While just about every part of the Christmas story in scripture is beloved and craved in its reading and hearing, there is one chunk that is usually left out in the cold (where there is gnashing of teeth, partly due to the difficulty in getting the thing pronounced-through).
I’m talking about Matthew 1:1-17. The extensive list of Jesus’ ancestors. More to the point, it’s the laborious list of the descendants of Joseph, Jesus’ adopted dad, and it’s filled with lots and lots of names that are both foreign to English-speaking sensibilities as well as to the rest of the scripture story. At first and second glances, Matthew 1:1-17 is just a bunch of boring gobbledygook. It’s oh so easy just to skip to v. 18, which gets the action of Jesus’ birth story going. And with precious few, fully significant, and short-named characters around the nativity.
I’m guessing NO ONE thinks of including vs. 1-17 as part of the script for the Children’s Christmas Pageant (unless it’s being done at Speech Pathology Camp), or putting it to music to include in the collection of carols shared at the local nursing home (although, if sung loudly enough, I’m sure it would be very appreciated by many).
In any case, not surprisingly, leaving this part of the text out of the Christmas story reduces its impact and Good News quotient significantly. As well as, The Comic Lens emphasizes, it's ability to engender great laughter and joy.
The problem, then, is how to make the saying - and hearing - of all those "Bible names" not only palatable but pleasing? Party-prompting even?
You could go the “Name Game” route, giving every Jesus descendant the “Tony, Tony Bo-Bony Bonana Fanna Fo-Fony, Fee-Fi-Mo Mony, Tony!” treatment. That would be a blast, don’t you think?
“Aminadab, Aminadab, Bo-Baminadab, Bonana Fanna Fo-Faminadab, Fee-Fi-Mo Mominadab, Aminadab!”
Everyone is bound to not only break out into song, but also dance! Just like the fine folks on American Horror Story!
But, chances are, no one has the time to bring this kind of extended jocularity to these several verses (after all, the holidays are interminably busy).
A more manageable approach is offered by the late great Dr. Doug Adams of the Pacific School of Religion.
He’s created a wonderful performance piece for Matthew 1:1-17 piece that’s interactive and playful and educational and oh-so joyful and inspiring, utilizing audience “response cards” which allow the community to bring the proper acknowledgment of the people and behaviors which for one reason or another bring Jesus into being. God’s next big wonderful project.
As you will note from reading the script below, the responses are quite varied! (You will also note Dr. Adams has expanded the text in places, so folks can know more about who some of these descendants were - those who can be described because they’re mentioned elsewhere anyway!)
An Account of the Genealogy of the Messiah
by Dr. Doug Adams
"An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah [CHEERS, APPLAUSE], the son of David [CHEER], the son of Abraham [APPLAUSE], the son of David [CHEERS], the son of Abraham [APPLAUSE], who pretended Sarah was his sister, let Pharaoh have her, and received many cattle [BOOS].
"Abraham was the father of Isaac, whose name means laughter [CHEERS]; and Isaac was the father of Jacob, who stole his brother’s birthright [HISSES]; and Jacob the father of Joseph and his brothers, who sold Joseph into slavery [BOOS]; and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah [HUH?] by Tamar, who played the prostitute [BOOS] for the sake of justice [CHEERS]. Perez was the father of Hezron [HUH?]; and Hezron the father of Aram [HUH?]; and Aram the father of Aminadab [HUH?], and Aminadab the father of Nahashon, a fine captain of Israel [CHEERS]. Nahshon was the father of Salmon [HUH?], and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, the prostitute [BOOS] who saved God’s people [CHEERS]. Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth [CHEERS], the faithful foreigner. Bed was the father of Jesse, the father of King David [CHEERS].
"And David was the father of Solomon [APPLAUSE] by the wife of Uriah, whom David had set up to be killed [BOOS]. Solomon was the father of Rehoboam, who was faithful to God through much of his reign [CHEERS] but abandoned God for five years [BOOS]; and Rehoboam was the father of Abijah, who had fourteen wives [CHEERS, BOOS]. Abidjan was the father of Asaph, who abandoned God at the end of his life and died of gangrene of the feet [HISSES]; and Asaph was the father of Jehoshaphat, the Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, whose pride brought his fall [BOOS]. Huzzah was the father of Jotham, a very good king in every way [CHEERS]; and Jotham the father of Ahaz, a very bad king in every way [BOOS]; and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, who restored the kingdom to piety and justice [CHEERS, APPLAUSE]. Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh, who ruled as king for fifty-five years [CHEERS] but was evil for all fifty-five years [HISSES]. And Manasseh was father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, who were all faithful to God throughout their lives [CHEERS] and were all deported to Babylon [HUH?].
"And after the deportation to Babylon, Jechoniah was father of Salathial [HUH?]; and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, a wise governor chosen by God [CHEERS]; and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud [HUH?], and Abiud the father Eliakum [HUH?], and Eliakim the father of Azor [HUH?], and Azor the father of Zadok [HUH?], and Eliud the father of Eleazar [HUH?], and Eleazar the father of Mattan [HUH?], and Mattan the father of Jacob [HUH?], and Jacob was the father of Joseph [CHEERS], the husband of Mary [APPLAUSE], of whom Jesus was born who is called the Messiah [CHEERS, APPLAUSE].
This fun “Name Game” opens up lots of great discussion and devotional possibilities. For one thing, it invites folks to do more research into these characters - learn, for example, more about when Abraham passes Sarah off as his sister - actually a wonderful trickster tale (even if Dr. Adams warrants it a “BOO”!) Also, it gives the reader/hearer the chance to appreciate just how checkered and seemingly ambiguous is Jesus’ heritage. Neither he (nor his father) come from a purely heroic, wholly remarkable background. Rather, it’s filled with lots and lots of unknowns, some rogues, some heroes. Very mixed. Which can be mildly interesting….
….or extraordinarily helpful. Take any of these ancient characters whose deeds warrant a “BOO” and instead put someone you today deeply resent (our President-elect and his cabinet, perhaps? politicians from the past who you lump in the same category? the current President? some other iyho great villain or useless-yet-celebrated bump on a log?). The possibilities are invariably endless....
And this text becomes pretty powerful when you do that. When you realize the Messiah made his way to earth and birth through some very questionable characters who it’s hard to believe are part of God’s “plan.” Who you might otherwise assume are nothing but detrimental to God’s purposes and capable only of destroying them.
Maybe what this text is saying, as we play along and laugh, is that God is much bigger than the present circumstances, and the Divine uses everyone and everything to move things forward. God don’t make no junk. Not even the people and behavior we vehemently reject.
I don’t know about you, but that gives me an enormous amount of hope. And a pretty big smile, too.
Truly a text for today!!