December 17

“It was the best of times and the worst of times…” that’s the way to start a book. “In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit” isn’t bad either, though my favourite is probably, “A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” From out here in front I could see all the veiled horror that greets those first words of Matthew’s “An account of the genealogy of Jesus…” You can’t even get into a contemplative rosary-like rhythm with those ‘was the father of’s the same way you used to be able to do with the begats. And you stand a better chance of injecting interesting intonation when you read aloud from the telephone directory.
So has Matthew blown it … lost his chance of a stellar opening? And has the church turned here for a dramatic fanfare to begin the countdown to the nativity only to blow a bum note?
Well, slipped into that numbing litany, are enough subversive details to make you sure that Matthew has a clever message to communicate. For a start the list is back to front … or at least the standard genealogy pattern is a list of descendants and not a book of ancestors. Then there’s the unconventional pattern of descent: the line runs through Isaac and not Ishmael the older son; it passes through Judah the fourth of the sons of Jacob. So it’s not an ordinary family tree. The way to David and on to the Son of David follows divine reckoning and not human. Then there’s the four women pointedly inserted into this long list of men. Tamar who is so determined to add a child to this book of generations that she disguises herself to have sex with her father-in-law, Judah. Rahab, once a prostitute in Jericho who collaborates with Israelite spies in the fall of her own city. Ruth, the woman of Moab who leaves her home to go with Naomi wherever she will go. And Bathsheba, taken by King David after he murders her husband, Uriah. Yes, says Matthew, God has gone to some lengths to bring the story to this point. Keeping the plot going by whatever means necessary, even dragging in convenient foreigners when the story line threatens to wander. And what a story! Adventure and horror, sexual intrigue and murder, incest and idolatry. “But,” as Eleanor of Aquitaine says in “The Lion in Winter,” “what family doesn’t have its ups and downs?”
Well here we are close to the climax of that family history. Fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian deportation, and fourteen from there to Christ. Oh, and how Matthew wants us to notice those three fourteens. Even enough to cut out three or four kings to make the numbers fit. Three fourteens: human genes, human blood, and human destiny entwined in a divine drama.
Here comes the triumphant crescendo: Eleazar was the father of Mathan. Mathan the father of Jacob. Jacob the father of Joseph and Joseph the father of … No! The last fourteen is only a thirteen. Jacob the father of Joseph who is precisely not the father of Jesus but just the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. Forty one generations of human struggle and expectation all set aside at the last minute. Jesus the messiah is grafted onto the family tree. He may be Son of Abraham but not by blood. All that history is a thing of the past. Instead, something new is about to happen. Something we couldn’t prepare for. Something we couldn’t predict. Something beyond extrapolation. God makes a new start. Wisdom herself, Divine Sophia, is about to be born to make the world over. And that wordless baby will speak the word to give the world a fresh start.