Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Murderers, Adulterers, and Nobodies (oh my!)

If you were going to tell the Christmas story to someone, where would you start? Maybe shining messengers of light and angelic choirs appearing out of thin air? Or a tense family drama with an unexpected pregnancy and a relationship on the rocks? Or perhaps the neglected outcasts of society getting invited to be the first on hand to witness the birth of a long-awaited hero?

Well the gospel writer Matthew says "phooey" to all our dramatic modern storytelling sensibilities and starts with a long list of names...which seems to most of us virtually on par with reading the phone book or doing roll-call at the beginning of class.

But as we do a little digging into these names, all the drama that we thought was missing from Matthew's opening salvo emerges, and he actually sets the stage perfectly for life and ministry of Jesus that was to follow. So what do we learn from Jesus' genealogy in the beginning of Matthew, and are there any implications for us?
  1. Jesus came for the overlooked. The culture of Jesus and his ancestors placed a higher value the males—especially the firstborn males—often to the neglect of the younger siblings and women. Yet Jesus' line is surprisingly full of second-born (Isaac and Jacob) and even last-born sons (David) that God had chosen over the eldest. Even more surprising is the presence of women since genealogies of that time typically only traced lineage through the fathers. It's almost like Matthew wanted us to notice something...
  2. Jesus came for the outsider. Two of the women that Matthew goes out of his way to mention were Gentiles (Rahab and Ruth). In other words, they were pagan worshipers of other gods before they married into the people of Israel. Yet rather than avoiding and whitewashing Jesus' line by simply focusing on the male lineage, Matthew deliberately includes these names...and then does one better (or one worse, depending on the perspective)...
  3. Jesus came for the stained. The other two females mentioned on the list both had very public counts of sexual sin. Tamar, disguised as a prostitute, slept with her father-in-law to get the upper hand on him in a legal dispute. Bathsheba committed adultery with King David (and it's not at all clear that she was coerced). But while we're on that topic...
  4. Jesus came for bipolar. Okay, so maybe that's not exactly the right word for David. But if you look at the trajectory of his life—if you simply read some of the Psalms he wrote—there is no other biblical character that has more peaks and valleys, both of the emotional and the moral kind. I mean, mountain top "man after God's own heart" type of highs followed by depths of Sheol "stealing my general's wife and having him murdered to cover it up" type lows. David remains one of the Bible's greatest characters...and greatest sinners. And the Psalms that he wrote are every bit the embodiment of the life he lived.
  5. Jesus came for the nobody. There's a few names on the list that we know little to nothing about. They were just...dudes.
What a pedigree, right? Instead of paragons of moral fortitude, we have murderers and adulterers, idol worshipers and the incestuous. And instead of a steady line of firstborn kings, we see the last born and women and nobodies.

So what does this tell us? This destroys any pretense of pride. How can we, followers of a savior that was born in a cattle trough to an audience of dirty shepherds, presume to look down on anyone else? Our King left his throne and put on a peasant's rags, how can we bend the knee and call him boss and yet not bow our heads to serve?

But this is not just a list of the kind of people Jesus came through, otherwise Matthew could have easily swept some of the more embarrassing names under the rug. No, this is also a list of the kind of people Jesus came for. No matter where you find yourself today, I'm sure you see yourself somewhere in the list above.  Jesus came for you. Jesus opens the kingdom of God to everyone, everywhere, regardless of who they are or what they have done. And this list tells us that when you're in Jesus' family, he will not hide you. You are his.

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