Every now and then, in a perhaps too rare flash of insight, we come up against our personal inadequacy – how far short we fall of the ideal the church puts before us. And not just we ourselves; it is hard sometimes not to be literally scandalized by the often inept, sometimes unjust leadership of those whose calling it is to shepherd the flock. Today’s Gospel reading provides reassurance for those of us so troubled.
If we knew our Bible history better, we would recognize immediately what a motley crew Jesus’ ancestors were. Jacob got his inheritance by fraud. David’s sin is well known. On and on . . . Most of the 14 kings after David were petty oriental potentates, hedonists with little or no concern for the covenant and even less competence in statecraft. And most of the 14 following the return from Babylon were so undistinguished that their names are mentioned nowhere else in the Bible. The incarnation, which we celebrate in a few days, includes not just the fact that God, in Jesus, took on human form in Mary’s womb, but that he incorporated into his own background all the tawdriness, venality, and mediocrity that we humans are capable of – all the ordinariness of human lives. Matthew insists on it in his opening sentence: “ . . . the origin of Jesus Christ . . .”
The wonder is what came out of that background! Clearly, God is capable of taking the most inauspicious beginnings, the most humble of materials, and creating something of unsurpassed goodness.
Nor does the progression stop with “. . . Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” God is incarnated anew down the centuries in the church, the body of Christ. Jesus called his disciples, all of whom failed him, just as so many of his ancestors had failed God. In fact, in Mark’s Gospel, the evangelist stresses the universal failure of those surrounding Jesus, from Peter’s misunderstanding and betrayal, to the women’s fear and failure on Easter morning. That failure extends down through a lineage of popes, patriarchs, and bishops as varied as the 42 names in Jesus’ ancestry – some erring by hedonism, others by misguided zeal.
Failure is the experience of every person called to follow Jesus. The good news is that it’s not a barrier to our responding to that call. The last chapter of John’s Gospel makes that abundantly clear. In the poignant episode of the encounter of the risen Jesus with the chastened Peter, Jesus reminds Peter gently of his three-fold denial, and after each reminder, entrusts him with the care of the flock. Only after owning our own helplessness can we hope to discharge our call. God draws goodness out of our mistakes and incompetence.
When I confront my own inadequacies, I take great encouragement from this genealogy, for it proclaims what God is capable of fashioning from the most flawed of materials. I realize that I can stop fretting about my shortcomings and focus instead on the work of the kingdom.
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