ruth 1–4)
     •    Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon (2 Samuel 11–12)
     •    Mary, who is Jesus’ mom (Luke 1 and 2)

So these days, we always look at fathers and mothers in a genealogy. But in Jesus’ day, it just wasn’t done. Women didn’t have a vote, couldn’t represent themselves in court and couldn’t defend themselves even if their husband was a jerk. If men always had the inside track, then women were what Keller calls, “gender outsiders.” Looking at the list again, Tamar, Rahab and Ruth are not even Jews—the first two are Canaanite women and Ruth is from Moab. Even though they became Jews by marriage, these women would not have been allowed into the Jewish part of the tabernacle or Temple. So these mothers are what Keller calls “racial outsiders” as well. Oh, but it gets better—or crazier! Tamar’s husband died. When her father-in-law decided his son was too young to get married, she veiled herself as a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law, something everywhere else in the Bible is called as an abomination. But Tamar made sure her husband was not childless. Of course, in our Old Testament passage for the day, Rahab actually is a prostitute, but she has the spiritual insight that God is moving powerfully in the people of Israel, and she hides Hebrew spies in her ceiling. Tamar and Rahab are what Keller calls “moral outsiders.” And let’s not forget King David! Most of us think, “Oooooo—King David! Cool!” But then Matthew points out, that Solomon’s mother was the “wife of Uriah.” When King David had hundreds of wives, he decided he had to have Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, so David had him killed. Abuse of power and position? Staining the kingship? Betrayal of a close friend? Adultery? Murder? Cover-up conspiracy? Yes, all of these. David and Bathsheba are not shining examples of moral, ethical, and spiritual behavior. And please let us not forget Mary, who is probably a teen-ager when the angel tells her she’s going to have a baby, and she is supposed to be marrying Joseph the carpenter. She, like some of the others, is a “social outsider,” because her reputation in the community will never be the same. People know when she is getting married, and they know when Jesus is born, and they know Joseph is not the father. All these mothers for Jesus, the Son of God, are outsiders in at least one way, but by God’s grace, they believed God’s promises, lived in trust with God and were blessed. Tim Keller writes, “God is not ashamed of us. We are all in his family.”

So when we add all this up, so what? How does it change our lives? First, anyone who feels shut out or left out by society by gender, by race, by bad things they’ve done, by just being different—all of these are welcomed into Jesus’ family. To the folks who hear, “You’re not the right kind of people,” Jesus says, “You’re my kind of people.” No matter how deep or dark the stains, if we want to be different, to be more, to be whole—and in Jesus we find we belong and we are family.

Second, grace rules. Like a lot of people, when we look closely at most of the heroes of the Bible, they are often flawed. In Jesus’ genealogy, there are cheats and liars, adulterers and murderers. They are not in Jesus’ lineage because they are great, they are in because they are loved. So before we get too overawed by these heroes and heroines, we have to remember they make it in because of grace. Which reminds us that before we were able to do even one good thing in our lives, God loved us. Before we could impress God with how hard we work, or how good we are, or how well we have it together, God was already there, loving us, calling us, longing for us to run into our heavenly Father’s embrace! It’s why Jesus came! So whatever we have done, and wherever we have been, grace rules!

Finally, a person has value, not because of what they do or how they contribute because of God’s love. Keller writes, “Maybe you look down on those snobs with so much education, or maybe it’s those ignorant ones with no education. Maybe you despise the people whose political views you think are ruining the country. In all of these examples, you have been taught to see some people as unclean, beyond the pale, unholy—while you are okay. Jesus Christ’s values are radically different. The world values pedigree, money, race, and class. He turns all that upside down…He says, in a sense, “In my family, those things that are so important out there in the world must not be so important.” [2]

This is where we find the Hidden Christmas—God made us and loves us and wanted to make a way for us to come into a deep and abundant, trust relationship. But we couldn’t make it for ourselves—couldn’t get a resumé together that didn’t have problems—so God came down in Jesus so that we could all be family. Whether or not we are with blood-relatives this Christmas, God has invited all of us to be family in Him. Amen.

[1]Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (NY:  Viking, 2016), p. 1.

[2] Keller, Hidden Christmas, pp. 33–34.