Every family has it’s secrets...
Wendy’s Mom has recently been staying with us for 2 weeks. I have known her for the past 10 years. It was only on Monday night that I discovered that in her day, she was quite an accomplished pianist.
She came with us to the Songs of Praise as Wendy asked her if she has ever made it onto television before. After a short pause she said, yes. She did a piano recital that was recorded for National Television in South Africa in her late teens.
As I said, I have known my mom in law for 10 years, and now all the secrets start coming out.
Over the past few years, my Mom-in-law has done quite a lot of research into her own family tree. She has managed to trace her family back to Scotland, but is battling to get any further. She said that one of the problems she has encountered in tracing one’s family tree is that a lot of people don’t want their family secrets to be revealed. She has found a number of times that she has hit brick walls when people have put privacy banners over certain information because they don’t want the world to know some of their family secrets and family scandals.
And that brings us to our gospel passage from Matthew’s Gospel today. When one looks at Matthews version of Jesus family tree, he makes no attempt to cover up the scandals. In fact if anything, he seems to almost go out of his way to try and highlight them.
Why would Matthew do that? It is a question that I will come to in a few minutes.
But firstly I want to make a few general comments about the genealogy of Jesus that Matthew presents to us.
The first thing to take note of is that Matthew has very neatly laid out Jesus genealogy in 3 groups of 14 generations.
But in doing so Matthew has had to be a little creative with the facts. In order to create such a neat numerical pattern, Matthew has had to leave out a few names in places on the one hand, and on the other hand he has repeated David’s name twice.
What is the meaning that Matthew is wanting to communicate to his original readers. By using the number 14 in the design of his genealogy, Matthew is wanting his original readers to see that Jesus is the fulfillment of all God’s promises to King David. In Jewish numerology, where numbers were assigned to every letter of the alphabet, the name of David added up to 14.
Ray Fowler therefore writes: Fourteen is also double the number seven which is the number of completeness in Scripture. So three groups of fourteen equals six groups of seven, which would mean Jesus was born at the beginning of the seventh seven, a fitting and climactic place for the Messiah’s birth. And so by arranging Jesus family tree in this semi-artificial way, the pattern is meant to declare Jesus to be the new David, and the fulfillment of Israel's history.
Since the Babylonian exile roughly 600 years earlier, Jews had been without a King. They looked forward to the day when the line of David would be restored and God would restore the fortunes of the Jewish people.
Matthew declares that it has happened in Jesus. But it is also not quite how people expected it.
And that brings us back to the family scandals.
From the time the Jews returned from exile in Babylon, back to the ruins of the city of Jerusalem, Ezra and Nehemiah and their descendants, right up to the time of Jesus, had declared that in order for restoration to happen, in order for their fortunes to be turned around, they needed to clean up their act. They needed to maintain the purity of the Jewish race. Jews were forbidden to marry foreigners. They also had to become morally perfect, by obeying the tiniest letter of the Jewish law.
Ezra and Nehemiah tell us how Jewish men who had married foreign wives had to send them and their children away leaving them compromised and vulnerable.
In addition, at the same time, the story of David that had previously been told in the books of Samuel, was cleaned up. The story was retold in the books of Chronicles and in the retelling of the story they gave the story of David a face lift. All the scandal was removed. David was re-presented as a perfect and spotless King.
Why does Matthew reverse this? Why does Matthew’s Gospel re-introduce us to the scandals?
As we read through the rest of Matthew’s Gospel, we begin to see the dangers that happen when we bury our failings and our weaknesses and when we put on an outward show of purity and an outward show of holiness and perfection.
This was the sin of the Pharisees... later on in the Gospel, the Pharisees are described as white-washed tombstones. Nice and neat and clean on the outside, but full of dead-bones and skeletons on the inside. They are also accused of washing the outside of their eating bowls, but leaving the dirt and filth on the inside.
When we bury our scandals too deeply... when we try to hide them even from ourselves, they become repressed in our psyche and begin to affect our personalities in quite profound ways. One of the ways is what psychologists would call projection. We begin to see and judge in others, the very qualities that we have hidden from ourselves and push into the shadows of our own personalities.
It has the danger of producing a cold judgementalism of others. And that is what it did in 1st century Pharasaic Judaism. Pharasaic Religion was all about looking good and holy on the outside. But on the inside the dirt was still there.
Why does Matthew bring out the scandals in the history of Jesus own descendants? I think he is trying to remind us that we are not saved by pretending that we are perfect and by covering up our failings and weaknesses.
The Christian message is not that we need to be perfect in order to be saved... rather God saves us precisely because we are not perfect.
Salvation happens when we can be honest about our own failings. When we can hold our own failings in humility.
It is significant that in Alcoholics Anonymous the fourth step is taking a searching and fearless moral inventory of oneself. In other words the road to recovery requires a radical honesty. A willingness to confront and be honest about the skeletons and the scandals in one’s closet.
What are the shadows that we are trying to hide from others and even from ourselves? In what ways are we trying to project to others that we have got all our stuff together? And how might that preventing us from being truly and deeply human? How might our attempt at projecting perfection be preventing us from being truly and warmly loving... because love is only truly love when it is expressed in the face of weaknesses and shortcomings.
Well by now you are probably wondering what these scandals are that I keep referring to in Matthews genealogy:
The scandals can be identified through the inclusion of four woman in what should have been an all male family tree.
The first woman named is Tamar (Genesis 38:1-30). The story of Tamar and her father-in-law Judah is a story of incest. When Judah lost his wife, Tamar dressed up like a prostitute and slept with her father-in-law Judah and subsequently gave birth to twins. Those twins were Perez and Zerah, and according to the sacred story through Perez the messianic line continued. So Jesus had incest in his family line.
The second woman named is Rahab (Joshua 2:1-24, 6:22-25) Rahab lived in Jericho. Not only was she a foreigner and an informer on her own people, but she was also a prostitute. And yet according to the sacred story we read that this ex-prostitute became the mother of Boaz, the great-grandfather of King David. Jesus family line contains the scandal not only of incest but prostitution too.
The third woman named is Ruth (Deuteronomy 23:3-6; Ruth 1:1-7). The scandal of Ruth was that she was from Moab. Deuteronomy 23:3 said, “No Moabite or any descendants may enter the assembly of the LORD (in other words, become part of the people of God), even down to the tenth generation.” (Deuteronomy 23:3) And yet according to a later part of the sacred Jewish story, not only was she received into the assembly of the people of Israel, contrary to a commandment in their own scripture, but according to the story she married Boaz and became the great-grandmother of King David. Jesus family line contains the scandal not only of incest, prostitution but also the scandal mixed marriage and mixed blood which it was not just frowned upon, but in fact forbidden.
And then finally we come to Bathsheba. (1 Samuel 11:1-27) Matthew doesn’t actually name her but instead simply calls her “Uriah’s wife.” (Matthew 1:6) Perhaps it is a reminder that the scandal was more David’s than Bathsheba’s. It reminds us not only of David’s adultery with Bathsheba but his murder of Uriah to cover up the sin. Jesus family line contains the scandal not only of incest and prostitution and the scandal of mixed race, but also the scandal of adultery and murder.
Matthews inclusion of these four woman in the genealogy of Jesus suggest that Jesus was not embarrassed or defensive about the skeletons in his family closet.... Just imagine if we didn’t have to feel embarrassed about the skeletons in our family tree closets. How freeing it would be if we didn’t have to spend all that energy covering up the past and pretending
Perhaps more than anything, the scandals highlighted in Jesus family tree by Matthew suggest that true religion is not meant to be about a false outward appearance and pretense, but rather with a humble honesty.
True religion is not about us pretending to be better than we really are, but an utter reliance on the grace and love of God to touch us and transform us with Divine Love.