This is a part of an ongoing series examining ‘systems,’ or ways the world works. I’ve learned so much by doing them, and some of you seem to like them! To start at the beginning, click here to read Part 1!
Recently, I heard a sermon which has lingered in my mind for a few weeks. Oddly enough, it was on Matthew 1, which is simply a long list of names. In the Bible, it’s called a ‘genealogy’ and it simply says for many, many paragraphs who is the father of whom, leading all the way to Jesus. When reading the Bible, most people skim hastily over these sections of Scripture due to how boring they are, but this sermon dove deep into the passage. Just for a sampling, this is the first paragraph:
This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham:
2 Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
3 Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
4 Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
5 Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Obed the father of Jesse,
6 and Jesse the father of King David.
You just skimmed over that, didn’t you?
The part about the sermon which stood out to me related closely to what I’ve been teaching in my history classes. We’ve been doing a unit on Asian countries and cultures and how they are different from Western cultures. For a few classes, we watched Disney’s Mulan and analyzed how much of that film is from a western mindset, versus how much is authentically Asian. The main thing I tried to highlight in these classes was the Asian mentality of family/tribe over self.
People in Asian countries tend to think about what is best for their families, not necessarily for themselves. This is vastly different from how western people think, which spawns from a capitalistic mindset of “get out of my way, I need to get to the top.”
I shared with my students a pattern I observed when I was in Thailand: This is an oversimplification, but this problem is rooted in both western power/lust/strong-arm economy, and that idea of Asian family mindset. Thailand is notorious for its sex trafficking problem, which is closely aligned (if not identical to) its issue of child brides, or Thai brides who marry wealthy white men. It is extremely common there to see a chubby middle-aged white man holding hands on the sidewalk with a Thai girl half his age (or less). It’s disgusting and painful to witness, but the explanation makes sense.
These women see their bodies as mere means to helping out their families. Often, they accompany their new husband back home to Germany, or perhaps just go touring with him around Southeast Asia. In the process, she will get more money than she and her family possibly could have raised on their own, so she sends some back every month to help her family out, despite what it costs her. These women’s bodies are mistreated and they marry men they don’t love just for the sake of helping their family financially. They see their families as more important than their own bodies. Can you picture a western person thinking like this?
The idea of tribe over self is beautiful, of course, and that example is a toxic twisting of the cultural mindset. What that illustration does do, though, is highlight the degree to which Asians value family over self. This is why certain parts of Mulan begin to seem western and contrived, i.e., when she sings to herself in a mirror and talks about being a single, unique grain of rice. I struggle to believe (though correct me if I’m wrong) that most Chinese people, especially at the time of Mulan, would think that way. Theirs is a culture of extreme shame and honor, in which most people would rather die than bring shame to their families.
This brings me back to the sermon on Jesus’ genealogy. I had never before heard such an acute description of why so many genealogies are in the Bible, but it made so much sense when he said it: “That list of names was Jesus’ resume.”
Today, when we draft a resume, we list all of the things we have accomplished in our lives. We list the schools we attended and the experience we have gleaned in our dozens of years of life. Think about how small that is, compared with a genealogy/resume that spans centuries and leads up to one man. When discussing Jesus, a first-century person in the Near East would have begun with this genealogical list of people in Jesus’ background. If Jesus were to make a resume, it wouldn’t describe how many people He raised from the dead, or make bullet points of how many rabbis (teachers of the Law) he stumped. It would have much more to do with His family, and in this case, his ancestors leading all the way back to Adam. This helps to confirm Jesus’ words in John 4, when He says “salvation is from the Jews.” What proves this better than an extensive list of all Jesus’ important ancestors?
What can we learn from this, and how can this be applied to modern western culture? I think it can help balance out our idea of “Looking out for #1.” We tend to fall into a trap of thinking that all of our accomplishments are our own, and no one at all helped us get here but our own sweat and blood. For some people in America, that’s true. It’s also often married to dumb luck and coincidence, in cases like Eminem and Oprah. For the most part, however, people born into rich families stay rich, and people in poor families stay poor.
To illustrate, think about a hypothetical lawyer (or president…) in New York City. He probably thinks he got there all on his own, as his resume clearly demonstrates that he attended Harvard and got good grades, etc. However, how many people like this got into Harvard because their parents could afford to send them there, or had connections, much less to allow them to focus on their studies and not be distracted by paying for their own tuition? And how did those parents earn their substantial wealth? Probably because their parents came from money and put them through school, and you can trace it all the way back to some person in the 1800’s who actually did build the family up from nothing. Therefore, the wealth of the lawyer rests more on the shoulders of his ancestor than it does on his own effort.
However, to whom do you think he attributes his success? His long-dead predecessor, or himself?
It’s easy to examine someone like this and cast stones, but if you’re reading this on your own phone or laptop, chances are you’re in the same boat. Unless you are an orphan who received no assistance whatsoever growing up, you have been given things from your family which should humble you into seeing beyond yourself.
We often lose sight of everything we have been given, and I think that’s a big reason gratitude is such a big deal to God. In one case, He killed off 24,000 Israelites just for complaining, which is the opposite of gratitude! These are the two attributes which will begin to shift our perspective and help us learn from more tribal cultures: humility and gratitude. When we see things as a gift, we are less likely to take them for granted, or to boast about working for them. Gratitude keeps us humble, and learning from Asian cultures can be widely beneficial to us all.
May we become known as people of gratitude and humility. They are the hardest things in the world to master, but I think they bring a small slice of the kingdom to earth.