“When I was a boy in Cork, playing rugby for my school, I came across something on the pitch one day after I’d scored a try. I bent down and picked it up: it was a holy cross, on a chain. I stuffed it into my pocket. I still have it and I’ve never cleaned it up – there are probably still bits of Christian’s pitch stuck to it. I keep the chain in an old make-up jar my sister gave me. In there I’ve got a few religious things that are important to me. The lads slag me over the jar. That’s the Munster way. Every now and then my mum picks up some holy water and puts a bit in there. I consider myself religious. Not in a big way – I’m not a religious freak or anything – but often I take the cross out of its jar and say a prayer to give thanks for the family I have, for everything that has happened me through rugby, for putting me a in a dressing room like ours. There’s bound to be fellas out there that are as talented, if not more talented, than me. I know I’ve been lucky.
I’d never pray to ask for anything, but before the Biarritz match I did. I was about to pray as I normally would, but then I remembered thinking, ‘Please, just let us win this game.’ I almost wanted to sorry for doing it, for asking about a rugby match. It was probably the wrong way to feel. But it meant so much to me, my family and my friends.’”
Do those opening paragraphs make you want to read on? They certainly made me want to! That’s the writer’s intention. The opening of a book is meant to get your attention and make you want to read on.
So what’s Matthew at? Surely the most boring way you could begin a book is to record a genealogy! However, this is a genealogy with a difference. If you were a first-century Jew, and read this family line, I think you might have wanted to read on!
An astonishing claim
Not only are opening paragraphs aimed at grabbing your attention, opening sentences are also meant to hit you. ‘It was the best of times; it was the worst of times’, writes Charles Dickens “A Tale of Two Cities.”
Matthew begins by writing, ‘A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.’ That would have grabbed the attention of his Jewish readers. You see, the Old Testament is full of promise, and every promise that is made finds its fulfilment in the person of Jesus.
He is the seed of Abraham, through whom the whole world will be blessed—we see a taste of this in the second chapter of Matthew, when the first people to come across Jesus are Gentile (non-Jewish) leaders referred to as Magi. Look around at all of us, from many nations, who have been blessed to know Jesus!
He is the promised Son of David, whose kingdom will be established for ever. Everything else is passing away—so much that we live for and strive after is passing away. But the kingdom of Jesus is eternal. Indeed, one day he will be seen in the fullness of his glory and the most important thing about our lives will be the decision that we made about him. Jim Elliot, who died seeking to reach Auca Indians, along the Amazon, with the gospel was said, ‘he is no fool who gives up that which he cannot keep for that which he cannot lose.’
A shocking genealogy
Having got past the first astonishing sentence a first-century Jew would have them been shocked by the genealogy that followed. You see genealogies of that time generally only included men but this one records four very interesting women.
There is Tamar—who dressed up as a prostitute in order to trick her father-in-law Judah to have a child by her! There is Rahab—a Canaanite who was a prostitute before she become a follower of the living God! There is Ruth—from Moab, a ‘foreigner’, from a tribe that traced its roots back to a drunken sexual incident between Lot and his daughters. There is Uriah’s wife—who committed adultery with David!
These women weren’t on the cover of a wholesome magazine like Woman’s Own. They were reminders of the beautiful mercy and grace of God. As one preacher points out, the ‘rescue work on the cross extended back through time to cover their sin just as it extends forward in time to cover our sin.’
This genealogy prepares us for the rest of Matthew’s Gospel. In verse twenty-one we will be told that the child will be called Jesus (which means ‘the LORD saves’), because he will save his people from their sins. In chapter nine Jesus will give his mission statement as being to come not for the righteous but sinners (like Tamar, Bathsheba, you and me). In chapter fifteen is will be a Canaanite woman (a non-Jew, outsider, Gentile, from the nations person) like Rahab and Ruth who shows the sort of faith that so many Jewish men (privileged insiders) fail to place in Jesus. We are been shown that this gospel was ready for the shores of Ireland, Nigeria, Korea, South Africa and every yet unreached culture.
Reggie and Ronnie Kray were notorious gangsters in 1960’s London. They both ended up in prison. There Ronnie came across a book by a Christian pastor called Ken Stallard. He was so interested in this book that he got in contact with this pastor to ask if he would come and visit.
As they talked Ronnie asked Ken Stallard, ‘What does God make of me, a murderer?’ So Ken showed him the story of Moses in the Bible—he was a murderer but he was used greatly of God. He spoke of the thief on the cross, who at his death found peace with God through Jesus. And he pointed out that Jesus defined his mission saying, ‘I have not come to call the righteous but sinners.’ Ronnie was aghast. ‘No one ever told me God was like that!’
Ken Stallard got to know both the Krays, and at one stage he was talking to Reggie when the conversation turned to faith. Ken asked Reggie, ‘Are you sorry for what you have done in life.’ He was. ‘Do you want to know Jesus’ forgiveness?’ He did! So Ken prayed and Reggie prayed.
Then Reggie said something strange to Ken. ‘I don’t want you to tell anyone about this, because I don’t the parole board to think I’ve pretended to get religion in order to get out early.’ Ken Stallard preached at Reggie’s funeral, where he told them of Reggie’s prayer.
‘No one ever told me that Jesus was like that!’ Are we humble enough to admit that we are simply broken rebels who Christ has put back together? Are we willing to admit that we are hopeless failures who depend of Christ’s overflowing grace? Or, do our words and actions speak of self-righteous, vain, proud, do-goodism?
Donnacha O’Callaghan says, ‘I consider myself religious. Not in a big way – I’m not a religious freak or anything . . .’
That worries me! You see this gospel is so big and beautiful that we can never be into Jesus in a big enough way. He sees people, who are too serious about their religion, as religious freaks. We should be privileged to be thought of as a Jesus-freak. Jesus calls us to put him before anything else in life. We are to be sold out for God. Our lives should overflow with gratitude for God’s amazing grace!