Matthew 1: Genealogy
Welcome to Advent! This is the season of the church year that leads us to Christmas.
Oddly enough, given that Christmas is at least supposed to be a Christian holy-day, we in the church come late to the season – there have been Christmas ads and sales and decorations out since the day after Halloween. Even more odd, for us in the church Advent is a penitential season, a bit like Lent – a time for reflection, prayer, and taking stock. Shopping, wrapping, cooking and partying are all fine, but we’re looking for something a tad deeper here.
As one way to do that, we’re going to have a look at our Christmas stories over the next few weeks and try to settle in to what these birth stories are trying to tell us. We’re going to take a scholar’s perspective on these stories, and talk about what a student in seminary might learn as she studies these stories. In particular, we’re going to draw on work by Marcus Borg, Dominic Crossan, and Stan Saunders, and we’ll be helped out by my study group, the Heretics. You don’t have to agree, but I hope you’ll at least hear us out over these next few weeks.
Let’s start with the obvious stuff.
We actually have two Christmas stories in our Bible; one is in Matthew, the other in Luke. We often put these stories together – Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem, then Jesus is born in a stable, then the shepherds come, then the wise men… But these stories actually don’t go together well. In Matthew Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem, and Jesus is born at home. The magi visit, and then things get very ugly. It’s Luke that has Mary and Joseph living in Nazareth, and travelling to Bethlehem, and the shepherds and the stable birth. Things stay peaceful, and they go home via the Temple in Jerusalem. The stories are very different, so this season we will keep them separate.
The difference between the stories, and certain historical irregularities, and most importantly certain signals in the texts themselves, lead scholars to believe that these Christmas stories are not, in fact, historical reports. Jesus taught in parables – made-up stories, set in realistic places, that challenge us to change our thinking. It seems that Jesus’ disciples picked up the habit: scholars suggest that these birth stories are actually parables about Jesus, parables that introduce the gospels of which they are a part. They’re like overtures to an opera, introducing us to the themes that will run through the stories that follow. In Luke the overture even appears to be a musical, with characters periodically breaking into song.
More on that next week.
For today, I’d like to have a look at our very unlikely passage. It’s the one we usually skip over because it’s boring. It’s one of those “begat” readings. And it’s way more interesting than it looks.
Matthew, in my experience, never lets you fall asleep.
He’s always forcing his readers to keep on their toes, throwing out shocking statements, contradictions, questions… He’s always asking his readers to make choices, enter the arguments. You can’t just sit and watch. And it all begins right here.
Here’s the teaser, the first thing my professor Stan Saunders tossed out to our class. In verse 17 we have this counting thing: From Abraham to David, fourteen generations, from David to the Exile, fourteen generations, from the Exile to the Messiah fourteen generations. Stan says to us: “I don’t know about you, but that’s a clear invitation to me to go ahead and count.” And you can do that. Abraham to David, fourteen. David to the exile, fourteen. And the exile to Jesus… thirteen. What, Matthew can’t count? I don’t think so. Does he mean to count one generation past Jesus, to his followers, to us, perhaps – to find the Messiah, the savior? Are we God’s anointed? Matthew doesn’t say. But keep on your toes, because things in this gospel aren’t necessarily what they seem on the surface.
Matthew starts his gospel with a genealogy.
Anyone here into genealogy? Why do you do it? For me, it’s about finding my family, my people, my heritage, my identity. And it’s no different here. In a key sense, this is our genealogy here, our spiritual genealogy, our spiritual heritage and identity. Every name here has a story, and for us as followers of Jesus, these are our stories, these are our people.
The first name on the list is Abraham’s. That means, and I don’t need to tell you but I will, that means we are family with the Jews before us, and the Muslims after us. We’re all Abraham’s people, Abraham’s descendants. We may be different branches of the family, but we’re family. It’s one of the things that makes the history of violence between us all the more tragic.
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah. All those stories of the Patriarchs are in Jesus’ background, and ours. And then, in the midst of this patriarchal, male-dominated genealogy (which isn’t surprising, because the Biblical world was profoundly patriarchal) comes a very surprising name. Tamar. Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar. A woman! And not just any woman. This story is a scandal. And it’s kind of PG-rated – kids, cover your ears a minute.
Judah had three sons. One married the Canaanite woman Tamar, but he died. So his brother Onan was supposed to marry Tamar, and raise up children for his brother – but he refused to impregnate her, presumably so he could take his dead brother’s inheritance. He died too. And Judah kept his third son from marrying Tamar, thinking, I guess, that she was bad luck. So she dresses up one day as a prostitute, covers her face, and ends up sleeping with Judah, and bearing twins. When she was discovered to be pregnant, Judah was going to stone her, until she revealed what had happened. Then Judah said, “she is more righteous than I. I did not give her the justice that she was due, when I kept my third son from marrying her.” Sordid story – but a very bright, resourceful, strong, foreign, Gentile woman, enters Jesus’ story – and ours.
In all, five such women enter this genealogy – all with the whiff of scandal about them, all showing great strength, courage, and faith. Rahab, the prostitute of Jericho, who sheltered and helped the Israelite spies. Ruth, the Moabite, who was supposed to be cursed by God but proved faithful in every way. The wife of Uriah – Bathsheba – forced into an adulterous relationship by King David, who then had her husband killed, the wife of murdered Uriah who later became the mother of Solomon. And then, number five in this list of women — Mary, pregnant out of wedlock but bearing a holy child.
Our heritage, our story, our identity, contains all sorts of people.
Righteous people and unrighteous, scandal-laden and honoured, ordinary and royal, successes and failures. God seems to work in it all, leading towards the Anointed, the Christ, those odd blurred last generations that begin with Jesus and move out towards us.
Fourteen generations from Abraham to King David. A great era in the life of Israel, including the travel to the promised land, the time in slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, and the occupation of the Holy Land.
Fourteen generations from King David to the Exile in Babylon, the time of the Kings, until the great and terrible national disaster when the Babylonian army destroyed the nation forever.
Fourteen generations from the Exile to the Messiah. Another era, then, comes to an end with Jesus and with that next fourteenth generation, those of us who read Matthew’s gospel. And of course, with the ending of one era, another begins.
Matthew has put his readers, Matthew has put us, squarely in the hinge of history, at the ending of one era and the dawning of something new.
Which is actually where we are. We are living at the end of the modern era, and the beginning of what we can only call “post-modern” – because we don’t know yet exactly what is being born.
We are living at the end of Christendom – at least here in Canada – the end of the social importance of the Church.
The United Church is closing roughly a church a week in Canada, our membership and attendance numbers are in free fall. It’s not just us, of course – nearly every institution that brings people together outside of work is in a similar free-fall. One familiar world is ending – and something new is beginning. We are just beginning to see it.
And here at Knox!
A long and fruitful era of ministry ended a couple of years ago, and you’ve called Greg and me to be symbols and agents of something new, a new beginning. Of course, it’s not all new! We are in an unbroken line, part of the lineage – going back to Abraham, to David, to Jesus and the disciples, through the early church, then the Western Catholic, the Reformation, and our roots in Presbyterian, Methodist, and Congregational churches. Union in 1925… As ministers, we are in an unbroken line that you can still see in the hallway out there – with pictures finally in color: Bruce, Grant, Lorraine, Drew, Bill, Linda, to us.
We always seem to be in the hinge of history, with something ending around us, and God beginning something new in us.
That’s Advent, really – a season pregnant with possibility, a miracle about to be born, but we can’t quite see it yet. Even as one familiar world is passing away, God is preparing another new blessing for us, but we can’t quite make out its outlines yet.
We know who we are. Our history and identity come with us. Things may be a bit messy, but they’ve been messy before. In fact, pretty much our whole story has been messy. And in the midst of the mess, God continues to work, to bless, to create. And God is doing so now.
It’s Advent. And like Mary, we are expecting.