Making Christmas come alive with genealogy of Jesus
By Samuel S. Vaiphei
Unfortunately we present-day Christians have contented ourselves with such a narrow understanding of the gospel, often solely defined in terms of going to heaven or Christ dying on the cross for our sins, that the real message or the bigger story narrated in the four gospels of Matthew, Mark , Luke and John is missed.
Just like every year, I am afraid that this year too we will once more gloss over or ignore altogether the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew 1:1-20. Undue emphasis is then placed on Matthew 1:21 where the angels announced to Joseph that he should name the child Jesus because he will rescue his people from their sins. This is often linked to Genesis 3:15.
The apostle Matthew would not be pleased with us for not paying close attention to all that he had been trying to say in the preceding 20 verses (of Ch 1), and without which one is bound to get a defective understanding of verse 21. Moreover it is open knowledge that Matthew’s gospel has in mind a Jewish audience as his original hearers. Thus, it is no surprise that present-day readers missed Matthew’s intended message. I hope this short article will recover and enable us to see the significance of the genealogy of Jesus, without which the birth of Jesus or Christmas is not much of a good news.
To begin with, we must keep in mind that genealogy is very important for the Jews. Where from a person/the family trace its root tells a lot about one’s social standing. But when Matthew traced the genealogy of Jesus, his intention was far more than to simply tell us that Jesus has important royal lineage or comes from a good family etc. Sadly, the way Jesus’ Jewish genealogy gets ignored in our Christmas sermons falsely seems to indicate that it would have been perfectly okay if Jesus was born a Punjabi or a Korean! To succumb to this kind of illogic is to miss the heart of the gospel from the very first pages itself.
Thus when Matthew begins his gospel with the line “a record of the genealogy of Jesus, the son of David, the son of Abraham,” something really profound is being conveyed. Let us unpack them one by one.
Jesus, the son of Abraham
To understand this cryptic phrase we have to take a brief tour of Genesis 1-11. Read as a story (God’s story, mind you), Genesis 1-2 tells us about a good creation brought forth by God with man and woman in God’s image as the epitome of God’s creative activity. Sadly, the original primeval couple succumbed to temptation (Gen 3) and by their actions, unleashed a force of darkness over God’s good creation. Genesis 4-6 tells us in gripping prose the sordid tale of the human person and human society getting dysfunctional – murder and mayhem.
Man’s quests to create the perfect society always end in violence and failure. By the 6th chapter (of Genesis) we are told that God was grieved that He had created man. But the God of the Bible is not one who was about to give up. As we read on, the dismal story of human pride in the construction of the tower of Babel (Gen 11) gave way to fresh rays of hope encapsulated in the calling of Abraham in Genesis 12.
In Genesis 12, God called out Abraham (then Abram) from where he lived, directed him to a new land with the promise that through him the whole world will be blessed. If this is read in the backdrop of what took place at the tower of Babel and the whole of Genesis 1-11, it becomes obvious that Gen 12 then is God’s promise to Abraham that creation/cosmos would be set right.
That, what humans could not accomplish by their own efforts viz. rid the human heart of evil (Gen 3-4) and create the ideal society (Gen 4-6, 10-11), God will do for them. The plot thickens when in Genesis 22:18, God promised Abraham a seed through whom all the nations of the earth will be blessed. So when Matthew proclaims Jesus to be the son of Abraham, what he is telling us in effect is that Jesus is God’s promise to Abraham come true! Halleluja! The apostle Paul echoes this in Galatians 3:16.
The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.
The Gospel good news is that God has not abandoned the world and its inhabitants, but has now come in the person of Jesus to sort out the mess in the world. Finally, the Lord God who created the universe will no longer be far from any of us.
Jesus, the son of David
In Israel’s history, David was the only person who came close to being the ideal king. A king like David was the desire and prayer of every Jews. In this day and age where democracy is the norm, it is hard to conceive a perfect monarchy in our imaginations since in our collective civilizational history, most monarchs have been despots. Not so with the biblical understanding of kingship.
The book of Deuteronomy is very clear that God alone is Israel’s king. The kings of Israel were mere agents reigning in the place of God. But then they were fallible and often strayed. So for the Jewish people, to have God come as king is to finally have perfect justice and peace. It is to have Shalom. This is clearly echoed in Isaiah 9, the famous Emanuel passage about the Prince of Peace carrying the government on his shoulder. The first section of that chapter concluded with the promise that the zeal of the Lord will accomplish this in time.
Also note how the verse in Isaiah 11:1
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse (David’s father) recounts and re affirms God’s promised to David in 2 Samuel 7:12-13.
12 When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.
Every true Israelite during the time of Jesus was therefore expecting God to fulfil his promise about a Messiah who is to come from the line of David. So when Matthew declared Jesus to be the son of David, he is announcing the radical good news (gospel) that indeed the Messiah has come to establish God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus as the jubilee in person and the end of exile
Sadly, most Christians today have a distorted understanding of the jubilee. Many communities often collectively fall into debt in vainglorious attempts to outdo each other in jubilee festivities. We have mostly forgotten that Jubilee in its biblical (Leviticus) essence means release or liberty.
There, the observance of jubilee resets socio-economic relations. In the 50th year, all the debts the people owe to each other are forgiven. Everyone gets a fresh start! Everyone gets his/her freedom; no one remains a slave. Notice now then when Matthew deliberately numbers the generation from Abraham to David as 14, David to the exile as 14, and the exile to Jesus as 14, he is pointing to the jubilee.
Three fourteens add up to six seven (6×7=14+14+14). In Jesus, we are entering the 7th seven viz. the time for jubilee has come or better still jubilee in person has come. Closely connected to the theme of jubilee is the idea of exile. In Deuteronomy, the Israelites were warned that the fitting punishment for not keeping their part of the covenant was exiled to a foreign land. And that was what we find had happened when we read the closing chapters of Chronicles or Jeremiah.
The book of Ezra and Nehemiah chronicles how some of them came back from Babylon under royal decree. Even then the general mood was that they were still in exile. Physical relocation back to Palestine or Jerusalem was not accompanied by the promise of glorious restoration as foretold in Ezekiel and Deutero-Isaiah (ie Isaiah 40-55). In fact Nehemiah cried out to God that they were still in exile in their own land because a foreign power lorded over them (Nehemiah 10:36-37). Moreover, the makeshift temple they constructed was bereft of the presence of the glory of God.
Be that as it may, Matthew quoted Isaiah 40:3 and applies it to John the Baptist (Matt 3:3), the one who acts as the royal herald announcing the coming of the king. The allusions are clear. A revolutionary act if you are aware that Isaiah 40 is about God comforting sinful Israel and proclaiming the end of her exile/punishment. Therein God forgives Israel the sins that took her to Babylon as punishment. This is actually the first and proximate meaning of the angelic herald to Joseph about Jesus saving his people from their sins.
Applying the lesson: Making Christmas come alive
The best way to undermine Christmas is to spiritualize it. Sermons abound about introspecting ourselves and this incidentally fits with our mood at the end of the year. This in itself is not bad because Christ definitely has to begin as Lord in our hearts first. Yet we cannot stop and say this is all there is to Christmas. Certainly if we now understand why Matthew felt it was his business to proclaim Jesus as Abraham’s son and David’s son, then there is definitely more to Jesus being the Lord of my life or the saviour of my soul.
If Jesus is indeed the Davidic Messiah, the Prince of Peace then it is not enough to say I have got peace in my heart. We must take, as Christians the first step to actualize this peace in the places that we inhabit. A place like Manipur in India is most apt a place to celebrate Christmas. We have here three major communities at each other’s throat. It is time the real Christians among the Nagas/Kukis/Meiteis, the true descendants of Abraham (Galatians 3:7-8) start thinking of how they can be a channel of blessing to the other. This is what it means for Christians to be called Abrahams’ children.
And if we indeed are, it is our vocation not so much to think about actualizing our community’s so called “God given rights” but rather explore how one can be a true blessing to people outside of our immediate family and tribe. Those who only know how to care for themselves and their own community are neither the children of Abraham nor the King’s people (Matt 5:43-47). At a more personal level, another way of celebrating Christmas, authentic style, would be to invite for Christmas dinner those who cannot invite us back?
The kind of turmoil that the Manipur state is in indicates the signs of exile are still with us. Rape cases, murder, torture, theft (including big governmental corruption), extortion, inequality abounds. Like Nehemiah, it will be a good exercise to make Christmas a time of prayer to God to end our exile and restore us. I guess this will inspire in us new directions as to how to go about being agents of transformation in our society, having ourselves being transformed.
The rest I will leave to the imagination of the readers.
Note: My gratitude to NT Wright, Simon Gathercole and Vinoth Ramachandra for the reflection.
The writer is a voluntary staff at the Delhi-based Union of Evangelical Students of India (UESI).