Come Christmastime every year, we often hear these oh-so-familiar seventeen verses from the first chapter of Matthew at Mass:
"A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar, Perez the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab, Amminadab the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David. David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah's wife, Solomon the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asa, Asa the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Jehoram, Jehoram the father of Uzziah, Uzziah the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amon, Amon the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon. After the exile to Babylon: Jeconiah was the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, Abiud the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok, Zadok the father of Akim, Akim the father of Eliud, Eliud the father of Eleazar, Eleazar the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ. Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ."
From an English teacher’s standpoint, the story of salvation history, for being God’s bestseller and the greatest story ever told, begins with some majorly plodding exposition.
As a little kid at midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, I would of course let loose my few requisite giggles at the funnier names like "Jehoshaphat" and "Uzziah", then, when roundly berated by my parents for giggling during Mass, promptly fall asleep through the rest of the genealogy. My next real exposure to Matthew’s genealogy was at seventeen when, during my freshman year of college, my then-boyfriend and his friends adopted "Abijah", son of Rehoboam, as a sort of celebratory interjection akin to "Dude!" (Ex.: "Abijah! I just kicked your ass at Halo!") And even when studying Scripture in college theology courses, I would typically skirt over the genealogical passages in order to get to the good stuff. I mean, seriously -- what with a mysterious star and singing angels and visiting shepherds and wandering Magi and fleeing into Egypt, whether or not Shealtial begat Zerubbabel seemed an awfully superfluous point.
Yet, in the words of the incomparable G. K. Chesterton, “If you look at a thing nine hundred and ninety-nine times, you are perfectly safe. If you look at it the thousandth time, you are in frightful danger of seeing it for the first time.” Tonight, at Christmas Eve Mass, I found my eyes restlessly wandering down the page of my missal during the interminable litany of the ancestry of Christ. My gaze came to a full stop on verse 5: “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab . . .” The name “Rahab” rang a bell. I paused to filter through my atrophied knowledge of random Old Testament trivia, and vaguely recalled her as some prostitute who helped save Israel by offering hospitality to spies sent by Joshua, Moses’ successor.
Intrigued, I moved on to verse 6. “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife.” David, of David and Goliath fame, of course we all know. The “man after God’s own heart”, who in a moment of weakness, succumbed to his lust, slept with Bathsheba, knocked her up, and then sent her poor husband Uriah to sleep with the fishes to cover his own tracks. Yet here in Matthew chapter one, we find that the incarnate God of the Universe Himself chose to descend from the lineage of this sometime slipshod adulterer and murderer.
In verse three, we find mention in the lineup of “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar.” While a seemingly innocuous listing, a few minutes of Old Testament reconnaissance will reveal that Tamar disguised herself as a temple prostitute and was impregnated by her father-in-law Judah with twins Perez and Zerah. We are talking some friggin' twisted and bizarre people with whom the Savior of the world chose to share bloodlines.
Uzziah, whose name I found so amusing in childhood, started out all right but, on a serious power trip in 1 Chronicles 26, recklessly appropriated the office of the High Priest, burst into the sanctuary, and burned incense himself, ticking God off.
Ahaz, another of Jesus’ great-great-great-granddaddies, was a wicked king of Judah (check out 2 Kings 16) who brought about his own kingdom’s ultimate subjection to the Assyrians by choosing to ignore the warnings of the prophets Isaiah, Hosea, and Micah. He died a tragic death at thirty-give, and Scripture tells us he was such a loser that he wasn’t even permitted burial in the sepulcher of the kings.
Baffled, it suddenly dawned on me by the middle of the Christmas Eve Gospel reading, with my kid sister beside me snickering over "Jehoshaphat" and "Uzziah", that a disproportionate number of the ancestors of Jesus Christ were heathens, prostitutes, murderers, foolish rulers, and worldly failures.
To me, this revelation means two things this Christmas season that I wanted to share with you. First, that we have a God Who is so gloriously nondiscriminatory about His offer of salvation that He rolled up His sleeves and entered into grubby, dirty human history to die a grubby, dirty death on grubby, dirty Calvary Hill for the sake of a bunch of grubby, dirty bipeds who really, at the end of the day, didn’t deserve such an awesome outpouring of divine humility; that He has called to Himself not only the pious and unsullied and innocent of the world but also the St. Peters, the St. Thomases, the Mary Magdalenes, the St. Augustines, the Tamars and the Rahabs, and used all of them, whatever their walk of life, whatever their failings, whatever the enormity of their past sins, to fulfill His plans and accomplish His purposes; that, fortunately for all of us, God wants to take us as we are, where we are, beaten and bruised and lazy and flawed and sinful and wallowing in the muck, and with the transformative workings of His grace, make something beautiful of us; that He has chosen the weak of this world to shame the wise, and that His power is made perfect in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Second, that sometimes God’s plans take a seemingly haphazard and roundabout path to reaching their culmination, and we often fail to recognize them because they don’t come to us in the packaging we expected. Yet if Jesus Christ Himself was descended from a bunch of hookers and hit-men, none of God’s more convoluted workings in our own daily lives should ever take us too much by surprise. I know in my own life, if it weren’t for some painful and unhappy detours which the past two years of my life took, providential happenstance would never have landed me in a random city six hundred miles south of home finding the most amazing job of all time. I am thus eternally grateful for some of life’s dodgiest curveballs sent in love by one who knew what I needed better than I knew myself, and for the incognito workings of grace that ultimately got me where I needed to be. “For we know all things work together for good, for those who love the Lord, who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Something to think about. Merry Christmas.