The oldest written maternal insult dates back roughly to 1500 B.C. Archaeologist J.J. van Dijk discovered it in his excavations in modern-day Iraq in 1976. The tablet, thought to be a student’s handiwork, contains a half-dozen riddles recorded in “very careless writing.” Though incomplete, one of the jokes is a clear attempt to insult another’s mother by talk of her sexual activities. You could say it’s a 3,500-year-old “your mom” joke.

Even Shakespeare was known to throw mom jokes into his plays. We find this one in Act 1, Scene 1 of Timon of Athens:

PAINTER: You’re a dog.
APEMANTUS: Thy mother’s of my generation: what’s she, if I be a dog?

(I’ll let you decipher that one, dear reader).

The maternal insult is, quite literally, the mother of all jokes, and as effective as it is ancient. We understand why it works. Who is closer to us than our mother? We came to life in her womb, where we resided for nine months. In most cases, we nursed at her breast, were carried on her hip, and heard her voice sing us to sleep each night. To attack one’s mother is to assault one’s heart.

But there is something more at work in the maternal insult than an attack on someone close to us — it’s an attack on who we are. After all, our origin determines our nature. A saltwater spring cannot produce sweet water. If my mother is trash, what does that make me?

Jesus would not have lived a fully human life had he not been the target of a few of these insults — and he was. Insinuating the worst about Jesus’ origins happened more than once — and his mother’s sexual activity was not off limits. In John 8, Jesus engaged in a bit of back-and-forth on parentage with some Jews who had believed him. To his insistence that they were not children of Abraham, they retorted, “We weren’t born of sexual immorality!” (v 41). What’s that all about? Biblical scholar D.A. Carson explains: “It is not at all impossible that the Jews are alluding to the irregularities connected with Jesus’ birth. From their perspective, he displays considerable cheek to talk about paternity: they were not born of fornication (wink, wink).” Such a veiled reference to Jesus’ irregular arrival may be behind their earlier question, “Where is your father?” (v 19). Because an outside observer may have concluded that the paternity was uncertain. And a pregnancy resulting from an act of sexual immorality with uncertain paternity sounds a lot like how someone might have described Mary’s (and the arrival of her son, Jesus).

In the mind of a first-century Jew, the honor of Jesus’ mother may have been a factor in a rejection to claim to the name of Messiah. For the apostles, the honor of Jesus’ mother in the events surrounding his birth was a critical fact. If Jesus was born out of sexual immorality, then he was not born of a virgin — and, therefore, not conceived by the Holy Spirit. If Jesus were conceived in sexual sin, he cannot be Immanuel — and therefore God is not with us.

But this defense of a woman’s dignity is not a rare occurrence in Scripture. This brings us to Matthew’s genealogy and the women he includes: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah’s wife. Each of these women was associated with scandalous sexual behavior — yet each is vindicated as a woman of faith and covenant faithfulness (see “This is the Greatest Vocation”). These women are not presented as warnings against immorality, as scholar John Nolland writes in his commentary on Matthew, “Jewish tradition, as well as the Old Testament and New Testament, seems to exonerate or commend rather than accuse these women.” We know their exoneration because we have the inspired commentary. But not all their neighbors had this kind of guidance. Thus, these women were likely the subject of not a few whispered words of gossip and on the receiving end of some subtle side-eye looks.

Matthew includes these women as an apologetic argument, to defend Mary’s honor — and to defend the holy nature of her son. Each of these women was associated with sexual scandal. Yet each is exonerated, and each gave birth to a key figure in the line of David. This is a pattern God established in the Davidic line; therefore, it is not unbelievable that he’d write such a script for the arrival of David’s Greater Son. Yes, Mary became pregnant before she married Joseph. It looks scandalous, but she is righteous in the matter, because “she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:18).

But there’s more at work here than mere apologetics. Matthew’s upholding Mary’s dignity is a model for righteous behavior. Before the angel appeared to Joseph and explained the miraculous conception, Joseph assumed Mary had been involved in a sexually immoral relationship. He planned to tell her to go home. Yet notice what Matthew writes about him: “Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.” Even when he assumed she’d been involved in something disgraceful, he refused to disgrace her publicly. Why? Because he was “a righteous man.” Matthew’s message here is clear: Righteous men do not disgrace women publicly.

That’s worth repeating: Righteous men do not disgrace women publicly. If that’s true even when there is good reason to believe a woman has done something sinful, how much more so is it true when she is innocent? To disgrace a woman is to violate both the greatest and second-greatest commands. Publicly disgracing a woman is a failure to love your neighbor as yourself — and as she too is made in the image of God, this public disgrace is a failure to love God with all that you are.

How does this inform our everyday life? In our daily work, whether in the boardroom or the break room, misogynistic jokes, gender-targeted insults, derogatory stereotypes, and things like these are significantly out of bounds. In the church, whether in the pulpit or small group banter, we forbid such foolish talk — words that grieve God’s Holy Spirit are not spoken, but only those that give grace to those who hear (Eph 4:29, 5:4). And jokes at the expense of women and mothers are always wicked and disgusting, whether we hear them on the playground or in the locker room. This means on social media, too, we refrain from public disgrace — even if we, like Joseph, have grounds to believe there has been wrongdoing. Jesus’ love compels his people to love one another, even those who are evil — this certainly does not look like flippant dismissals or flagrant insults on Twitter (Luke 6:35).

It’s not enough, however, to follow the example of Joseph by refraining from public disgrace. Righteousness compels us to be like Matthew, who so clearly defends the honor of Mary against attacks. Indeed, this is the way of the Messiah, who was known to say, “Leave her alone” (Mark 14:6, John 12:7). Faith in Jesus should produce in us the confidence to stand up to those who bully and insult women in whatever realm.

In the church, it may look like insisting that being known for such behavior disqualifies one from official service in the church (1 Tim 3:1–13, Titus 1:5–16). Christian leaders who continue in this dishonorable conduct should be rebuked and silenced, which may include refusing to buy their books, to attend their conferences, or to prop up their social media accounts. This will come with a cost, especially for pastors who will be disinvited from ministry opportunities, accused of “wokeism,” or ghosted by the “inner rings” of leadership. At school, silencing “locker room talk” and defending the outcast might cost you friends or a place on the team. Online, it may mean eventually paraphrasing the public words of Paul in 2 Timothy 4:14: “This man did great harm to these women. The Lord will repay him according to his works.” Such behavior is risky business. It will cost us something in this world. But the gospel provides all that we need to live this way.

Who among us has not publicly disgraced our neighbor? We’ve all failed to resist it in some way. But Christ never sinned in this way, yet he died for this sin — for our sin. The world may take everything from us — but it cannot separate us from our treasure in Jesus. Faith that looks to this guarantee and is satisfied with him will let everything go to confront the persecution of our neighbor. Because he laid down his life for us, losing ours for his sake is always worth it. Publicly disgracing a woman is an act of unrighteous hate — and “everyone who hates his brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him” (1 John 3:15). Laying down our lives to defend the honor of women is nothing less than Christ-like love.