“Faith Passages – Our Magnificent and Messy Genealogy”
Sunday, September 14, 2008
Matthew 1: 1-17
We are beginning a new sermon series today on Faith Passages. Our experience of faith – the questions we ask, the answers we find, our relationship with God – these change with the ages and stages of life. There are scripture lessons for each Sunday of the series, but there is an over-riding Scripture found in Psalm 71, which is really a prayer. I’d like to begin this morning by praying that prayer.
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come. (Psalm 71: 17-18) Amen.
Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy of Jesus. To us it is a long list
of names, many of them hard to pronounce. I asked
But to the biblical people who originally heard this genealogy recited every name was not just a name but a story. Every name was a biography and a story, often a complicated and complex story full of struggles and victories and defeats and ambiguities.
Jesus’ genealogy is a theological statement. It is interesting that Matthew lists a genealogy for Jesus and Luke does too, and the two genealogies are different. They are different because Matthew and Luke had different theologies, and they compiled their genealogies so as to illustrate their particular theological emphases.
Each list – Matthew’s and Luke’s – is selective. Matthews lists 42 generations between Abraham and Jesus. Historically there must have been many, many more generations between Abraham and Jesus but this is theology, not abstract history. So the names on Matthew’s list are selectively chosen.
Each of the names is a story. Matthew’s list includes the names of several women, which was unusual for biblical genealogies. Four of the women on Matthew’s lists are Gentiles. Matthew is hinting that God’s intention from the very beginning was that Gentiles should be included in the community Jesus came to create. It is a theological statement.
Some of the names on Matthew’s list are quite amazing. “Judah, the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar” is on the list. Do you know this story? It is from Genesis 38.
I’m not making it up. It is from the Bible. This sordid little story makes it into Jesus’ genealogy. Everyone in Matthew’s day who heard the genealogy recited, when they heard “Judah, the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar” would know that this story is part of Jesus’ history.
Jacob is on the list – Jacob who cheated his brother and lived is a foreign land most of his life to avoid his family. Rahab is on the list – Rahab the Canaanite prostitute.
King David is on the list but the way he is listed is quite pointed. It says, “David…father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.” What a way to put it! One of Jesus’ family members is Solomon, the son of David and another man’s wife. Everyone who heard it put that way would know that buried in those few words was a longer story of adultery, abuse of power, murder and conspiracy.
Unpack Jesus’ genealogy and you will find heroism and bravery and courage, but you will also find incest, infidelity, prostitution, embezzlement between family members, parental favoritism, fierce jealousies, siblings who wouldn’t speak to each other for lifetimes, adultery, ugly disputes about inheritances, lying and cheating.
Any of us feeling better about our families right about now?
All of these kinds of things are part of Jesus’ genealogy.
Any of us ever wonder what we did to deserve the genes we ended up with? Where did these high cholesterol genes come from? These diabetes genes? These overweight genes? What did I do to deserve them?
What does it mean that I was born with the looks I have – either pretty, or not, according to the societal standards of the time and place we were born into. I have a friend who says, “I would have been good looking if only I’d been born a hundred years ago.” He looks sort of like William Taft.
What does it mean that I was born with my intellectual abilities and disabilities? What about my gender or sexual orientation? What about my psychological proclivities?
Do these things have any meaning or are they just accidents? Do my genes have meaning?
And it is not really about genes. The real surprise in Jesus’ genealogy is that when you get to the end of it, the genealogy ties to Joseph. Then the very next passage after the genealogy in Matthew tells the story of the virgin birth, in which Joseph is revealed to not really be Jesus’ biological father. Either Matthew has a problem with consistency or else Jesus’ genealogy is about something more than biology.
Genealogy is about much more than biology. The theological truth is that we get thrown into the world with all sorts of circumstances decided for us. We have no control over them. We can’t pick our parents, neither our biological parents nor our nurturance parents when they are different. We can’t pick our bodies, or our geography of birth, or our social standing. We can’t decide anything about our entry into life. So much that we will live with all the days of our lives is arbitrarily and mysteriously decided for us.
Carl Michalson, the Methodist theologian who died too young in a plane crash, has a wonderful survey of existentialist philosophy in one of the lectures he gave before his death.[i] A theme of existentialism, he says, is what Martin Heidegger called Geworfenheit.[ii] It is a German word that has no good English translation, but Michalson translates it as “thrown-ness.”
Heidegger says that we exist like marbles thrown into the mud. We are stuck here. There is nothing around us to account adequately for our arrival. We have no memory. We have no history. If we don’t know where we have come from, how can we know where we are going?
Michalson talks about Henri Rousseau’s paintings especially a Rousseau painting called “The Sleeping Gypsy.”[iii] It is a very large painting. Almost all of it is sand. A sleeping gypsy lies in the middle a vast field of sand. If you look closely you see there are no footprints in the sand. There are no clues as to how the gypsy got there. When she awakes she will not know where she came from or where she has been. Existentialism.
Henrik Ibsen, the playwright, wrote Hedda Gabler because he once saw an insect struggling inside a bottle and it reminded him of his own life.[iv] Samuel Beckett wrote an entire novel about one character. The entire novel takes place inside a bottle. He called the novel The Unnameable.[v]
Some of the first faith questions we find ourselves asking are: “Why am I here?” “Who am I, really?” “What am I meant to be?” And all sorts of other questions flow from these.
Am I a nobody or am I special? Am I an accident or am I intentional?
“Am I blessed or am I cursed?” “Am I a winner or a loser?”
It used to be that the number one tattoo worn by men who ended up in prison was a tattoo that said “Born to lose.” Prison was full of men who believed that they were born losers.
Questions: Is there someone out there who is meant to love me and whom I am meant to love? Do I have a soul mate?
Or: What is my calling? Am I called to do something with my life? Do I have a vocation?
All of these are ways of asking the question of whether the forces that dropped me into the world have meaning or not. They are all ways of asking the question: “Why am I here?” “Who am I, really?”
These are faith questions, aren’t they?
Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus is about these faith questions, which I believe we begin to ask very early in life, most of us. We may not consciously know we are asking the questions, or we might. But very early on we begin asking the questions: “Why am I here?” “Who am I, really?” “What do the circumstances and accidents of my birth and life mean, if anything?”
And I think the Bible wrestles with these questions with us. I think these are the questions Matthew addresses theologically in the genealogy of Jesus. And I think Matthew’s answer is in contrast to two other answers that we are likely to come to if we try to answer this question on our own.
If we try to answer this question on our own we are likely to conclude either that our lives and life circumstances have no meaning. This is the answer of nihilism. Everything is arbitrary and has no deeper meaning. I am nothing…surely nothing special. This is the basis of what psychology calls neuroses, as illustrated by the young Woody Allen persona. Nihilism is one possible answer we are likely to come to on our own.
The other likely answer we are likely to conclude on our own is that our lives have ultimate meaning. We are very, very special. This is the answer of predestinationism. It is the basis of what psychology calls narcissism.
A good person, I believe, who became a politician ended up humiliated by public disclosure of an affair he had. This is what he said in his confession: “In the course of several campaigns, I started to believe that I was special and became increasingly egocentric and narcissistic.” He confessed to "a narcissism that leads you to believe you can do whatever you want, you're invincible, and there will be no consequences."[vi]
Sometimes we are tempted to flip-flop between the two. Some days we think we are nothing. Other days we think we are God’s anointed.
Scripture and Matthew’s genealogy offer an alternative answer. It is an answer which often appears in various ways in Scripture. The answer is this:
There is something that God is doing in history. You and I are not the stars of the story of what God is doing in history. Before Outlook I used a product to organize my life called Day-Timer. Day-Timer used a slogan to sell their product – The slogan was – “It is all about you.” They were wrong. It is not all about you or me. But we are part of the story. We are not nothing.
It doesn’t matter whether we are the child of the union of Tamar pretending to be a temple prostitute and her father-in-law who was visiting a pagan temple prostitute (what was he thinking?) Or whether we, like Ruth, are an illegal alien who doesn’t fit in the picture. Or whether we are a hero and reformer like Josiah or any of the other saints and sinners mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy.
Our lives have meaning and direction and telos and purpose but the meaning and direction and purpose resides in the community of God’s people to which we belong. It is not a personal possession. It is not all about me. It is all about us – this teaming humanity that stretches across time and space through whom God is seeking to bring peace and justice and love and inclusion into the world.
It is all about family. We find our meaning and purpose in family. But remember families are not just about biology. We have our biological families, yes. But we also have our neighbors, a family trying to live together geographically. We have our church families, our work families. Our nation is a family. Humanity is a family.
We find our meaning and direction in the community that we belong to. It is not all about me, but it is all about what God is doing through this magnificent and messy family that stretches across time and space – a family to whom I belong and in whom I find my meaning and purpose.
The faith question is whether I will choose to belong, to engage, to care, to love. It is this belonging and loving that we find our memory, our history, our direction and our hope.
It is all about family – magnificent and messy as they are.
[i] Carl Michalson, The Witness of Radical Faith (Tidings, 1974), 29-43.
[ii] See http://caae.phil.cmu.edu/Cavalier/80254/Heidegger/introductions/Overview.html for a summary of Heideggar’s Being and Time.