There was a time a few years ago when my sister became convinced that our family might be related to the Beothuks. I think she had been reading about how people with aboriginal ancestry could get government assistance with education through existing legislation and special treaties. I must admit that I was interested and intrigued that I might be related to someone who was now extinct. Since lived in St. John’s I was to scour the Provincial Archives in the basement of Government House for our connection to Newfoundland’s Red Indians and report back on my findings.
I spent my first morning going through parish records and historical records from the Green Bay area where my grandmother had come from and later I advanced to old newspaper clippings and community records. I spent quite a number of hours with no success until finally I found an ancestor with a Beothuk connection. Alas, it was not what she wanted, but when I gave my report I assured my sister that one relative had a close relationship with a Beothuk. If I had been close to her there would have been dollar signs in her eyes and when her mouth opened and closed it would be like the sound of a cash register. She was all ears, but anticipation turned to disappointment when I explained the “close relationship” – our relative, it was rumored, had a chance encounter with a Beothuk, they had fought on a hill and our relative threw him over a cliff and killed him.
The family tree can have some terrible secrets. Nowhere is that more true than in the human family of Jesus. As we prepare for Christmas, let me read you an excerpt from Matthew 1:5-6: 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.
The “begats” make for poor reading by most people’s estimation. If a face tells a story, a biblical name evokes a host of memories. Two verses from Matthew 1 and enough drama, crime and grace to fill a library or enough plots to fill a dozen blockbuster movies. Jesus’ ancestors had a checkered past and for some had little to recommend them. Some of them make mine look like Sunday school teachers!
Rahab operated a house of prostitution in Jericho. When the spies went into Canaan, specifically to the city of Jericho, they lodged in the house of Rahab the prostitute. She lied, sent the king of Jericho on a wild-goose chase and hid them until they could get to safety. She did this because she had heard about the God is Israel and she confessed him in Joshua 2:11 with these words, “... for the Lord your God, he is God in heaven above, and in earth beneath."
Provision was made for protection of this household. Most of remember the scarlet cord story. But what is more notable is that when Jericho fell, Rahab and her family were granted protection in Israel. But more than that she married a man named Salmon, the same Salmon who was the father of Boaz. Many scholars conclude that Rahab could have been the mother of Boaz. However, "begat" can sometimes refer to a grandfather. The scholars agree that this woman is the same one mentioned in Joshua 2 and 5. In particular, Rahab, makes it further than the other two since she is listed as a model of faith in Hebrews 11:31, "By faith the harlot Rahab perished not with them that believed not, when she had received the spies with peace" (KJV).
Could it be possible that Boaz took so kindly to Ruth and was willing to introduce a Moabite girl to Israel because in his own family there was an outstanding example of a foreigner being redeemed from a checkered past and an uncertain future? Ruth also gets honourable mention in Matthew's list of women. She came out of Moab, her ancestors also hailed from an incestuous union of Lot and his daughters. Yet in God's economy He saw fit to bring her under the protection of His wings and grant her status that would immortalize her name as a woman of unusual loyalty and courage and as a prominent figure in the royal and messianic line.
Another woman is mentioned and, though unnamed, is easily identified. Matthew says "David the king begat Solomon of her who had been the wife of Urias." We know he referred to Bathsheba, herself a Jew but married to a Hittite. If we can state that Ruth was welcomed into Israel because of who she married we can also believe that Bathsheba was not highly regarded by some because she had married a foreigner. There’s no fudging of the facts here. Uriah’s name is out front for all to see, and for all to remember that there is murder in the family tree.
David, the singer, giant-slayer, and king, murdered Bathsheba’s husband after initiating an adulterous affair with her. She was the mother of Solomon. Less you think I’m being bashing the women of Matthew 1, David had one of the most dysfunctional families in all of the Bible. David’s line had its share of men who are guilty of every kind of gross sin. Read the biography of Judah, the head of the clan and get ready to be shocked.
Without a doubt the most prominent woman of Matthew 1 is Mary. She is venerated as the "mother of God." The first century honoured her as "theotokos" - the God-bearer. But she almost became a single mother. During the betrothal period with Joseph she was found to be with child. We know it to be the immaculate conception, her pregnancy was of the Holy Ghost. But imagine the scandal attached to the household.
Imagine the thoughts that must have flooded through Joseph's mind. In fact, he was about to wash his hands of the entire matter by divorcing her before their marriage was ever formalized. Only divine intervention, an angel in the night, changed his mind. The town of Bethlehem is about five miles south of Jerusalem in the district known as Ephrathah, a region known for its fertile hills and valleys. It was the burial place of Rachel, the wife of Jacob and the original home of Naomi and her family. It was also the setting for much of the Book of Ruth and it rises to prominence again in Matthew’s writings.
The prophet Micah predicted that Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah, but it was Rome’s taxation edict that made the prophecy come true. Micah 5:2, "But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting" (KJV). This prophecy is fulfilled in Matthew 2:6, "And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel." It is significant that the King of kings, who was of the house of David, was born in David's ancestral home. According to Luke 2:11, Jesus was born in "the city of David" and was "a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord" (KJV). Christ, who is the Bread of Life, was cradled in a town whose name means "house of bread."
Paul tells us Jesus came forth in the fullness of time, Galatians 4:4-5, "But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (KJV).
The New Testament opens in an unusual way. Matthew’s list of all the prominent names in the genealogy opens the “Rogues Gallery” of the Old Testament, a family tree with branches that inspire something less than hope. But that’s exactly what the New Testament does: it wraps up all the ugly events of the past, all the dysfunctional family issues, all the intrigue and guilt and iniquity and piles it on the shoulders of Jesus Christ and He becomes our hope for the future.
Into a lost and dark world came the incarnate Son of God. It is true that every family tree has limbs that bear bitter fruit. The secrets of His family tree were shocking, but His personal origins were glorious. His family was steeped in sin of every despicable nature, but He was innocent and spotless. His world clung to a form of religion without God, but He was God. His people were trodden underfoot by the religious elite, but He had a message of glorious freedom. His world was filled with hurting people without a physician. He healed with the mere touch of His hand. His people were unable to resist sin, but He would do battle and conquer it by the force of His love and the power of His self-sacrifice. His world was distanced from God and without hope, but His resurrection would ensure eternal life.
Matthew was inspired as he wrote the names of these women into his introduction. Matthew was writing Gospel. The burden of his message was "good news" about Jesus. In the list of His ancestors were plenty of men who had sinned as well. The message was one of grace. These women of the past, Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, all had black marks on their character. But they are listed together in Matthew 1.
It is in Matthew 1:21 that we first understand why these women may have been mentioned. In fact, the theme of Jesus message and mission is contained there. In a culture where a name was an indication of character Joseph was instructed to name this son "Jesus," the Greek form of Joshua (deliverer) Matthew 1:21 "And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins" (KJV).
No mention of Ruth is complete without Naomi. She has been called "the prodigal daughter of the Old Testament." Destitute in the strange land of Moab, Naomi came home to Bethlehem, to the house of her fathers. Her bitterness overwhelmed her until the Father acted. He replaced her emptiness with fullness. He restored her to her place. Ruth was a foreigner. God consistently tells us that the sacrifice of Christ was for all. Nowhere in all of Scripture is that as evident as in Ruth. If Israel is “the box” God thinks “outside the box.”
The psalms contain an interesting pair of verses of highs and lows regarding the tribes and nations of Israel and the neighbouring people: Psalm 108:8-9 "Gilead is mine; Manasseh is mine; Ephraim also is the defence of my head; Judah is my sceptre. Moab is my washpot; Upon Edom will I cast my shoe; Over Philistia will I shout" (ASV). Note carefully the designation of Moab. It is a washpot. It is low and menial. It has a purpose, but there is nothing noble about it. But look at Judah! It is the sceptre, the symbol of royal authority. It is the mark of majesty, the staff of a king. Ruth the Moabitess is joined to Boaz the Judean. What a mixture: washpot and sceptre, pauper and prince.
It only hit me this week, or rather it hit me with fresh reality: the Gospel of Matthew begins with the introduction of a group of people who were most in need of its message. They come into the plan of God as active participants, but needy of forgiveness and grace. Writer Michael Horton has written an article entitled “Christ at the Center.” His whole point is to be Gospel-driven people. We fight the culture war and try to rescue the church from the grip of the militant paganism in our time. It is portrayed as Christian conservatives against people more liberal or unconcerned about ultimate questions. Horton also stated that the message is not that Jesus makes us happier – the therapeutic approach. We’re looking to the church for better children, better marriages, a better life!
The Gospels begin with Jesus, but not a help-you-cope-with-life Jesus. He is a Savior who wants to get to the root of the tree and save you by a power that will eject sin from our lives and by the powerful combination of truth, love and grace compel you to confess Jesus as Savior and Lord. The testimony of a Christian is the most powerful witness to the power of the Gospel. For Jesus’ family secrets and our family secrets we need Gospel – Jesus saves and preserves us. We illustrate this reality in baptism in water. His Spirit then propels us to service and when we open our mouths Jesus is the subject!
We live in a world that is reverting to the pre-Christian era. Horton offers a telling statement about the condition of the world and the ability of the church to preach the Gospel: “We are facing a bewildering diversity of opposition to Christianity that is increasingly explicit—at the same time that not only people in the pews but also pastors and theologians seem the least capable of articulating the Christian faith, much less of offering persuasive arguments for it.”
I am amazed at what’s in Jesus’ background. Prostitutes, despised foreigners and kings who act like Columbian drug-lords. How could it be? GRACE: pure, 100 percent, uncut, unedited GRACE! the grace of God and that’s where the Gospel begins. This is why I can look at anyone today who has a repentant heart and say, “Jesus Christ can set you free!” He can take the secrets of our family tree, the twisted branches and broken limbs and grow them to a tree planted by the rivers of water, steadfast and immovable. Merry Christmas!