Jesus Our Shepherd
God Does Write Straight With Crooked Lines
Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, Catholic Herald

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

The renowned biblical scholar Raymond Brown writes a particularly insightful piece on the origins of Jesus as described in Matthew’s Gospel where, in a text we like to ignore, Matthew traces the lineage of Jesus from Abraham to Mary. What Matthew reveals in his list of people begetting people is, as Brown highlights, quite a checkered story. Jesus’ family tree contains as many sinners as saints, and his origins take their roots 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 a 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 having 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 to continue the line. Judah, who had sold Joseph into slavery out of jealousy and then impregnated his own daughter-in-law (thinking she was a prostitute), is the one who gets chosen. Is it fair to ask: “Why Judah?”

Matthew goes on to list the names of 14 kings who are part of the genetic line of Jesus. Of those 14, only two, Hezekiah & 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.” Then there is David, the great king, from whose lineage the Gospels proudly proclaim that Jesus descends. Admittedly, David was a great king, humanly and spiritually; he united the community, built the Temple, and composed the psalms; but he was also an adulterer who covered his sin by murder.

Finally there is the question of which women are named as significant in Jesus’ lineage. Instead of naming Sarah, Rebekak and Rachel, Matthew names 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. Rahab was indeed a prostitute, though her kindness protected Israel’s spies during the conquest of the Promised Land. Ruth, like Tamar, was a foreigner. Bathsheba 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 ensure that one of her children became heir to the throne. Each of these women had marital issues that contained elements of irregularity or scandal. Yet each was able to be an instrument in procuring Jesus’ birth on this planet. Clearly, Matthew highlights these 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. That too is important since if unknowns contributed so significantly to Jesus’ origins, then we ourselves are not too insignificant, unimportant or anonymous to contribute to the continuation of the Jesus 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 Brown: If the beginning of the Jesus story involved as many sinners as saints, so has the continuation of the story. 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 very same mélange.

Perhaps the real challenge here comes to those of us who want to accept only an idealized portrait of Jesus’ birth – one having only straight lines, no impurities, no dark shadows. Despite our struggle to digest God’s handiwork, it remains important for us to do so because what is highlighted by the Gospels in the birth story of Jesus throws light upon all subsequent Christian history and on our own lives. Grace is pure, but we who mediate it are not. Still God’s love and God’s plan are not derailed by our infidelities and scheming. God’s design for grace still works; and this, Brown concludes, is not a lesson to discourage us but to encourage us.