Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Five Mothers of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-6,16)

1 A record of the ancestors of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac.
Isaac was the father of Jacob.
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah,
whose mother was Tamar.
Perez was the father of Hezron.
Hezron was the father of Aram.
Aram was the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab was the father of Nahshon.
Nahshon was the father of Salmon.
Salmon was the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.
Boaz was the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth.
Obed was the father of Jesse.
Jesse was the father of David the king.
David was the father of Solomon,
whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.

16 Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary—of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Christ.

Today you are going to hear a sermon from what many people consider to be the most boring part of the Bible.  A long list of names, so-and-so was the father of such-and-such, who was the father and this guy, the father of that guy, and so on.  The first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is the “begat” section, an old word that literally means “to bring into existence.”  This chapter is considered so boring that most people skip it to pick up where Jesus Christ is born.  But if we skip this chapter, we skip the fact that Matthew has some important things to say to us in all these names.  May we pray.

Why does the New Testament begin with a genealogy?  Because in those days, if you wanted to know a person, it was important to know about their family.

Like it or not, we are all known by our relationship to our family.  For one thing, there is often a strong family resemblance.  Take a look at this
picture of me and my Dad – is there any denying that I am my father’s son?  No real argument that he’s the one who “begat” me!  When I was a teenager and was heading out with friends on a Friday night, my Dad would always say, “Remember who you, and what family you come from.”  It was his way of saying, “As part of this family, there are certain expectations we have of you, even when you’re out of our sight.  What you do and say out there in the world is not only a reflection on you, but on all of us.”

We tend to identify people by their families.  It is true today, and it was true in the ancient world. 

The purpose of the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is to introduce us to Jesus’ family, to tell us about his lineage all the way down to his earthly father, Joseph.  Maybe you’re thinking, Hold up there, just a minute.  If I understand the Christmas story, then Jesus was not descended from Joseph’s side of the family.  You’re correct, but you’re thinking too much like a modern person and not like someone in the ancient world.  Genealogy wasn’t about biology, but about belonging.  Mary was engaged to Joseph, so in that worldview, she belonged to Joseph’s family.

We would expect a list of fathers in this genealogy, but Matthew inserts five women – the five mothers of Jesus.  Word of warning here: these women and their stories will challenge our image of Jesus, but the payoff will be that we get to know Jesus better, and have a more accurate understanding of the one we follow.  We may be a little uncomfortable with what we learn about the characters in Jesus’ family tree, but friends, that discomfort is necessary for those who are serious about following Jesus.

One of my favorite scenes in Talladega Nights is when Will Ferrell’s character, race-car driver Ricky Bobby is saying grace before a meal with his family, and he prays to his favorite version of Jesus: “Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, in your golden, fleece diapers, with your curled-up, fat, balled-up little fists pawin' at the air...”

His wife interrupts and says, “Hey, um, sweetie, Jesus did grow up. You don't always have to call him baby.”  But he simply responds by saying, “Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I'm sayin' grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.”

Now there’s some humor in that, but there’s also some truth in it too.  All of us have a version of Jesus in our minds we prefer, and this preference usually closely aligns with our own biases.  Too often, we have made Jesus in our own image, but the women named in Jesus’ genealogy in the first chapter of Matthew should change that image.

The first mother mentioned is Tamar.  Her story can be found in the 38th chapter of Genesis.  Tamar was the wife of the son of Judah, and get this, she was not Hebrew.  I don’t want to gossip, but the Bible says that she was Canaanite.  That was scandalous in those days, because it meant that her husband, a Hebrew, had married a foreigner.  Theirs was an inter-racial marriage, meaning that all of their descendants, including Jesus, would be of mixed race.

There’s an old saying that in the beginning, God created mankind in God’s own image, and we’ve been trying to return the favor ever since.  In other words, our image of God is often a reflection of our own biases and preferences.  And so, for Christians whose origins go back to Western and Northern Europe, it’s not surprising that the Jesus in our art, in our stained glass and in our minds has fair skin and rosy cheeks.  Simply put, we often prefer a Jesus who looks like us.

Does it really matter what Jesus looked like?  Yes, because when we have cast Jesus in our own image, it may be entirely too easy to marginalize others who are outside this image.
A few years ago British scientists teamed up with Israeli archeologists to make this picture.  Using advanced forensic anthropology techniques, they took three skulls from the first century found near where Jesus lived.  They used computer x-ray images to add flesh material.  Then they took the three images and combined them to make a composite.  This might be what Jesus really looked like.  Of course, this could also be Peter, James, or John, or any first century Galilean.

Friends, this is what St. Matthew is telling us in the first chapter of his Gospel: Jesus Christ is here to save all people – those who look very much like us, and those who look very different from us.  This is the church of Jesus Christ, where we worship the son of Tamar, the Canaanite.

The second mother Matthew mentions is Rahab.  Her story is found in the second chapter of Joshua.  Rahab was a woman of ill repute.  Rahab was a working girl in the world’s oldest profession.  Why would Matthew have someone like her in Jesus’ family tree?

Because I have a friend who is a recovering meth head.  He was addicted to meth.  He dabbled in other drugs, but when he was addicted, he would have done anything for meth.  His life was not his own – everything he did was devoted to getting meth.  He lost his job, his home, his family, and he didn’t care.  Years later, he had an amazing story of how God had given him the strength to find a new life.  He got plugged into a church in his town, and the pastor asked him to share his testimony.  He was reluctant to do so, at first, because there are so many churches that would be uncomfortable hearing about his past.

Friends, that shouldn’t be.  Whatever our past may be, the church is a place where people find new beginnings.  This is the church of Jesus Christ, where we worship the son of Rahab, the woman with the past.

The third mother is Ruth.  We know about Ruth because she has her own book in the Old Testament.  The story of Ruth begins during a famine, and Ruth leaves her home to be with her mother-in-law, Naomi.  Ruth was an immigrant.

Another pastor friend of mine told us about a ministry his church started to Spanish-speaking people in their community.  People in the church volunteered to teach Spanish speakers conversational English.  The volunteers didn’t have to speak Spanish, they could simply point to a picture and say, “Food” or “Post Office” or whatever.

Some asked, “Why are we doing this?”  The pastor replied, “Because in the Bible in the book of Leviticus it says, ‘Be kind to strangers because you were once strangers in the land of Egypt yourself.’  Because in the Bible in the book of Hebrews it says, ‘Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for some have entertained angels unaware.’  Because in the Bible, Jesus himself said, ‘If you have done it unto the least of these you have done it unto me.’”  They said, “But if we do it for some, more of them will want to come here.  Has anyone checked their green cards?”  The pastor said, “No, because this is the church of Jesus Christ, where we worship the son of Ruth, the immigrant.”

The most scandalous of all was the fourth mother, Bathsheba.  Let me give you the PG version of her story.  One night King David was on the roof of his palace, and he looked out and saw Bathsheba bathing in her backyard.  And David wanted what he saw, even though she wasn’t his to have.  He sent for Bathsheba, she came to the palace, and, against her will, they spent the night together. 

History has, unfortunately, remembered her as an adulteress, and marked her forever with a scarlet letter.  This is just wrong, because Bathsheba didn’t do anything wrong.  She was bathing in her own backyard, at a time of day when darkness should have provided a reasonable level of privacy to her.  She is a victim.

She was also married to Uriah, one of David’s soldiers, and so David had him sent to the front line and then abandoned by the rest of the troops, leaving him to be killed in battle, in an attempt to cover his own tracks.  Bathsheba is twice a victim to King David’s abuse of power.  First, in taking advantage of her, and second, in the murder of her husband.  Matthew’s Gospel explicitly calls her “the wife of Uriah” not “the wife of David” or “the mother of Solomon.”  Matthew reminds us that King David abused his power and took what belonged to another man.  Why the focus on this low point in Hebrew history?

Because, somewhere in town there is a man or a woman who is a victim of someone else’s abuse of power.  They have been marginalized, they have been made to feel guilty because of something that happened to them that they had no control over.  They are not here this morning because they think people here will judge them.  They think they will be condemned.

Bathsheba is included in this story to remind us that Jesus doesn’t identify with the powerful.  Jesus identifies with the outcast, with the marginalized, with the friendless, with the powerless, with those who are victims to others’ abuse of power.  This is the church of Jesus Christ, where we worship the son of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.

And finally, the fifth mother is the obvious one: Mary, the mother of our Lord.  We have heard the Christmas story so many times that it no longer shocks, but perhaps it should.  When God chose to enter human history, he chose an unwed teenage peasant girl from out in the middle of nowhere.  A stable in Bethlehem would have been a dark, cold, smelly cave.  I cannot imagine a lower place on earth for a royal birth.

But if God could reach down from the heights of heaven to a dirty barn and a lowly manger, don’t you think God can reach you or me wherever we may be this morning?  Garth Brooks sang, “I’ve got friends in low places.”  However low you may be, Christ has been there – Jesus was born there.  This is the church of Jesus Christ, where we worship the son of Mary, the lowly and humble.

"Jesus of the People" by Janet McKenzie
Does that change the picture you have in your head of Jesus?  I certainly hope so.  Here’s one more image.  In 1999, Janet McKenzie’s painting “Jesus of the People” was selected from 1700 entries to be the cover of the special Millennium Issue of the National Catholic Reporter.  She intentionally painted Jesus with mixed racial characteristics, feminine and masculine features, and friends, this is what St. Matthew is also telling us in the first chapter of his Gospel: Jesus Christ is here for all people – no matter who they are, no matter what they look like, no matter where they’re from, where they’ve been, or what they’ve done.

A quick look at the genealogy of Jesus reveals that Jesus is the son of Tamar the Canaanite, the woman of mixed race.  Jesus is the son of Rahab, the woman of ill-repute.  Jesus is the son of Ruth, the immigrant.  Jesus is the son of Bathsheba, the victim of abuse.  Jesus is the son of Mary, the lowly and humble.

The first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel should be a challenge to our thinking, our preferences, and our biases.  It invites us to rethink who is in and who is out in God’s kingdom.  It invites us to rethink who God can and cannot work through.  Jesus not only associates with those of low-degree and ill-repute; his family tree reminds us that he is one of them.  Jesus was onto something when he later told us that whatever we do to the least in our society, we do to him (Matthew 25:40).  For Jesus, it’s personal.  For Jesus, it’s family.

Too often, we have only further marginalized those who are already on the sidelines of life, but friends, let us remember that how we treat others, regardless of whether we like them or agree with them or approve of what they do, how we treat others is how we treat Jesus, himself.

The family tree of Jesus reminds us that he is both son and savior of all.  Here in the church of Jesus Christ, we worship One whose lineage shows a love, and whose genealogy shows a grace, that is wide enough to embrace all.

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