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Wow, aren’t genealogies exciting?? I’ll be honest, I’ve been a little worried about reading this out loud in front of everyone. But if you’re like me, you might be wondering – Why in the world would Matthew’s Gospel – the first book in the New Testament – start off with a long, boring genealogy? It is tempting to skim through this passage – or just skip it all together and move on to the good stuff. But this Record of Ancestors provides some important information about Jesus. Scholars make the point that the Jewish people find genealogies especially important and interesting. In fact, for Jews, starting the story of someone’s life with a genealogy is essential, because Family Trees were often used to prove how pure someone’s lineage was. If a Jewish person could prove that they had a pure bloodline then that would show everyone that they were indeed a member of the people of God. Genealogies were a way to achieve a certain social status. Some of you may be familiar with the movie A Knight’s Tale. It is set in medieval England, and it tells the story of a young man named William who wished to be a knight. And if you wanted to become a knight you have to descend from a royal bloodline. The only problem is William is a poor peasant. So, William devises a plan with the help of a few friends. He changes his name to Ulrich, fakes his family history, and pretends to be a knight born from royalty.
On the day of his first competition, posing as a knight, his friend (acting as his squire) introduces him in front of a large audience. He delivers this summary of Ulrich’s fake royal lineage. “I would list Lord Ulrich’s lineage if it served to honor him. Most men here — it’s sad, but it’s true — they look to their past to prove their worth; they look to the deeds of their fathers. Now, Sir Ulrich has great ancestors, make no mistake about that. Sir Chirard von Richbach, Duke Guelph of Saxony, Van Misch IV out of Brunswick — but these great, great men pale into insignificance next to him. I do not list them to honor him; I list him to honor them!” In this story, William, a poor peasant, had to fake his own family history in order to achieve the status of “Knight.” And I think there is a connection between A Knight’s Tale and the genealogy of Jesus. There are a number of incredible characters in Jesus’ family history which spans over 40 generations. I guess you could say they are characters of “Biblical proportions.” Matthew starts out citing two of the biggest names in all of Judaism – Abraham (the father of faith) and David, (the greatest king Israel had ever known). These two figures are giants in the Jewish faith, and – for a Jew – it would be incredible to see that Jesus’ lineage could be traced all the way back to Abraham.
And yet, much like in A Knight’s Tale – these great, great men pale into insignificance next to Jesus. But this lineage still works as an introduction to who Jesus is. It tells about his history, his heritage, and his identity. Looking back at our history and heritage has become a pretty popular thing. A lot of folks have started tracing their ancestry. It helps folks find connections to their past, and it can even help them explain and identify relationships and values that have shaped who they are. Ancestry.com has allowed people to reconnect with family members and find lost information about their history. And the results can sometimes be surprising. I was talking with some friends the other day who say that they were always told that they had Native American blood in their family, but after receiving results from their DNA test, they found that this was not the case. But I love some of their commercials, because they talk about an unknown history that is just waiting to be discovered.
I like that phrase: “Unlock your past. Inspire your future.” Our past tells us where we come from and can inspire us as we go forward in the future. And I think many people find good and bad when they go digging in the past. I have mapped out a portion of my family history, and I have found both good and bad. I have found celebration and tragedy. I learned of my great, great, grandfather who served as a Methodist preacher in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee. I heard a story of a relative who supposedly helped a young Dolly Parton when she got a car trouble after getting her hair done. I heard about my grandfather who helped a stranger save their animals and farm equipment from a burning barn. I have listened to these stories that bring a smile to my face and make me proud of where I came from. But I also learned of another great, great, grandfather who died at the premature age of 30. I heard about a number of children who died in infancy never getting the chance to grow and lead a legacy of their own.
I learned of my great grandmother who was engaged to be married to a man who died suddenly of appendicitis – and she went to his funeral on the day they were supposed to be married. I have listened to these stories and read these letters that give me a glimpse into who they were and the tragedies they experienced. Our ancestors have stories that tell us about who they are. Matthew’s Gospel certainly tells a story about Jesus and his past. It paints a vivid picture. Some of these folks bring up powerful and positive imagery. Some of these folks have a bit of a checkered past. King David certainly has some baggage. King Ahaz was no saint. Some of Jesus’ ancestors bring up some unsavory memories of the past. Even Abraham had a few missteps along the way. And not only does this genealogy show some unsavory characters, but it also shows the mixed history of Israel – times were good, and times were bad. It reminds us of when King David ruled during a peaceful time in Israel’s history. It also reminds us of the Babylonian exile. It shows ups and downs.
It’s the same for us, isn’t it? We can remember our ancestors who went through the Great Depression and various Wars. We hear their stories and it influences how we think about them and how we think about ourselves. We can remember good times and bad times in our own lives. We can remember times when we celebrated and times when we mourned. I think the thing I love most about this genealogy is that there are some unexpected characters listed. For example, the fact that Matthew would mention five women in this genealogy is pretty remarkable. In ancient Israel it was definitely a man’s world. But there are five women who are mentioned in Jesus’ family lineage. Four of these women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba) come from a foreign lineage. They were outsiders. They weren’t originally Jewish. In light of this, John Wesley observed that it was “remarkable in the sacred history” that four non-Jewish women would be mentioned in the family tree of Jesus. I also find it interesting that these four women are mentioned in relation to their son or husband. In other words, they are somewhat defined by men. All except for Mary.
This is especially interesting because this is technically Joseph’s lineage, not Mary’s. But in this text, Joseph is the only man who is defined by his wife – and not the other way around. Joseph is referred to as the husband of Mary. Mary is the only woman who is identified as the primary character over a man in this entire genealogy. But I like that both Mary and Joseph are listed in this text, because they both played an important role in Jesus’ life. We know that Jesus and Joseph are not technically related. There is no biological connection between Jesus and Joseph. After all, Jesus came from a virgin’s womb, and this is why Joseph has often been affectionately referred to as “Jesus’ step-dad.” But perhaps Matthew’s use of Joseph’s lineage is one way of saying that true relationships are formed – not just through blood relation. There is a long list of names in this text. Some of them we recognize but a lot of them we don’t recognize. There are mostly men who are listed, and there are a lot of women who are not listed. There are some folks who are left out; who didn’t make the cut. Perhaps this can act as a reminder for us by letting us know that we all have a role to play. Maybe our names aren’t always listed in a place of prominence, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a role in the story.
According to William Barclay, this passage from Matthew’s Gospel shows us that Jesus is here to change things up and break down barriers. Jesus’ genealogy shows us that the barrier between Jews and Gentiles is down. The barrier between male and female is down. And the barrier between sinner and saint is down. In Jesus’ family history there are Jews and Gentiles; there are men and women; and there are sinners and saints. There is room for everyone. This is not your typical family tree. Right from the very beginning, Matthew lets us know that there is something special about this Jesus character. Jesus is a descendent of Abraham which makes him a son of the Jewish faith. He comes from the line of David which means he has royal blood. All this is great, but Matthew reveals the best news in the very first line. He tells us that Jesus is the Messiah. He lets us in on this bit of information right from the very start. And Matthew invites us to read through his long and rich family history to reveal something deeper about Jesus’ identity. But not only that, the Gospels also tell us that this genealogy will continue – not like in the Davinci Code by Dan Brown. I’m not saying Jesus had a wife and child. Instead, Jesus has come and extended his family line to us. He has broken all the barriers and invited us to join the family. This morning, we are offered a valuable inheritance through Jesus Christ. Harold Kushner tells the story of a man who received a message from a rabbi telling him that a relative of his had died and left him some valuable property. The man was eager to claim his inheritance, so he rushed over to the rabbi’s office, only to learn that the relative was Moses and the valuable property was the Jewish tradition. We are invited to accept this great inheritance through Jesus Christ which goes all the way back to God. For example, the genealogy found in the Gospel of Luke actually traces back Jesus’ lineage all the way back to Adam, who is deemed a child of God. And our message this morning tells us that we are invited to share in this rich family history. As the Apostle Paul says, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” I have a feeling that if we could all take a DNA test that could trace us back to the very beginning – we would all find that we are indeed the very children of God – made in God’s image. We are all part of the family.
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