In today’s US culture and society, how do we identify who and what is valuable, important, most sought after, and what makes one “successful”?
Back in the early days of the US, people often would ask, “Who are your people?” Your family heritage – who your ancestors are, where you come from – was really important. I suppose in some circles that still is the case today, but not so much for the average US resident.
Matthew’s gospel account of the birth of Jesus starts by providing a long, seemingly tedious genealogy (Keller, p20). It’s Jesus’ “resume” of a sort. Matthew feels it’s very important that we know “who Jesus is” and where he comes from (Keller, p29), that his family line goes all the way back to Abraham.
In this way, Matthew reminds us that “Christmas is not simply about a birth, but about a coming, and that God had planned for the arrival of his Son before God even created the Earth. This genealogy shows the extent God was willing to go in order to foreshadow the great person Jesus would be throughout the course of history. And he does so by rooting him firmly in history” (Keller, p20-21).
In Jesus’ time and in the early days of the US, genealogical listings, or resumes, were meant to impress onlookers with the high quality and respectability of one’s roots (Keller, p29) – one’s ancestors.
Matthew’s listing does the very opposite with Jesus. Rather than listing only the “important” people, his genealogy includes some “questionable” ones. So, his genealogy is shockingly unlike other ancient ones.
In ancient patriarchal societies, a woman was virtually never named in such lists. So, Matthew’s inclusion of 5 women in Jesus’ family tree is quite shocking. They are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah, and, of course, his mother Mary. They can be considered “gender outsiders” (Keller, p29).
Another point of oddity and difference, is that most of the women in Jesus’ family tree were Gentiles: Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites and Ruth was a Moabite. It’s interesting that Matthew – a presumed devout Jew would include them, since to the ancient Jews, these nations were considered “unclean,” and to be avoided. So we can consider these women “racial outsiders” (Keller, p30).
Why would Matthew make such a point of including these women in Jesus’ family tree? Why didn’t he include the other women – like Sarah, Rachel, and Leah? Why only this 5?
Matthew wants us to take a closer look at the stories of their lives, to see what they have to tell us, and listen to how they can speak to who Jesus is.
When we do look at their stories, we see that they represent “some of the most sordid, nasty, and immoral incidents in the Bible.” So, how can these stories help us better understand Jesus?
Based on their stories, these individuals could be called “moral outsiders” - they were adulterers, adulteresses, prostitutes, and involved in questionable family relations, etc. Even Jesus’s “prominent male ancestors – David and Judah – were moral failures” Out of this dysfunctional family comes the Messiah (Keller, p31).
Interestingly, these individuals – the cultural, racial, and gender outsiders – would have been identified among those “excluded from the presence of God by the Law of Moses.” Yet….they are ALL publicly acknowledged as the ancestors of Jesus (Keller, p32).
Matthew does this specifically “show (us) that people who are excluded by culture, by respectable society, and even by the “law of God” can be brought into Jesus’ family.
Here is these stories from Jesus’ family tree, we see that good can come out of dysfunction and tragedy. We are reminded that your family history does not need to dictate who you are or what your potential is. Who and what you become is your choice.
I believe that Matthew also included these stories to assure us that we can be – and are – part or Jesus’ family tree. If we “repent and believe in him, the grace of Jesus Christ can cover our sins and unite us with him” (Keller, p32).
The amazing fact is that while culture and society may have deemed these individuals’ outsiders, “ceremonial unclean” and should be avoided lest they contaminate others, in Jesus that thinking is turned around. His holiness cannot be contaminated. In fact, Jesus’ holiness infects us by our contact with him. Matthew claims that “all who come to him – regardless of who you are and what you have done, no matter how morally stained you are – he can make you as pure as snow” (Isaiah 1:18) (Keller, p32).
Here lies the good news for us today….. We are ALL included in Jesus’ family. Even before Jesus was born, God had already included everyone in Jesus’ family tree – cultural/ethnic/racial, gender, and even moral outsiders, all became insiders, all became family in him.
This is the good news that the birth of Christ brings to us this Christmas season - the gift we receive is God’s unconditional acceptance, forgiveness, and love for us. There is nothing that we have done, or could do, that can or will separate us from God’s love in Christ.
The Christmas message is of the coming of Christ, being born into human flesh to live among us once again, so that we may come to know, understand, and believe in the gift of God’s love for us. To know that WE are ALL part of Jesus’ family tree, and that our place in it was decided before we were even born.
This gift alone can bring peace into our lives. The peace that allows us to set aside all our worries and our doubts about the future. We know that in Christ we have nothing to fear in our future - death has been overcome, our struggles will be used for good, our tears will turn to laughter, and we will have eternal life with the One who created us and continually seeks to transform us, the one who endlessly redeems us and who forever walks beside us, guiding us from darkness into light.
This Advent and Christmas season: may you accept God’s unconditional love and forgiveness, and deeply know God’s peace in your life.
Keller, Timothy. Hidden Christmas – The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ. Penguin Random House/New York, NY, 2016, Chapter 2: “The Mothers of Jesus,” p20-39.