If we Gentile Christians are being honest, we secretly find the opening chapter of Matthew’s Gospel something of a bore. This Gospel begins by announcing “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham” and then goes on to list a series of names from the Old Testament for the next sixteen verses. When these are chanted as part of the Sunday Gospel reading on the Sunday before Christmas by my loyal and longsuffering deacon, I suspect that most of my congregation zones out a bit, and only returns to paying strict attention when he has finished chanting the genealogy and returns to the narrative by saying, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way”. That is not because they are not pious (they are very pious), but because they are modern Gentiles, and like all modern Gentiles, they find genealogy superfluous.
Some people (often with time on their hands) might check with “ancestry.ca” to find out who their great-great-great grandparents were, but for most of us this information has no real significance. It does not enter into our real identities or define who we are or add to our legitimacy. Knowing that my remote ancestor was the Lord Mayor of London or perhaps a horse-thief is interesting (maybe), but has nothing whatsoever to do with how I define myself. But it was otherwise in Israel.
In Israel, one’s genealogy defined who you were and provided spiritual legitimacy. That is, an Israelite was a part of God’s chosen people, His covenant inheritance. The ancients did not separate religion from ethnicity like we do now. If you were ethnically a descendant of Jacob, then your religion was that of your ancestors. In other words, you were a Jew and worshipped the God of Israel because you happened to be born into that people. Later on, after the exile, the notion of converting to Judaism from paganism became more of a considered possibility, but originally religion was tied to ethnic identity. That was what made rare “conversions” like that of Ruth and the Naaman the Syrian so interesting and noteworthy.
In Israel, you were therefore a part of the chosen people because you could trace your lineage back to Jacob and Abraham. Indeed, your very name contained a tiny slice of genealogy: Simon Peter’s legal name was “Simon bar-Jona”; our Lord’s was “Jeshua bar-Joseph”. If you wanted to serve in the Temple as a priest, you needed to be able to show and prove that your genealogy went back to Levi and the House of Aaron. Jews found genealogy fascinating (thus the first ten chapters of 1 Chronicles), because it defined who they were and gave them spiritual legitimacy.
That is why St. Matthew opens his Gospel with an extended genealogy of Jesus, tracing His lineage back to David, to Jacob, and to Abraham, for this needed to be proven before His claim to be the Messiah could even be examined.
There are, however, some treasures hidden away behind those many names. As with much in the Gospel narrative, there is a subtext.
One of the stumbling blocks to Jews accepting Jesus as the Messiah was the fact that so many of His followers were sinners. The observation that “this man receives sinners and eats with them” (compare Luke 15:2) was considered to disqualify Him as the Messiah, for the Messiah was the one who would smite sinners, not consort with them and welcome them to the table (compare Isaiah 11:4). So: what’s with all the sinners surrounding Jesus? Worse than that, what was with all the Gentiles flooding into the Church and being accepted on the same terms as Jews? If that kept up, some of Matthew’s Jewish audience worried, soon the Gentiles in the Jesus movement would outnumber and swamp the Jews!
Matthew subtly shows how both sinners and Gentiles had historically found a place in Israel’s sacred history. What was happening in the ministry of Jesus was simply a recapitulation of what had been happening in the history of Israel, in which both sinners and Gentiles found a welcome and a home, and were integrated into the people of God.
That is the point of some of the names in that long genealogy. Thus “Judah begot Perez and Zerah by Tamar”. Who was Tamar? She was a woman who disguised herself as a prostitute to have sex with Judah to make a point, and one whom Judah declared to be more righteous than he was (read all about it in Genesis 38). And then we learn that “Salmon begot Boaz by Rahab”—Rahab being the Canaanite inn-keeper who welcomed the invading Israelite spies. As well as being a Gentile, she served as a prostitute (in Hebrew a zonah; in the Septuagint, a πόρνη/ porne)—from a Jewish viewpoint, a sinful Gentile indeed. And then later there was Ruth, a pagan woman from Moab—the same Moab whose people were prohibited from entering the assembly of the Lord “even to the tenth generation”—i.e. effectively forever (thus Deuteronomy 23:3).
And then there was the famous Bathsheba, who had sex with David and conceived a child by him. In the Matthew text she is not given a name, but is referred to only as “the wife of Uriah”. The excision of her name not only stresses the fact that the union was adulterous, but also perhaps witnesses to the shady character of the forbidden liaison. Given that her husband was a Hittite, Bathsheba was probably a Hittite as well—i.e. a Gentile.
We see that tucked away in this genealogy are a number of people who were sinner and pagans, yet who through their repentance and God’s mercy found a place among the people of God, and who (in the case of Ruth and Bathsheba) became the ancestor of King David and the mother of King Solomon. Given these historical details in Israel’s history, who was anyone to carp at Christ for allowing sinners and Gentiles into His movement?
We see therefore the generous inclusivity of the Church and of God’s universal embrace. In the Church everyone—absolutely everyone—is welcome, regardless of their ethnicity, colour, language, sexual orientation, beliefs, and past sins. God welcomes all.
But here is the saving point of that generosity and inclusivity: everyone coming into the family of God must leave their sins and their errors by the door. Coming into the Church involves repentance of sins, and a change of attitude, orientation, life-style, and belief. In Christ everyone is given a new nature, a new set of beliefs, and a new way of living. Coming in while keeping one’s former sinful lifestyle and former erroneous worldview is not a possibility.
For there is a false inclusivity as well as a true. King Solomon embraced the false one, allowing his many wives to join him in his palace and among his people while retaining their pagan gods. This was an inclusivity that led to death. “For it came about when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods, and his heart was not completely devoted to Yahweh his God” (1 Kings 11:4). This was the fatal and poisonous fountain that led to a history of royal idolatry that finally brought down the kingdom of Israel and then the kingdom of Judah, killing thousands and sending the people into exile. Marrying foreign women might have been okay, provided that they left their idols at the door and the border of the land. They didn’t, and disaster resulted.
The Church must therefore embrace the true inclusivity and shun the false. All are welcome to come to Christ, embracing the way of repentance and faith, and allowing Christ to change them. Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba will help point the way in and the way home. `