Perhaps the single most boring part of the gospels is the ancestry list in the first chapter of Matthew. The only challenger to this title of Most Boring might be the first few verses of Luke which recite nearly the exact same thing once again. At least Matthew did it first. And yet this genealogy is a very important part of scripture and perhaps even one of the most significant texts we hear during the Christmas season.
For many years one of my mother’s favorite hobbies was studying genealogy. She had legal pads with lists of names, spiral bound notebooks full of notations and stories and photos crammed inside them. She invested a lot of time and energy into all of it but for the most part it, like any of our families’ genealogies, looks and sounds pretty much like what we’ve heard read from Matthew this morning. Over the years she would tell me stories about the people on those lists of names and then say, “That was your great great great aunt,” or something along those lines, “and all of these people are important because they are who you come from.”
The gospel text assigned for today is from Luke and it gives us a rare little snapshot of the boy Jesus. The boy whose birth we just celebrated last week. The boy who will grow up to save the world. Information about Jesus as a child is very sparse but here we see a boy, remarkably gifted and wise enough to speak to rabbis and experts in the law in such a way as to impress them, but still a child. A very human child in this very human and relatable scene with his parents worrying about his whereabouts just like other normal parents would be. Jesus is a real little boy with parents, and although not directly pictured here, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends; a whole family.
The writers of the gospels of Matthew and Luke both believe that not only where but who this little boy comes from matters a great deal. It matters enough to laboriously write it all down for us to read centuries later. So, maybe it is worth looking at.
One of the first things that Jesus’ genealogy tells us is that he is a real, specific, particular person. A human being with parents, siblings, grandparents, great grandparents and so on. A real person in history. Jesus was not an alien of some sorts or some type of spirit that just showed up out of thin air. We know not only where Jesus is from but also who.
Secondly, in a manner of speaking, this list of names paints a picture of a core piece of the theology of the entirety of scripture. A significant piece of our faith is based upon what this list of names tells us about the people of God and God’s love for and relationship with us. It is the story of God’s salvation not through merit or right or even law but, instead, by grace.
We begin with Abraham and his son Isaac. Even here, at the very beginning, we see God’s complete disregard for our ideas of the order of things because there is no mention at all of Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. First born sons are supposed to be the most important, aren’t they? But God calls and chooses who God wishes. Then Isaac’s son, Jacob, comes next with, once again, no mention of the eldest son, Esau; the one whose birthright Jacob plainly stole!
Then there is Judah. Judah???? What’s the big deal about him? He is neither the oldest nor the youngest. And Judah is not anything like his amazing and brilliant brother, Joseph. You remember Joseph, don’t you? The one with the amazing Technicolor dream coat. The one whose advice earned him the second highest place of authority in the whole land of Egypt. The one whose actions saved Egypt and the entire nation of Israel from starvation in a great famine. That Joseph. But he is not even on the list! We just have relatively unremarkable Judah who actually participates in selling the amazing Joseph into slavery.
Though we do not know why, at this point God has already chosen Abraham, a nomad of no particularly noble birth, Jacob who cheats and lies his way to whatever he wants, and Judah who betrays a brother out of jealousy. And the incomprehensible choices in who God calls are just getting started! Whether or not a person merits God’s attention by their actions, their holy living or their ‘right’ to it seems to be entirely irrelevant to God. It is God’s grace alone.
In the list there is David who steals his wife from another man and takes mafia style measures to have her husband murdered. Of course, to be fair, David also composes beautiful psalms praising God and despite his philandering always keeps his faith ultimately in God.
Then there are the women. In scripture there are many noble, brilliant, faithful women like Sarah, the wife of Abraham, and Rebecca and Rachel and Miriam. Yet, instead of these women we hear about Tamar. She wasn’t even a Hebrew; just a Canaanite who disguised herself as a prostitute to trick her father in law, Judah. Then there is another Canaanite woman, Rahab, who was an actual prostitute. There is Ruth, who was a far more upstanding and respectable woman, exhibiting great loyalty to the family into which she married and great love to her mother in law, Naomi, but she’s still a foreigner and not an Israelite! And lastly there’s Bathsheba, the one David killed for, and she’s even described as the wife of another man whom David got his son, Solomon, through!
None of this is quite as scandalous as Mary herself. The mother of Jesus whose very pregnancy was out of wedlock, shameful and could have garnered a stoning sentence if the man she was engaged to had chosen to call for it.
Still, every single one was chosen and called by God as God’s instrument of grace. All were a piece of the genealogical line, cultural and genetic make-up of Jesus.
Then, after this set of ancestors with varying degrees of notoriety and notorious reputations, we launch into a grand list of…….. NOBODYS! To us they are virtually unknown. Who were they? What did they do? What were they like? For the most part, we know nothing about them at all.
So, think of this. The boy in the temple, the man who taught such wisdom through amazing stories, who healed the sick, cast out demons, walked on water, died horribly on the cross and walked out of his tomb alive so we, too, can do the same, the tiny precious child whose miraculous birth was announced by angels and is celebrated still today over two thousand years later is descended from liars, cheaters, and prostitutes. His ancestors were simple or complex and manipulative, foreigners and, quite frankly, no one of significance at all. And yet every last one of them are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, incredibly important links in God’s plan for the world, each called and chosen by God.
How amazing is that? The salvation of humanity, the salvation of the world, in fact, of creation itself comes through ordinary broken people full of flaws, eccentricities, mistakes, good intentions and ordinariness just like all of us. And if God chooses and calls people like that—people just like us—then it is quite possible and even likely that God chooses and calls each of us in the same kinds of ways every single day.
Maybe that list of names in Matthew and Luke doesn’t really end there. Maybe it goes on in a slightly different way. Not by merit or birthright but by grace. Maybe we can think of the boring old genealogy of Jesus like this:
Jacob was the father of Joseph and Joseph and Mary the parents of Jesus and Jesus chose and called Peter, the other disciples, and Paul. Paul chose Timothy and Timothy chose someone else. They chose someone else and so on. Someone chose you and you, too, will choose someone else. They will choose someone and…………………………