The genealogy of Jesus is an important part of Matthew’s birth narrative. Like Advent, it prepares us for the news of the birth itself.
Matthew includes some scandalous entries in this litany of ancestry. Matthew breaks tradition by introducing Tamar, a woman, into the list. Tamar, disguised as a prostitute, tricked her father-in-law, Judah, into impregnating her. The fruit of this encounter is one of the ancestors of Jesus. Rahab, another prostitute, is listed as the father of Boaz, who was an ancestor of Jesus. The mother of Solomon, an ancestor of Jesus, is identified as the former wife of Uriah rather than by her name Bathsheba. Matthew calls attention to the scandal that led to that union.
Matthew wants us to be ready when later in the chapter we learn that Mary turns up pregnant before she and Joseph had cohabitated. The angel gives Joseph the rest of the story, and all is well. It is unlikely, however, that the rest of the community was as understanding. Indeed, one of the early attacks on the church by the enemies of the faith was the assertion that Jesus was illegitimate.
Six years ago I was leading a class for African immigrant pastors living in Italy, and we were discussing Matthew’s intentionally controversial genealogy. We moved on to discuss how Jesus associated with some controversial, even scandalous, people (Matthew 9:9-13). This, of course, did not play well with many of Jesus’ contemporaries.
The pastors began to discuss how do they, as church leaders, handle situations where women working in prostitution participate in the life of their churches. How do they mediate the controversy when these women don’t have appropriately modest clothing for worship? How can they as leaders, guide their churches to be true to the values espoused in the Bible and still welcome everyone in the spirit of the ministry Jesus practiced? This was their struggle.
I was speechless (not a frequent occurrence). Genealogies (certainly some of the least-inspiring sections of scripture) from an ancient and foreign world were sparking among these contemporary pastors the very questions that Matthew hoped to spark among the first generation of Christians as they tried to figure out what it meant for them to be followers of Jesus. I was impressed by the time transcending power of the Gospel, by the universal appeal of the stories we have inherited in our scriptures.
At this time of year, we celebrate the birth of Jesus. We proclaim him Lord of heaven and earth. Can these ancient stories still hold power and relevance? Yes they can, even the genealogies.
We have incredible stories to tell, stories that transform people and reshape communities. This is what we do in our churches; we tell these great stories. Let the story wash over you anew this Advent and do with you what it will.
Jim KelseyExecutive Minister—American Baptist Churches of New York State