Five Merciful Mothers

This sermon was originally written for Third Presbyterian Church on November 27th 2016, which would have been the Sunday before Advent began. The Senior Pastor at the time, Rev. Vance Torbert, thought it would be fun to title our sermons as a count-down to Christmas. I thought I would post it now (remember this week Third Church lit the advent candle of Love) because the love of these Five Merciful Mothers passed on through generations, all the way to Jesus. I hope their stories inspire you this advent season.


Matthew 1:1-17 The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah

An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.

12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.

17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

Typically, Old Testament genealogies do not include mothers.  Matthew’s genealogy is unusual and for good reason.    These women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, are unusual women.  They don’t have much in common other than being part of this genealogy and perhaps that none of them fit the ordinary Old Testament patterns of marriage and family.  It may be possible that their names are included to prepare us for the unusualness of Mary’s conception and Jesus’ birth.  Their stories, along with Mary’s story, show God’s purpose at work even in situations that challenge ordinary human expectations and values. 

Tamar’s story (Genesis 38) isn’t one you would hear at Vacation Bible School.  Her situation can best be understood if you first understand the concept of “levirate marriage”.  You can look it up in Deuteronomy 25:5-10 if you like, but the basic idea is that if your husband dies, his brother is supposed to marry you.  And the first son you have with your brother-in-law (now husband) would be considered a descendant of your first husband, that way his genealogical line would not end.  So, Tamar is married to Judah’s oldest son Er. Er dies before a son is born, so Judah has his second son, Onan marry Tamar.  Onan knows that any son born to him and Tamar would be considered his brother Er’s son so he spills his seed on the ground to prevent a pregnancy.  For this disobedience, God took Onan’s life.  Judah has a third son, Shelah, but is worried that Tamar might be at fault for the deaths of his oldest two sons, so he sends her home to live with her family.  He makes it seem like his third son isn’t old enough to be married so she should wait with her family instead of staying with his.  Conveniently, Judah does not have to care for her or feed her if he sends her home to live as a widow. 

Well, when the third son was old enough, Judah did not do anything.  As a widow, Tamar does not have any status in her society.  Because she is not a virgin she doesn’t have a chance of marrying except to marry the brother of her deceased husbands.  Living with her father as a widow isn’t the life she had expected. 

Years passed and Judah’s wife died.  Finally, Tamar decided to take matters into her own hands.  She disguises herself as a prostitute and Judah takes the bait.  He sleeps with her and since he can not pay, he gives her his seal, cord and staff, which were important forms of identification as a promise that he will bring payment.  She puts her widow’s clothes back on and prays.  A while later she discovers that she is pregnant.  And a while after that, the scandal of a pregnant widow reaches Judah and in a show of righteous indignation, Judah insists that Tamar be put to death.  Then Tamar brings out the seal, cord and staff of the baby’s daddy.  When Judah recognizes the items as his own he says, “She is more in the right than I, since I did not give her my son Shelah”.  Tamar gives birth to twins, Zerah and Perez.  Perez is one of the fathers mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew. 

Tamar’s behavior is unexpected.  By modern thought, all of the behavior in this story has been unexpected.  But after all of that, Tamar must have been considered an important woman because later in the blessing given to Boaz on the occasion of his marriage to Ruth invokes, Leah, Rachel and Tamar as role models for Ruth.  More on Ruth in just a bit.  It really is amazing what God can do with the unexpected.

[pause]

The next woman in the genealogy is Rahab.  Her story can be found in Joshua chapters 2 and 6. 

We probably know Joshua best as the one who fought the battle of Jericho.  But before the walls came tumbling down, Joshua sent spies into the city.  When the spies arrived they came to the house of Rahab who is identified as a prostitute.  Her house is in the city wall.  That’s where the poor people live.  They are on the front line when the city is attacked. Some commentaries speculate that she was a keeper of the public house or an innkeeper, but it seems unlikely since she is also referred to in the books of Hebrews and James as a Harlot. While the spies are in her home the king of Jericho finds out they are in the city.  Rahab hides them on the roof and tells the city officials looking for the spies that they have already left town.  After the kings men have left to look for the spies elsewhere, Rahab talks to the Israelite spies saying, “I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that dread of you has fallen on us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt in fear before you. 10 For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites that were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you utterly destroyed. 11 As soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no courage left in any of us because of you. The Lord your God is indeed God in heaven above and on earth below. 12 Now then, since I have dealt kindly with you, swear to me by the Lord that you in turn will deal kindly with my family. Give me a sign of good faith 13 that you will spare my father and mother, my brothers and sisters, and all who belong to them, and deliver our lives from death.” 14 The men said to her, “Our life for yours! If you do not tell this business of ours, then we will deal kindly and faithfully with you when the Lord gives us the land.” 

Rahab’s speech isn’t simply flattering the spies to save her family, it is a classic Israelite affirmation of faith, reciting the events of Israel’s deliverance, especially at the Red Sea, as a basis for believing in the saving power of the Lord. 

In The New Testament Rahab is mentioned in the book of Hebrews as part of the list of heroes of the Old Testament faith and in James, as one whom like Abraham is justified by works and not faith alone.  The point James is making is that faith without works is dead.

Matthew includes her in Jesus’ genealogy as the wife of Salmon and the mother of Boaz.  Her presence in this genealogy prepares us for the possibility that God uses unlikely people to work for our good. She is proof that even someone outside of the Jewish community can recognize the power of the God of Israel.  And if such an unlikely woman was among the Messiah’s female ancestors, is it really that unlikely that God would choose to have the Messiah born of Mary, a village girl of no account from a human point of view. 

[pause]

The next woman to appear in Jesus’ genealogy is Ruth.  She is easy to find because she has a book named after her.  The very basic story is this:  Elimelech, a citizen of Bethlehem, takes his wife Naomi and his two sons to the neighboring territory of Moab because of a famine.  The two sons marry Moabite women, Ruth and Orpah.  The women remain childless and after some time the father and sons die.  The widowed Naomi decides to return to Bethlehem.  She tells her daughters-in-laws that they shouldn’t come with her.  Orpah returns to her home but Ruth insists on coming with Naomi to Bethlehem.  When they arrive at Bethlehem, Ruth seeks food for both of them by gleaning barely fields.  She comes unknowingly to the field of Boaz, a prominent man of the village who turns out to be a relative of Naomi.  Boaz is kind to her. 

When the time of the threshing arrives, Naomi suggests that Ruth prepare herself attractively and approach Boaz during the night as he sleeps by the village threshing floor.  The narrator fills the scene with vocabulary that has ordinary meaning but can also have overtones of sexual relations; what happens physically between Ruth and Boaz is shrouded in mystery.  What is clear is that Ruth suggests to Boaz that he should marry her.  The next day, Boaz announces his intention to marry her, and the villagers (probably the men) join in wishing him God’s blessing in the form of children by his new wife, so that the house of Boaz “may be like the house of Perez, whom Tamar bore to Judah” (4:12).  The two are married and have a son, Obed.  Then the book ends with a genealogy that begins with Perez (remember that is Judah and Tamar’s son) and it also includes Salamon (whom we know was married to Rahab) and then to their son Boaz whom with Ruth had Obed.  The genealogy continues through to David.

The story of Ruth stands against the longstanding fear of foreign women.  Boaz praises her faithfulness to her mother-in-law.  Boaz invokes God’s blessing upon Ruth and takes her in marriage with the approval of the entire community.  But the path to their eventual marriage is not at all conventional.  In this way, Ruth’s story demonstrates that honor (not suspicion) may belong to a woman who finds herself in unusual circumstances.  As with Mary, what appears to the human eye to be inappropriate behavior turns out to be highly regarded. 

[pause]

Matthew’s genealogy doesn’t use Bathsheba’s name, but instead calls her “the wife of Uriah” and perhaps the intention is to point out the unusual circumstances of her relationship with David and how they came to have a son together.  Bathsheba’s story can be found in 2 Samuel chapters 11 and 12.  Just looking at the headings in the bible can sum up the story.  David commits adultery, David has Uriah killed and The prophet Nathan tells David he’s been a real jerk.  Okay, that last one I made up, but you remember the story now right. 

Bathsheba is bathing on her rooftop, which wasn’t that uncommon.  There isn’t any indication that she had intended to be seen.  But David did see and he summoned her to the palace and he got what he wanted.  Then David had her husband killed.  All of the action is around David; Uriah’s wife is just an object in the story. God was upset so he sent Nathan to David.  Nathan tells David he’s been a real jerk, David confesses his sin.  The child dies.  Just a few short verses later Solomon is born. 

The readers know her as Bathsheba but the story only calls her by name at the beginning of the story when she is identified as the woman bathing and again at the end of the story when David consoled his wife Bathsheba, and lay with her; and she bore a son, and he named him Solomon.

All of the stories of the women in Jesus’ genealogy, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba don’t have much in common other than none of their stories fits how things are supposed to be. 

And you thought thanksgiving with your family was weird.  Jesus didn’t come from a perfect family either and isn’t that good news.  The son of God came to be part of this unusual genealogy maybe so that we could see that God can work through the most ordinary imperfect people.  And maybe, just maybe there is a chance that God can continue to work through ordinary imperfect people like you and like me. 

I find great hope that even the imperfect and ordinary can be part of God’s plan in the hymnist’s words:

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die

For poor on’ry people like you and like I;

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow’s stall

With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all

But high from God’s heaven, a star’s light did fall

And the promise of ages it then did recall.

If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing

A star in the sky or a bird on the wing

Or all of God’s Angels in heaven to sing

He surely could have it, ’cause he was the King

I wonder as I wander out under the sky

How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die

For poor on’ry people like you and like I;


Benediction: May the Peace of Christ go with you; wherever he may send you. May he guide you through the wilderness and protect you through the storm. May he bring you home rejoicing at the wonders he has shown you. May he bring you home rejoicing once again into our doors


Resources used for this sermon include:

Blessed One: Protestant Perspectives on Mary Edited by Beverly Roberts Gaventa and Cynthia L. Rigby

Prostitutes, Virgins and Mothers, Questioning Teachings about Biblical Women by Dr. Paula Trimble-Familetti

Grow a pair, like these 5 strong mothers

1 thought on “Five Merciful Mothers

  1. such powerful expositions, each of them. I loved reading and learning much. Thank you.I certainly shall look forward to much more from you to glean from. God bless the work of your hands, your ministry and your life.

    Liked by 1 person

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