Sunday, November 4, 2012

Ancestors of Jesus; descendants of the Christ

Texts: Ruth 1: 1-18 (Ruth follows Naomi)* Ruth 3: 1-5; 4: 13-17 (Ruth weds Boaz)

"Where you go, I will go; Where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die." Today, if people know anything about the book of Ruth, it is probably these lovely words of fidelity, which are often recited at weddings.

When looked at in context, however, the passage might not seem appropriate for a wedding. Ruth is speaking not as a bride to her groom but as a recently widowed woman to her mother-in-law. She speaks at a desperate time when both women are grief-stricken, single and childless and living in a patriarchal society.  Today, I examine the context of the book of Ruth as a way to discuss both the ancestors of Jesus and the descendants of the Christ.

Ruth is a story about hardship, migration, loyalty, courtship and above all, family. Set 3,000 years ago, it is the eighth book of the Old Testament, nestled between Judges, which tells the troubled history of Israel following the conquest of the Promised Land and 1st Samuel, which tells of the first two kings of Israel, Saul and David.

The book highlights the surprising fact that King David's great-grandmother is Ruth, a foreigner and member of a hated enemy nation, the Moabites. In the last lines of our second reading today we hear that [quote] "they named [Ruth's son] Obed; he became the father of Jesse, the father of David." That David is King David, the second and most renowned of the kings of Israel.

Ruth also brings to mind the surprising fact that Jesus also numbers Ruth among his ancestors. Matthew begins his Gospel by detailing 40 generations that link Jesus with Abraham. 35 of those generations are marked solely by the name of the father, which is what one would expect in the male-dominated First Century when Matthew wrote. But there are five cases where Matthew includes the mother's name as well. These five are Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba, Mary (the mother of Jesus), and Ruth.

These five stand out not only for being women in a long list of men, but also because all could be questioned for their morality; and because, except for Mary, they are not Jewish. Tamar was a Canaanite woman who seduced her father-in-law to conceive a son. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute who helped Joshua destroy her hometown of Jericho. Bathsheba was married to the Hittite Uriah when she conceived a son with King David. Mary, of course, became pregnant before she was married. And Ruth was a Moabite widow who seduced her mother-in-law's rich relative Boaz to secure a second husband.

In passing, I will also note that the genealogy in Matthew 1 does not match the one found in Luke 3. Luke's genealogy lists 56 generations between Abraham and Jesus, not 40; Luke mentions no mothers, not even Mary; and Luke goes back farther than Matthew -- 19 more generations before Abraham all the way back to Adam. Among other things, these differences between Matthew and Luke reinforce the argument that reading the Bible as history often gets us nowhere.

But to return to Matthew's women: why does he single out four non-Jewish women of questionable morals in his genealogy of Jesus? Well, whatever his reasons, I'm glad he does so because it helps show how the Hebrew Scriptures have meaning for all people and not just for the Jews who first called them sacred.

Take Ruth: she is not Jewish, but from a tribe that is hated and opposed by the Jews, the Moabites. The Jewish man she first marries has come with his parents and brother from Bethlehem to Moab because of a famine. When he dies, Ruth promises to follow his mother, Naomi, back to Bethlehem.

Once back in Bethlehem, Naomi helps Ruth meet and seduce Naomi's rich relative Boaz. God blesses this somewhat-questionable action by giving Ruth a son. Marriage to Boaz provides Ruth and Naomi with safety in a time when it is dangerous to be a woman without a man. Further, Ruth's son leads to a great-grandson, David, who grows up to be the most beloved King in the history of Israel. Then further down the generations, her son is also linked to the birth of the King of Kings, Jesus. So who are we to judge Ruth, Naomi or Boaz? If the Hebrew Scripture and the Gospel of Matthew hold them up as saints and not sinners, I can hardly disagree.

The Old Testament contain untold riches of story and poetry even as it also contains other passages that disturb me. An instance of the latter is found in this account from 2nd Samuel that shows how King David deals with his great-grandmother's people, the Moabites: [quote] "David defeated the Moabites. He made them lie down on the ground and measured them off with a length of cord. Every two lengths of them were put to death, and the third length was allowed to live. So the Moabites became subject to David and brought tribute." Not very edifying stuff, in my opinion.

Besides such violent episodes, the Old Testament is also filled with injunctions against inter-marriage between Israelites and others. Now, these injunctions would  disturb me more if it weren't for the fact that intermarriage keeps happening despite them! Many important Hebrew leaders -- including Moses, Judah, King David and King Solomon --  marry non-Jewish women.

The Old Testament includes demands for racial purity even as it details the gracious truth that many men, including Israel's central leaders, marry women from different nations. These so-called mixed marriages lead to great kings, and eventually to Jesus. In the end, the contradictions in the Old Testament around ethnic purity are resolved in favor of the universal salvation God promises to Abraham in Genesis: "All the peoples of the earth will be blessed through you."

Today we live in a unified world where people from every continent, religion, and culture live side by side. It is a world with so many links of trade, communication and migration that humanity has become one. This reality gives us another vantage point from which to view the story of Naomi and Ruth. Like many of us, Naomi and Ruth are nomads: people who move where the economic winds blow. And like Naomi and Ruth, many of us are forced to overcome ethnic divisions and conventional morality in order to help one another and keep our families safe.

Ruth, despite her ordinary life, is also one of the ancestors of King David and of Jesus of Nazareth.

And what about Jesus descendants? 10 years ago, Dan Brown's bestselling novel, "The Da Vinci Code," which was later made into a Hollywood movie, made a splash because it argued that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had married and had children, and that their descendants were living among us to this day.

While many were entertained by "The Da Vinci Code," I don't take its historical fictions seriously. Besides, as members of the Body of Christ, we have another way to think about the descendants of the Christ.

In a few minutes, we will celebrate again the sacrament of Holy Communion. Not only does communion help us remember the sacrifice of Jesus. It also reminds us that we are incorporated into the life of the Risen Christ. When we eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of blessing, we graphically remind ourselves that we are the branches of a vine that is Jesus the Christ. In this most important way, we all become descendants of the Christ.

Who knows who the real ancestors of Jesus of Nazareth were? Matthew and Luke do not agree in their lists. Luke, by going all the way back to Adam, helps people like me view these lists more as theology than as history. Matthew, by including the names of four women who were from enemy nations of Israel, helps remind us that Jesus offers salvation not just for the people of Israel but for all of humanity. The fact that these four women also made choices that are at best questionable might also cheer us. Jesus' ancestors include ordinary people from many backgrounds who are just as prone to sin as any of us.

But even though we may not be sure who Jesus ancestors are, we do know who the descendants of the Christ are. It is all of us. We are people who hear the call of God in Christ and who come to His Table to remind ourselves that we have been baptized into Christ's death and resurrection. With God's help, we try to take up our cross and follow Jesus through the pain of everyday life toward a new life in God. God's realm, which is inaugurated in this new life, includes all families, all tribes, and all nations.

The ancestors of Jesus were a motley crew who look a bit like you and me. The descendants of the Christ are all the diverse people of the earth. Christ invites each one of us to come to His Table in order to die and rise again.

Thanks be to God.


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