Last Sunday evening, our house church launched into our first gathering of a new direction for us. We’ve oriented our practices around sharing a meal together, a time of prayer following the Common Prayer book, and a journey chapter by chapter through the gospel of Matthew. As it happens, this first week, we focused on the first chapter of Matthew, which immediately leads to sighs from those familiar with the chapter. Those people are aware that the bulk of the chapter is taken up by the author’s genealogy of Jesus, which often leads to one of two options for people,
1) Read until the first name you stumble over (likely Amminadab), then quickly (quickly) move on, or
2) Pretend like it doesn’t exist (becauseit’sobviouslyboringandChristianityshouldn’tbeboring) and jump right into verse 18 and the birth narrative.
If we engage either of these two options, we’re the better for it, right? I mean, what can really be in a genealogical list? Glad you asked! Our study leader for the week, Steve Ring, gave us some important context issues to be aware of that transform the Matthew genealogy from a ho-hum borefest into a really meaningful section of the gospel that foreshadows the focus of the ministry of Jesus.
First, the author of Matthew emphasizes, right from the beginning, Jesus as Christ (Greek for the Hebrew term Messiah—meaning anointed, in the sense of an anointed king). Jesus is presented as the long-awaited Messiah, expected to be a descendant and heir of King David, so the genealogy seeks to demonstrate this line of descent. Thus, Matthew begins by calling Jesus son of David, indicating his royal origin, and also son of Abraham, indicating that he was a Jew. Son more broadly means descendant, so the author is trying to establish that Jesus is the “Jew’s Jew” by invoking those two significant names. If this is all we could learn about the genealogy, it would still be pretty vanilla (and still worth skipping?). But, on two points, it isn’t. Not by a long-shot.
First, the genealogy is grouped in three parallel groups of fourteen, fourteen, and thirteen. And for those interested in the names embedded in the genealogy, strictly speaking, it is inaccurate, it would not pass muster in a historical textbook. And this is important because it gives us a moment to be aware of the difference between ancient histories and modern histories. And the fundamental difference is that ancient documents weren’t written like today’s textbooks, and it would be a mistake to interpret them as such (are you listening, Ken Ham and Answers in Genesis?) Instead they were written more often to make a statement or have a purposeful meaning. In Matthew’s genealogy, he leaves out four kings of Judah in the middle, and in the last group, somehow pulls off only thirteen generations in 620ish years, which, given that ancient near eastern folks *ahem* got busy often, isn’t likely.
Second, and I would say most important, in a genealogy that is supposed to establish from the beginning Jesus’ cred as the one who will rescue Israel from their enemies (the main task of the Messiah), the author commits two atrocious, unpardonable “sins.” One, he mentions women in the genealogy. And two, all of those women are from *ahem* unsavory backgrounds. In Jesus’ lineage are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary. Tamar was a prostitute with unknown ethnicity, Rahab was a Canaanite, Ruth was a Moabite, Bathsheba was a Hittite, and Mary was an unwed virgin? woman with a fantastical story about where the baby came from.
Genealogies, if seeking to be effective in establishing someone’s claim to a title to a specific group (especially a nationalistic title), went out of their way to present their line as pure and unadulterated by any foreign or lesser influence. And yet, in what seems like a commitment to shooting himself in the foot, the author weaves in unnecessary (women) and impure (nationality and moral choices) elements.
So it seems the author is intentionally ineffective in making his case for the sake of establishing a larger point; that women deeply matter and that Israel’s job isn’t to celebrate or seek some pure national identity, but rather to pay attention to an old command of God to Isaiah from their history,
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6)
That passage from Isaiah was a reminder of an even more ancient word from God to Abraham, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:2)
What is invoked in general in those two passages is given specific form in the commands of God to the people of Israel in how they are to treat foreigners in their society over and over and over and over and over and over and over again.
Maybe the most comprehensive command comes from Deuteronomy 10:17-19
For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who shows no partiality and accepts no bribes. He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.
The focus is always on how Israel’s habits and lifestyle as a society witness to God’s love for the whole world; of how the created can re-connect with the Creator in meaningful ways.
So the vision for Israel was an ancient one of a people saved from slavery to create a society that would be a living example for others to view and imitate; one that would lead the world out of rebellion and into faithful care. The major trouble with this vision is how easily we humans forget this call and settle for a lesser, what seems “more natural” vision of a society where we only embrace people like us and honor those with the most wealth, those who “have it all together,” and celebrate some mythically “pure” ethnic identity. Israel, historically, fell deeply into that temptation and even invented their own folk religion that marginalized other ethnicities, elevated the wealthy religious and social elite, and sought to purify their society through purging it of the sick, the prostitutes, the addicted.
Jesus in his ministry cast down the idol of Israel’s false religion, invoked some ancient commands of God for a different vision, and gave new teachings about how we pursue God’s great society of blessing. And so even here, even in this boring genealogy of Jesus, we see the author (who likely had his own idols of religious and social purity painfully exposed by Jesus) embedding in this story the “new” way of Christian being (that’s really an ancient way intensified and reinterpreted).
So I ask, is our Christian faith one determined by Jesus, one defined by an openness to the margins of our society, one with habits of giving our lives for those not like us, or is it one of seeking an ever intensified expression of ethnic and religious purity? Do we spend more time defining ourselves over against “those people over there” or serving and living life alongside “those people we are among”?
These are troubling, deeply challenging questions for me that call me to place the whole of my life under the gaze of God and cast off all that hinders what God desires to bring about.
These are also deeply important social questions in an American society deeply enmeshed in debates and beliefs about the “outsider” and how we engage them. Christian faith is not to be lived in a vacuum, not to focus entirely on the afterlife at the expense of this life, is not to settle for lesser visions. Our world is deeply divided on these very issues of ethnic and religious purity, and lives hang in the balance that will be lost if the Christian gospel has nothing to say about these very “earthy” matters.
May we pursue the answers to these questions together.