For years, I skipped over the extended genealogy in Matthew 1. I assumed that it was simply written to establish the Jewish identity and lineage of Jesus as the Son of David, the Son of Abraham. What possible significance could the genealogy have for me beyond the Christmas story? Though not personally aware, Ray Bakke answered my question in his book, The Urban Christian.
“The Mixed-Race Savior”
Since the time that Christ saved me at age 17, my heart has been drawn to inner-city ministry. The racial and social complexities of inner-city ministry drove me to a deep recognition of and hope in the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As I looked for models of ministry in such complex settings, I not only found Bakke’s book, but also an unexpected answer to my Christmas question. On page 75, the heading of Bakke’s section stopped me dead in my tracks, “The Mixed-Race Savior.” At first, I feared that I had picked up the work of some unhinged liberation theologian. Instead, I had encountered the work of a man who carefully read Matthew’s genealogy.
Bakke began by noting the five women in Matthew 1. Of the five, four were foreigners. They were not Israelites. The first was Tamar, a Canaanite woman who exposed the unrighteousness of Judah and his sons through deception. The second was Rahab, another Canaanite woman who served the city of Jericho as a prostitute. The third was Ruth, a Moabite woman who was a distant offspring of Lot’s incestuous relationship with his two daughters. The fourth was Bathsheba, a Hittite woman who was married to Uriah, a military commander in King David’s army. Of course, they did not remain married because David had him killed so that he could have Bathsheba. Four of the five women in Matthew’s genealogy were not only non-Israelites, they had scandalous past, and all of it was recorded in scripture.
After reading that section in Bakke’s book, I was somewhat shell-shocked. For so long, I had pictured Jesus as a pale-skinned, brown-eyed baby lying in a manager. Given how my church culture consistently reinforced my self-projection upon Jesus, I had no reason to think otherwise, at least not while I continued to read the Bible through the lens of my own experiences and preferences. Bakke pulled the curtain back and showed me that the story of my inclusion in Christ was not as someone who was “near to God,” but as someone who was once “a stranger” with a scandalous past.
The significance of diversity and our Savior
As I came to realize the folly of my thoughts about the ethnic heritage of my Savior, Christmas took on a whole new significance. This was the time of year that my family and many others within the Christian tradition set aside time to remember the birth of Jesus. Sadly, though, while many do well to remember Jesus’ miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit and his birth from the virgin Mary, most do not recall the genealogical significance of his incarnation beyond his fulfillment of the promises given to Abraham and David. The Savior that was born on that day, who was Christ the Lord, was a mixed-race Savior. In his flesh, Christ embodied the racial diversity that would mark his kingdom. His kaleidoscopic heritage pointed to the day when every knee in heaven, on earth and under the earth would bow at his name.
As of late, some have been insisting that Christians should “not see color.” Others have declared that they are “colorblind.” They say that the path to racial reconciliation is to simply “stop talking about race and ethnicity.” These solutions, which may be well-intended, are not biblical solutions. For Christians that take their Bibles seriously and read them carefully, like Bakke did, the temptation to ignore racial diversity must be resisted. If the apostle John did not ignore racial and ethnic diversity around Christ’s heavenly throne (Rev. 5:9-10, 7:9-12), we must not ignore it either.
The color of our skin, the texture of our hair, the dialect of our speech and the story of our heritage matter to God and for the gospel. Like a stained-glass window catching the radiance of the sun, racial diversity in the church reflects the contours of the glory of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The church needs this diversity, and so do our Christmas stories. So, this season, as you read Matthew 1, do not miss the glorious diversity of Christ our Lord. Instead, celebrate it and thank God for it! Because the story of his diversity is the foundation of our hope (Eph. 2:11-22).