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A (New) Family Portrait (Matthew 1)

Abraham had Isaac, Isaac had Jacob, Jacob had Judah and his brothers, Judah had Perez and Zerah (the mother was Tamar), Perez had Hezron, Hezron had Aram, Aram had Amminadab, Amminadab had Nahshon, Nahshon had Salmon, Salmon had Boaz (his mother was Rahab), Boaz had Obed (Ruth was the mother), Obed had Jesse, Jesse had David, and David became king. David had Solomon (Uriah’s wife was the mother), Solomon had Rehoboam, Rehoboam had Abijah, Abijah had Asa, Asa had Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat had Joram, Joram had Uzziah, Uzziah had Jotham, Jotham had Ahaz, Ahaz had Hezekiah, Hezekiah had Manasseh, Manasseh had Amon, Amon had Josiah, Josiah had Jehoiachin and his brothers, and then the people were taken into the Babylonian exile…Jacob had Joseph, Mary’s husband, the Mary who gave birth to Jesus, the Jesus who was called Christ.

One of the things I like about Christmas is getting all the pictures in the mail from family and friends. Even if I don’t hear from these friends all year, it is fun to get a card and see a picture of their family, see how old their kids are getting, be reminded of their presence in my life. And the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel shows us that family is a part of the original Christmas story as well.

Matthew’s genealogy is kind of like Jesus’ family Christmas picture.

Think of your own family. On the surface, if a stranger saw one of your family portraits they might recognize but most everyone else would just look like a group of strangers all standing together. It would be about the same thing as handing them a picture made up of entirely strangers. This is how the genealogy feels at first to us too.

But these aren’t all just random strangers, though if you’re family is anything like mine, there are some random strangers thrown in the mix too.

As a member of the family, when you look at the picture you see something completely different. Behind each face is a complex story. Grandma isn’t just someone who can be summed up in a word or two, she’s got many layers, lived through many difficult times, and has failures as well as some triumphs in her bag of tricks. Your cousin, who happens to be a single dad, is much more than a guy with a goofy haircut and a flannel shirt. Your aunt just survived her fifth round of chemo and that’s why she’s lost her hair. Your mother is not in the picture because she past away last year. You’ve had a very difficult relationship with your father and every time you see his face your heart sinks.

These people aren’t random strangers to you, they are your family. They tell you something about who you are, where you come from, what has shaped you for better or for worse, and who you belong too.

Unless we know the story behind the picture, the power of the family portrait is lost on us.

In the same way, Matthew’s little opening genealogy has a backstory.

For one, Matthew lists the five mothers of Jesus. Ancient genealogies didn’t contain names of women in them. Genealogies were about showing the line of the father.

These five women aren’t just any woman, four of them are not even Jews, Mary is the only exception. They are outsiders to Israel. And all five of them were caught up in sexual scandals.

  1. Tamar was impregnated by her father-in-law.
  2. Rahab was the Gentile sex worker who helped to hid some of Joshua’s men who were spying out Jericho.
  3. Ruth tricked Boaz into declaring his intentions with her after she slipped into the threshing room where he was sleeping and “uncovered his feet.”
  4. Bathsheba – who is only mentioned here as “Uriah’s wife” – is often remembered as the woman King David had an affair with. But when the king of a country has his soldiers show up at a woman’s house to summon her to his room, we don’t call that adultery, we call that rape.
  5. And there is Mary: a pregnant unwed-teenager.*

These are Jesus’ five mothers of grace. These women are a part of Jesus’ Christmas family portrait. They are not random strangers, but an essential part of the thread of what God has been up to and will continue to do in Jesus’ life.

I think this genealogy also teaches us that:

  • You can’t out scandalize God. Sinners and Saints are already been written into the Christmas story itself.

  • God’s promise has been gestating for a very very long time, and has been working in very “irregular” and seemingly “inappropriate” ways. My guess is that these women had no idea that they were a part of that much larger story of God.

  • And more importantly – God was redefining who was in his family in very subversive and non-traditional terms.

This genealogy and the story of Christ’s birth invites us to expand our imaginations about what God can do, and who can be a part of God’s family.

Seeing One Another as A Book of Holy Doctrine

This reminds me of an inspiring story a friend of mine pointed out to me this week. The story was about postal workers in Brazil who had become so overwhelmed with all the letters they were carrying to for children in their area addressed to Santa in the North Pole that they decided to respond. Operating off the belief that, “If everyone helped a little, the world would be a better place,” they they set up something that is a cross between a “secret santa” and “make-a-wish” foundation to respond to many of these letters they get in the mail. About 500,000 children’s letters are answered each year.

One letter reads:

“Dear Father Christmas,” the letter reads, “my name is Larissa. I know that you are very busy and that you live a long way away in the North Pole, but I’d like to ask you for a gift because my mother doesn’t have enough money to buy what I want.”

Another letter was from a child whose mother had died when she was little, another was from a boy who didn’t ask for presents for Christmas, he asked for food for his mother.

The reporter tells this moving story:

We stop in front of a shack; it’s made of cardboard siding and tin, crowded among other makeshift dwellings.Maria Marisa Laureano answers the door. Her daughter has asked for three beds for her and her two sisters. When we go into the one-room home, we see only one large bed where Laureano says she and her children all sleep. A pot of food is cooking in the corner, and clothes are strewn on the floor. It’s dark and crowded, and the walls are so thin you can hear the neighbors talking. The new beds barely fit in the house… It’s been three months since I moved here,” she says, “but there are a lot of termites. Some nights we can’t sleep. They fly and walk on the bed, on us, they bite. Life has been very hard.”

The challenge these postal workers leaned into during Christmas was something that seemed insurmountable, but they were able to have their imaginations opened-up and in a way where these saw these children as a part of their own family.

As the Christian mystic, Thomas a Kempis, once wrote:

If your heart were sincere and upright, every creature would be unto you a looking-glass of life and a book of holy doctrine.

I’d say that these workers saw these children as a “book of holy doctrine.”

I love this story because everyone wonders if they are loved, if they are welcomed, if they belong, if someone is watching out for them. What we want more in life than most anything else is to be accepted for who we are and to be cared for.

These Brazilians took what seemed like an overwhelming challenge and did something unexpected with it.

Christmas either helps to draw us in deeper to this connection to one another or it makes the distance feel more and more great. For these children, I imagine they felt a great distance and wondered where they, or even if they, fit.

Growing up as a kid from a divorced family I got two Christmas’ which, on that front was pretty amazing. I’d be with one of my families on Christmas eve and Christmas morning, then around noon my other parent would come to pick me up and take me to their home. I did this for about 17 years of my life. Two Christmas’ wasn’t bad, but it didn’t make up for the distance I felt every year in my heart. Christmas was a day when I was reminded about the great distance in my own family and the irreconcilable and often difficult situations that family could entail.

A (New) Family Portrait

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Jesus’ biographer, Matthew, was an artist: he has taken a portrait of the family of God and he has begun to photoshop in more people. People who don’t at first glance belong, in order to make the point that because of Christmas everyone belongs.

The opening of Matthew invites us to have “heart [that are] sincere and upright, every creature would be unto you a looking-glass of life and a book of holy doctrine.”

Yes, we have skeletons in the closet, we have conflicts, there are distances that are either impossible to cross, or they at least feel impossible at the moment. We wonder where we fit, or if we fit at all in God’s family.

And the power of the story of Jesus’ birth is that it addresses these situations.

The Christmas story is about seeing that you belong to this family, to God’s family, no matter your background or who you are.

The Christmas story is itself a story of a stuck situation – teenage fiancé gets knocked up before they’re married and the now-step-dad doesn’t know what to do. And in a moment’s notice, God provides an unexpected door out of the cul-de-sac.

The Christmas story is about believing in the impossible and holding out hope no matter what happens. It is about God being present and slowly gestating the answer to a promise for the many years of silence that led up to the birth us Jesus.

The Christmas story is about seeing that God can use anything and anyone and that God cannot be out scandalized.

It is about God taking a family family portrait and photoshopping more and more people into it.

This is what Immanuel means: God is with us and God saves. Not at a distance, but up close, by becoming one of us and showing just who is a part of God’s family. That each and every person is a book of holy doctrine who is loved and belongs.


*flickr image credits namoi.

*It was brought to my attention by a reader that in Mary’s time she actually would not have been considered unwed due to her betrothal to Joseph. The word betroth here means “to woo or to win.” From Davies and Allison, Following courtship and the completion of the marriage contract, the marriage was considered established: the woman had passed from her father’s authority to that of her husband. But about a year typically passed before the woman moved from her parents house to her husband’s house. During that time, although the marriage was not yet consummated, the woman was ‘wife’ and she could become a widow. Thus betrothal was the legal equivalent of marriage, and its cancellation divorce. This explains the situation of Joseph. Even though he has not yet taken Mary, she is his wife; thus separation requires a certificate of divorce” (Matthew 1-7 p.199). I believe that the critical point remains faithful to the text. As my friend Aaron Scott says, “Matthew 1:18-19 shows us that Joseph had the legal right to treat Mary as disposable. And he almost did it (if quietly). Her vulnerability and stigma in the situation strongly parallel the vulnerability and stigma faced by young, unmarried pregnant women/girls today.”

Published by

Wess

...is the William R. Roger Director of Friends Center and Quaker Studies at Guilford College in Greensboro, NC., PhD in Intercultural Studies from Fuller Theological Seminary, served as a "released minister" at Camas Friends Church, and father of three. He enjoys sketchnoting, sharing conversation over coffee with a friend, listening to vinyl and writing creative nonfiction.