Jesus' awful family tree
A new year in the life of the church began this past Sunday. We are once again in the season of Advent, a season of hope and preparation.
In the season of Advent, the church looks both backwards and forward in time. We look backwards to the birth of Jesus. Jesus came proclaiming that the kingdom of God was near to us. In Jesus, God’s dream of a world made new and set right was given a fresh urgency.
But the world we live in is not like that, so we also look forward in Advent to the possibility of God’s dream becoming a reality.
That’s what makes Advent a season of anticipation and expectation. We are getting ready to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. We also examine ourselves to see how faithfully we are working in partnership with God for the healing of the world.
In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary (a listing of texts we use in common), this is the year in which the gospel of Matthew sets the tone.
Matthew begins his story about Jesus in a way that’s not very exciting—a genealogy. So–and–so begat so–and so, who begat so–and–so, and it goes on for 17 long verses.
In the midst of the boredom, there is something very interesting about this genealogy. Most genealogies list only men. After all, it was a patriarchal culture. But Matthew breaks those boundaries and includes five women in his genealogy. And what women they are! All five of these women share something in common: Sex scandals.
Tamar tricks her father–in–law in Genesis 38 into having sex with her which leads to a pregnancy. Genesis 38:24 says quite plainly that Tamar has been ‘playing the whore’.
The second woman, Rahab, was a prostitute who sheltered Israelite spies during the time when Israel was coming into the land.
The third woman is Ruth. She’s unmarried, yet doesn’t hesitate to sleep with an intoxicated Boaz at night. Ruth 3:7 tells us that Ruth ‘uncovered his feet’ and lay down beside him. That phrase is a Semitic euphemism for the male organ.
The fourth woman, Bathsheba, was involved in adultery. You can find her story in 2 Samuel 11–12.
The fifth woman was Mary. She was unmarried and pregnant. Her fiancé Joseph was bothered enough about this that he was ready to end the engagement. He changed his mind when he was assured in a dream that her pregnancy was God’s doing (Matthew 1: 18–25).
All five women are the main characters in some pretty good stories. But frankly, those stories are a little embarrassing. If this were our family tree, we’d probably stop talking about great–great–great…grandmother for fear of embarrassing the family. At the very least, we’d skip over the details, and just hush the story up.
But not Matthew. In fact, he highlights these five women in Jesus’ family tree.
It’s almost as if Matthew were saying that God entered the world not just under the cloud of a scandal, but that God chooses to enter the world in the middle of small town gossip. If you’ve ever been the subject of that kind of gossip, you know exactly what that means.
I think that Matthew means this as a hint about where and how God begins God’s work in the world. It’s the same kind of hint that Luke gives in his story about Jesus being born in a manger to peasant parents in some hick town in the Roman Empire.
God comes to be with us—but not where we’d expect to find God. Not in churches. Not in world capitals. Not in superpower nations. God doesn’t start with the talented, the powerful, the rich or the famous.
Rather, God begins with the poor, the immigrant, the homeless person on the street in the cold. God comes in the midst of moral scandal and gossip. God comes in the place of social shame and moral blame.
Jesus is born to an unmarried pregnant teenager, born in a family which boasts of other women who have been shunned and blamed.
This gives us a clue as to where we might look for God in our world—not in the churches. Not in official residences. Not in places of honour or beauty.
God is found in places where the powerful and the respectable people least expect it—with the poor, among the homeless, loving the addicted, and lifting up those whom we push aside.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook.