The Mess in Matthew 1
“The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…”
This reading from the Gospel according to Matthew challenges lectors to pronounce names like “Amminadab” and “Shealtiel.”
For most worshippers, identifying the relevance is even more challenging than pronouncing the names. How did such a bureaucratic-sounding list become required reading at Christmas?
Attempting to make sense of this parade of names, some listeners mistake it for a triumphal procession culminating in the birth of Christ. Is the genealogy a crescendo of greatness building to the Nativity? Did those ancients behave so very well that they earned themselves a messiah? Perhaps we should pen a new Christmas carol along the lines of, “Congratulations, patriarchs – you did it! Thanks for making Christmas happen!”
Read this way, the Christmas story would be the perfect Pelagian proof-text. We would have a Santa-like Emmanuel – a gift-giver who requites the wicked with coal and the righteous with new bikes.
Not only would such an interpretation be inaccurate, but it would feed the pernicious lie that we have to earn God’s grace.
The good news of Matthew 1 is utterly lost on those who have not heard the bad news. So here is a bit of the trauma and double-dealing wrapped in those hard-to-say names.
The Bad News, Part 1
Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar. – Mt 1:3
Almost all the mothers go unmentioned in the passage, so Tamar’s name stands out. The text calls our attention to her story: how Judah first ignored, then degraded, and finally threatened the very existence of a woman who had twice been his daughter-in-law (see Genesis 38). Only by her wits and God’s grace did she survive to bear children and become the great (x10) grandmother of Jesus.
Judah’s horrific mistreatment of Tamar showed him to a transgressor of the law and a hypocrite. Let’s not forget he also was a party to attempted fratricide and human trafficking. Certainly, Judah is not the sort of ancestor to crow about.
Yes, biologically and culturally, Jesus is the progeny of a man who committed public, unconscionable sins, and God inspired Matthew to make a point of saying so.
The Bad News, Part 2
Manasseh is an even more shocking ancestor, not the kind you toast at holiday gatherings. His depredations, an account of which can be found in 2 Kgs 21:1-18, include:
He did what was evil in the LORD’s sight… He rebuilt the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed. He set up altars to Baal and… bowed down to the whole host of heaven and served them. He built altars in the house of the LORD… He immolated his child by fire. He practiced soothsaying and divination, and reintroduced the consulting of ghosts and spirits.
Manasseh sacrificed his own son to an idol! A prince of Judah, a relative of Jesus, was burned on a pagan altar. Manasseh’s great sins and his leading of the people into abominations led to God wiping Jerusalem “clean as one wipes a dish” with plans to start over after the Babylonian exile.
Even More Bad News
Other disreputable relatives mentioned by Matthew in the genealogy of Jesus:
-Jeconiah, who ignored the poor and the weak, who would not listen for the will of God, and of whom the Lord said through Jeremiah: “even if you were a signet ring on my right hand, I would still pull you off.” Jer 22:24
-Solomon, whom God gave a wise and discerning heart as well as riches and honor, who built a great temple in Jerusalem, but who ultimately preferred romances with hundreds of women to whole-hearted devotion to God
-David, who ordered a loyal soldier to be murdered so that he could take Bathsheba
-Jacob, who deceived his dying father, stole from his brother, and then ran away
-Abraham, who lied about Sarah being his wife to save his own life, thereby letting Pharaoh take her for the royal harem
The more stories we know, the more we come to understand that God is the hero of the Old Testament. He is the faithful one whose mercies are as gratuitous as they are everlasting.
The Bad News is the Good News
Knowledge of the Old Testament transforms a boring list of foreign-sounding names into an impolite, scandalous, and electrifying proclamation of God’s gratuitous love in the face of humanity’s folly and vice.
Jesus is the long-awaited – but utterly unexpected and incredibly undeserved –answer to prayers humanity failed to pray. His birth is at once foretold and completely surprising.
Through these days of Christmas, remember that he is born to us sinners. Jesus did not come because we earned it, but because of his extravagant love.
Come, Lord Jesus, and save your people.