There are some books that just have you hooked from the first sentence. They grab your attention, prick your curiosity, stimulate your imagination and you just have to read them, you can’t put them down. It is the magic of those four wonderful words “once upon a time’… You’d think that the gospel the greatest story ever told might start like that… but as NT Wright says “The average modern person who thinks maybe I’ll read the New Testament is puzzled…puzzled to find on the very first page, a long list of names he or she has probably never heard of”… and probably has trouble pronouncing…
Even if you are more familiar with the scriptures you may be tempted to simply skip this part, like the introduction and recap at the start of an episode of a Netflix TV series. But if we do that, we miss what is at the very heart of Matthew’s gospel: Jesus Christ. You see for Matthew, a first century Jewish Christian writing to predominantly first century Jews this is more than a simple introduction and recap. It would have them riveted from the first word, it is like a fanfare, a dramatic drum roll or the urgent voice of the town crier. We might get a glimpse of this in New Zealand from the way in which for Maori and Pacifica peoples your whakapapa tells people your identity, who you are and where you fit. For Matthew the introduction is of the central person of Jewish history, Jesus the long-awaited messiah, or anointed one, the son of David and the son of Abraham, and the recap retells two millennia of God’s gracious promises and God’s covenant faithfulness to his people. Jesus whakapapa is the story of hope.
Let’s quickly go through the format of the passage we are looking at…
The passage starts with an introduction, then Jesus whakapapa is presented in three stages, from Abraham to David, from David to the exile, from the exile to joseph, and Jesus being born of Mary, then it finishes with a conclusion about the number of generations in each section in verse 17.
It has some interesting characteristics…
Matthew’s genealogy differs in places from Luke’s, and while some have pointed to this as an inconsistency, Luke as a Greek focuses more on Jesus physical genealogy whereas for Matthew the royal heritage and whose heir Jesus is, is more significant and central. They are the ones who are heirs to the promises. An example from seventh form history would be James vi of Scotland becoming James 1 of England as the heir to Elizabeth 1 but not her son…
Matthew misses out some names, and very neatly fits it into three series of fourteen generations, this could be to make it easy to remember; Jews were able to recite their whakapapa and so memory aids would be helpful. But also in his conclusion by adding up the generations as he does Matthew points to Jesus birth as fitting in with Biblical prophecy’s in Jeremiah and Daniel that pointed to the coming of the Messiah. The time is right says Matthew and here is Jesus the messiah. Matthew more than any of the other gospels shows us Jesus life and ministry in terms of its fulfilment of the Old Testament.
When Matthew’s original readers would have read through the genealogies one of the things that would have stood out for them was the fact that women were mentioned. Even Luke who as a Greek is more open to telling women’s stories does not do this. You may expect in a Jewish document to have maybe a great woman such as Sarah, Abraham’s wife mentioned and honoured. But here the women who are mentioned are not those you’d normally mention.
What does this introduction and whakapapa tells us?
The first thing Matthew’s introduction tells us is that Jesus story is not something totally new, rather it is the fulfilment of a story that has already been told. The introduction here could be for the genealogy or for the whole gospel. the whole gospel is the creation story the origin story of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Either way it says that Jesus story has its origins in the Old Testament, in God’s activity in history, but it is also a new story the hope of a new creation.
For the Jews the messiah was a person who was the fulfilment of a promise to David in 2 Samuel 7:16. That an heir of David would sit on the throne forever. We saw that expectation in our old testament reading from Isaiah 11 today… A root of Jesse would be on the throne and it would be a time of lasting peace for Israel. A righteous and good King who would usher in the reign of God, the Kingdom of God, Matthew says to his readers right off the bat I’ve found this Guy.
But more than that Matthew is aware that God’s purposes and plans are for the world in calling him the son of Abraham, Matthew is focusing back to the promises made to Abraham in Genesis 1... that not only would God give Abraham descendants and land and bless him, but that he would make him a blessing to all nations. Matthew is telling us from the start that not only is Jesus the messiah and a blessing for the Jews but God’s saviour and king for all people. Isaiah 11 finishes with a line that you may remember from last months series on Habakkuk… The whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of God as he waters cover the sea. One of the things the Women in Jesus whakapapa do is point to this possibility, as except for Mary they are all gentiles. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and the wife of Uriah the Hittite, or Bethsheba. Even in Jesus whakapapa God’s inclusion of the gentiles into his people is foreshadowed.
Jesus genealogy shows us that God has been working through history to bring his sovereign plans and purposes to fruition. From Abraham on downwards. It also shows us God’s grace, that all the way through these two millennia God had kept his promise by his grace. Jesus whakapapa is a very human family tree. It includes the good kings and the bad kings. People who kept their faith in God and people who did not…famous people and those who are obscure. It contains stories of pain and suffering and injustice. Again this is highlighted by the stories of the women mentioned. Tamar was the wife of Judah’s oldest son, Er, who we are told in genesis 38, god killed because he was so evil. Tamar had no children, so was supposed to be given a child to carry on Er’s name by his younger brother, who refused, she was promised by Judah that when the youngest son grew up she would be have a child with him. Now this all seems rather messy and barbaric to us. But remember for a women who was a widow without a child, she had no means of support, she had no status in her society. When she was denied her right and treated unjustly by Judah, she pretended to be a prostitute and slept with Judah and had twin sons.. It was through her son Perez that the royal lineage was to come. Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho, who when the spies were sent by Moses to check out the land looked after them and helped them escape. Ruth we know was a widow whose dedication to her mother in law Naomi lead to her marrying Boaz and a Moabite becomes David’s great grand-mother. Bethsheba of course is a tale of both wrongdoing by David and the pain of a dead child. But Matthew says these people too are in Jesus whakapapa.
The women can also be seen as people of faith in times when Israel struggled to have faith. Tamar sought justice when she was mistreated, Rahab showed faith when the spies doubted God, Ruth showed covenant faithfulness to Naomi, in the time of upheaval during the judges.
This is one of the things that I love and which gives us hope from the genealogy, God has worked his purposes out through normal people just like us. Mark Woodly puts it like this
“behind each name on Matthew’s carefully selected list we find human stories riddled with sordid scandals and glorious and honourable details. Behind the mess and unpredictability of the human story God is weaving another story of harmony and redemption.”
God’s sovereignty and God’s grace are at work, meeting in Jesus Christ, and the amazing thing is that in Christ you and I are grafted into this family tree and we fit right in, being fantastic made and faithful, with our foibles and faults, fallenness and frailty, our high achievements our past hurts and hurdles, our odd ball-ness or our straight down the line-ness, our humanity and our hope of new creation in Christ. And like with this whakapapa Jesus has stepped into the story and it changes. It becomes a story of hope.
Matthews’ telling of Jesus genealogy finishes, not by saying who Jesus father is, but rather focusing on his mother. Joseph we are told is the husband of Mary, and Mary is the mother of Jesus who is called the messiah. If Matthew’s readers hadn’t been captivated by Jesus whakapapa now, this would have caught their attention. While we, with Luke’s Gospel giving us Mary’s account and two thousand years of Christian faith and teaching, know what is to come, Matthew is signalling to us that something different is happening here. He is preparing his readers to struggle along with Joseph over the fact that Mary will conceive by the Holy Spirit. When the Jewish readers hear the next part of the story that Mary being betrothed to Joseph is found to be pregnant, they might switch off, they would be shocked and suspicious of how this Jesus could be the Messiah. They like us will struggle with the wonderful news of the virgin birth of Jesus. Jesus birth not only being the fulfilment of the promises to David and to Abraham, but also that in Jesus God has stepped into human history.
One of the things the women in the whakapapa do is prepare us for this. As women of faith and women who have carried on God’s purpose and plans in difficult situations they stand with Mary. God had used these situations and these women for his purpose and plans and now he is going to do something even more unusual.
Well it may not be as captivating a start as “once upon a time”. But this introduction and genealogy points us to who Jesus is, that what is happening is a continuation a fulfilment of God’s promises and God’s sovereign moving in history and a fulfilment of God’s grace and peace. To Matthew’s Jewish reader and to us it tells us the long awaited messiah is coming… It introduces us to Jesus in a way that we know where he fits in and leaves us with great anticipation to see how this messiahship will work out… and just a little tinge of mystery, that just maybe who this Jesus is isn’t going to fit into all the expectations Matthew’s Jewish readers and we may have…Not that we will be disappointed… rather it will be a story of hope… more than we ever hoped for. Hopefully… it draws us to read further to be captivated by the story of Jesus the messiah the son of David and the son of Abraham, to be captivated by him.