The Lord is near to the broken-hearted, and saves the crushed in spirit.
And Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob . . . To modern readers, the ancestor lists that are so common in the Bible seem pretty tedious and pointless. But to ancient people, they were full of meaning. They were shorthand ways of showing connections, helping people remember how they were related, and reminding them of the story that they found themselves in.
Both Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels give us ancestor lists for Jesus. Although they are very different lists, both agree on two essential points. First, Jesus was a descendant of Sarah and Abraham. That reminded people of God’s original promise to Abraham and Sarah – that through their lineage, all nations of the world would be blessed. Second, Jesus was a descendant of King David. That brought to mind all the nostalgia for the golden age of David’s reign, together with all the hope from the prophets about a promised time under the benevolent reign of a descendant of David.
Apart from these similarities, the two lists offer distinct treasures. Luke’s Gospel starts with the present and goes back, all the way to Abraham, and then all the way to Adam, the original human in the Genesis story: ‘son of Enoch, son of Jared, son of Mahalaleel, son of Cainan, son of Enos, son of Seth, son of Adam, son of God.’ The use of that phrase ‘son of God’ is fascinating. It suggests a primary meaning of the term: to be the son of is to ‘find your origin in’. It also suggests that Jesus, as the son of Adam, is in some way a new beginning for the human race – a new genesis, we might say. Just as Adam bore the image of God as the original human, Jesus will now reflect the image of God. We might say he is Adam 2.0.
That understanding is reinforced by what comes immediately before Luke’s ancestor list. A voice comes from heaven and says, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ Just as Son of David prepares us to expect Jesus to model leadership, and just as Son of Abraham prepares us to expect Jesus to model blessing and promise for all, Son of God sets us up to expect Jesus to model true humanity as Adam did.
Matthew’s version, which starts in the distant past and moves to the present, holds lots of treasures, too. Most surprising is his inclusion of five women. In the ancient world, people were unaware of the existence of the human egg and assumed that a man provided the only seed of a new life. So ancestor lists naturally focused on men. It’s surprising enough for Matthew to include women at all, but the women he selects are quite astonishing.
First, there is Tamar. She had once posed as a prostitute in a web of sexual and family intrigue. Then there is Rahab – a Gentile of Jericho who was actually a prostitute. Then there is Ruth, another Gentile who entered into a sexual liaison with a wealthy Jew named Boaz. Then there is Bathsheba who was married to a foreigner – Uriah the Hittite – and with whom King David committed adultery. Finally there is Mary, who claims to be pregnant without the help of Joseph. These are not the kind of women whose names were typically included in ancestor lists of the past!
But that, of course, must be Matthew’s point. Jesus isn’t entering into a pristine story of ideal people. He is part of the story of Gentiles as well as Jews, broken and messy families as well as noble ones, normal people as well as kings and priests and heroes. We might say that Jesus isn’t entering humanity from the top with a kind of trickledown grace, but rather from the bottom, with grace that rises from the grass roots up.
That theme is beautifully embodied in the unsung heroes of Luke’s Christmas story: shepherds. They’re the ones who, along with Joseph and Mary, have a front-row seat to welcome the ‘good news of great joy for all the people’. They’re the down-to-Earth people who hear the celestial announcement from angelic messengers.
Shepherds were marginal people in society – a lot like Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba and Mary.
They weren’t normal ‘family men’ because they lived outdoors most of the time, guarding sheep from wolves and thieves, and guiding sheep to suitable pasture. A younger son, for whom there was no hope of inheriting the family farm, might become a shepherd, as would a man who for some reason was not suitable for marriage. It was among poor men like these that Jesus’ birth was first celebrated.
The poor, of course, have a special place in the Bible. The priests and prophets of Israel agreed that God had a special concern for the poor. God commanded all rightliving people to be generous to them. Provision was made for the landless to be able to glean from the fields of the prosperous. According to Proverbs, those who exploited the poor – or simply didn’t care about them – would not prosper, and those who were good to the poor would be blessed.
The poor were especially central to the life and ministry of Jesus. Jesus understood himself to be empowered by the Spirit to bring good news to the poor. In Jesus’ parables, God cared for the poor and confronted the rich who showed the poor no compassion. Jesus taught rich people to give generously to the poor, and even though others considered the poor to be cursed, Jesus pronounced the poor and those who are in solidarity with them to be blessed. When Jesus said, ‘The poor you will always have with you,’ he was echoing Deuteronomy 15:4 (NLT), which says, ‘There should be no poor among you,’ for there is actually enough in God’s world for everyone.
Although much has changed from Jesus’ day to ours, this has not: a small percentage of the world’s population lives in luxury, and the majority live in poverty. For example, about half the people in today’s world struggle to survive on less than £1.50 per day. Those who subsist 75p per day make up over a billion of the world’s 7 billion people. About half of the people in sub-Saharan Africa and over 35 per cent of people in South-east Asia fit in this category. They are today’s shepherds, working the rice fields, streaming into slums, sleeping on pavements, struggling to survive.
So let us light a candle for surprising people like the women of the ancestor lists and the shepherds of the ancient world, and for their counterparts today – all who are marginalised, dispossessed, vulnerable, hungry for good nutrition, thirsty for drinkable water, desperate to know they are not forgotten.
Let us join them in their vigil of hope – waiting for good news of great joy for all people, all people, all people. Amen.
Meditate & Contemplate
1. What one thought or idea from today’s lesson especially intrigued, provoked, disturbed, challenged, encouraged, warmed, warned, helped or surprised you?
2. Share a story about a shady or colourful character from your family history.
3. How do you respond to this approach to the meaning of ‘son of God’?
4. For children: Imagine you are a shepherd in the time of Jesus. What do you think your life would be like?
5. Activate: This week, look for surprising people to whom you can show uncommon respect and unexpected kindness.
6. Meditate: After lighting a candle, hold the words ‘good news of great joy for all people’ in your heart in God’s presence for a few moments of silence. Break the silence with a short prayer.