Wednesday, December 22, 2010


Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. (Matthew 1.19)

Ancient History

We’ve got so comfortable discussing sex, marriage, and pregnancy we forget as late as the 1960’s, they weren’t appropriate topics for casual conversation. Sex stayed off the table entirely, while marriage and pregnancy only got mentioned when they were happy news—meaning, in mutual context. Divorces were like deaths. Unfaithful spouses were shunned as if they were murderers. Living in misery for the sake of the children—many of whom were badly scarred by anger and violence that attended “sticking it out”—was viewed as the best thing to do. Unwed pregnancies shocked everyone. Most middle- and upper-class single women who conceived quietly surrendered their babies for adoption to spare their family’s disgrace. (That is, if they didn’t pay a discrete visit to a trusted gynecologist, a luxury seldom available to lower-class unwed mothers, who had little choice but to raise their children on their own.) Couples cohabiting without marriage licenses were dismissed as morally reckless. If they brought children into the world without marrying, they were vilified all the more.

If this reads like ancient history, that’s because it is. Though methods and morals of marital relations, along with childbearing, have waxed and waned across time, it’s only very recently that society as a whole has taken a more liberal view. (That’s why two of English’s most inflammatory castigations refer to children born out of wedlock.) Reading the Christmas accounts, cross-referencing Matthew’s telling from Joseph’s perspective with Luke’s version from Mary’s, we’re jolted by the intense pressure they’re under from the first. Honoring custom, their marriage contract has been formalized, the dowry negotiated, and their union announced. We now call this “engagement to marry,” though reasons for the delay have got lost. In Mary and Joseph’s time publishing banns (as the practice eventually was called) gives time for anyone to disclose information that might nullify the union after consummation. Grounds include: prior sexual activity, previous marriages not yet dissolved, hereditary illnesses, and legally prohibited degrees of kinship.

Deadly Serious

Ancient communities adopt such policies to protect their interests. If new facts void a marital contract after sexual union, the divorcée and children become social outcasts andburdens. To preempt future scandal from this, families do thorough background checks before entering into the contract. Publishing it seals the deal, with the couple named husband and wife before living and sleeping together. Sex is forbidden to bar status changes during the wait. Non-compliant couples face fornication charges. Straying partners risk adultery convictions. Under Mosaic Law, both are capital offenses. So when Mary finds out she’s pregnant without her consent—a little detail we don’t dare mention—and Joseph learns of it, they realize they’re fodder for deadly serious scandal. Mary’s benefitted from discussing the situation with God’s messenger; her response is tempered by resolute faith. Her husband isn’t as fortunate.

Joseph’s first impulse urges him to take the most legally prudent route. But it’s an impossible dilemma forcing him to choose where his heart lies. Matthew 1.19 spells it out beautifully: “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” That is, he decides to obey his community and religion’s rules by discretely severing the marriage contract before Mary’s pregnancy becomes obvious. That frees her to disappear—possibly returning to Jerusalem to live with her cousin, Elizabeth, and raise her Child there. If all goes well, the couple will escape scandal and legal action they’d inevitably confront in Nazareth. It’s a smart plan. But it’s not a safe one, because it’s not God’s plan. To paraphrase a thrilling observation my pastor made in last Sunday, by design, God hands Joseph a scandalous situation and dispatches an angel instructing him to face the scandal with Mary and choose to protect someone beside himself. “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife,” the angel says, “because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (v20)

The Big Difference

That’s the big difference between Mary and Joseph. She has no choice. He does. Christ’s presence in his life hinges on courage to confront scandal and placing Mary’s welfare above his own. He says “no” to fear. He says “no” to pressure. He says “no” to the Law! Telling them “no” is how he tells God, “Yes.” And his willingness to confront scandal is essential here, because scandal will follow Jesus from manger to tomb. Based on this tiny glimpse of Joseph’s character, can we doubt Jesus is also his Son? God chooses Joseph as Christ’s earthly role model in full confidence he’ll make influential choices.

From what we see in Joseph and the Babe he raises to adulthood, by its very nature, a Christ-led life is scandalous. If that doesn’t shock us, perhaps we’re not aware how often fear, pressure, and accepted rules decide our actions. What seems smart isn’t always safe, because our wisdom typically lacks courage and puts self-interests first. That’s not what God wants. It’s not what Christ teaches. It’s not what Jesus exemplifies. So we’re subject to derision in communities where logic ridicules faith. So? So religionists bellow when we defy their rules and say yes to God. So? So determination to house Christ in our hearts, nurturing Christ’s presence in our thoughts and actions, raises suspicions and threats of rejection. So? The Babe conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit is the Christ conceived in us. This thing is bigger than we realize—too holy to hide, too daring for discretion, too wonderful to worry with human rules. If dreading scandal sends us packing, we haven’t fully embraced God’s purpose and power in our lives. Face scandals. Don’t be afraid. Choose right. Say “Yes!”

Saying no to fear, pressure, and manmade rules is how we tell God, “Yes!”

Postscript: “Trading My Sorrows”

Oh my, talk about scandal! I’m about to embed a John Tesh video into this post! But go with me on this. When you hear the refrain, I’m sure you’ll get it. Saying “yes” should swing wide huge windows of joy in our spirits. And indeed it does.

Monday, December 20, 2010


This is an account of the origins of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham... There were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah. (Matthew 1.1,17)


Among all the things the Bible is, it’s the exhaustive record of one family. It covers 62 generations in all, 20 from Adam to Abraham and then, by Matthew’s count, 42 from Abraham to Jesus. Treating the Bible as a dynastic saga leaves us uneasy, though, as if we’re forcing it into a genre beneath its dignity. It feels sacrilegious to imagine Holy Scripture sandwiched between the Caesars, Borgias, Bourbons, and Kennedys. But Old Testament genealogists and Matthew would argue God’s early dealings with humanity are family matters. From Adam to Abraham, the focus is bloodline. Ethnicity doesn’t emerge until God promises Abraham he will father a great nation, Israel, which approaches nationhood as a family matter by taking its name from Abraham's grandson, Jacob, and self-identifies as his “children.” After Abraham, Bible history is consumed by marital and reproductive crises. It’s no stretch to say, when the dynasty teeters, wars, invasions, coups, captivities, famines, and plagues take a back seat. God’s sacred oath to bless Abraham’s offspring is Israel’s raison d’être. Family comes first since its DNA holds the deed to God’s promise.

We resist approaching the Bible as a family saga because dynasties are horribly messy. Heroes are few. Scoundrels run riot. Usually it’s hard to tell one from the other. Titans crumble to lust, greed, and blood-thirst. Conspiracies abound, paranoia thrives, children rebel, parents grieve, tables turn, and heads roll. “Maybe that’s the stuff of opera, tabloids, and TV miniseries," we say, "but surely not the Bible!” Alas—and I’m guessing you’re already way ahead of me—it’s truer than we prefer to believe. To verify this, we need look no further than Matthew’s genealogy, which opens his gospel to establish Jesus’s bona fides as Abraham’s descendant and a rightful heir to David’s throne. In the process, he reveals more about Jesus’s background than he probably wants us to see.


Matthew lists an illustrious pantheon of patriarchs and kings: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Boaz, David, Solomon, et al. His first challenge is contriving a way to connect Jesus to this lineage, as He isn’t Joseph’s biological heir. The writer fixes this by including five women—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and, finally, Mary—who give birth to legendary sons. The importance of adding these women to the roster can’t be overstated for its implications to first-century readers and its affront to patriarchal mentality imbedded in Christian traditions to this day. Every one of them is a potential victim of chauvinistic legalism. Yet, while Matthew traces bloodline through the fathers, calling out five mothers allows him to stitch a thread of redemption into Jesus’s story. Like her four predecessors, Mary bears mention because she is God’s vessel of intervention to correct the dynasty’s waywardness and fulfill God’s promise. What Matthew can’t fix are warts on the dynasty’s most prominent men. In some ways, they’re extraordinarily heroic. In others, they’re hopeless scoundrels.

Abraham lets his wife become Pharaoh’s plaything in exchange for favors; then he disowns Hagar and Ishmael to appease Sarah’s envy. After Isaac gets tricked into marrying an ugly sister, he negotiates a new deal to wed the pretty one. Jacob steals his brother’s inheritance and swindles his father-in-law. After Tamar is left childless by two of Judah’s sons, he sends her from his house—a violation of Jewish custom—to spare his youngest boy from marrying her; he later mistakes her for a prostitute and impregnates her. Boaz, as next-of-kin to Ruth’s late husband, is legally bound to marry her. But he settles for letting her work his fields with other women until she sleeps with him. Then he claims her. Where do we start with David? He doesn’t avenge his daughter when her stepbrother rapes her, creating enmity between him and another son, who dies in a freak accident. He has a neighbor killed to marry the man’s widow. He murders anyone who gets in his way, Jew and non-Jew alike. Solomon collects 700 queens, plus 300 concubines, and unwisely turns from God to please his pagan wives. These are just the headliners. If we vetted Matthew’s genealogy line-by-line, few of its entries could boast of lifelong moral and spiritual integrity.

Living Truthfully

Matthew’s reasons for opening with Jesus’s genealogy are legitimate and noble. He’s undertaken the task of reworking Mark’s earlier account of Jesus’s ministry into a full-fledged biography. (Luke will do the same.) Since Mark begins with Jesus’s baptism, His birth is the first omission to be rectified. Matthew gives great consideration to framing his book for readers he hopes to reach. He intends to prove to Jewish converts that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by the prophets. Yet, even in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus distances Himself from the Messianic dynasty. When people call Him “son of David,” He never acknowledges it. In His last week of human life, He severs all ties to His lineage by asking the Pharisees, “Whose son is the Messiah?” They answer, “David’s son.” Jesus challenges them with Psalm 110, where David refers to the Messiah as “Lord.” He asks, “If then David calls him ‘Lord,’ how can he be his son?” (Matthew 22.45) The contradictions bursting through Matthew’s genealogy, combined with Jesus’s apparent disregard for His dynastic background, teach us a powerful lesson.

Family background doesn’t define us. Regardless how good or bad our “stock” may be, in the end, we alone are responsible for our identity and character. The best of families are riddled with scoundrels and hypocrites—some of them more twisted than any you’d find in “lesser” families. We shouldn’t accept shame or humiliation for our family’s flaws, nor should we submit to pressures to pretend to be something we’re not. Family façades are seldom accurate or truthful; admiration they generate is illusory. That’s the fallacy in keeping up appearances and worrying what neighbors think. In the end, Matthew’s genealogy does us a much greater service than confirming Jesus’s Messianic credentials. It proves authenticity of self is vital. Following Christ obliterates all stereotypes and false expectations—including those within and about our families. “I am the way and the truth and the life,” Jesus says in John 14.6. Christ comes to show us we can live truthfully as ourselves. Living truthfully is why we come to Christ.

(Next post: Scandals)

All family trees—including Jesus’s—hang heavy with scoundrels and hypocrites. Our origins may shape us, but they don’t define us.

Postscript: A Matter of Choice

Authenticity of self is a matter of choice—following Christ’s example. I recently found this inspiring medley of “I Choose Jesus” (written by an old family friend, Mosie Lister) and “I Have Decided to Follow Jesus,” performed by Fortunato Yabut III and the Centerville Presbyterian Church Chorale (Fremont, California). May this Christmas renew our confidence that following Christ, not family origin or anything else, is what defines us!


Some say life is just a series of decisions

We make choices, we live and learn

Now I'm standing at a crossroad

And I must choose which way to turn

Down the one road is all the world can offer

All its power, its wealth and fame

Down the other just a Man

With nail scars in His hands

But there is mercy in His eyes

And there is power in His name

I choose Jesus, Jesus

Without a solitary doubt

I choose Jesus

Not for miracles, but for loving me

Not just for Bethlehem, but for Calvary

Not for a day, but for eternity

I choose Jesus

I have decided to follow Jesus

No turning back

No turning back