Searching one’s genealogy has always been a popular hobby, but technology has helped create an explosion in the last decade or so. First, the ability to network on the internet made data collection more powerful as distant relatives could link up with each other without having any previous knowledge of the other’s existence. Finding one distant cousin could suddenly open enormous branches of your family tree that you didn’t even know about.
Then Commercial DNA testing kits offered people an even deeper and more precise view of their history. Marketing for these kinds of products include slogans like “Give yourself the gift of you.” Not only do these kits provide DNA evidence of your ethnic makeup, but they add you to vast databases that can link you to known genealogical studies.
The study of one’s genealogy can be enlightening. There are important medical and biological things one can find out about themselves. There are other deeper and more meaningful stories that genealogy can link you to. The popularity of the PBS show “Finding Your Roots” has revealed how powerful an in-depth story of genealogy can be.
Watching “Finding Your Roots” however, has revealed to me what a privilege it even is to have a genealogy. While everyone has people from whom they came, not everyone has the privilege of being able to study that list of ancestors. Genealogy is able to be studied by those who have the privilege of having ancestors who left a paper trail. Those held in bondage as property did not always leave a trail. Many people have had their genealogy erased by the institution of slavery. What’s more, there have been many people who have had their existence erased in the telling of family stories.
LGBTQIA+ people have often been erased from family histories. Either the person has been wiped from the family memory entirely or their “queerness” has been removed. They have become the “eccentric uncle” or the “confirmed bachelor.” Sometimes, if they weren’t willing to erase that essential part of who they were themselves, they have simply been scrubbed from the history. They were left out of the stories, cropped from the photo albums, and left uninvited to the reunions. Generations of queer people have been erased from families, exiled to be virtual orphans because their family of origin perceived their existence to be too shameful to bear.
The privilege of a family genealogy and history has been stolen from countless people because they are LGBTQIA+. The history of millions of people runs into a dead end when they get back to the auction blocks. Knowing your genealogy is a privilege that many take for granted.
Today we read Matthew’s version of Jesus’ genealogy. Often one’s first impression of this genealogy is that it is dry, boring, and easy to be skipped. It feels like a list of hard-to-pronounce names that no one remembers. While Matthew frames Jesus’ genealogy in an interesting way (14 generations from Abraham to David, etc.) it still feels like a pretty easy part of the story to skip.
Until you notice the mothers. When you consider the mothers of Jesus’ genealogy, a more interesting (one might even say sordid) story is told. The fact that these four women are lifted-up is a remarkable thing. Matthew refused to erase Jesus’ family history. In fact, he highlighted some of the more difficult parts. He took the stories that could have been stories of shame and pointed them out. He could have skipped these mothers of Jesus. It would have been easy to skip over the sordid story of Tamar and Judah. He could have left out the prostitute Rahab. He could have left out Ruth the Moabite who “uncovered the feet” of Boaz. He didn’t have to mention Uriah, who was killed by David so that he could hide his assault of Bathsheba.
These women, all victims of a patriarchal system that devalued them as humans, were all lifted-up as mothers of Christ. They were all victims, but none of them allowed themselves to remain as such. They persisted. They used their agency, their strategic minds, and their grit to achieve survival. All four women have an element of sexual scandal attached to them, and by putting their names in the genealogy of Jesus, Matthew puts those scandals right in Christ’s history too. Matthew shines a light on the stories that some may deem shameful. He makes sure to remind everyone that Jesus’ history is fraught with humanity – messy, sordid, triumphant, and persistent.
As we read the genealogy of Jesus, we can give thanks to the controversial mothers who refuse to be ignored. I hope that we take a moment to lament the stories that have been erased. I pray that we, like Matthew, have the courage to tell the stories of the messy, the triumphant, the sordid, and the persistent. For these are the stories that give us meaning and hope. These are the stories that invite us into Christ’s eternal story of redemption and love for all – even the ones that others want to erase.