Our tortured family history (First Advent 2018)

As Advent begins this year, I am reminded again of how the gospels of Matthew and Luke begin with genealogies — the multigenerational backstory to the birth of the Messiah.

And I am also reminded of the hard realities of family dysfunction.

In the past academic quarter, I taught my students various theories of why families do what they do, how they get into trouble, how they might be helped. Along the way, I ask them to tell me their own family stories. They willingly oblige. There are stories of love and acceptance, as well as pain and rejection. Some students learn new words to express what happened; it helps them make sense of it all.

And some students begin to see their parents in a new light. Through the eyes of a child, parents seem larger than life, and their failures are thereby magnified. But seen through the eyes of an adult, parents become more human. Instead of magically good or evil beings, they are flawed mortals who suffer their own difficulties and make mistakes. And frankly, mere mortals are easier to understand and forgive.

One theory teaches therapists to construct what’s known as a genogram with their clients: essentially, a detailed family tree that maps at least three generation’s worth of important dates and patterns of relationship. The assumption is that problematic, emotionally driven patterns can be passed down through the generations, and can get worse over time. They get embedded in ways that can’t be rooted out until we begin to pay attention and commit to changing our own behavior.

Perhaps, on more optimistic days, we would wish our own family histories to free of embarrassment and discord. But we know that’s not the way it works. For better or worse, all of our families have problems.

Even the family tree of the Messiah.

Look at the carefully constructed genealogy in Matthew 1 that leads up to what we think of as the Christmas story. As many scholars have pointed out, in order to shape the records into three neat blocks of fourteen generations each, Matthew has to leave out several names and generations. His genealogy is not simple historiography. His introduction to the birth of Jesus is a story with three sweeping chapters: from Abraham to King David; from David to the exile; from exile to the birth of the Messiah (vs. 17).

And along the way, he does something unusual, something that would not normally have been done in such genealogies: he includes four women, indeed, four scandalous women, all Gentiles, from different eras in the life of Israel.

Tamar (Matt 1:3) was remembered for uncovering her father-in-law Judah’s unfairness to her and his hypocrisy by tricking him into getting her pregnant (see Gen 38). Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute; Ruth was a Moabitess (Matt 1:5). Bathsheba (see 2 Sam 11) isn’t even named directly; Matthew calls her merely “the wife of Uriah” (Matt 1:6). For those who know the story, this is a reminder of David’s twin sins of adultery and murder.

All of these stories could be treated as lead-ins to the scandal of Mary’s own pregnancy. When Joseph found out that his bride-to-be was already pregnant, he jumped to a logical but erroneous conclusion and thought to divorce her without fanfare (Matt 1:18-19). He had to be convinced by an angel to go through with the marriage (vss. 20-25).

What are stories like this doing in the family tree of God’s Son?

We can’t, of course, peer infallibly into Matthew’s mind. But we can take comfort in this: when God comes to us in human flesh, he doesn’t bypass the messiness of human families in a broken world.

Jesus is not born to a family with a spotless lineage. The stories above are scandalous, as are other stories attached to other names in the genealogy. But the Father, though holy beyond compare, is not scandalized. The plan is still the same. Broken people, broken families, will be redeemed from the inside out, not by a surgical strike from above, but by the transforming life and death of one who walked among us.

Your family, my family: we are caught up by grace into God’s ongoing story. We didn’t earn our place there, and we won’t be edited out because of our failure.

It’s a gift beyond reckoning.