The full story of how Jesus Christ came to be born includes elements that we do not easily imagine when we sing our Christmas hymns. Jesus’ family tree and blood-line were far from perfect and this, according to the great biblical scholar, Raymond Brown, needs to be kept in mind whenever we are tempted to believe in Jesus but want to reject the church because of its imperfections, scandals, and bad history. Jesus may have been immaculately conceived, but there is much in his origins, as the gospels make clear, that’s as un-immaculate as any contemporary church scandal.
For example, in giving us the origins of Jesus, the gospels point to as many sinners, liars, and schemers in his genetic and historical lineage as they do to saints, honest people, and men and women of faith.
We see, for example, in Jesus’ genealogy a number of men who didn’t exactly incarnate the love, justice, and purity of Jesus: Abraham unfairly banished Ishmael and his mother, Hagar, rationalizing that God favours some people over others; Jacob, by scheming and dishonesty, stole his brother Esau’s birthright; and David, to whom Jesus explicitly connects himself, committed adultery and then had the husband of his mistress murdered to cover-up an unwanted pregnancy and in order to marry her.
And the women mentioned in Jesus background aren’t much better. It’s interesting to note, as Raymond Brown does, which women don’t get mentioned in reference to Jesus’ origins. The gospels don’t mention Sarah, Rebekeh, or Rachel, all of whom were regarded as holy women. Whom do they mention?
They mention Tamar, a Canaanite woman, someone outside the Jewish faith, who seduces her father-in-law, Judah, so that she can have a child; Rahab, also a Canaanite woman, and an outsider, who is in fact a prostitute; Ruth, a Moabite woman who is also outside the official religion of the time; and Bathsheba, a Hittite woman, an outsider who commits adultery with David and then schemes to make sure one of her own offspring inherits the throne.
All of these women found themselves in a situation of marriage or pregnancy that was either strange or scandalous, yet each was an important divine instrument in preserving the religious heritage that gave us Jesus. It’s no accident that the gospels link these women to Mary, Jesus’ mother, since she too found herself in a ritually taboo pregnancy and in a marital situation that was peculiar.
And beyond these less-than-saintly characters in Jesus’ lineage, we see as well that some of the institutions that shaped the Jewish faith were also less than saintly. Institutionalized religion back then suffered from many of the same problems it has today, including the corrupt use of power. Moreover, Israel itself (perhaps justifying the deed by referring to what Jacob had done to Esau) seized the land of Canaan from those who had a prior claim to it, claiming ownership by divine privilege.
Finally, and not insignificantly, we see too that the lineage that gave us Jesus built itself up not just upon the great and the talented, but equally upon the poor and the insignificant. In the list of names that makes up the ancestors of Jesus, we see some that are famous and others that can make no claim to specialness or significance. Jesus’ human blood, scripture tells us, was produced equally by the great and the small, the talented and the talentless.
What’s to be learned for all of this? Perhaps Raymond Brown captures it the best. What all this tells us, he says, is that God writes straight with crooked lines, that we shouldn’t accept an overly-idealized Jesus Christ, and that our own lives, even if they are marked by weakness and insignificance, are important too in continuing the story of the incarnation.
As Brown, himself, puts it: “The God who wrote the beginnings with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witness. A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the impure as well as the pure, men to whom the world harkened and women upon whom the world frowned – this God continues to work through the same melange. If it is a challenge to recognize in the last part of Matthew’s genealogy that totally unknown people were part of the story of Jesus Christ, it may be a greater challenge to recognize that the unknown characters of today are an essential part of the sequence.”
Christianity isn’t just for the pure, the talented, the good, the humble, and the honest. The story of Jesus Christ was also written and keeps getting written too by the impure, by sinners, by calculating schemers, by the proud, by the dishonest, and by those without worldly talents. Nobody is so bad, so insignificant, so devoid of talent, or so outside the circle of faith, that he or she is outside the story of Christ.