Lesson 9: Matthew 1
Growing up, I heard lots of stories about aunts, uncles and cousins from my mother. I heard of a great-grandfather who started a school for deaf boys and how one great uncle was killed by a lightning strike as he stood by a barber’s pole. There was the time that my mother locked her cousin in the outhouse because the cousin, in my mother’s opinion, was so mean. I heard stories of a cousin’s death at 12 from the flu and how gentle my auntie was. One uncle had a long-term mistress while another uncle was a stern Baptist pastor prone to preaching too long. My grandfather would hold his watch up to his ear to let his brother know that it was time to wrap the sermon up.
Like many families, my ancestry has people of whom I can be proud and those that were scoundrels. I would wager that most of us have family histories with successful and destitute people, those who rose above their circumstances and those who deeply wronged others, with sinners and with saints.
The genealogy in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew lists those who were virtuous and those who were deplorable. The genealogy would have shocked its first hearers. The audience would have expected the genealogy to include only the faithful male leaders and kings. But the genealogy includes truly awful kings as well as faithful ones. It includes women, foreigners and those capable of both great good and annihilating harm. For example, the reference to David points to an outlaw, a great military leader, and a person after God’s own heart who, nonetheless, murders Uriah to take Bathsheba. The writer of Matthew doesn’t sugarcoat the ancestry.
Genealogies were important documents. They established your standing in the networks of kinfolk and clan, what property was yours, and who you could call on for protection. Genealogies established, as is said in the South, “who your people are” and, thus, your status. Matthew makes the claim that Jesus’ people were a mixed bag: those who trusted God, those who acted with steadfast love and outright villains.
The God behind the genealogy is the promise keeper. God calls Abraham to go to a distant land and promises that Abraham’s descendants will be as numerous as the stars. As with most people in Scripture, Abraham is no exemplar of faith. He has his own lapses of trust in God. Fearful of death, he passes his wife Sarah off as his sister so that she is taken into the Pharaoh’s harem. Later, with Sarah’s approval, Abraham fathers a child with the slave woman Hagar, believing that God has forgotten his promise that he and Sarah would have a child. But Abraham and Sarah’s failures to trust God do not stop God’s promise. A child is born to them.
God assures Abraham that through his descendants all peoples will be blessed, including the enemies of Israel. Rahab, a prostitute of an enemy people, is included in the genealogy, as is the Moabite Ruth, who is from a despised nation and model of loyal steadfast love. As part of Jesus’ heritage, these women remind us that among those whom we consider contemptible there are people who act for God and are included by God.
The women in the genealogy point forward to the kind of person Jesus will be. Jesus will not consider people’s status, citizenship, education, wealth or family connections. Radically, Jesus will say that whoever does the will of God is his sister, mother and brother. Like his mother, Mary, Jesus profoundly trusts God.
Jesus welcomes and includes any who come to him. We, on the other hand, set up our churches, clubs, banks and laws to keep certain people out and down. For people of color, so much in America is structured to bar them from good educations, home ownership or well-paying jobs.
We are prone to looking down our noses at others. There were two men, Josh and Peter, talking after worship. Josh was livid about an elder in the church, who in his estimation was an obnoxious, loud-mouthed, competitive man who never listened to anyone else’s point of view. Peter listened as Josh blew off steam. When the outburst ended, Peter said, “Well, it’s a shame that you’ll have to put up with him in heaven.” To which Josh responded, “If he gets in, I’m not going.” “That could be,” replied Peter.
The good news is that unfaithful people do not stop God from acting in love. God reaches out to all people in Christ with acceptance — the obnoxious, the trash talker, the swindler, the felon and all ordinary sinners. Jesus comes as Emmanuel, God with us, offering God’s grace to this motley crew of humanity.
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