My grandfather is an impressive man.
When he married my grandmother in 1960, he purchased a small thatched-roof cottage in the countryside for all of $800. They raised my mom and her sister in that house, and only moved into town when it became too difficult to care for my grandmother. He was a mechanic, the eldest of four brothers, and the head of the family on that side. He prided himself in being the one who could provide for everyone else, who would be there at a moment’s notice to offer his expertise. Everyone knew Don Napier; if you needed anything, could get it for you, or he at least knew the guy who could.
It was hard watching him struggle to watch over my grandmother in the last few years of her life. Alzheimer’s disease has the awful disposition to affect the lives of those around the patient almost more than the patient herself. My grandfather, stubborn as he was, would not admit to needing help to care for her, even as she became less and less aware of her surroundings. He refused to hire a part-time hospice nurse so that he could get out of the house every once in a while with friends, so the two of them just sat there. The last time I visited Northern Ireland before my grandmother passed, I could see the depression weighing him down as he continued to try to hold all the burden of pain and responsibility to himself.
The revelation that our role models are human, fraught with the same struggles and weaknesses as we have, can come as a shock. Whether it’s the gradual revelation of their frailty as we grow into our own lives, or the sudden shattering of our idyllic hero-worship by some tragic event, there comes a point at which we must let our family members become human. The power in the disillusion of the “sacred ancestor” comes in realizing that perhaps they are just like us. This in turn gives us clear perspective to recognize what our earthly inheritances are. As I watched my grandfather bear the steady loss of his wife and what it meant for his own inability to control the world around him, I realized that this too was my own portion, should I allow it. I saw how my grandfather’s alpha male complex had borne itself through my mother, and the points in my life in which I had operated under those same pretenses, trying to find my worth in how I could direct others’ lives, providing for them so I could maintain the illusion that I myself am in control, and that I know best. In our family, the only “plan B” is how to get back to Plan A; there isn’t allowance for the unforeseen to put us off course.
Perhaps this is what Matthew is trying to communicate in his genealogy of Jesus. The Jews of the day were viciously proud of their heritage, of the heroes of old in a time when YHWH called Israel his Chosen. They found solace and identity in being of the right people group, as distinct from all the other tribes and empires surrounding Palestine who were, in their eyes, merely kidding themselves on being “in”. What we find time and again in Matthew’s gospel is a reorientation of who’s “in” and who’s “out”, and it begins right here. All the heroes are here: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Boaz, David, Solomon; Yet, as in a lot of Jewish prose, it’s the breaks in rhythm that give us indication of the author’s intent.
Jacob’s brothers sold him to slavery for jealousy. (Genesis 37:12-36)
Tamar tricked her father-in-law into sleeping with her because he thought she was a prostitute. (Genesis 38:1-30)
Rahab, the mother of Boaz, was a foreigner and prostitute who sold out her entire city to protect her immediate family. (Joshua 2)
Ruth was another foreigner, a Moabite and a widow who chose to follow her mother-in-law into potential shame over hope of a safe life among her own people.
Of all the stories about King David, a “man after God’s own heart” and the template for what messiah was supposed to look like, the writer points us to the story of his betrayal of Uriah the Hittite in order to conceal his affair with Bathsheba and the resulting bastard child Solomon. (2 Samuel 11)
Most of the kings after Solomon were awful, permitting Israel to worship other gods or flat-out partaking in the idolatry with their people.
The exile to Babylon was YHWH’s response to a people that had gone almost completely off the rails in regards to their faithfulness to his law. And when they finally came back to Palestine, something was missing: the presence (shekinah) of God himself.
“You think you’re a pure people? You think you have it all together?” Matthew seems to be saying. “Look at this family. Look at where your heroes came from and where they went. Remember all those stories you’ve grown up memorizing about our ancestors.”
But the genealogy doesn’t stop there. It’s actually this final arrhythmic insertion that seems the most befuddling of all:
“…and Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” (16)
Wait a minute. All these names and stories, women and foreigners and betrayals and disappointments, and when we arrive at the climax of our main character, it isn’t technically his bloodline we’ve been talking about this whole time? This genealogy, after all, is Joseph’s family, not Mary’s. To try to attach it to Jesus in a merely genetic way would be to deny the virgin birth. What on earth could Matthew be getting at?
He sums up the family tree in verse 17 by stating that there were three sets of fourteen names in total. Numbers like this are significant, and a good Jew would have recognized that three fourteens is also six sets of seven. Which means that Jesus is the last name before the seventh set; seven is a divine number of perfection and completion. Whatever it is that God is planning to do to rescue the world, it is through this climax of the story of a royal bloodline embedded right in the center of Israel’s history that Matthew establishes right from the get-go.
Matthew’s account of Jesus links to the historical bloodline of the messiah while simultaneously having him sidestep it. In a dizzying declaration of seeming paradox, Matthew affirms that Jesus is fully Man and fully Other. And the moment that fragile baby, that God-with-flesh-on, enters the world, every story from the Old Testament is instantly redeemed. The story of Israel is justified in Jesus as God patiently endured the ups and downs of his own people in order to bring salvation to all. Everything pointed to this moment, the fulcrum of history.
My grandfather is a good man, but he’s just a man. It is unfair of me to rob him of his own humanity, to idolize him in a way that prevents me from seeing how similar we are. He is the way he is because of a series of decisions in the midst of trials and victories that stretch back to his father and his father’s father and even farther. If I played along, those predilections would become my own, but this new awareness encourages me to step out of line in regards to my earthly inheritance and chose in to what God says about me, about who he is shaping me to become. All my little quirks and idiosyncrasies, personality types and even my addictions are redeemed. They play a part in my story, but my true core is found in Jesus.