A Genealogy that Surprises
Here is some scintillating Christmas reading for you:
The Gospel According to Matthew, 1:1-17
The Geneology of Jesus the Messiah
1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram,
4 Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon,
5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse,
6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,
7 Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa,
8 Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah,
9 Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah,
10 Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah,
11 and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon.
12 After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
13 Zerubbabel the father of Abihud, Abihud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor,
14 Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Elihud,
15 Elihud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
16 and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
17 Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah.
Our lectionary on Sunday passed right over this fascinating beginning—I knew you wouldn’t want to miss it.
Well, sort of…
Most people, if they read through the Bible, either skip or get dizzy reading the genealogies and begats. Maybe I should make this more personal: I have certainly skipped over begats and have had only a minimal interest in the genealogy of Matthew’s Gospel. Perhaps like any work in genealogy, however, there are hidden treasures of interest once you dig deeper.
Matthew presents Jesus’ genealogy just before the description of Joseph’s decision to marry an already-pregnant Mary. Matthew tells us that Joseph was urged to name Jesus, thus adopting him, and making him a member of the lineage of King David. In a time when clan, blood relations, and ancestry were the foundation of a person’s identity, power, and resources, this is a startling, strange, and noteworthy beginning. Moreover, the language of the passage—Joseph is described as the husband of Mary, rather than Mary as the wife of Joseph, also indicates that Joseph is a blend, a support character but also essential.
When Jesus is grown he will reach out to outcastes, to foreigners, to enemies, and to the dispossessed. He will show compassion and work on behalf of a woman accused of adultery, have conversations with prostitutes, touch and be touched by a woman who is bleeding and another who is bent over, heal and minister to a man possessed by an army of demons, and heal and bless lepers. The actions of his adopted father, Joseph, who was willing to adopt and raise the child he did not father, show the foundations of such generous and expansive engagement with people who are questionable. Rather than to insist on the story that he had prepared for himself in the course of his righteous life, Joseph was willing to subsume his plans and dreams to those of his intended and pregnant bride.
But with a look at Matthew’s genealogy we see that Joseph comes from a long line of forebearers of questionable backgrounds who are memorable for their shocking behavior. Consider the patriarchs. Abraham is usually seen as a pillar of the faith—yet he abandoned his son Ishmael and concubine Hagar in the desert. Jacob was a trickster who cheated his brother out of an inheritance. King David summoned Bathsheba, who was married to another, to his bed, and when she became pregnant he arranged for the death of her husband.
But what about the women? Matthew’s genealogy not only includes women (who are usually ignored in the lists of begats), but also women who had discomfiting sexual pasts. Tamar pretended to be a sex worker. Rahab was a sex worker. Ruth was a Moabite—an outsider, a foreigner. “The wife of Uriah” was Bathsheba, the object of King David’s lust, who learned to play palace politics so that her son Solomon would become king after David.
The story of Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus follows the stories of the people of God who are flawed human beings, human beings who have the make the best of their circumstances when they have been brought low, or human beings who have made the most of circumstances through unsavory ations. The genealogy of Jesus reminds us that God finds worthy servants in the midst of our shame and disappointment, in the midst of our sorrow and challenges.