Tag Archives: immigration

Messy Genealogy

family-treeSo much of life is colored by how we tell the story. Which bits get highlighted and which details get left out determine how we interpret the events being narrated. Each historian has the opportunity (and the power) to weave the themes they want their audience to be influenced by into their telling of the story.

So when Matthew’s gospel opens with a genealogy that highlights the roles of five women in the bringing of the Messiah, we can’t help but sit up and take notice. What to a modern reader might seem like yet another male-dominated list of names tracing the royal lineage of Jesus would have stood out to a first-century reader as a radical departure from Jewish tradition.

1 This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham: 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, 4 Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife…
Matthew 1:1-6

In this ancient patriarchal society, genealogical records only mentioned fathers’ names. To be fair, they didn’t necessarily even mention all of the men in the family line, often skipping over a few generations in an attempt to clean up and condense rather complicated family records. At first glance Matthew’s opening genealogy fits this pattern, presenting a tidied-up version of Jesus’ lineage such that it fits into three neat historical categories, each fourteen generations long.

But while Matthew opens his account with a traditional accounting for who Jesus was based on his lineage, he radically diverts from the normal way of doing it by including several of the significant women through whose wombs the seed was passed. Their names interrupt the tidy cadence of the genealogy like signposts popping up in a perfect line of garden vegetables. They simply can’t be missed.

This can be no accident. Far from tossing a bone to the ladies so they can feel somewhat included, Matthew is throwing the spotlight on these unusual women.
And unusual is too gentle a word to describe them. The first three were Gentiles and four out of five are recorded in the Old Testament as engaging in sexually scandalous behavior–not exactly the sort of women to be proud of in describing the purity of one’s pedigree.

So why would the opening lines of a gospel emphasize these particular woman as integral to the identity of Jesus? Is it merely, as some have hypothesized, to show that God can use anyone, even the lowliest and dirtiest of people, to bring about His good purposes?

While that may be true of all of us, settling so quickly on such a conclusion severely shortchanges the significance of these great women of the faith. They aren’t included simply as passive participants in the line of Christ. They are there because of their heroic feats of faith, their unique contributions something that God (and Matthew) considered worthy of honorable mention.

Just as Abraham expressed his faith in God by sticking with Sarah to produce the promised seed, Tamar expressed her faith by sticking with her unfaithful father-in-law Judah, seducing him into fulfilling the promise that he should have kept through his youngest son. And because of her (albeit unorthodox) initiative, Judah commended her as more righteous than he.

By faith both the prostitute Rahab and the penniless immigrant Ruth (stigmatized not only as childless but also as a widow) recognized the superiority of Yahweh over their own gods, forsaking their national identity, their cultural heritage, and their own lives to join themselves to Him, even when that meant throwing themselves under the bus for His less-than-perfect people.

And what do we say of Bathsheba? Actually, it almost seems that credit is being given to her jilted husband (who, by the way, was a Gentile). Uriah’s loyal service-to-the-death for Yahweh and His anointed, especially in the face of his king’s double betrayal, earned him an indirect role (and an honorable mention) in the lineage of Christ.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.
Romans 12:1-2

Despite the way our tellings of Christ’s story tend to ignore and overlook these messy members of His family, Matthew’s gospel places them front and center. Each of these women represents not only God’s grace to the sexually impure and the social outcaste, they also represent the value God places on faith-filled, whole-bodied devotion. These are the examples He holds up to us of the kind of faith that pleases Him: women (and men) who offered their bodies to God as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing in His sight.

…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, and Mary was the mother of Jesus who is called the Messiah.
Matthew 1:16

So when we get to Mary’s offer of her body to God to use as He pleased, we see how it stood in a long line of similar women. Her readiness to offer up her reputation, her womanhood, and her very heart to His purposes earned her the title “most blessed of women” and the painful privilege of nurturing the Son of God. Hers was the example her Son would follow as He, too, submitted His body to God’s good but painful plan.

As Matthew’s opening genealogy so beautifully portrays, the heritage into which Jesus took birth was one of faith-filled, godly mothers. This telling of Jesus’ story confronts our andro-centric assumptions concerning who we identify as the key figures in redemptive history. It also challenges us as men and women to step up to the heritage of sacrificial faith that is ours as adopted members of Christ’s family.

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Legal Aliens

Passing through U.K. customs and immigration recently, I witnessed a scene that redefined “identity crisis.” A young, middle-eastern family was pulled aside, frantically searching their many documents for whatever evidence they could muster that would convince the authorities to allow them in. Their young son sat waiting in a wheelchair while his parents helplessly pled their case with the security guard. Children’s hospital records, a scheduled follow-up appointment, legal travel documents: all fell short of gaining them entrance apart from an acceptable nationality or a valid visa.

Remembering my alien status humbles me, reminding me that I have no more right to belong than anyone else does.

I felt the weight of their rejection as I produced my dependent’s residence card and, after answering a few simple questions about my husband’s work, was casually waved through. What was the difference between us? Both of us were aliens here, yet I had immediate acceptance because of my relationship to someone else. The contrast in our life situations got me thinking about my identity.

…remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ.
Ephesians 2:12-13

The fact is that I’m an outsider. Years of crossing borders and living as a foreigner have made me deeply aware of the privilege of belonging. What locals take for granted, I cannot; so Paul’s writings about being aliens and strangers from God hit home with me. Fear of rejection. Anxiety over fitting in. Constant awareness that we live by others’ leave, a permission that can be rightfully revoked at any time.

The Syro-Phonecian mother felt it as she begged Jesus for a share in the crumb benefits that fell under the citizens’ table. The Samaritan woman resented it as she argued with Him about access rights to God. The Ethiopian eunuch struggled under the weight of it as he returned home, painfully aware of his exclusion from God’s house.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace, and in this one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
Ephesians 2:14-18

But thankfully, God’s immigration laws have changed. He has made a way for everyone to gain entrance into His kingdom. Jesus tore down the walls, opened the borders, and called out an invitation for all to come in. Medical conditions. Unemployment. Criminal record. Dodgy connections. None of these disqualify us from access to His realm, if we have a relationship with Someone on the inside. Jesus’ blood provides us with the dependent card that we need to clear security.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household…
Ephesians 2:19

Experiences of exclusion make an invitation to belong all the more valuable. They also turn the tables on any sense of entitlement or superiority I may have over others. Remembering my alien status humbles me, reminding me that I have no more right to belong than anyone else does, whether that citizenship is in the kingdom of God or in a particular country on earth.

…even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles? As he says in Hosea: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,”
Romans 9:24-25

As I listen to Christian reactions to the waves of immigrants seeking to gain entrance here in the U.K. and across the sea in the U.S.A., I wonder if it wouldn’t help us all to remember our true identity as aliens. We are quick to recall that we are aliens in this world, but somehow we forget that we were once aliens to the nation of God’s people, too. We have become legal citizens in His Kingdom only through the sacrificial kindness of its primary Resident. We did not deserve the insider status granted to us, nor do we have any ongoing claim to it apart from His grace. That grace does not come cheaply, nor does our citizenship come without requirements (which we consistently fail to meet), but that doesn’t stop God from welcoming us into His community.

Now we as Christians get the opportunity to live out this gospel before others in an imminently tangible way, to reflect His love to the nations who are rapidly becoming our neighbors. After all, isn’t that the commission extended to all naturalized citizens of His kingdom?