Sermon - 5th January 2020
Who was this Jesus?
Scripture - Matthew 1:1-17
Have you ever done research into your family history? How many generations have you been able to go back? With the advent of online searchable records, discovering one’s ancestry has become much easier, even at a genetic level with DNA profiling. There is even a TV series, where famous people go on a journey of discovery!
Traditionally, some families recorded their history in a family Bible. Back in 2005, I was able to trace some parts of my family back 5 generations to the late 18th century, but it was the extraordinary memory of an aunt of mine, now dead, who was able to provide key information to begin the search in those now online records.
When we open the Old Testament, we find many genealogies, long lists of names: here’s an example from Genesis 5; the book of Numbers gets its title in English from the first Israelite census; and the first 9 chapters of 1 Chronicles is one huge genealogy!
But when we turn to the New Testament, there are just two genealogies: both Jesus’ family history and are found in Matthew and Luke.
At our Advent, Carol and Christmas services, preachers dismiss Mark’s Gospel, as it contains no account of Jesus’ birth; John’s Gospel begins with the mysterious, poetic prologue which we love to hear - “In the beginning was the Word…” And, we are overly familiar with Luke’s account of the angel visiting Mary, the inn with no vacancies, Bethlehem and the shepherds.
That leaves us with Matthew’s Gospel, where we learn about Joseph wanting to divorce the allegedly unfaithful Mary, the visit of the Wise Men and Herod’s massacre of the innocent. But all that begins in Matthew Chapter 1 at verse 18. Why do we never hear verses 1 to 17? Maybe the editors of the Lectionary thought church-goers may find hearing a long list of names boring with little to offer when it comes to sermons!
To prevent names’ overload, we are going to split the text into four parts.
1st part (Matthew 1:1,17 NRSVA)
“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
…all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”
Many Biblical commentators see the original audience for Matthew’s Gospel to be Jewish. In the very first verse of his Gospel, Matthew sets down his claim: Jesus is of the patriarch Abraham’s family line, down through the great King David: Matthew claims from the outset that Jesus is the longed-for promised Messiah. In comparison, Luke’s intended audience were non-Jews (Gentile) believers: in his genealogy, his list goes before Abraham and traces Jesus’ line back to “son of Adam and son of God”.
Matthew lists 42 generations in three groups of 14, in three significant and different periods of history. This seems very neat, far too tidy and raises our suspicions that the account is probably not a historical one, but instead, Matthew is using the genealogy to convey a theological point.
You have probably noticed that certain numbers appear more than others in the Bible. Seven occurs over 750 times, often a symbol of completeness, so 14 might be seen to represent double completeness.
There is one more thing hiding inside the numbers. As you may know, Hebrew did not originally write the vowels. What you might not know is that Hebrew also uses letters as numerical equivalents, just like with Roman numerals. Matthew asserts Jesus being a descendant of the great King David, also born in the town of Bethlehem:
Here is David’s name in Hebrew (with the vowels): דָּוִד
Let’s remove the vowel pointing: דוד
And put the numerical equivalents and do the sum: 4 + 6 + 4 = 14
While Matthew’s Gospel was written in Greek, this clever game with words and numbers will not have been lost on his intended Jewish audience, intending to show that Jesus is the Messiah and descended from David!
Putting the list of Jesus’ ancestors at the start of his Gospel, Matthew was not wanting to bore his readers: each name will have had meaning for a Jewish audience. The first 14 generations…
2nd part (Matthew 1:1-6)
“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.”
When we draw up our own family trees, we tend to begin with ourselves and work backwards. Indeed, Luke’s ancestry of Jesus works in this way, beginning with Jesus and going backwards through David, Abraham, Adam to God. Matthew begins with the great patriarch, Abraham. Of the three groups of 14, this first group contains the names with which we might be most familiar, and all can be found in the Old Testament.
Before we look at some of the individuals in the list, let us consider something: why are our churches increasingly empty? Some might say it is because the church and the Bible are not relevant to their lives; others might say it is because the church tells paints an impossible, even fairy-tale picture. For many, their experience of Christianity starts and ends with a sanitised Nativity at primary school. Maybe if we told the stories of the people named in Jesus’ family tree, folk might come to realise that when God chose to become human, He was born into a family tree which was far from perfect. The truth of Christmas is that God is in it with us, no matter our personal or family history. Here are some examples.
Abraham and Sarah struggled with childlessness, so desperate that they took matters into their own hands and he had a child with his wife’s slave, only to drive that woman and her son into the wilderness to die after Isaac was born. But Abraham was also a man of faith: the Bible frequently mentions his faith “which was credited to him as righteousness”.
His grandson Jacob cheated his twin brother out of his birth-right, but he got his comeuppance when Jacob’s uncle Laban cheated Jacob. But Jacob did eventually change and sought reconciliation with his brother.
In this part of the genealogy, you may have noticed the names of three women [coloured red]. Remember that in Jewish tradition, being born Jewish is something which comes through the mother.
Jacob’s son Judah himself had a wicked son who was killed. By Jewish Law, his second son (Onan) should have taken on his widow but he refused to impregnate her. But Tamar knew Judah used prostitutes, so she disguised herself as one, the result of which was the twins Perez and Zerah.
The next woman to be mentioned is Rahab, who according to the Book of Joshua, was a prostitute who kept an establishment in Jericho. Her son with Salmon was Boaz, whose account we find in the Book of Ruth. But Boaz was a kindly man who looked after the poor, even in times of famine.
Who was Ruth? She was a Moabite, part of an enemy of Israel. And the origins of the Moabites, according to Genesis 19, is one of the most horrific stories in the whole of Scripture. The Moabites were the result of an incestuous drunken seduction of Lot by his daughters after they had escaped from the doomed city of Sodom.
Even the storylines of EastEnders and Coronation Street are not this dark! But the point is this: God chose for His Son to be born into a family line containing all these horrible things, so we should make it clearer that we welcome everyone, not matter how broken their lives might be. What keeps people out of our churches is the fear that we will judge them harshly; and, the sad reality is that this is true.
The next 14 generations…
3rd part (Matthew 1:6b-11)
“And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah [Bathsheba], and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.”
We come to Israel’s great King David, surely a really significant person to have in Jesus’ ancestry! In 2 Samuel 1, David declares that his greatest love was a man, Jonathan, even using the words “Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” But David’s intimate relationships were complicated. Long after Jonathan’s death, he lusted after and seduced an army officer’s wife called Bathsheba.
Many of you will know the late Leonard Cohen song “Hallelujah”. It is a lovely doleful melody, with a bright refrain. Cohen was born Jewish; indeed, his surname in Hebrew means “priest”. But have you really listened to the verse lyrics – here’s the 2nd verse:
“Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the hallelujah.”
The great King David was an adulterer: even worse, when he discovered Bathsheba was pregnant by him, he conspired to have her husband killed. Could this woman really have said “no” to the king’s advances?
But David was also a man of passion in his faith: over 70 of the Psalms are ascribed to him; and he did not care what others thought of him when he “danced with all his might” before the Ark of the Covenant as it was brought up to Jerusalem.
The remaining names in the section of the genealogy may be increasingly less familiar: they are all kings of Judah. Solomon was the last king of a united Israel. After his death, the kingdom split into Israel (Northern Kingdom) and Judah (Southern Kingdom). The names we find in this second part of Matthew’s genealogy are the names of the kings of Judah we read in the books of 1 and 2 Kings. Well, almost all… the names of three consecutive kings described elsewhere as “wicked” are omitted; otherwise the framework of 14 would not fit, indicating further that the genealogy is more a theological point than an historically accurate lineage.
It did not end well for kingdom of Judah, conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE and deported to Babylon, which brings us to our final section.
4th part (Matthew 1:12-17)
“And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.”
So far, we have heard about the great Old Testament figures like Abraham and David, plus a whole list of kings, and their very human failings, but what about this final group? The first three – Jechoniah (penultimate king of Judah), Salathiel and Zerubbabel are the only ones mentioned in the Old Testament, of the remaining 11, there is no account.
The Book of Ezra tells of Zerubbabel who returned from exile and organised the rebuilding of the Temple, a lot of physically hard work and priestly devotion! Remember that Jesus was born into a lowly human family: his step-father, Joseph, was a carpenter, a skilled tradesman. The family went from royalty to artisan in 14 generations!
But perhaps the biggest challenge when it comes to the two genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Mark is that the lists are very different: for example, Luke’s 77 generations compared to Matthew’s 42 – but the four Gospels differ, each written from a different perspective with different audiences in mind. We do not dismiss them because they are not the same, but embrace them in their diverse perspectives.
The early Church Fathers maintained that both genealogies are true. The 8th-century theologian John of Damascus saw Luke’s version as being Mary’s genealogy, after all Luke’s Gospel does focus on Mary and Matthew on Joseph. Or, one of the earliest theological writers – Africanus – suggested that Matthew’s version is birth according to flesh and Luke’s version according to the Law in respect of Levirate marriages where a younger brother would marry his elder brother’s widow. John Walton, a 20th-century theologian, suggested that Matthew deliberately included the four women because these women were not Jews but Gentiles, making that point that Jesus came as the Messiah to all.
So, having looked behind these many names, this Bible genealogy is not just a list for our ears to stop listening to, but it is a very vivid way in which Matthew shows us that Jesus is indeed Saviour of all, and He really does not care about our background or our past, as He has the same or worse in His own family’s past. And that is what He would like us to go out and tell others.
Truly, Jesus is in it with us.