Matthew’s Christmas Genealogy

Matthew’s genealogy for Jesus departs from the Hebrew norm.

A favorite medieval image of the genealogy of Jesus was the Jesse tree. The image pictured the family tree of Jesus as arising out of the side of Jesse, the father of David.

When a Biblical author introduces an important figure into his narrative, he sometimes starts by giving that person’s genealogy. His illustrious ancestry underscores the figure’s historical significance.

Let me offer two examples. When the author/editor of Genesis introduces Abram (later renamed Abraham) into his story, he begins with Abram’s genealogy (Genesis 11:10-30). The list of Abram’s ancestors stretches back to the patriarch Noah. This ties Abram into the story of God’s redemptive interventions into history.

When the author of the book of Ezra introduces Ezra into his narrative, he also does so by giving Ezra’s distinguished ancestry (Ezra 7:1-6). The genealogy underscores Ezra’s status in the line of priests going back to Aaron, Moses’ brother. It gives Ezra great credibility as an interpreter of Torah.

It should not surprise us then when Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy for Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17). The genealogy highlights Jesus’ royal ancestors stretching back to King David. This supports Jesus’ status as the promised Son of David who will usher in the kingdom of God.

It does not stop with David, but also pushes the recitation of Jesus’ ancestors back to Abraham, thereby firmly establishing Jesus’s status as a genuine Jew. Both identities are important to the story about Jesus that Matthew will recount.

Matthew Places a Surprise in  Jesus’ Genealogy

Matthew, however, gives an unexpected twist to his genealogy. Old Testament genealogies always trace the line of descent from father to son. What counts is the male succession. The names of mothers are omitted.

But Matthew includes four women in his genealogy. And they are four women whose names you would expect a Jew with a proper sense of social propriety to suppress, not highlight.

The first is Tamar. Tamar is the daughter-in-law of Jacob’s son, Judah. She marries Judah’s son, who then dies. Following early custom, Judah’s second son should marry Tamar. But he refuses and subsequently dies, too.

Now legal custom dictates that Tamar should marry Judah’s third son. Judah, however, is fearful of losing a third son to this unlucky woman, so he procrastinates on the marriage. This keeps Tamar in a socially disadvantaged position. In her world it represents an injustice.

To rectify it, Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and entices her father-in-law unknowingly into fathering twins. Judah wants to execute Tamar for adultery but Tamar turns the tables and wins vindication. (For Tamar’s story, see Genesis 38.)

The second is Rahab. She is a prostitute in Jericho who hides two Israelite spies who are scouting out the town and its defenses. In return she and her family are spared when the town falls to the Israelite armies. (For Rahab’s story, see Joshua 2.)

The third is Ruth. Ruth is a Moabite, widowed along with her mother-in-law Naomi, an Israelite. They return to Bethlehem, Naomi’s hometown. There Ruth ultimately wins the attention of Boaz, a local land owner. He marries her and she becomes great-grandmother of David.

As a Moabite, however, she would have been considered an outsider in Israelite society. In her faithfulness to Naomi, however, she sets an amazing example of chesed (steadfast love), the highest virtue of Israelite culture. The Biblical story places her on par with the two wives of Jacob. This is an astounding honor for a foreign woman. (For Ruth’s story, see the Book of Ruth.)

And finally Matthew mentions the wife of Uriah, Bathsheba, the woman whom David seduces and commits adultery with. She mothers Solomon, after her first son dies, a divine punishment on David’s sin. (For Bathsheba’s story, see 2 Samuel 11-12.)

Why This Departure from the Norm?

All four women have some scent of irregularity about them. So it is really odd to find Matthew including them in his genealogy. Why would he do so? There may be two reasons.

First this genealogy immediately precedes Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. That account places great emphasis on Mary being a virgin when she conceives Jesus.

Her pregnancy would have been scandalous in her own society and cause for extreme social condemnation. Joseph plans to divorce her until God sets his anxieties at ease. But

The second reason may not be intentional, but reveals something about the spirit of the Jesus movement that arises out of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus himself is constantly welcoming the social and spiritual outsider. He is notorious for welcoming sinners, tax collectors, the sick, lame, and those socially ostracized by unclean illness like lepers.

The early church also breaks the boundaries that defined proper Jewish society. The Christian movement (as recounted in the Book of Acts) welcomes into its membership Samaritans, eunuchs, and supremely Gentiles as fully equal members of the community. And we see in both Acts and the letters of Paul hints that women were playing important roles in the growth of that community.

This spirit of inclusiveness makes the Christian movement suspect to those who feel the boundaries of the spiritual community must be drawn quite rigidly. (It still does.) It makes early Christianity a threatening force in the Mediterranean cultures of its day.

Matthew may be exhibiting something of this inclusive spirit by including the four women he does in his genealogy. When we encounter this feature in the very opening words of Matthew’s gospel, it alerts us that as we read into the Jesus story that Matthew will recount, we need to expect that our social and spiritual preconceptions of what is proper will be challenged over and over again.



Equality in the Kingdom of God?

Scripture text:  Matthew 20:1-16

As bedtime reading, I’ve been reading recently a collection of letters written by the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. In a memorandum he wrote to Harry McPherson in May 1965, he wrote something that I have been chewing my mental cud on ever since:

American democracy is founded on the twin ideals of liberty and equality. Our education and general mindset does not much distinguish between these two ideals, but the fact is that they are distinct…Liberty has been the American middle-class ideal par excellence. It has enjoyed the utmost social prestige. Not so equality. Men who would carelessly give their lives for Liberty, are appalled by equality…Lincoln freed the slaves, but did not give them equality. Therefore we are still struggling with the issue. [Steven R. Wiesman, editor, Daniel Patrick Moynihan: A Portrait in Letters of an American Visionary, New York: Public Affairs, 2010, pages 103-104]

I confess that I like most Americans have tended to merge the ideals of liberty and equality in my own fuzzy mind. Moynihan has helped me see how different they are, and how they provoke very different political and social aims.

As I read Moynihan, I began to ask: How do these two ideals come into the New Testament picture of the Kingdom of God? Do they come into that picture at all? Or are we importing two secular ideals into a spiritual world?

In the Letter to the Galatians, we get Paul’s ringing proclamation of the great Christian ideal of spiritual liberty. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” cries out Paul. (Galatians 5:1) And middle-class American Christians will heartily endorse Paul here. It fits well with our own attachment to the virtue of freedom.

But there’s not always been easy Christian acceptance of the other Pauline proclamation that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) Here Paul asserts a spiritual equality in Christ. And the struggle over women’s ordination shows how hard it has been for some Christians to buy into this radical spiritual equality.

But what about economic or social equality? Is that a part of the New Testament picture of the Kingdom? Here’s where I’m haunted by the parable of the laborers in the vineyard that Jesus tells in Matthew 20. A farmer goes out into the village marketplace and hires laborers to help bring in his harvest. Laborers are hired all through the day. Some work eleven hours; others just one. But all are paid the same wage.

What a picture of radical equality! All receive the same reward. And most of us grumble. We like the laborers who worked the longest feel this is unfair.

We can understand the point of the parable as teaching about the generosity of God in sharing his saving grace with all people, both those who come to God early in their lives and those who come to God as their lives come to a close. Salvation is shared equally with all.

Yet…does that exhaust the point of Jesus’ parable? Could Jesus also be saying something pointedly about God’s kingdom being a way of life that assumes a radical social and economic equality among the children of God? It is after all told in Matthew as one of Jesus’ responses to the rich young ruler who goes away sorrowful when Jesus invites him to sell all he has and follow Jesus.

If such equality is a distinctive feature of Jesus’ understanding of the Kingdom of God, then we must say Christians in general (and not just middle-class American Christians) have had a very hard time accepting this ideal. Social and economic equality has been a rare feature of most Christian communities. It has been an important ideal in the monastic tradition. But even in monasticism, the record of implementation is decidedly mixed.

But if this ideal of equality is an inherent feature of the Kingdom in Jesus’ mind, then we begin to realize what a truly dramatic conversion of heart is demanded for entrance into the Kingdom and its mindset. It means those of us who do not undergo this radical conversion of heart in this life are likely to find entrance into the Kingdom in the next life a wrenching experience.

It also raises questions about what political, economic, and social policies Christians should throw their support behind. That should give us pause as we listen to the various options thrown out to us in the upcoming political campaigns.

I invite your own thoughts on this.