Luther King House
Luther King House,
M14 5JP, UK
‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ – A Reflection on Matthew 1:1-17
There’s been an upsurge in the popularity of searching back into our ‘family trees’. I have a cousin who ‘got the bug’ and discovered, for example, that our shared paternal grandmother – a woman very proud to be Scottish – should actually have traced her roots back to Ireland. Most of our interest is not about the names and dates, but about the lives of real people; perhaps we went looking for illustrious ancestors – but more likely we are interested in their lives; what sort of work they did, what conditions they lived in, and some of the highs and lows they experienced. It’s not so far back that my cousin had to search for this, but that same grandmother lost brothers and her first fiance in the Great War, two children, and a grandchild. Going further back into history we can discover these sorts of things about family life, as well as other challenging aspects. The programme ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ has helped celebrity guests discover ancestors who had been in prison, become homeless, moved to ‘the new world’ for a fresh start, become embroiled in scandals (as they were then) of being unmarried mothers and all sorts of other things. Some programmes have been very moving for viewers, let alone for the searcher concerned.
We can look at Jesus’ ‘family tree’ as offered by Matthew and discover not dissimilar scandals and pains. The temptation, as we open the New Testament and look at these 17 verses, is to focus on the depth of Jewishness (all the way back to Abraham, the ‘father of the faith’), the royal heritage (Jesus as ‘Son of David’ – and of the many kings in this list) that seem to be encouraging us to expect wonderful things and status for the Jesus whose story is about to unfold. But… I think there are two sorts of problems with this expectation.
First, it’s in the detail. Take the Jewishness; God promised a blessing through Abraham that began the self-understanding of this people – but it wasn’t only the Jews who were to be blessed. Abraham was to be a blessing “for all the families of the earth” (Gen 12:3). We also note that each woman mentioned is ‘a foreigner’, and ‘outsiders’ become mothers of the people of Israel too. Then take the moral dimension; we’re about to be introduced to a Jesus who is ‘without sin’, but a little research uncovers liars (Abraham, Jacob), a cheat (Jacob), murderers (David, Ahab, Ahaziah at least), and the women were each involved in dubious relationships leading to the birth of the son mentioned here. Tamar seduced her father-in-law (Judah hasn’t behaved well either), Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute, Ruth seduces Boaz and David has Bathsheba’s first husband killed in order to have his way with her. And yet… there is something vital in seeing that Jesus was born out of this mire (and more). Doesn’t this make the reality of the incarnation more real and gritty? Could a Messiah born from a long, illustrious and blameless religion and/or royal line have had meaningful connections with the marginalised and the outcast? In an essay on the genealogy of Jesus, McCabe says: “…Jesus really was tied into the squalid realities of human life and sex and politics. …he belonged to a family of murderers, cheats, cowards, adulterers and liars – he belonged to us and came to help us; no wonder he came to a bad end, and gave us some hope.” *
Our second ‘problem’ with the genealogy is that this is Joseph’s family tree, and the very first thing we discover after these 17 verses is that Joseph is not, actually, the father of Jesus. In what way, the, is this Jesus’ genealogy? Clearly the Bible isn’t as knowledgeable about genetics as we are – but actually I think, that makes it worse. A woman was not understood as ‘half the picture’ but merely as the container to receive the baby from the father. For me this conjures up such a collage of pictures; there is something here about the rootlessness of the Son of God that contributes to our understanding that he truly was and is for us; there is also something about the obedience of Joseph to God, and the love that Joseph must have had for Mary in embracing Jesus as his own child and adopting him into this long family history. there is also something about the fragility of the human life of Jesus and the risks that God took in sending God’s son amongst this ‘warts and all’ humankind.
For me, the genealogy shows the real story of Christmas doesn’t begin at verse 18, but aeons before, in the loving plan of God who called, chastised, encouraged and worked through fallible women and men.
Revd Dr Rosalind Selby – Northern College Principal