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Matthew’s Gospel

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Matthew opens his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus. He presents three lists, representing three periods of time, each comprising 14 generations. The first list goes from Abraham to King David. The second goes from David to the Babylonian exile. The third goes from the exile to Joseph, the father of Jesus. Throughout Matthew’s gospel there seems to be an emphasis on certain numerological principles. Many of his stories of miracles found in the other synoptic gospels double the participants. Here, in the genealogy, he compresses generations to achieve three groupings of twice seven generations. Seven was regarded as a divine number signifying completeness because God finished creation in six days and rested on the seventh. Matthew’s doubling of the sevens, as well as his doubling of other events in the life of Christ, seems to reflect an interest in making clear that his message is for both Jews and Gentiles.

In the same vein, Matthew does something else unusual, especially in a culture as heavily patriarchal as his. He mentions women in the genealogy. He mentions three in the first of his three lists and one more in the second. The first woman, Tamar, was the daughter-in-law of Judah. She had been twice widowed, and Judah had promised her his third son, but he didn’t keep his promised for fear his third son would die as the two older ones had. So Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and Judah slept with her. Perez, a son from that union, entered the genealogy of Christ.

The second woman, Rahab, was a prostitute (or possibly an innkeeper) in Jericho. She protected the spies who came into Jericho to gain military intelligence prior to the Israelites’ attack on the city. She extracted a promise from the spies that she and her family and household would be saved during the subsequent attack, a promise which Joshua honored. So Rahab, a Gentile woman, entered the community of Israel and the genealogy of Jesus.

The third woman, Ruth. was also a Gentile, from the neighboring country of Moab, which was often at war with Israel. Her story is told in the book that bears her name. Like Tamar, she was a widow, but instead of returning to her father’s house in hopes of getting a new husband, she accompanied her mother-in-law Naomi back to Israel, where she met and married Boaz.

The fourth woman is not referred to by name, but rather as the wife of Uriah. This was Bathsheba, whom King David had raped and whose husband, Uriah, he had had killed during a battle with the Ammonites. It’s not clear whether she, like her husband, was a foreigner in Israel, but the entire affair involving her was the greatest scandal of David’s life. Yet she also appears in the genealogy of Christ.

These four women, each scandalous in her own way, and each representing an ethnic impurity in the blood line, Matthew mentions in his genealogy. At the outset Matthew assures his readers that he is going to be inclusive in his treatment of the stories about Jesus. He will include women. He will include Gentiles. He will include outcasts. Because the gospel is not good news for Jews only, nor for men only, nor only for those accepted by society, but for the whole world.

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bible faith guilt injustice jesus religion righteousness self sin spiritual life struggle theology

Being Right

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Of all the desires that motivate human beings, the desire for personal righteousness—wanting to be right—is the most pernicious. There is no evil, no matter how unspeakable, we will not commit if we can convince ourselves that what we are doing is for the greater good. We will put up with caging children at our borders, turning away the poor and sick, righteously stifling our own sense of mercy in service to outrage at some injustice. The desire to be right makes us spin our own actions, not only to impress others, but to burnish the image we have of ourselves. We willingly deceive ourselves about ourselves in order to preserve an image of ourselves that is noble, caring, even kind while approving and even performing acts that are cruel and selfish. The desire for personal righteousness makes us remorseless and unrepentant. After all, repentance requires acknowledging sin in our own lives. Sometimes, we willingly acknowledge some acceptable sin in an effort to cover up a deeper, more entrenched sin to which we are culpably blind. No wonder Jesus talked about picking specks out of others’ eyes while being unaware of the plank in our own eyes!

The Bible writers were well aware of how pervasive and pernicious is the desire to be right. That is why they repeated again and again, “There is no one righteous, not even one.” They wanted to assure their readers that no matter what they thought about themselves, the reality was that all their efforts at being right were worthless. As Isaiah puts it, “All our righteous deeds are like used menstrual cloths.” They are not merely rubbish, but the worst, most disgusting rubbish. (The Jews regarded a woman during her period as ceremonially unclean. She could not enter the temple or approach God. Whatever she touched would also become unclean. While laws regarding menstruation unfairly stigmatized women, they also protected the community from the spread of disease at a time when humans knew nothing about microbes.)

We cannot merely rid ourselves of the desire to be right, however. It is fundamental to our humanity. Though it deceives us time and again, it also makes us want to do better. It inspires us to keep trying to do good. What a quandary we are in—wanting to do what is good but lacking the capacity!

Therefore God has imputed righteousness to those who put their faith in Jesus. He satisfies our desire to be right without requiring us to be sinless. Because he has shown us such mercy and grace, he enables us to likewise show mercy toward those who are also trying—and failing—to do what is right.

Everyone is a hero in their own story. While some tell their story to evoke pity and others admiration, we all mitigate our sins to ourselves. We all make excuses for ourselves and seek forgiveness for our worst blunders. “If you only knew what it was like,” we say, and we are quite right to say it. None of us knows anyone better than ourselves. We know how hard we try. We know how often we fail. Despite this knowledge and the free gift that God offers of his own righteousness, we remain unwilling to acknowledge before him just how much we need what he has. To do so, we would have to admit we were wrong.

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