As I pondered the first chapter of Matthew this past week, I couldn’t help but reflect on the genealogy that figures prominently in it. Tracing a line from Abraham to Jesus’ adoptive father Joseph, it represents the long history of Israel and reminds readers of the faithfulness of God over hundreds of years.
It also features a significant list of individuals–heroes, certainly, but also (and more importantly) some very flawed and broken people as well. I think here of Tamar, one of the few women listed. A victim and actor in a sorry tale of abandonment and sexual trickery, she is very specifically named. Then there’s Uriah’s wife Bathsheba, taken advantage of by King David on his journey down the path of adultery and murder. David appears too, a man after God’s own heart who nevertheless has some serious flaws. His son Solomon, whose vaunted wisdom is only equaled by his sometimes moral and religious stupidity.
Then we have a long list of the other kings of Israel, some of whom were counted by the Bible as “righteous,” but others who were simply dismissed as having done evil. It’s a mixed bag, this long family history…but it is the adoptive family into which God sends Jesus.
Normally reflections on such genealogies end up talking about Jesus being born into our sorry humanity, and that’s true enough. But as I was looking at Matthew 1 this week, I saw something else. Because here, you see, it is actually Joseph who is said to share blood with this rogue’s gallery. Not Jesus. It is Joseph who has to cope with a family history full of greatness as well as shame.
In the midst of this, he finds out that his family history of disgrace may not yet be behind him. His own betrothed is pregnant before they’re even married. One more scandal. One more sordid tale. No wonder he has in mind to divorce her quietly. But then an angel appears and shares with him the (amazingly bizarre) facts. He decides to go ahead with things, even though, I suspect, many outsiders would simply say he was a chip off the old family block when it comes to messing up.
You might say I’m reading too much into this. Perhaps I am. But I think it makes sense to think about the way in which our past–and our family history–carries right along with us. We like to say we aren’t defined by these things, that we can make our own way…but there is a deep sense in which the backstory is always with us and is a part of who we are. Even as God calls and may help us transcend what has gone before, history is not erased. Fear can threaten to rule the day.
When I consider my own past and the long story of my family history, I too see a mixed bag of success and failure. I think everyone looking at these categories for themselves would say the same thing. They make up a part of who we are. But not all of who we might be. That’s where Joseph’s story is interesting. God’s intervention means that though the past matters, it is not all that matters. And, if we’re willing to embrace this new thing, it may mean new history beginning right now. That’s as true for Joseph even as it is for you and me.