He was the “Son of God”, the “bringer of Good News”, the Lord, the Savior, the one who would restore order and justice to the earth—at least that was Rome’s official story about Caesar. History also seems to look favorably on the Pax Romana, and in many ways, that version of reality isn’t that far off. The Roman Empire brought relative peace, wealth, and stability to many in the mediterranean world.
However, there was another side to life in Caesar’s world. Beneath the heel of the empire were whole peoples, exploited for the empire’s sake, hopeless to fight back against the efficient military machine of Rome’s storied army. In Palestine, a particularly dark cloud hung over the recipients of Caesar’s “good news”. The Jewish people living in Judea and Galilee lived in a world in which power was king—and they had none of it. They had always been a proud people, and once a powerful nation, but now lived under another flag. Over and over again they rose up to resist the Empire, trying to beat the empire at its own game by asserting their own power—and they failed miserably. Rome brutally asserted its power over what was, to them, a strategic territory filled with a stubborn, irritating, and irrational people. Religious leaders based in the temple used divine distinction to stoke the fires of resentment that justified bouts of armed revolution. Many a would-be leader rose to fame by resisting the Romans, claiming divine consent for their revolutionary attempts to throw the pagans out. Certainly not everyone joined in the violence, but everyone felt the force of Rome’s response to it. To some it was an empire of peace, but to others, it was an empire of violence.
Also, while it was an empire of wealth, it was also an empire of poverty, built on the backs of slaves and enslaved nations. Wealth drifted upward, and the few who controlled land or other means increased their assets while the poor became poorer with each generation. Some of the most recent historical work is trying to move beyond simple binary descriptions as elite/nonelite or haves/have-nots, but even still, the best estimate show that between 75-97 percent of the population in the roman world lived in poverty, if that is defined by living at or near subsistence level.
Beyond that violence and turbulence, the economic conditions were tough as well. Under the empire and its elite accomplices, a small minority controlled land, food, and wealth. Although historians are working to get beyond simple distinctions like elite/poor, the best estimates now are that somewhere between 75% to 97% of the population across the empire lived in poverty—meaning at or below subsistence levels, with very few resources. Palestine, having been rocked by violence and dependent on agriculture, was worse off than most areas. For many of the Jews of Palestine, life under the Roman empire was anything but a life of wealth—it was a life of poverty.
As far as stability goes, Rome knew that it needed local leaders who sought to keep the people in check, and found more than enough who were willing to become accomplices to the empire’s power in exchange for a few of the empire’s coins. These imperial elite played a dangerous game, negotiating the terms of the relationship between the people and the empire. When the people were pushed too far, revolution erupted. When the empire’s power was too openly challenged, the military convincingly crushed the opposition. The imperial elites danced between these two, trying to keep both parties reasonably content in the effort to maintain their own power, and often failing. Thus the people of Judea and Galilee faced a cycle of would-be revolution, followed by crackdowns, growing dissatisfaction, and new uprisings.
Caesar promised a world of peace, wealth, and stability. For many of the people living in Jerusalem, Judea, and Galilee in the first century, the reality was a life of violence, poverty, and turbulence. Is it any wonder that many of the people were anxious for a change? Caesar’s world was a world where power stood in the place of justice, where influence held more sway than righteousness, and where rich and the poor were nearly destined to become richer and poorer. Depending on who you were, you either hoped it would go on forever, or hoped and prayed that God would intervene, and remake the world into something else.
The book of Matthew grows out of the latter perspective, and is thoroughly subversive to the empire. It begins with the assumption that this is not Caesar’s world. It is God’s world, and God has been active in it a lot longer than Caesar could imagine. The book’s opening line, “The book of the generations of Jesus Christ” calls us back to Genesis, to the story of God creating the world and of God’s relationships and promises to the patriarchs. It points toward the language Genesis uses to introduce its own narrative (“The book of the generations of the heavens and the earth” Gen 2:4), and to move to new phases of the story. (5:1, 10:1, etc.). Matthew uses it here to let the reader know that he is about to tell about a new phase in that same story. He does all this because he wants us to know, from the very beginning, that this is not a narrative set in Caesar’s world—it is God’s world, and Caesar is just living in it. Beyond that, the genealogy is a substitute for a formula such as “in the days of Caesar Augustus…”, and gives the story of Jesus it’s primary context, which is not in the history of the Roman empire, but in the narrative of God’s covenant people. He is the son of Abraham and the son of David, being born in this moment of the story of God’s people.
Matthew marks the significance of the moment by structuring his genealogical list into three periods. There is the period from Abraham to David, one from David to the Exile, and from the exile to the moment of Jesus. Abraham, David, the Exile, represent critical moments in the story, and by noting the time, Matthew is underlining the importance of Jesus. Matthew 1:17 points out the symmetry of this for the reader, “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ.” The only problem is, Matthew’s math is wrong.
Most of the time, we don’t notice stuff like this because we read the Bible too quickly, but if you count up the named generations Matthew lists, the numbers should be fourteen, fourteen, and thirteen. Now, to be clear, I don’t think that’s a mistake—ancient authors loved to play with numbers in settings like this, and I feel certain that Matthew is doing this on purpose, somewhat playfully. I think he is setting us up to look at the story and ask, “Who comes after Jesus?” It’s a great way to open his book, because the rest of the gospel really teases out this question, as Jesus recruits disciples, teaches them about a new way of life, and then eventually charges them to do the exact same thing, replicating their experience of discipleship throughout the world. The genealogy is therefore connected with the rest of Matthew’s story, right up to the end, where Jesus gives the great commission, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Matthew’s gospel, from the genealogy to the commission, points to the question, “Who comes after Jesus?” and, I think, to an answer.
The answer is “us.” We are the descendants of Jesus. Ultimately, Jesus’s work is producing a sustained community that lives consciously under the reign of God—a community of which we are now a part. In our living as disciples of Jesus we find ourselves in Jesus’s story, and the mission of his life become our mission. We continue his story. We are the fourteenth generation.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “Some folks worry about who their ancestors were. I am more concerned with who my descendants will be.” Matthew’s story shares that concern, and even the genealogy, which seems to look back, looks forward to the fulfillment of Jesus’s mission. As we take our part in that mission, may we look forward to its fulfillment as well, and trust that to that end we will be used by God, for God’s own glory. Amen.