Over the last couple of years there has been a pretty huge resurgence of interest in Mister Rogers. Beginning with the 2018 documentary, Won’t You be My Neighbor?, there has also been a new biography published about Fred Rogers, new publications of his poetry and music, countless magazine and newspaper articles, a celebration of #WorldKindnessDay wearing cardigans in his honor, and now a new film starring Tom Hanks.
What’s been surprising to me about this renewed interest is that it doesn’t seem to be generated by Gen-X adults – those who are in their 40’s and 50’s and grew up during the prime years of the Mister Rogers show. Instead, the energy of this new “movement” seems to be coming from Millennials (and even Gen-Z!), those in their 20’s and 30’s, many of whom did not grow up actually watching the show (at least not to the same degree as Gen-X). So why the sudden interested in this children’s TV show puppeteer amongst grown adults?
In a general sense I don’t think this should surprise us. Who wouldn’t want a friend like Fred Rogers? Who wouldn’t want to surround themselves with people who affirm us, love us unconditionally, and who seem to hang on every word we say as if it is the last word they will ever hear? As human beings we are made for connection, and we are attracted to the kindness of authenticity of others – even if it’s in a deceased children’s performer we’ve never met.
But I also think there is a more specific reason why we’re seeing this passion for Mister Rogers emerging today, in this cultural moment, at the end of one decade and the start of another. A recent report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reveals that after decades of mortality rates decreasing and life expectancy increasing, the United States is no longer on track with populations in other wealthy countries who are continuing to see progress in extending life expectancy. For the 3rd year in a row, between the years 2014 and 2017 (and I’m sure future studies will reveal this trend continuing in 2018 and 2019) life expectancy is falling for people ages 25 to 64. The highest jump in death rates – a 29 percent jump! – has been among people ages 25 to 34, the generation who seems to be driving the most interest in Mister Rogers.
These findings reveal that there is no one primary cause of excess deaths, but it is the combination of destructive behavior from things like suicide, distracted driving, or opioid, alcohol, and other drug addictions. One medical professor summarized these findings: “People are feeling worse about themselves and their futures, and that’s leading them to do things that are self-destructive and not promoting health.”
Here is the tension of the culture we live in: so many of us are desperate for friends or family who will love us, affirm us, and accept us; yet at the same time most of us are weighed down by a pervasive feeling of shame, the feeling that we are never good enough and incapable of being loved or accepted.
The Christmas story resolves this tension for us. It reminds us that joy has dawned, and light has broken into the darkness. Yet there is one part of this story that often tends to be overlooked – Jesus’ genealogy as it is recorded in Matthew 1:1-17. When we take a closer look at this part of the story, we discover five women who deepen our understanding of how great our need for redemption truly is, but who also reveal God’s love to us in surprising new ways.
The Women of Christmas
There are five women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17. This is highly unusual, but it’s not immediately apparent to us when we read this passage with our 21st century glasses on. We need to know a few things about the ancient near-east context of Jesus’ day.
Women were viewed and treated as second-class citizens. In particular, the surrounding Greco-Roman culture objectified women and viewed them as property. They had very little claim to property of their own, widows were essentially discarded by society, and their testimony would’ve held almost no weight in court.
Early Christianity was extremely good for women. They were seen, valued, and given a place at the table in key positions in the Christian community. Jesus changed the way women were viewed, and you see that throughout the four gospel accounts. He spends time with them, speaks to them respectfully, they sit at his feet and receive his teaching, he befriends prostitutes, and widows are involved in his inner circle. Most strikingly, it is women – one of them a prostitute – who are the first key witnesses of the resurrection.
When we come to this genealogy in Matthew, that one woman (let alone five) are mentioned, this is extremely unusual and unnecessary…unless Matthew is trying to make a very specific point.
In every society, if you want an important part to play, then you need the right credentials. In our day we call that a resumé. When we write our resumés, we normally include the good stuff but leave the bad, right? We only list our GPA if it was a 3.5 or better. We put relevant work experience that makes us look like we are perfectly suited for the job we are applying for. We highlight our successes and leave out our failures. We only list references that will speak well of us.
In our Western context, it’s all about what you as an individual have accomplished. But in Jesus’ day – and in many places still around the world – what was more important is who you come from. Who is your family, and what have they accomplished?
In Jesus’ day it was your genealogy that acted as your credentials, not your resumé. Much like a modern resumé, it was common for genealogies to be selective. You don’t list your crazy uncle or cousin who never did anything with us life. You want your genealogy to show off.
Which means, sadly, that women were rarely listed in a genealogy. You always wanted to list the powerful and influential men. That Matthew lists women here is unusual, but it might make sense to us if he listed respected women like Sarah and Rebekah. But that’s not the case.
Beginning in verse 3, we meet Tamar, the woman who committed incest with her father-in-law to produce an heir by dressing up as a prostitute (Genesis 38). In verse 5 we remember the foreigner and prostitute Rahab (Joshua 2) as well as the foreigner named Ruth (The Book of Ruth). In verse 6, we meet Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah (2 Samuel 11). The list ends with Mary, the young virgin girl from a backwater town like Nazareth.
The Story is True
This is hardly the who’s-who list of Israel’s history. These are not the women you include if you’re trying to impress others for selfish gain. When we look at women like Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, we see those who would’ve been regarded as gender outsiders, racial/ethnic outsiders, and moral outsiders. According to Mosaic law, these are exactly the women who are supposed to be excluded from the presence of God forever.
Yet Jesus brings them in. They’re his resumé. That tells you something about the kind of people Jesus loves
When we get to Bathsheba, “the wife of Uriah,” we are forced to remember a story about David which would have condemned him but not for the grace of God. David, the great King of Israel, used and abused Bathsheba for his own twisted pleasure. When she became pregnant, David had her husband Uriah murdered so that he could marry Bathsheba and cover up the evidence.
Don’t you see what Matthew’s doing? In effect he’s telling us that the great King David is no better than a prostitute like Tamar or Rahab. Both immoral and moral people have no business being in the presence of God by their own merit. Sin condemns us all equally. Tim Keller says it this way:
In Jesus Christ, prostitute and king, male and female, Jew and Gentile, one race and another race, moral and immoral – all sit down as equals. Equally sinful and lost, equally accepted and loved.
There’s a reason why I wrote so much on the historical context of genealogies and women in Jesus’ day. Here’s the point: if you’re writing a history of the Messiah in a 1st-Century Eastern context, you don’t do what Matthew did! Unless it is true. You don’t list women, certainly not these women, unless you have nothing to hide.
If the story of Christmas is true, then we ought to be humbled to the dust. Because it really is worse than we thought. The message of Christmas is not that good people can become better or that kind people should be kinder. The message of Christmas tells us that heaven is out of reach for each and every one of us.
Which is why heaven came to us.
Has the message of Christmas humbled you? Has it melted your heart?
We Can Belong
As we saw at the beginning, each and every one of us want a place to belong. We want to be with people who love us and accept us exactly and precisely as we are. Yet each one of us, to one degree or another, can’t shake this painful feeling that we are unworthy or unable of being loved.
Look at each of these women. Their lives would’ve been filled with so much shame: Tamar, whose public trial made her known as the woman who slept with her father-in-law; Rahab, a prostitute and foreigner; Ruth, a Moabite; Bathsheba, the victim of King David; Mary, the unwed mother claiming to give birth to the King of the World. Each one of them, because they are listed here in Jesus’ ancestry, have become royalty.
Jesus is not ashamed to call them mothers and grandmothers. He is not ashamed of them, and he is not ashamed of us. You see, it really is possible to be loved and accepted as we are. It really is possible to know someone who deeply loves us, who is incredibly interested in us, and who pays attention to each and every word we say.
That person is Jesus. And this genealogy really is his credentials; not to be the kind of Savior we deserve, but to be the one we need.
The 4th-century theologian St. Chrysostom summarized this point by saying:
But why are these things said (that is, including these women in the genealogy)? Since, if we were recounting the race of a mere man, one might naturally have been silent touching these things; but if of God Incarnate, so far from being silent, one ought to make a glory of them, showing forth his tender care, and His power. Yea, it was for this cause He came, not to escape our disgraces, but to bear them away…it is not only because he took flesh upon Him, and became man, that we justly stand amazed at Him, but because He vouchsafed to have also such kinsfolk, being in no respect ashamed of our evils. And this He was proclaiming from the very beginnings of His birth, that He is ashamed of none of those things that belong to us.
This Christmas, we can be accepted and loved despite all of our flaws and blemishes. We can find our names listed in Jesus’ family tree if we will simply trust in him.