Kieran Fenn fms
Mary plays a small but significant role in Matthew, principally in the infancy narrative.
This gospel attempts to answer questions about the origins of Jesus, firstly by placing him within the Jewish tradition and as the fulfilment of their messianic hope.
His ancestors were mainly ordinary folk who advanced God’s plan by their fidelity to the usual tasks of everyday life.
The genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17 moves from Abraham to David to the messiah, from one end of Jewish history to the other – from humble beginnings to glorious fulfilment.
There are four notable exceptions in the patriarchal cadences – women were rarely mentioned in Jewish genealogies so four in a brief genealogy is exceptional.
Why should these four women be part of a list that ends with Mary?
1. St Jerome regarded all four as sinners and Jesus came to save sinners; later Jewish tradition considered Rahab and Ruth as heroines.
2. Luther said they were all foreigners. Matthew makes much of Jesus’ mission to foreign gentiles but does not emphasise the women’s non-Israelite origins. This is not necessarily the case with Tamar or Bathsheba. The theory also fails to take into account the fifth woman, Mary.
3. All five share irregular marriages yet were vehicles of God’s messianic plan. It was a scandal to those outside the mystery of God’s plan working through them.
4. Each occurs at a critical moment in the history of God’s people. All preserve the God-willed line of the Messiah: Tamar at the critical origins of the tribe of Judah, before the entry into Egypt; Rahab at the moment of entry into the Promised Land; Ruth at the beginnings of kingship in Israel and Bathsheba at its full flowering in Solomon.
Fulfilment in the unexpected
Mary brings to fulfilment the promise inherent in the life of all these women. These final two explanations seem to apply to all five women, not just four. ‘That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’ (1:20); there is just enough whisper of a scandal and a clear history that the God of Israel sides with the outcast – the endangered woman and her child.God works in history through the abused Tamar who suffers injustice from Judah and his sons; through Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who becomes a heroine of Jewish liberation; through Ruth, vulnerable Moabitess, who enters the messianic line; through Bathsheba who is violated by the king, whose husband is murdered, whose life is appropriated to the royal purposes without negotiation or discussion and yet who becomes a vital link in the Davidic history.
Mary is not a member of the Davidic line (Luke 1:5) but becomes so through marrying Joseph, a sort of ‘illegitimate’ royalty, as with her son.
She is vulnerable to the sanctions of the law and liable to rigorous punishment. She is voiceless in Matthew’s narrative, yet embodies and brings to pass the blessings of God, becoming the arena of sacred history, the place where God’s promises to Israel are carried out.Against the prejudices and head-wagging of contemporary culture and social standards, all these women were to be considered as the instruments of God’s plan for humanity.
Wisdom from the East
Matthew and Luke tell very different stories. Matthew’s account (2:1-12) begins in Bethlehem then brings the family to Nazareth by a circuitous route, via Egypt. This reflects his own theological interest. The parents live in a house in Bethlehem, settled rather than transient, where the child is born. The magi enter this house as the goal of their quest. The danger of death that Mary earlier faced from patriarchal law now gives place to the menace of the state in the form of Herod.
The messianic title ‘King of the Jews’ appears here in its only use outside the passion narrative.
Rather than kings, the magi were people engaged in supernatural arts, notably astrology.
They represent the wise and learned among the gentiles. They make the first public acknowledgement of Jesus as the messiah, but this brings peril by drawing the unwelcome attention of the powerful to the existence of this vulnerable child.
The magi find the child ‘with Mary his mother’; she is at the heart of the new things God is doing in this world. But she is also at the centre of the terror and displacement that follows the visit of the magi. Joseph, warned in a dream that Herod wants to kill Jesus, flees with ‘the child and his mother’ into Egypt.
This is a scene of fear – escaping in the dark from oncoming murder with no guarantee of success and a young family’s life in exile. The plight of millions of refugees is in solidarity with the precarious situation of this small family of 2,000 years ago.
Few things are more traumatic than losing your family home.
In a foreign land, Joseph, as a migrant worker, would have had to do the most menial tasks to survive as with many underprivileged refugees. Mary’s own situation would not have been any better.
It is unfortunate that popular devotion to Mary does not recall her in this experience as a poor, courageous woman.
References: Brown, et al. Mary in the New Testament New York: Fortress/Paulist Press 1978.
Moloney, Francis J. Mary Woman and Mother Homebush: St. Paul Publications 1988.