3. Advent: From the Line of Rahab

11 December 2011

Third Sunday of Advent

St. John United Church of Christ

 

From the Line of…Rahab

Based on Matthew 1: 1-18 and Prostitute in the Family Tree by Doug Adams

Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell

 

           

            Now I suppose you may wonder, why Jesus’ genealogy? What edification could we possibly get from a list of Jesus’ forefather, and a few foremothers? I think the answer lies in what we personally understand of our own selves from our family lines. Often we look at our families, and find them to be a mixture of cherished tradition and other histories we’d rather leave behind. I strongly believe that no matter how far we’ve traversed from our origins, we always maintain some of the traits of our ancestors. In other words, if we can’t blame our faults on our genetics, what can be blame them on?!

            The gospel writers attempted to show how Jesus fulfilled the prophesies of the Messiah in the Hebrew Bible. There are two genealogies of Jesus in the New Testament: in Matthew and Luke. The differences cannot be resolved, however, as one scholar put it “The purpose of the genealogy is not to give accurate history, but to set the story of Jesus into the context of the ongoing story of God’s acts in history that will eventuate in the coming of God’s kingdom.” The two gospel accounts are strikingly different, disagreeing on many ancestors. But both agree: Jesus is the heir of King David. That was crucial in anointing him Messiah. While Matthew began with Abraham as his starting point, Luke began at Adam. Besides this, Matthew is a much different genealogy in another way—it includes women, Gentile women at that, and it includes disreputable men within Israel’s history.

            Why does Matthew include such people? What is he trying to tell us about Jesus? A framework that is helpful here is from the late Rev. Doug Adams. Doug, a United Church of Christ scholar, was for many years the Professor of Christianity and the Arts at Pacific School of Religion. He often spoke of parent and grandparent stories. Parent stories, as he told it, are those stories parents tell about how obedient and studious they were growing up; stories that have been cleaned up more than a bit. Grandparents, however, tell different versions of these same stories—ones that are more colorful, that leave the rough edges—stories that tell us the truth of how our parents really acted as children. The best biblical stories, those in which there is hope for us, are like granparent stories. Adams wrote:

Jesus, Paul, and the Hebrew scriptures tell stories that include rough edges—unethical or ambiguous characters, unresolved or surprising endings –and so we laugh and know that we and others may live through the rough times in our lives too. Biblical stories present monarchs, patriarchs, matriarchs, and disciples not as perfectly faithful and ethical persons who we could hope to emulate but, rather as persons who are often immoral, unfaithful, and thickheaded. Therefore in spite of our failings, we, too, can hope to be disciples.[1]

 

Matthew’s genealogy is one of those grandparent stories. Take King David for example—David, Israel’s greatest king, the man after God’s own heart. But Matthew can’t help but stick it to David, referring not to his greatness but saying “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” Matthew reminds us that the great King David seduced, or more likely just wielded his power over Bathsheba, and later had her husband killed. Uriah, her husband, was a Hittite—not an Israelite, and therefore a Gentile. So, Bathsheba was likely a Gentile as well. Such ethnic mixing was not looked kindly upon, and was sometimes blamed for the desperate fate of the Israelites in exile. David is a central part of Jesus’ line, after all it is what establishes him as the Messiah at the very beginning of the gospel—the very same passage as establishes a mixed-ethnic line.

            The other women in the genealogy, excluding Mary, were not likely candidates to be included in any royal genealogical line, let alone the Messiah’s. We have first Tamar, who pretended to be a prostitute and had sex with her father in-law in order to bear a son after her first husband died. (Biblical family values anyone?) Rahab, was a prostitute in actuality, who nobly hid Israelite spies in the city of Jericho while it was being attacked. Both women were Canaanites; again Gentiles. Matthew’s genealogy is actually the first time Rahab was counted in David’s line. Finally, we have Ruth, also a foreigner, who seduced Boaz on the threshing floor. These women are treated by men as sex objects. They are pieces of property, nothing more. And yet they find their way into the line leading to Jesus—at a time when women were not significant enough to be named, breaking through one small part of the patrilineal structure. According to Eugene Boring, “Matthew is interested in showing that God worked through irregular, even scandalous ways, and through women who took initiative.” It is important not to forget that these women are also aliens, so-called “illegal immigrants.” They were sojourners not fully welcomed into a strange land, though the biblical mandate commanded otherwise—much like immigrants in our own communities today.

            This genealogy is about all we know of Joseph and Mary. Much else is church legend. What little else we know of them is not impressive. Joseph was a carpenter, an artisan, little above a peasant laborer. Mary was a “young girl,” a teenage mother. At that time it may not have been early for her to have children, but today what scurrilous looks would we give her? They will provide no royal quarters for the baby Jesus—but will struggle to find a place to birth the child and will soon be on the run as refugees.

            And we have the men—all the men. There is Abraham and Isaac, the fathers of Israel, known as holy and righteous men (though their lives were a bit spotty in reality when it came to always being faithful). Numerous kings are mentioned—the majority of which, truth be told, were oppressors who cared little for the law of God. And the rest—well, they give us a collective “Huh?” They are long-forgotten and we have to wonder how they rated a mention from Matthew. Adams wrote that “A fine king, Jotham, was the father of a very bad king, Ahaz; but Ahaz was father to Hezekiah, who restored the kingdom to justice and piety. Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh, who ruled for 55 years and was evil for all of them.” Yikes. It really is a mixed bag here. But perhaps in the midst of all this is the message is that God can work through us, even with our baggage and past and failing ways, our genetics notwithstanding.

            So what does all this mean? Well, first, irregardless of who St. Matthew includes between Abraham and David and Jesus, we are reminded that Jesus does not come onto the scene without any connection in history. But Jesus is born into many generations of God’s saving acts in history. He is a descendant of Abraham who received the promise and King David, chosen by God to lead the Israelites. For Matthew, God’s history is being fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

Further, women and Gentiles are given a place in Jesus’s family, which is a mixed one. This is just a preview of the nature of Christ’s ministry – welcoming especially those in the margins, acknowledging that we are all part of God’s family. There are the great names of the history of the Hebrew people, but also a good number of despots as well. Jesus’ family isn’t too different from our own—many of us, if we go back far enough, can trace ourselves to distant (and not so distant) relations with kings and queens, presidents, and celebrities. But we’ve also got some fruits and nuts in our family tree—and sometimes a whole herd of black sheep. Michael Joseph Brown reminds us that “Jesus descends not only from a distinguished bloodline full of kings and queens but also from outsiders and persons of questionable character and practice.” For Gentiles to be included, it shows that Jesus ushers in a kingdom in which lines of race and class are erased—in which all are considered children of God. For women to be included, it prefaces how Jesus will welcome women into his inner circle and it affirms that God blesses and gifts women, even to the extent of entrusting the Light of the World to a teenage mother. For the disreputable, dishonorable, and downright shady characters to be included, there is good news. Adams said, “The good news is, that if out of the worst can come the best, there is hope—for our children.”[2]

            A United Church of Christ advertisement asked, “If Jesus welcomed lepers, prostitutes, and convicts, shouldn’t we?” Well, according to St. Matthew, he may not have had a choice—they were his own family. Perhaps one of those forgotten names was a leper in-fact, if not a social leper. If we claim Jesus, we claim his family, so our decision is made for us—we are called to welcome all: the royal kings, good and very bad, immigrants, prostitutes, adulterers and the faithful, and refugees searching for a room at an inn. This is our family—there is grace in all this, because if the one we await, Emmanuel, comes from such a family, then perhaps our Christmas dinner doesn’t look so bad after all, but is a holy banquet of God’s own family.

                                                                        To God be the Glory. Amen.


[1] Doug Adams, Prostitute in the Family Tree (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997) 1-2.

[2] Adams, 3

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