When I ask people what their favourite part of the Christmas story is, I get a variety of answers. Kids like the angels and the animals. Others mention the incarnation, the courage of Mary, the kindness of Joseph to a son who was not his own, the remarkable dreams which led the young family away from danger, or the excitement of the shepherds. Very seldom does anyone mention the genealogies. I am not quite sure why, but rattling off a list of people's names (most of them long dead) is usually left out of nativity pageants. Perhaps we should change that.
The genealogies of Jesus are found in two places: Matthew 1 and Luke 3. Go ahead and read them now if you like. The family tree in Matthew is the shorter one, with only 42 names listed, while in Luke we find 77 names. Matthew, meant for a Jewish audience, focuses on the nation of Israel's highlights. Luke, written primarily for non-Jewish ears, is much more inclusive. There are some other differences between the two genealogies. Since Matthew was written for Jewish Christians, the ancestry begins with Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. It makes a big deal out of Jesus's direct descent from King David, alluding to a royal lineage and a kingly destiny. The Babylonian exile also figures prominently in Matthew's list; the generations are split into the following sections: Abraham to David, David to exile, exile to Messiah.
What does this mean? Abraham marks the beginning of the covenant between God and his chosen people, echoed throughout the history of Israel by the words, "You will be my people and I will be your God." Though the covenant was exclusive in its inception, its intention was always to bless all the nations of the earth, to be inclusive. In Jesus, this covenant is both reiterated and fulfilled. Through a Jewish Messiah, a descendant of Abraham, the world will be saved.
The references to David and the exile in Babylon show the two extremes of Israel's history. With David, the nation was united under a righteous king. In exile, the people were dispossessed, dispersed, and discouraged. Later, when Jesus declares that the kingdom of heaven is near/at hand, he is weaving all these threads together: the fulfillment of the covenant with Abraham, the culmination of the royal line of David, and the end of oppressing exile (living under Roman rule was seen as a form of exile).
Of special note are the four women who appear in Jesus's family history in Matthew 1. These women were not squeaky-clean citizens (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba); all had questionable reputations and some were foreigners. It is thought that the writer of Matthew might have been preparing the Jewish reader for the inclusivity of Christ's mission by highlighting the presence of outsiders in the Anointed One's ancestry.
Scholars have suggested that one genealogy traces Mary's lineage (biological) and the other follows Joseph's ancestors (inheritance), but no conclusive case can be made for which one does which. The 77 generations listed in Luke have caused some to link it with the theme of forgiveness and reconciliation (see Luke 17:4). This would be a confirmation of the writer's emphasis on embracing the outsider.
One of the most interesting differences between these two genealogies is that one looks forward and the other looks backwards. The genealogy in Matthew moves from parent to child, invoking the hope found in each new generation. However, in Luke, we have a genealogy which looks backward (from child to parent). It begins with Jesus and goes all the way back to God, affirming Jesus's connection not just with the nation of Israel, but with the Creator of the world. If we think in terms of a family tree, we could say that Matthew starts at the seed and Luke begins at the leaf.
The seed cannot see the future. It does not know how things will turn out. It exists in the realm of hope. The leaf cannot see the past. It has no idea what transpired before it came into existence. It lives in the realm of fruitfulness. The seed is grounded, close to the roots, but can see little progress from its vantage point. The leaf floats high above the earth, somewhat disconnected from the slow, hard labour of the trunk.
In Jesus, the seed and the leaf come together. Alpha meets Omega. Hope meets faithfulness. Root meets fruit. Promise meets fulfilment. History meets eternity. Old covenant meets new covenant. Stability meets flexibility. Mourning meets dancing. Tradition meets freedom. Law meets love. Exclusivity meets inclusivity. Death meets life. Creation meets new creation. Divine meets human. And that's my favourite part of the Christmas story.