The Unlikely Heroes in Matthew One

January: Matthew 1; Luke 1

Matthew was a tax collector by profession. For the Jews, the heavy taxes laid upon them by their Roman oppressors were a financial burden and a spiritual and emotional reminder that they were not a free people, but under the rule of a Gentile nation. There were two kinds of tax collectors. The first were the Roman tax collectors charged with maintaining the stream of money needed by the Roman war machine to maintain the glory of Rome. The second kind were the tax gatherers who worked for local leaders, such as King Herod, who would gather the moneys from the people themselves. This was probably the kind of tax gatherer Matthew would have been. He would work for Herod and be hated by his Jewish brothers and sisters. These tax collectors were usually excommunicated from the Jewish religion for their part in oppressing their own people.

Matthew’s given name was Levi, son of Alphaeus.[i] But the name we know him by is Matthew, which means “Gift of God.” We have a glimpse of what his fellow Jews felt about Matthew through Matthew’s own words.

And as Jesus passed forth from thence, he saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and he saith unto him, Follow me. And he arose, and followed him. And it came to pass, as Jesus sat at meat in the house, behold, many publicans and sinners came and sat down with him and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick. But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.[ii]

The negative response of the scribes and Pharisees against Matthew as a tax gatherer illustrates that hate and disdain the Jews in general would have felt for Matthew (or Levi). Yet, Matthew had a great testimony Jesus’ mission on earth. His focus for writing his gospel or testimony of Christ was to persuade his Jewish brothers and sisters that Jesus was the foretold Promised Messiah of the Old Testament and he would quote from the words of the Old Testament as a testament of that fact.

Matthew starts with an interesting genealogy of the Savior. He purposely highlights women who are in the Savior’s priestly line who were wrongly judged by society or misused by men of power. Given the fact that Matthew had experienced those same abuses, he would have had a special understanding or at least an inkling of what these women had experienced at the hand of men.

He focuses on five women: Tamar[iii], Rahab[iv], Ruth, Bathsheba[v], and Mary[vi], the Savior’s mother. Tamar was the widow of Judah’s eldest son and was not an Israelite by birth, but a Canaanite. As a widow without a son to take care of her, she was at the whim of her father in law who was not doing right by her. She used trickery to have twin sons by Judah. Judah’s view of Tamar’s sin was ironic given the fact that he had been adulterous himself, yet he intended to have her burned as punishment for her (and his) sin. When she proves to Judah that he is the father, Judah admits: “She hath been more righteous than I….”[vii]

Rahab is characterized as the harlot of Jericho who hides the Israelite spies in her apartment to save them from soldiers. Whether she was a harlot or a simple innkeeper, her previous sins did not stop her form recognizing the Israelite spies as men of God. She said to the spies: “I know that the Lord hath given you the land… and that all the inhabitants of the land faint because of you.”[viii]

Her faith was even referenced by apostles in the New Testament. Paul used Rahab’s story as an example of faith: “By faith the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about seven days. By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace.” (Hebrews 11:30-31).

In James’ discourse on faith and good works, he also used Rahab as an example of good works: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified and not by faith only. Likewise also was not Rahab the harlot justified by works, when she had received the messengers and had sent them out another way?” (James 2: 24-25) James concluded his thought by writing “so faith without works is dead…” (James 2:26)

Rahab in Hebrew means “spacious”[ix] or “broad.”[x] Rahab’s influence truly became broad as she stayed with Israel and became a part of the covenant people. She married into the royal family of Judah, Salmon, the son of Nahshon, who was the tribe of Judah’s leader and commander of the Israelite army.[xi]

The son of Rahab and Salmon was Boaz. Boaz married Ruth, another Gentile who converted to the God of Israel.[xii]  Ruth becomes Boaz’s bride and Boaz becomes the bridegroom and redeemer of both Ruth and Naomi, Ruth’s widowed mother-in-law. The witnesses to this union of Boaz and Ruth proclaim: “The Lord make the woman that is come into thine house like Rachel and like Leah, which two did build the house of Israel… and do thou worthily in Ephratah and be famous in Bethlehem And let thy house be like the house of Pharex, whom Tamar bare unto Judah, of the seed which the Lord shall give thee of this young woman.” (Ruth 4:11-12) Ephratah is the ancient name of Bethlehem and means “fruitful”[xiii] Ruth who was originally bereft of her first husband, her homeland, and her earthly possessions became fruitful because of her faith in the God of Israel.

The power inequality between King David and Bathsheba, a wife who was alone, while her husband, Uriah, was fighting in the king’s army,8 is startling.9 When Bathsheba was summoned to King David, by law, she could not refuse. In this geneaology, Matthew focuses on the fact that “David the king begat Solomon of her that had been the wife of Urias”[xiv] emphasizing David’s adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his subsequent murder of her husband.

Mary was also subject to the possibility of being made a public example because she was pregnant out of wedlock. Joseph, her betrothed, was going to put her away privately so that she would not have to suffer such humiliation and possible physical harm. But an angel of the Lord explained to him the situation: “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.”[xv]

Jennifer Stasak commented that “Jesus came from a family filled with unlikely people, including outcasts and harlots. Through this, Jesus tells us that he celebrated and loved the unlikely people – ones he can turn into unlikely heroes.”[xvi] These women that Matthew chose to highlight were are unlikely heroes in their stories of rising above oppression and unjust persecution. The Apostle Peter taught: “The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations.” (II Peter 2:9). Matthew understood this concept because he also was delivered from his hated position as a tax collector to becoming an apostle to His Savior, Jesus Christ, whom he knew and testified was the Promised Messiah of Israel.

[xvii]


[i] Luke 5:27-32

[ii] Matthew 9:9-13

[iii] Genesis 38

[iv] Ruth 1-4

[v] 2 Samuel 11-12

[vi] Matthew 1:16

[vii] Genesis 38:26

[viii] Joshua 2:9

[ix] She shall be called Woman: Women of the Old Testament. Ensign, September 2006

[x] Bible Dictionary, p. 759

[xi]Rex Rouis, Rahab: The Harlot in the Genealogy of Christ, https://www.hopefaithprayer.com/rahab-harlot-genealogy-christ/

[xii] Matthew 1:5

[xiii] Bible Dictionary, Ephrath, Epharah, p. 666.

[xiv] Matthew 1:6

[xv] Matthew 1:20

[xvi] Jennifer Stasak, Unlikely Heroes: The Women of Matthew 1, Wyckliffe Bible Translators (December 1, 2020) https://www.wycliffe.org/blog/posts/unlikely-heroes-the-women-of-matthew-1.

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