The other day, as I was on my way to work, I was listening to the WOAI morning show where the question of the day was, "At your child's college graduation, do you stay for the complete ceremony, or do you quietly leave after their name is read?" Caller after caller voiced their opinions on both sides of the issue. Some insisted that you should stay for the whole ceremony out of deference to your child's classmates while others admitted that they intentionally find excuses to excuse themselves from such a long-winded ceremony. Whatever the opinion expressed, however, one thing was for certain: None of the callers really enjoyed sitting through long litanies of names rattled off at most college graduations. Sure, some insisted that a person should stay through the entire ceremony for the sake of politeness, but no one stood elated at the prospect listening to unfamiliar name after unfamiliar name just so they could hear the one name of the person whom they loved.
Oftentimes, whenever we encounter a biblical genealogy, the lengthy list of names contained therein strikes us to be a bit like the innumerable inventories of names announced at college graduations To use the old King James language: "And Zabad begat Ephlal, and Ephlal begat Obed, and Obed begat Jehu, and Jehu begat Azariah, and Azariah begat Helez, and Helez begat Eleasah, and Eleasah begat Sisamai, and Sisamai begat Shallum, and Shallum begat Jekamiah, and Jekamiah begat Elishama" (1 Chronicles 2:37-41).
Now for a brief time of personal confession. Did you read the above genealogy carefully and studiously? Did you ponder over each name, perhaps even looking up a few of the names in a Bible dictionary to learn more about them? Or, did you just skim over the names in bored indifference? How about in our reading for today from Matthew 1? Did you read each name carefully or did you just skip Matthew's opening verses to get to the interesting part where Jesus is born?
I know it can be tempting to breeze through biblical genealogies. Admittedly, I myself have far too often paid little attention to these lengthy lists of names. And yet, these genealogies are much more intriguing, interesting, and invaluable than they might first appear. For behind each name lies a life who is part of God's unfolding story of salvation. Take, for instance, a sampling of the names which appear in Matthew's genealogy. Tamar (verse 3), a woman who pretended to be a prostitute so that she could coax her father-in-law into sleeping with her. King David (verse 6), a murderer as well as an adulterer. Solomon (verse 6), a son of David, who worshipped false and abhorrent gods. Or how about Jeconiah (verse 12), a king who did such terrible evil in the eyes of the Lord that God cursed his family line. These are the names that Matthew marshals to record the family history of none other than "Jesus, who is called Christ" (verse 16).
Hmmm. Perhaps Matthew should have done some selective editing and left a few of these less savory characters out of the family tree of the Savior of the world. After all, this kind of a sordid genealogical reckoning doesn't exactly speak well of Jesus' pedigree. But this is exactly Matthew's point. For Matthew is seeking to remind his reader exactly why we need a Savior. We need a Savior because of Tamar and because of David and because of Solomon and because of Jeconiah... and because of you and me.
The Greek word for "genealogy" is genesis, meaning "origin" or "beginning." Perhaps you are better familiar with this word as the namesake for the first book of the Bible: Genesis. This book's name actually describes its contents. It is a history of the origin of humanity and of Israel. But now in Matthew's gospel, this word has returned, not to describe a garden named Eden, but a person named Jesus. For Jesus is bringing about a new Genesis - a new beginning. A new beginning that is marked not by transgression and folly, but one that is marked by righteousness and compassion. In a very real sense, Jesus is redoing Genesis. Except that Jesus, unlike us, actually gets Genesis right. He does not sin as do Adam and Eve.
This, then, is sequence of Matthew's genealogy: He begins with the old Genesis and with all of the sinfulness and brokenness that marks its people. But he ends with the new Genesis - "Jesus, who is called the Christ." And the new Genesis does everything well. That's the point of all those boring names. For all those boring names point us to Jesus. Then again, now that you know some of the raucous stories behind those names, perhaps they aren't so boring after all.