In recent years, researching one’s family tree has become a very popular hobby, aided by genealogy websites on line. Finding out about one’s ancestors and history can help give us a sense of who we are, where we came from, what transpired in history to bring us to this time and place.
Researching one’s own genealogy can be fascinating. Hearing about someone else’s family tree in excruciating detail can be mind-numbingly dull.
As today’s gospel was being read I wonder how many eyes glazed over and minds tuned out as we plowed through 42 generations of Jesus’ family tree.
That’s why the lectionary does not include this passage. But years ago I read a novel by Gail Godwin, Father Melancholy’s Daughter, in which a seminary professor made the case that the First Sunday of Advent every three years should include this long list of begats that begin the Gospel of Matthew.
The reason, he says, is that this long boring list tells us much about what kind of messiah Jesus will be.
Today we begin a new church year, one in which the gospel readings will primarly come from Matthew’s gospel. And so I’m following that fictional professor’s advice.
Last week’s reading from the prophet Isaiah set the stage for today’s gospel. In it we heard Isaiah make a promise on God’s behalf to the people of Israel, who are in disarray and despair. The nation has been defeated and the people taken into captivity to live in exile in hated Babylon.
Their once proud dynasty, the lineage of the great King David, the son of Jesse, has been reduced to ruins, the proud family tree now a lifeless stump.
The people wonder if God has abandoned them forever. The royal lineage of David, and the promised land itself have been Israel’s two main links to God. Now both are gone.
The situation looks hopeless. But the prophet Isaiah comes with a word from the Lord.
There is still life in that old stump, the prophet says. A shoot, a branch, will grow from it. It may seem insignificant at first, but ultimately it will change the world.
Today’s gospel reading from Matthew proclaims the fruition and truth of the prophet’s promise.
That is why Matthew begins his gospel with this long list of names it is so tempting to skip over, and why Jesus’ family tree is the very first passage in the entire New Testament.
Raymond Brown, probably the greatest New Testament scholar of our lifetimes, asserts that these three minutes of tongue-twisting names contain the essential theology of both the Old and New Testaments.
So let’s take a look at who is in Jesus’ family tree and what it might say about him.
The genealogy begins with a section on the Old Testament patriarchs, beginning with that most well-known ancestor of Israel, Abraham. That is to be expected. But soon the tree goes off into some perhaps unexpected branches.
In the time of Abraham, the oldest son was the most important, and if significant things were to happen in the family line, they happened through him. But Jesus’ family line comes not through Ishmael, Abraham’s oldest son, but through Isaac.
And then not through Esau, Isaac’s oldest, but through Jacob, who not only was not the oldest, but was a rogue and scoundrel, who stole his oldest brother’s birthright and blessing.
Jacob had 12 sons, the most notable of whom was Joseph, who saved the people of Israel from famine. Any family tree would be proud to claim him.
But on Jesus’ family tree, Joseph is just a distant great-great-great-something uncle. It is Judah, who sold his younger brother Joseph into slavery in Egypt, who is Jesus’ direct ancestor.
In this very first section of Jesus’ genealogy, we see that God frequently does not choose the expected or the saintly to carry out the divine purpose. God does not depend on human merit, but acts with an unpredictable graciousness.
Looking at this section of Jesus’ family tree, with its crooked lines of liars and betrayers and the immoral, as well as the straight lines of the good and saintly, it should be no surprise that Jesus will preach salvation to tax collectors (like Matthew) and sinners, that he will earn a reputation for hanging out with some of the more unsavory elements, those whom respectable people stay away from.
The section on the patriarchs begins with Abraham, who God promised would be the ancestor of a great nation, and ends with David, the youngest son of Jesse, who rules over that promised land.
But David, Israel’s great king, is a also a curious combination of saint and sinner. As the genealogy puts it, “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah.”
While his friend Uriah was away at war, David fell in love with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. When she becomes pregnant, King David arranges for Uriah to be killed in battle.
Jesus’ genealogy does not gloss over the unsavory parts of its history.
Even with David’s mixed personal life, he is undisputedly the greatest king Israel ever knew. In Jesus’ family tree, David is the first of 14 generations of kings, cementing the fact that royalty is indeed in Jesus’ blood.
The period of the patriarchs began with God’s promise of land to Abraham and ends with the splendor of that land under David’s rule. The kings’ section shows a downhill slide from the greatness of David to the loss of the land and the deportation of the Israelites to Babylon.
Of the 14 kings listed in this section, only two could be considered faithful to God. The rest, as Brown says, were “an odd assortment of idolaters, murderers, adulterers, incompetents, power seekers and harem wastrels.”
Thus begins the final section of the genealogy, with the surviving Israelites living in exile in Babylon. Brown calls this section, which takes us from the exile to the birth of Jesus, “the unknown and unexpected.”
They are largely, he says, “a collection of unknown people whose names never made it into sacred history for having done something significant.
“In other words, while powerful rulers in the monarchy brought God’s people to a low point in recorded history (the deportation), unknown people, presumably also saints and sinners, were the vehicles of restoration.”
God’s purposes are once again accomplished through those whom others regard as unimportant and forgettable.
Another surprising aspect of Matthew’s genealogy is that it includes women, which would have been very unusual for its time.
Once again, the women included are not the usual suspects. There is no Sarah or Rebecca, no Rachel or Leah, the wives of the patriarchs.
Instead we have Tamar, a foreigner, whose husband died leaving her childless. Her father-in-law, Judah, refused to allow her to marry another of his sons, which was the custom in those days. So Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law Judah, so that she could bear a child of her husband’s line.
And we have Rahab, a real prostitute, who protected Israel’s spies in the battle of Jericho.
Then there’s Ruth, another foreigner, whose son became the grandfather of the great King David. And Bathsheba, who had the scandalous affair with that great king.
All of these women were in some way outsiders or outcasts – as foreigners or as women who had personal lives marked by scandal or scorn. And finally, we have Mary, whose own marital situation is, as Brown puts it, “peculiar.”
And so it should not surprise us that Jesus’ followers included prostitutes and adulterers, and that he reached out to women who were reviled as outcasts and outsiders.
Jesus’ genealogy not only had implications for his earthly ministry, it continues to speak to us today.
“The God who wrote the beginning with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witnesses,” Brown says.
“A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the impure as well as the poor, men to whom the world hearkened and women upon whom the world frowned – this God continues to work with the same mélange today.
“If it was a challenge to recognize in the last part of Matthew’s genealogy that totally unknown people were part of the story of Jesus, it may be a greater challenge to recognize that the unknown characters of today are an essential part of the sequence,” he adds.
“A sense of being unimportant and too insignificant to contribute to the continuation of the story of Jesus in the world is belied by his genealogy.
“God’s grace can work even with people like us.”