“Our Family Tree”
Matthew 1:1-6, 16
The Reverend Tasha Blackburn
December 3, 2017
“Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…” “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled…” It is easy to recognize a great opener. The first line of any story should be engaging and descriptive. It should take you somewhere. So it is surprising that Matthew begins like this: “The account of the genealogy of Jesus…: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers…”
A family tree of begats? Not the way most of us would begin. It is hard to pay attention through the whole list, hard to know what we should be listening for. It is even hard to pronounce! But this first line of Matthew’s gospel is not a list of names. It is a catalogue of memories. When we hear that Abraham was the father of Isaac, we should picture in our minds what it meant for Abraham to ever even be a father in the first place. We remember the almost-sacrifice of his son that he was asked to make. When we read that Jesse was the father of David, that day in the field rises in our mind’s eye when young David, out of all of his brothers, was anointed king; to the surprise of even his father.
This list is there to tell us who Jesus has come from. It’s like when we meet the child of a family of teachers and we say, “I bet you will be a teacher too. It’s in your blood, after all.” These names tell us that the baby about to be born is a lot like Abraham, like David. He cannot help it; it’s right there in his blood. This is Jesus’ family story and, like many family stories, this one has been edited.
A man came by the office last week. He is not a member. I’d never met him before. But he—I will call him Bill—wanted some advice so we talked for a while. He said his siblings hadn’t talked to him in over 20 years. He said he asked his mother to tell him the phone numbers of his brothers and sisters and she refused. She told him, “Bill, they don’t want to talk to you.” He said he didn’t know how to be part of the family at this point. It was clear within moments that Bill is a difficult personality. Not only did he describe some not-so-helpful things he’d done to his loved ones in the past, he is not one of those people whose habits and being make it easy to be near him.
So his mother is right: his siblings do not want to talk to him. And when they get together they probably don’t mention his name or, if they do, they probably roll their eyes or purse their lips. He is being edited from the family, already here in the present. Imagine two generations from now. Bill won’t be brought up. Most of the family won’t even remember his name. A lot of our families do some version of this, we edit out the members who embarrass or bother.
Matthew does this too, except he does the opposite. Against all convention, he includes four women in Jesus’ ancestry: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Ever since he wrote this, people have wondered why he did it. Some say it was to show that every family has their stuff. The stories of Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba, in particular, are not ones any family would want to put front and center. Perhaps these women who were in the line of David and, hence Jesus, are listed to remind us that Jesus came from the full experience of humanity. Maybe. Except for Rahab. Her story doesn’t fit because, no matter what Matthew writes, she was never in the line of David. She is not in Jesus’ ancestry and she lived hundreds of years before the man she is said to father. She was never supposed to be there. Matthew just inserts her.
You heard part of her story just now. She lived in Jericho when Joshua sent spies into her city to plot how to take it over. She hid the spies. She saved their lives. She came to believe that their god was truly the God of heaven and earth. And, she was a prostitute. Matthew inserts her into the genealogy. Who ADDS a prostitute to the family tree? Matthew wants us to know: Jesus does.
“The account of the genealogy of Jesus.” You know how he really begins? Matthew’s first line is this: “the story of the genesis of Jesus.” Genesis. Jesus is starting everything over, a new creation is beginning and, in it, prostitutes don’t get edited out of his family. They get added in. “Deep and wide, deep and wide, there’s a river flowing deep and wide.” This is the depth and width of God’s new beginning in Jesus. You cannot be so low that you cannot be pulled up, or so far gone that you cannot be reached. You may not feel like you can ever be a part of the family. The facts may even say you aren’t. Matthew’s opener tells the world, even if those things are true, Jesus will just insert you himself.
I’ve been thinking a lot about all of these high-profile men who have been in the news recently because of lewd or harassing, or even criminal, behavior. Many of them have lost their jobs; all have lost any good name they might have ever had. And I have also been thinking about the women who have accused them. Both the men and the women are now known for who they are at their worst or for one of the worst things that has happened to them. Everyone involved must wonder if this is all their lives will come down to. These terrible things, is this how I will be remembered?
You don’t have to be high-profile to feel this way or a harasser. Many of us, deep down, have this fear: what if I can never be more than my worst mistake? What if I can never become more than my most painful experience?
Rahab brings us the good news of Christmas. She is “good tidings of great joy to ALL people,” especially people who have sinned. For Rahab was a prostitute and, around most every family table that would be the only detail that mattered. But, around Jesus’ family table that is definitely secondary information. In Hebrews, Rahab is listed in that great litany of God’s people and all she is known for there is that she exemplified faith. Here in Matthew, she is in another great list and what she is known for is being a family member of Jesus. In the end, Rahab is not remembered for her worst. In the end, or is it in Jesus’ new beginning, she is remembered for her best.
Deep and wide, deep and wide, that is the message of the baby who was born to Mary; who is the son of Abraham and of David. He is coming and in his genesis, you are no longer your worst sin, you are no longer your worst experience. You are part of the family. How can this be? How can even the worst of us be forgiven? How can our worst moment be redeemed? How can we be Jesus’ brother? His sister? How can we not be? For Jesus cannot help it. It’s right there in his blood. Amen.