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Marginal people are in the centre of the story of Jesus Christ. Even if it sounds ironic, marginality is central to the story of Scripture because God is always reaching out and choosing the unlikely and overlooked to draw them into His purposes. In 1Corinthinans 1:27-29, Paul wrote: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things— and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.” We’re going to look at seven stories from the family tree of Jesus to see this reality.
Cain and Abel (Genesis 4)
Cain’s name meant “to produce” and he worked the ground like his father. Abel’s name meant “breath, meaningless” and he was a shepherd, doing work deemed to be dishonourable. The contrast was one of status: Cain was the productive first-born while Abel was the opposite. Cain brings an offering to God of what he’s produced while Abel brings an offering that’s a sacrifice. When God accepts Abel’s offering and rejects Cain’s, Cain is angered and shamed. The honourable one is humiliated by God and the shameful one is honoured and celebrated by God. The word “brother” occurs seven times in the passage and is the passage’s leading word. The passage shows how Cain failed in his brotherliness to Abel. Abel’s life may have been meaningless and unproductive but his death and blood still speak loudly for justice. In God’s eyes, brotherliness is precious.
Nimrod and Abraham (Genesis 10-12)
Nimrod wants to build a city and gather everyone into it, making sure everyone has the same language. His strategy is the strategy of empires: one city, one temple and one language, the complete elimination of difference. God isn’t pleased with his project, He re-heterogenizes them, scattering them and giving them their languages back. Then we have God reaching into the margins and finding someone very small, Abraham. He tells him that He will bless all the varied families of the earth through him. Nimrod’s story is dominated by “come”, Abraham’s is dominated by “go”. Where Nimrod is about security and strength in the centre, Abraham is about vulnerability and devotion to the living God. In God’s eyes, smallness is precious.
Judah and Tamar (Genesis 38)
Judah holds all the cards in this story and is in a position of power. Tamar steps into the story as an outsider, both a Canaanite and a widow. Until verse 14, she is the object all the verbs and the subject of none of them. She’s abused by Onan and not cared for by Judah as she should be, she was mistreated and consigned to a death-like widowhood. But, verse 14 is the turning point: she takes off her widow’s garments, demonstrates her agency and is vindicated in the passage where we are told she conceived. Eventually, when she’s brought before Judah she shows her integrity and ability to speak truth to power and says, “By the man who owns these things, I am pregnant” (Genesis. 38:25). The margins confront the centre, the weak accuse the strong, the lowly shame the proud. Judah has a choice: does he humble himself and listen or will he be harsh and proud? By God’s grace, he humbles himself and this woman helps to continue God’s salvation plan in this lineage through her courage. The joining of Judah and Tamar here is what brings forth Christ: the margins and the centre having a synthesis. The humility of Judah and the courage of Tamar are precious.
Achan and Rahab (Joshua 6-7)
Rahab is a Canaanite prostitute who lives in Jericho, an outsider with a shameful profession. Achan is an insider, an Israelite and part of the tribe of Judah. Rahab exercises faith in God through her hospitality and she herself is granted hospitality as an outsider. When the walls of Jericho fall down, Rahab’s family is spared from the destruction. She later married Salmon, of the tribe of Judah, and settled in Bethlehem. Rahab has been taken from enemy to family and has a new address and identity. Achan is the foil of her: despite being wealthy, he craved more and his entire family are punished in a way usually reserved for Canaanites. We see the outsider brought in and the insider sent out. In God’s eyes, faith expressed as hospitality to outsiders is precious. Hospitality is an index of godliness.
Boaz and Ruth (Ruth 2, 5)
Boaz is a wealthy landowner in Bethlehem when Ruth arrives. She is vulnerable, powerless and despised as a Moabite woman. In Ruth 2 and 5, Boaz sees Ruth and his seeing her triggers the change in her story. She goes from an unrecognised stranger to a person with an identity. Boaz wasn’t blinded by his position of privilege, he marshals his resources to save her. He redeems her, covers her shame and takes her in. It’s a costly redemption as well, with Boaz absorbing the shame of the community as he brings Ruth in. She increases by association with him and he decreases by association with her. In God’s eyes, taking responsibility for the powerless is precious. Marshalling our resourcing to move towards those who have none is beautiful.
Saul and David
The juxtaposition of David is Saul. Saul was firstborn, tall and handsome – he seemed to possess the worldly qualities for leadership. Whenever we see him, he is pictured as holding a spear, a sign of his love of power. David is not a firstborn son, he’s the eight born and superfluous to his family. David isn’t even invited to the celebration when the prophet Samuel comes to town to anoint a king! When David fights Goliath, he refuses the king’s armour and uses his shepherd’s clothes and weapons instead. David isn’t ashamed of who he is, he trusts God to use who he is. He never seeks to take the kingdom by force, he’s a prophet associated with the wilderness, persecution and vulnerability. In God’s eyes, the overlooked and the uninvited are precious.
Each of these stories is in the bloodline of Jesus. Jesus is the new Abel, his death proves that lasting impact isn’t made through production, but through sacrifice. He’s a low-status carpenter put to death through envy by his high-status brothers. He’s the champion of the persecuted, of those whose blood cries out against injustice. Jesus is a true son of Abraham. Herod’s temple was just like Nimrod’s project: one city, one temple, one sacred language. The whole life of Jesus mitigates against that. Like Abraham, he’s sent alone and vulnerable into a dangerous world, He spends His life embodying the temple and moving away from the centre. His death and resurrection trigger Pentecost, where God’s Spirit does exactly what God did at Babel: He gives them languages and scatters them back to their people. Jesus is a champion of diversity. Jesus carries the DNA of Tamar, who took off her widow’s garments when she was powerless. She took courage and initiative and stepped out of the death-like experience of her father’s house and chose to stand up. Just like Tamar forced her way out of her powerlessness, so Jesus forces His way out of the grave and into resurrection life. Jesus is the champion of lost causes, He’s the resurrector of the powerless. Jesus is the true son of Rahab. Her hospitality in the name of God earned her a place in Bethlehem, the house bread. Jesus, the Bread of Life, will be born in Bethlehem, to feed a hungry world, to welcome strangers in. Jesus is a redeemer, just like Boaz. Boaz’s costly redemption of Ruth is a picture of our redemption. We are like Ruth: vulnerable, shameful, enemies of God and Jesus notices us, marries us and brings us under His patronage and into His family. Jesus is the great remover of shame. Jesus is David’s great Son. Both are born in Bethlehem but die in Jerusalem, both are shepherds who slay giants. David sets up a decaying kingdom, but Jesus’ kingdom lasts forever. Jesus is the Shepherd-King.
Marginality is central to the story of the Bible and central to the story of who Jesus is. If you consider yourself small, invisible, superfluous, marginal, powerless and unjustly treated, look to Jesus and be encouraged. If you consider yourself strong, educated, well-resourced and in the centre of things, look to Jesus and be provoked.