United Church of Christ

Where Jesus comes from

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We rarely read the genealogy in Matthew's first chapter all the way through.  A lay reader quakes at the thought of pronouncing all those names - and there is so much Advent and Christmas competition. The other words are so beautiful, why bore people with lists?

We ignore this text at our peril. It is one of the most radical and telling pieces in all of biblical literature. What it says is that Jesus comes from an immigrant background. He comes from many, not from one. He is of mixed race. He is also understood as a person with a maternal as well as paternal lineage. The writer of Matthew understood what he was saying and doing: Jesus transcends the tribes that often provide us with such false security

The list is not only "contaminated" by mixed races and mixed classes, it includes four women. Genealogies just weren't written that way at the time. The women were omitted, regularly. Even the feeding of the 5,000 counts the men and tells us so. Five thousand were fed, not counting the women and children.

Consider his ancestors.

One of the women is Tamar, who disguised herself as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into keeping his promise to her and producing an heir. The fruit of this tricky union is one of the great-grandfathers of Jesus.

Another is Rahab, a well known harlot who assisted two spies sent to Jericho by Joshua.  In doing so, Rahab became an exemplar of faith and works. Rahab is a great-grandmother of Jesus.  Ruth is also on the list.

Ruth was a Moabite, a descendent of Lot.  Her place in the social registrar of Israel was surely very low. Nevertheless, Ruth became a great-grandmother of David and distant greatgrandmother of our Lord. 

Matthew is embarrassed to even name the fourth woman directly. He simply calls her the wife of Ukiah. She is of course Bath Sheba, a victim of the most scandalous case of seduction in the First Testament. She too is a great-grandmother of our Lord. 

Notably, not a single one of these women is a Jew. Tamara was a Canaanite; Ruth a Moabite, Rehab of Jericho, and Bath Sheeba, through her husband, a Hittite.

The final 14 generations are almost totally unknown. They aren't recorded elsewhere in scripture. By noting them, Matthew reminds us that God, nonetheless, uses those easily forgotten and overlooked for the good of all. Ordinary people - as well as saints and sinners - notes the populist Matthew, get us to Jesus too.

As New Testament scholar Raymond Brown notes, the Story of Jesus isn't told with straight lines. If you have ever thought that your own family was checkered with both nobility and riff-raff, and if you ever considered your own life a combination of good faith and bad judgment, be comforted by the lineage of Jesus. 

This text might also suggest that we stop using the terms "foreigner" and "mixed race."  Even "illegal alien" might be shelved. 

Queen Elizabeth, apparently, was quoted at some point saying that she wanted her son Charles to marry a woman with a history, not a past. Way too many Christians work way too hard to assure that Jesus is pure and spotless. Matthew differs. He says that all kinds of roads, and tickets, and people, can lead to Christ.

What does this genealogy mean to us today, as our armed forces land in foreign lands, as "our" children and "theirs" cry themselves to sleep because daddy is far away and won't be home for Christmas? It means that the world is one. The sorrow of the sleepless child, whose father is a soldier, is clothed with the sorrow of the people of Afghanistan. Christians have a trans-national, trans-tribal savior.

The current debate over immigration and "foreigners" misunderstands Matthew. It forgets that God is found in the stranger and not in the self. It forgets what Jesus went on to say about how we find him - in the naked and the lost. When Americans say they want the foreigners "out," they are really saying they don't want to meet God.

We may and must see the world as one, not as us and them. We may welcome the so-called "other." He/she is our savior's grandparent.

The Rev. Donna Schaper is Senior Minister of Judson Memorial UCC in New York City, a New Sanctuary congregation. Her most recent books are "Grassroots Gardening: Rituals to Sustain Activists" from Nation books and "Living Well While Doing Good" from Church Publications.

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