The Jesus Family Tree

Part II of the Advent series “A Family Christmas”

Matthew 1:1-17; Romans 8:12-17

eilean-donan-castle_09As an adopted child from the 1960s, I don’t know a lot about my birth family. All I’ve been able to glean, in talking to the agency that handled the adoption, is that I was born in a Salvation Army hospital in Pittsburgh to an unmarried woman, and that my birth father was a Salvation Army officer. Ironically, this pastor is the product of clergy misconduct!

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wondered about where I came from—my nationality, etc. I’m pretty sure I have some Scots-Irish in me, given that most of the people who settled the rolling wooded hills of western Pennsylvania were Presbyterian and other Protestant dissenters from the Ulster region of Northern Ireland, which was in turn populated by Scottish and English families in the 17th century. In the period between 1710 and 1775, some 200,000 of these Ulster Scots (as they are more properly known) migrated to the colonies, and especially to the western part of Pennsylvania where these poor farmers could squat on the hilly, wooded land that no one else wanted except the French and Indians who were already there. These were the descendants of the early Celts, who fought the Romans and then the English, stripping naked, painting themselves blue and hurling themselves at the enemy. I’m pretty sure these are my people, given the fact that I have felt a visceral connection to the land during my times in Scotland and the sound of bagpipes gives me chills.

As a child, I used to fantasize that I was descended from royalty, and that someday some royal genealogist would come to find me and tell me that I had inherited some royal Scottish fortune (a fortune that the English hadn’t stolen, somehow), and that I had a castle waiting for me somewhere in the Highlands. Alas, it was not to be—at least not yet!

Indeed, this might be the reason that Americans are fascinated with genealogy—we want to see if we’re connected to someone famous or who did something significant. Whether it’s the Daughters of the American Revolution or the General Society of Mayflower Descendants (of which my good friend Dr. Walt Powell is the Executive Director), Americans are excited to find our connections to the old world, to ancestors who had adventures or went on to do great things. The rise of popular websites like and even services like one where you can submit your DNA to be compared to people from a certain region is an indicator that, in a country full of immigrants, we all want to know from whence we came.

But what we really want to know, in the main, is the story of our past. A genealogy will tell us who gave birth to whom, but it takes a different level of interpretation to understand the relationships, the stories, the mysteries, and the quirks of our family trees.

GenogramA few years ago, I was taught about a different sort of genealogy that got into these sorts of issues. It’s called a genogram, and it’s a useful tool in discovering patterns and relationships in the family. Just going back three generations, you discover the ways in which families repeat patterns of addiction or broken relationships, patterns where people in the family tree simply are never talked about, mysteries about what happened to certain people and why they were the way they were. It’s a fascinating exercise because it gets to the level of why we are the way we are. I’ve used it a lot in premarital counseling so that couples can see the patterns they bring to the marriage from their families of origin and learn how they need not repeat them. They will be forming a new family, with a new way of life. Understanding the way they got here, however, is the key to charting the way ahead together as a new family. Genealogies are interesting information about the past. Genograms, on the other hand, are guideposts for the future.

What we have here at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel is not simply another genealogy—the Bible is full of them and most people skip over them. I would argue that what Matthew is giving us here is a genogram of the family tree of Jesus. It’s a selective analysis rather than an exhaustive list of ancestors, and Matthew arranges it in order to make a particular point—that Jesus is a son of Abraham and a son of David. It’s a genealogy designed to connect Jesus to the royal line of David—and important bloodline for the Messiah that Matthew’s Jewish audience needed to see—but it’s also a shorthand opportunity to review the history of Israel—the history of a family, it’s relationships, it’s secrets, and it’s stories. Matthew’s first readers would have seen this genealogy and remembered all the family stories from the past—stories about Abraham and Jacob; stories about David and Josiah; stories about the villainous Manasseh and the virtuous widow, Ruth. Matthew’s genogram, then, is a tour through the family history, it’s relationships, it’s triumphs, and its failures.

Matthew arranges his genogram into three periods that correspond to three major themes of the Old Testament: Covenant, Kingdom, and Exile. Remember last week that we talked about the first human family, and how their disobedience and failure to sacrifice for one another and for God led God to start up again with a new family.

abraham_familyGod begins that new family by making a covenant with a man named Abraham—a herdsman who is so old he is “as good as dead” as Paul puts it, with an old wife named Sarah, who was barren and childless. It’s to these unlikely candidates that God promises a family—a family more numerous than the grains of sand on the seashore and more impressive in numbers than the stars in the sky. God will bless Abraham and his new family so that, through them, all the families of the earth will be blessed. God’s promise to Abraham is made through a covenant—a covenant that God keeps despite the many family quirks of Abraham’s descendants. Abraham’s family has patterns that make the genogram interesting—patterns of favoritism, patterns where the younger sons rule over the older ones (unusual in that day), a pattern of strong women who keep the men and the covenant on track, though not always in the expected way.

Every ethnic Jew was and is part of Abraham’s family. Indeed, “son or daughter of Abraham” is a term used to denote a person as a Jew. Matthew wants us to know, right up front, that Jesus’ ethnic heritage is Jewish—certainly not unusual in first century Israel.

king-david“Son of David,” on the other hand, is more specific. People who live under a monarchy tend to be the most interested in genealogy because it verifies a person’s connection to the royal line. David was Israel’s most famous king—the paradigm of kingship in the eyes of most Israelites. To connect Jesus to David was a way of saying, “this is a claimant to the throne.” No ancestor of David had sat on the throne of Israel for nearly 600 years. The king who occupied the throne in Matthew’s day was Herod, who wasn’t even really Jewish and who was put on the throne by the Romans. To prove that Jesus was a “Son of David” was to claim that this Jesus was actually Israel’s true Messiah, it’s true king. Matthew wants his readers to know this up front, and he will make his case for the king and his kingdom throughout the rest of his gospel.

exileThat third set of generations, however, is from the generation of the Exile. David’s line had been deposed from the throne in 586 BC when the Babylonians invaded and carried off many of the elites into slavery and exile in Babylon. For many people in Israel, the exile had never really ended, even though their ancestors were allowed to return. They were still under foreign rule and longed for the day when they would be truly free. They looked for the promised king, the one from David’s line who would regain the throne and fulfill God’s promises that David’s line would rule forever. Matthew was announcing, right at the beginning of his gospel, that “the hopes and fears” of all of Israel’s years, the ultimate denouement to all of Israel’s stories of heroes and villains, was reaching it’s climax in Jesus, the long awaited king, the one in whom God himself comes and dwells among his people.

There’s something powerful in realizing that Jesus, the Son of Abraham, Son of David, and Son of God, is connected to a human family—particularly a human family with such a checkered past. The genogram of Jesus is a fascinating one, and Matthew arranges it in such a way to intrigue us. One of the most interesting ways he does this is by including five women in the list. That was rather unusual in the ancient world, where parentage was always tracked through the father. Now we would expect Matthew, if he was going to include women at all, would include the wives of the patriarchs—strong women like Sarah, Rebekkah, and Rachel. But Matthew includes a different list—a list of women who, at least on the surface, are connected by questionable sexual histories.

WomenBible-450x450Tamar, for example, posed as a prostitute and tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her to produce an heir for her dead husband. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho who was spared after the great battle and married one of the invading Israelites. Ruth was a foreigner and a widow who crawled in bed in the middle of the night with a drunk Boaz, the man she wanted to marry as security for her and her mother-in-law. The “wife of Uriah” (Matthew doesn’t even name her) was Bathsheba, who was sunbathing naked on the roof when King David saw her, brought her in, and slept with her. And there is Mary, whom we know was a virgin when she conceived Jesus, but who had to deal with the scorn of being an unmarried woman carrying a child in a culture where that was a stonable offense. In fact, some commentators believe that Matthew included these other women in the list to prepare his readers for the scandal of the virginal conception and birth of Jesus, or to counter slander about Mary’s infidelity. The thought being that as God vindicated these women of old, he would vindicate Mary as well.

But there’s another level to the story—another connection that we find in Matthew’s genogram. In fact, for Matthew, the primary connection between these women is not what they did, but who they are. With the exception of Mary, four of these women are Gentiles who married into the family of Abraham. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth was a Moabite, and Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, the Hittite. The three ancestors of King David and the mother of King Solomon were all Gentiles. Israel’s greatest kings were of mixed race and heritage, as was Jesus, the ultimate ancestor. Matthew’s point? The Gentiles, along with the Jews, were always part of God’s plan and family. . Writing to a Jewish audience, Matthew wants them to know that this Jesus, the Son of Abraham and David, isn’t just their Messiah and King—he’s the spiritual ancestor for the whole human family. As if to reinforce this, in chapter 2,the first visitors to the child Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel are magi from the East; Gentiles who come to worship him. And then, in chapter 3, John the Baptist tells the Jewish religious leaders, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham.”

Most ancient genealogies began with the name of the patriarch. Matthew’s begins with naming the ultimate descendant. The implication? The coming of Jesus is the beginning of a new family that fulfills the promise God made to Abraham, that through him “all the families of the earth will be blessed.” Jesus is the heir to that promise, and in him all the major themes of Israel’s checkered history will be redeemed. He is faithful to the covenant, and writes a new one in his own blood—a covenant in which both Jews and Gentiles can come together in one family by faith. He is the king, but his kingdom is not from this world. It is the Kingdom of God, which is setting not only Israel’s history but the whole world to rights. And he will lead his people out of exile, out of slavery—the slavery of sin and death. Abraham’s most famous descendant will fulfill and redeem the family history—creating a new family connected not by blood but by faith.

At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus says to his disciples, “Go into all the world and make disciples of all nations.” That’s a call to extend the family, inviting everyone in. No matter or scandalous past or the brokenness of our families, Jesus invites us into a new family with a new genogram—a spiritual genogram that always leads us back to himself, and through himself to the ultimate Father.

This is Paul’s point in Romans. In Romans 8, Paul says that “all who are led by the Spirit are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry ‘Abba, Father,’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness to our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs of Christ—if in fact we suffer with him so that we may be glorified in him.”

Paul is talking here about an ancestry that goes beyond blood—it’s the ancestry of faith, a spiritual parentage. The obvious question that people ask when they look at the genealogy of Jesus is, “Why Joseph? He’s not the real father.” No, but he is the adopting father who adopts the Son of God as his own. In the Roman world, for example, adopted children could share the inheritance of the patriarch. Indeed, the emperor Tiberias was adopted by Caesar Augustus, his stepfather, and made the heir of his throne. The royal line of David is maintained through adoption, but it is an adoption made possible because the real father is God!

And this adoption, Paul says, is what happens to those of us in Christ. When we put our faith in God as Father, in God the Son, and in God the Holy Spirit, we become adopted sons and daughters with a royal heritage. We don’t need to hope for long lost royal relatives to come and bring us into the family—we’ve already been given the inheritance of Christ. We are part of his family.

It’s in this sense that the church is the family of Christ. It’s really interesting to know where your family bloodline comes from; but the message of the gospel is that our spiritual bloodline comes directly from the blood of Christ. It’s his blood that can make us clean, give us a new birth, and a new future that isn’t dependent on our past.

We are members of the family of the king.

jesus family treeWe come from many different backgrounds, many different families, many different histories that are both triumphant and broken. And yet, here we are—called to be one family in Christ, and not just the family of this church but the family of all who put their faith in Christ as the king. A lot of churches see themselves as family, but it’s usually an insular family—very hard to break into and very difficult to move outward. But this is a different sort of family We are all spiritual brothers and sisters—not simply a collection of individuals. Like Israel is a family, the church is a family with some crazy relatives in our past and present. We have our struggles and our triumphs. But we also have a future, and that means that this family is a family on mission. We carry out the mission of the patriarch, and we reflect his spiritual DNA in all that we say and do. We go into the world to invite others into this family—people from every tribe and race. The good news of the gospel is that no matter how broken your family of origin may be, you are invited to become part of this family. No matter how checkered your past, if you trust in Christ, you have a place at the family meal.

Like most families, the family of the church isn’t perfect. We have our differences, our weird tendencies, our brokenness. Some people outside the church will usually say something like, “Well, I would never go to church because it’s full of hypocrites.” But that’s precisely why we’re here. We’re here because we know that we don’t have it all together. We’re here because we need to be reminded, again and again, where we come from and who our real spiritual ancestor is. We’re here because of Christ—the Christ who draws us together, redeems us, forgives us, heals our broken memories, and gives us a new future. We’re here to lift one another up, to see one another as people created in the image of God. We’re here to hear the message of what he has done for us, to eat at the table together, and to be formed into the family through which God will bless the world.

So, welcome to the Jesus family tree! We may never get the castle, but we will always be children of the king! Amen.

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