The Wall Street Journal ran a column in which a writer lamented a decline in the number of high school students participating on athletic teams, and particularly in football. While acknowledging the concussion problem, he spoke positively about what those who play football learn in terms of leadership and cooperation and teamwork.
Those were not the reason I played high school football, though Clarence Central High School east of Buffalo, New York, was hardly a football power. When I was a freshman and got into only a few of our freshman-sophomore team games, neither that team nor our varsity won a game, and my sophomore year, when I was a frosh-soph starter, our team won two of our seven games and tied another, but the varsity remained winless.
I skipped my junior year of high school, so I was going to have but one more year of football, and I lived for it; I would go to bed a half-hour early during the football season to make sure that I was well rested for our daily after school practices, and threw myself at the calisthenics and wind sprints and the whole bit, and became a starter on defense and played a fair amount of offense as well. Our third or fourth game of the season, I intercepted one of those rarely thrown passes back in that era, and we won for the first time in over two years!
Wow, that was great, and on the spur of the moment, the mother of one of the players invited us all over to their house that evening for a victory party.
Now, I was very well behaved, but it was still more than a month before I would have my first date with my late wife, Carol, who was not at that party anyway, so I danced with several girls, one of whom was in the new senior class in which I found myself, and whom I had not actually met previously, but I knew that she had a not-very-good reputation, that she was “that kind of girl.” As we stood facing each other at the end of a dance, she pulled up and down on the zipper of my pull-over sweat shirt, but that was the extent of any contact between us — as my teammates all saw and knew.
As they saw and knew, but on Monday morning, before the first class as we had our usual fifteen minute gathering at the junction where the two hallways of the school ran together, they good-naturedly teased me a great deal and talked about the crush she now had on me, and a few weeks later, when she began what turned out to be a fairly lengthy absence from the school, they said that she was pregnant, jokingly, because they knew it could not be, by me!
And whether or not it might be so today, the idea of an unmarried high school girl being pregnant simply was not something acceptable at that time; what kind of girl — forget the role of a boy — would do that?
The very Jewish writer of the Gospel according to Matthew lets us know that this would have been the attitude toward an unmarried young Jewish girl two thousand years ago, as well; an unmarried, pregnant teenager in Jewish Palestine at the time of Jesus’ birth would probably be looked upon with much less favor and understanding than we would do today, when so many children are in fact born out of wedlock. He lets us know by providing us with the information that Joseph was, “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.” So we can assume that Mary would have been regarded as a . . . as a . . . girl of a certain type.
To further that conclusion, let’s look at what the writer of Matthew offered us before launching into discussing Mary’s miraculous pregnancy.
I had been pleased to return to the Gospel According to Matthew for our but four-week-old new Church year, largely because of the opportunities it affords for preaching during Advent. At the same time, I did not want to tread the same ground about the genealogy of Jesus — it clearly is really the genealogy of Joseph — that begins Matthew, for I had spoken on it in past years, when I felt that I was being uniquely original. Now, I find that at least some other sources are dealing as did I then with at least two aspects of that genealogy: that prior to Mary, only four women are mentioned in what amounts to forty-one generations, and that none of those four were Jewish, but also — and what is relevant to what I wish to say today, — also, that those four all have aspects concerning their sexual behavior that would strike the readers of Matthew’s Gospel as at least somewhat scandalous, and would label unfavorably the kind of women they were.
. . . in other words, the pregnant, unmarried Mary would then have seemed to be another in the line of these women of tarnished character in their sexual behavior — a tarnished character that was incurred in the service of God’s plan, however.
And there is a message I want to draw from this lineage: all five of these women, if we include Mary, play roles in what ultimately is the birth of Jesus — even if we might question why Joseph’s lineage matters if Mary was a virgin; that is a question to which the answer as best we can speculate is to tie Jesus into David.
This message is, quite simply, something that is at the heart of Christianity: God does not expect nor demand that we be perfect! With all due respect and affection for the Roman Catholic Church, by concluding that Mary must have been conceived without sin — it is Mary’s conception that is meant by “The Immaculate Conception,” — a message that can matter for the rest of us and is right there in Matthew’s genealogy is lost: God loves sinners, and God uses sinners in fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity!
And if God intended for sinners to be saved, to be reconciled in our imperfect and sinful behavior, sexual and otherwise, with a perfect God, through God’s becoming human and going to death on a cross, why would we expect that if we are not perfect, God would have no use for us?
These four women to whom I referred appear in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. The first woman is named Tamar; she is in the Book of Genesis. Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Judah, himself a great-grandson of Abraham, but, more importantly, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, Israel. The tribe of Judah represented virtually all Jews alive by the time of Jesus. Judah is important, therefore, not for his person, but for his offspring, which most of Jews living today would be. Tamar was married to Judah’s oldest son, who died without fathering offspring. Based on a concept for which we have little evidence of its observation, the next son marries Tamar, and he, too, dies without offspring. Not wanting to lose his third and youngest son, Judah basically sends Tamar away. Later, while traveling to sell some sheep, he sees her, but does not recognize her and thinks she is a “temple” — not a Jewish temple, for there was no such thing at that time — thinks she is a “temple prostitute,” and has sex with her. Tamar becomes pregnant, but she is no dummy, and while I won’t repeat the whole story, she ultimately forces Judah to recognize that he is the father of her child. Rahab was the actual prostitute in Jericho who helped spies sent into that city by Joshua before that legendary battle. Ruth’s story is lovely, but in a sense, like Tamar, she is somewhat manipulative and resourceful in using, ahem, sex: with the help of her mother-in-law, the widowed Ruth succeeds in getting Boaz to marry her. Ruth is the grandmother of David, who in the celebrated story, spies Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, David’s general, bathing on the roof of her home, and ultimately beds her — then facilitates her husband’s being killed in battle, murder by any other name, — and she, at a later time, gives birth to Solomon. I find Bathsheba to be a victim, but she would also have been considered by the norms of her and of the thousand years later writer of Matthew’s time, though rather unfairly by the norms of today, which are in this case better, under the norms of earlier times, she would have been considered as an adulteress.
So in the least strong terms, in the genealogy, Mary is associated with a prostitute, two sexual manipulators, and an adulteress; not exactly the sort of persons to whom wants to be seen as “comparable.”
So what kind of girl, what kind of person would the people of her times think Mary was — or, what would they have thought she was had not Joseph been such a good guy? Why, take your pick; none of those labels, prostitute, sexual manipulator, or adulteress is what we would want our daughters to be considered.
And yet, and yet, not only did God favor Mary, which is the perspective of the writer of the Gospel according to Luke, and certainly that of the Christian Church, but God must have loved and trusted as well those four other women, who by and large were not so youthfully innocent — even if hardly “fallen” women — as was Mary.
None of us adults is so pure as that young Mary, but few of us are Rahabs, either. We are faulty, yes, sinful, human beings, but we are those for whom God sent Jesus in the first place, and we are those on whom God wants to rely to further the spreading of the Good News that tells of what God through Jesus has done for us.
Unlike Mary, we are not asked to live months of morning sickness or other such bodily inconveniences as did she in order for us to serve Him, which gives us even more reason to ask of ourselves, “If God could use a prostitute like Rahab, if a young woman like Mary would give so of herself, why cannot we give at least a bit of ourselves to proclaim the one for whose birth we owe Mary our sincere gratitude, gratitude for being an involuntary yet willing servant of our God and Father who sent His only begotten Son on our behalf?”
In a very real sense, Mary gave her body, if only for nine months, to bring Christ to a world that so badly needs him.
What are we willing to do to be a girl — or woman, or man — like Mary in our willingness to take Christ to a world that does still need Him?
In the name of the one to whom Mary gave birth, Jesus our Lord and Savior. Amen.