In recent years the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Society announced it had reached a conclusion that there was a “high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemmings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemming’s children.” This came after over two centuries of denial and cover-up which was motivated by a desire to protect the reputation of one of our Founding Fathers. The idea that someone of his stature would have an illicit affair and several illegitimate children is scandalous. The idea that he would have a relationship of this kind with an African-American slave would be even more scandalous, which of course is a testimony to our own deep seated racism.
Perhaps thats why when we read the Christmas story in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel we don’t start at the beginning. We usually start in the middle of the chapter with the angel’s command to Joseph to take Mary as his wife. But Matthew begins the story of the birth of Christ with a record of the family history of Jesus; we call it a genealogy. The genealogy of Jesus is about as scandalous as they come. For example, there were four women included in this genealogy. As you look closely at these women and their stories, it’s clear they’re not the kind of people you would expect to be in the bloodlines of the Son of God.
Take Tamar. Judah had chosen Tamar as a wife for his son. His son died and left her childless. The law required that his brother should marry her, so she could have children, but he refused. So Tamar, desperate to have a child, concocted a scheme where she dressed up as a prostitute, put a veil over her face, and waited by the roadside until her own father-in-law, Judah, strolled by and paid to have a little fun. Twin sons were conceived. One of them was Perez, a forefather of Jesus. What a story to have in your family tree! Try explaining that to your children!
Next, we meet Rahab in the Bible, she is a professional lady of the night. After wandering around the wilderness for forty years, Joshua sent spies into the Promised land. They came into the city of Jericho, and somehow these “nice, innocent guys” ended up in the red light district at Rahab’s house. It was providential because Rahab protected them and later came to be a follower of God.
And then there is Ruth. Ruth wasn’t a harlot, but she was a Moabite. The Moabite race was a product of incest. They were descendants of Lot. Lot was living in a cave with his two daughters after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. His daughters were afraid there would be no one left to marry them and give them children. So they got their father drunk and seduced him. One of their sons was named Moab. The Jews found the Moabites repugnant. Though Ruth married Boaz and became a Jew, she was one of those descendants.
The fourth woman mentioned is “the wife of Uriah.” Her name was Bathsheba. Her story is not pretty either. She had an affair with King David. They tried to keep it a secret, but their union had produced a child, and David had to knock off her husband and then marry her to cover it all up. That child died in infancy, but she had another son, Solomon, who became the next link in the royal line.
Put these stories together and the genealogy of Jesus makes Thomas Jefferson’s look rather tame! We have prostitution, incest, adultery, murder. Who needs Hollywood? This stuff could keep the National Enquirer in business for years! This is not the Hall of Fame, this is the Hall of Shame.
The message of the family tree of Jesus shows why he came. He came to rescue the kind of people we find in his genealogy–weak, broken and sinful people. That’s why the angel said to Joseph, “You shall call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). That’s why Jesus was called a “friend of sinners” (Luke 7:34).
Its hard news for some; its good news for others. Some of us have a spirituality of self-reliance. No matter how much we may talk about the grace of God, we’re still trying to be good enough for God and still trying to emulate the heroes. But the Gospel confronts us with the utter inadequacy of our own willpower. It shatters the myth that we can pull up our spiritual bootstraps. The fact is we can’t add a single inch to our own spiritual stature. Brennan Manning wrote, “Any spirituality that furnishes a do-it-yourself kit plants the seeds of discouragement and disappointment.” That’s good news though for those who could very well see themselves on this list of names, and who dare to believe that Jesus really did come to rescue and transform them. Could you think of anything better than that? A God who says, “I’ll take care of everything. You just trust in my Son.”