The Checkered Origins of Grace

Ronald Rolheiser
Reproduced with Permission

God writes straight with crooked lines. We know that expression, though we rarely apply it to sacred history or to the birth of Jesus. We should. The Christmas story is written with some pretty crooked lines.

The renowned biblical scholar, Raymond Brown, writes up a particularly insightful piece on the origins of Jesus as described in Matthew’s gospel, where Matthew, in a text we like to ignore, traces the lineage of Jesus from Abraham to Mary. What Matthew reveals in his list of people begetting other people is, as Brown highlights, quite a checkered story. Jesus’ family tree contains as many sinners as saints and his origins take their roots too in the crooked lines written by liars, betrayers, adulterers, and murderers. Jesus was pure, but his origins were not.

Matthew begins his story of the origins of Jesus with Abraham, who fathers Isaac and then sends his other son, Ishmael, and his mother packing, off into the desert, to be rid of them. Not quite what you would expect from the great patriarch. How can that be fair and how can that be justified? Then Jacob steals his older brother’s blessing from Isaac (just as Israel itself earlier had seized the land of Canaan from a people who had a prior claim). Next, among all the sons of Jacob, Joseph is clearly the most worthy, but he is not the one who gets chosen. Judah, who had sold Joseph into slavery out of jealousy and then impregnated his own daughter-in-law, taking her to be a prostitute, is the one who gets chosen. It is fair to ask the question, why Judah?

Then Matthew lists the names of fourteen kings who are part of the genetic origins of Jesus. Of those fourteen, only two, Hezekiah and Josiah, were considered faithful to God as judged by the Book of Kings. The rest, in Brown’s words, were “adulterers, murderers, incompetents, power-seekers, and harem-wastrels.” And then there is David, the great king, from whose lineage the gospels proudly proclaim that Jesus descends. Admittedly, David was a great man, humanly and spiritually; he united the community, built the temple, and wrote the psalms, but he was also an adulterer who covered sin by murder.

Finally there is the question of which women are named as significant in Jesus’ lineage. Instead of naming Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, Matthew names instead: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, before finally naming Mary, as Jesus’ mother. A curious selection: Tamar was a Canaanite woman who, because she had been left childless by two of Judah’s sons, disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced Judah himself. Rahab was a real prostitute, though her kindness protected Israel’s spies during the conquest of the promised land. Ruth, like Tamar, was foreigner, and Bathsheba, as we know, was the woman David seduced before he had her husband killed. The scandal of their affair and the death of their illegitimate child didn’t prevent her from scheming to insure that one of her children became heir to the throne. Each of these women had marital issues that contained elements of irregularity or scandal and yet each was able to be an instrument in God’s birth on this planet. Clearly Matthew highlights their names to set the stage for Mary, whose pregnancy is also irregular, since Jesus had no human father.

The last part of the genealogy contains mostly names of unknown persons, no-names. That too is important since, if unknown persons contributed so significantly to Jesus’ origins, then we too are not too insignificant, unimportant, or anonymous to contribute to the continuation of that story.

God writes straight with crooked lines. Nowhere is this more evident than in the birth of Jesus. There is an important challenge in this. To quote Raymond Brown: If the beginning of the story involved as many sinners as saints, so has the sequence. ... The God who wrote the beginning with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witness. A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the impure as well as the pure, men to whom the world hearkened and women upon whom the world frowned - this God continues to work with the same mélange.

Perhaps the real challenge in all of this comes to those of us who would want to accept only an idealized portrait of Jesus’ birth, one that has only straight lines, no impurities, no dark colors. But, despite our struggle to digest this, it is important that we do so because what is highlighted by the Gospels in the birth of Jesus throws light on all subsequent Christian history and on our own lives. Grace is pure, but we who mediate it often aren’t. Still God’s love and God’s plan aren’t derailed by our infidelities, sin, and scheming. God’s designs for grace still somehow work and this, Raymond Brown points out, is not a lesson in discouragement, but in encouragement.