Each Christmas we like to hear the Christmas story read outloud. We love the famous opening lines: "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree…" (Luke 2:1) or "This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about…" (Matthew 1:18). But it's interesting to note that these aren't actually the first lines of the Christmas story in any of the Gospels. Mark begins with an introduction to John the Baptist, Luke starts with a note to Theophilus and comments about a priest named Zechariah, and John goes a different direction altogether. The beginning to the Christmas story in Matthew's Gospel is the account of Jesus' family tree.
We tend to think of Matthew's introduction as a terrible literary hook… so we don't read it. Certainly Matthew wouldn't sell many copies of his book if it was published this way today! A good editor would have revised this section. A genealogy as an addendum maybe… but not an introduction. Come on, Matthew! There is nothing in a list of names that is remotely compelling enough to attract the mature attention spans of 21st century North Americans. By our standards, there's no great opening line. Even at Christmas, when we might actually take time to read the Christmas story, we skip straight to verse 18 of Chapter One. We consider ourselves too far advanced in the spectrum of entertainment to bore ourselves with a list of names. Where's the action? Where's the mystery? Where's the tension and the dramatic chase? When can we get on to Herod's jealousy and violence?
But to Matthew, there was no more important way to begin telling the Christmas story than to highlight Jesus' lineage. Matthew thinks that we would do well to notice the real-life action, mystery, tension and dramatic chase embedded into the background story of the birth of Jesus.
"This is the record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah," Matthew begins (1:1).
Perhaps we are too numb to the significance of these words. Perhaps we are not alarmed or disortiented the way that these words should make us. Perhaps our puffed-up pride has made us complacent. Perhaps our search for sensationalism has ironically caused us to miss the adventurous action, mystery, tension and dramatic chase already noted in the first phrase of Matthew's Gospel: "Jesus the Messiah".
And this Messiah, Jesus, comes from somewhere in particular… and Matthew thinks the reader should be aware of a couple of extremely significant details in order to comprehend the Christmas story that is about to unfold on his papyrus. This Messiah, Jesus, has a dramatic ancestory.
"This is a record of the ancestors of Jesus the Messiah, a descendant of King David and of Abraham, Matthew informs us (1:1).
Is that boring? If Matthew had told us a story about the birth heritage of Barack Obama our ears might have perked up. There's drama and tension to that story because of the implications of where and when and to whom he was born. To the President's birth story there has been intrigue and layered-action and conspiracy and protest and support and evidences and doubters and on and on.
Multiple choice question: For which of the following reasons do we not place deep passion into the background of the birth of Jesus the Messiah?
a) We have a distorted concept of entertainment
b) We are recipients of faith rather than practicioners
c) We never like reading lists of names in the Bible– there's no point
d) We don't see any personal relevance of this genealogical record
e) All of the above
Matthew thinks it is extremely dramatic that Jesus was born as a direct descendant to the most recognized and notable King from ancient history. In David's story is promise, victory, heart-break, jealousy, vengenence, brotherhood, epic battle, lust, murder, second-chance, uprising, rebellion, song, exuberance, unbridled passion and unfulfilled glory.
Matthew also thinks it extremely dramatic that Jesus was born from as a direct descendant to the most important and notable father from ancient history. In Abraham's story is promise, despair, miracle, lies, foreign affairs, dysfunctional relationship, mockery, sacrifice, gut-wrenching agony, enslavement, prophecy and unfulfilled hope.
Woven into the stories of David and Abraham are scores of others whose lives are anything but boring. Jacob the scoundrel, Salmon the upstreamer, Boaz the grey, Bathsheba the black-widow, Solomon the lustful, King Ahaz the cult leader, Jehoiachin the captive exilic, Zerubbabel the aptly named, and Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus the Christ.
At Christmas time we often read the story of the birth of Jesus out of its context… and removed from our own passionate involvement. Our faith is proved weak by the literary device of a masterful genealogy.