Every year on the Sunday Before Christmas we read the genealogy of Jesus from the Gospel of Matthew. It’s our annual exercise in getting through a long list of tongue-twisting names, but I look forward to it. I love reading these names. And, as the great Catholic biblical scholar Raymond Brown asserted, this genealogy contains the essential theology of the Old and New Testaments, and of the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches! An exaggeration? Perhaps. But it depends on whether you see theology as just a bunch of statements about God in big words that you need a PhD to understand.
Theology is speech about God. Theos-logos. But logos became man. God became a human being, took on human flesh and pitched his tent among us. Καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρξ ἐγένετο καὶ ἐσκήνωσεν ἐν ἡμῖν (John 1:14). So theos-logos is also about human existence. Theology is not just big words about God, theology is also about the small things of human existence. This genealogy is indeed theology in its simplest, most human form.
Human beings have genealogies. So Jesus had a genealogy. Matthew gives us a genealogy that goes back to Abraham. Abraham begat Isaac – no mention of that ill-begotten elder son Ishmael, born to Abraham by the slave Hagar, banished from the sight of Abraham and Sarah once Isaac was born.
Then Isaac begets Jacob – no mention of the elder son Esau, whose birthright Jacob stole by deceit. Jacob begets Judah. Why single out Judah and not the good and noble Joseph, who was sold to slavery by Judah out of sheer jealousy?
It sounds unfair, it even sounds biased…. but throughout the Hebrew Bible, God does not always select the noblest men and women. He chose Jacob who cheated his way to the inheritance and prominent role in God’s unfolding purpose. God chose David, who stole a man’s wife and had him killed.
There are women in this genealogy. No Sarah or Rebekah or Rachel, the great matriarchs of the people. Rather, we get Tamar, a pagan woman who disguised herself as a prostitute and gave two sons to Judah, Perez and Zerah, both named in this genealogy. There’s Rahab, another pagan woman, a real prostitute. There’s Ruth, a Moabite, another outsider, but one who became a devoted follower of God. And there’s Bathsheba, the mother of Solomon – named only as wife of Uriah, the man whom David arranged to be killed so he could have his wife, Bathsheba.
This doesn’t sound like theology, you might say, this sounds more like a soap opera. Perhaps. But who did Jesus like to spend most of his time with? Tax collectors, sinners, prostitutes, outcasts, foreigners even! He came not for the righteous, the ones who had the religion all wrapped up. The gospel message is wrapped up in this genealogy, with all its imperfect characters – imperfect, just like us.
And there’s that last group of names that are totally unknown – Abiud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Achim, Eliud, Eleazar. And who was this Matthan, the great grandfather of Jesus? We know nothing about these men. Maybe they were just names made up by Matthew, just to fill in a dozen generations.
And this is where we come in. God can use us like he used the imperfect and the unknowns of those centuries before Jesus. None of us is too small to have a place in God’s purposes. No two among us will have the same flaws or the same talents and abilities, and hence the same purpose! You see, it’s that mystical, sublime mixture of flaw and giftedness that makes each of us an agent of God’s purposes. The men and women in the genealogy of Jesus are not the only men and women in the Bible; they simply were the ones that fit this line by birth that led to Jesus.
A new genealogy began with Jesus – a genealogy not by birth, “not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” as John put it in his Gospel (1:13). A genealogy with MANY branches! The genealogy that began with Jesus is a genealogy of logos: Jesus spoke to Andrew, Andrew spoke to Peter, likewise Philip and Nathanael (John 1:40-45)… the exalted Jesus appeared to Saul (Acts 9:1-8)….Saul became Paul and spoke to Priscilla and Aquila, a wife-and-husband team (Acts 18)…. Priscilla and Aquila spoke to Apollos (Acts 18:26)…. Jesus spoke to John (Mark 1:19-20)… John spoke to Ignatius, who became bishop of Antioch in that first century and whose memory we commemorate today, Dec. 20th… And on down the centuries, to us…. Markus Bockmuehl spoke to me in 1978… I speak to you…. you must speak to someone else. You and I become theology! Raymond Brown was right about the genealogy – it contains the essential theology, the essential gospel in the form of tongue-twisting names. And we are part of this theology, because theology is not just about God, it’s about human beings, because God became man!