Much as we may be tempted to gloss over the dense lists of names we find in genealogies, there is a surprising number of characteristics to Luke's genealogy of Jesus that set it apart from the more familiar version we find in Matthew.
1. Reverse chronological order. Luke's genealogy begins with Jesus and proceeds backwards in time, using the phrase "son of" to link the generations, whereas Matthew proceeds chronologically using "begat" or "became the father of."
2. Scope. While Matthew begins with Abraham, Luke includes the "prehistoric" (if you will), antediluvian patriarchs, from Abraham's father Terah back to "Adam, son of God."
3. No mention of women. Whereas Matthew is scrupulous to mention certain women whose role in the generations broadens and even challenges the purely Jewish credentials of the line (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Uriah, and, of course, Mary), Luke mentions no women, such questions of familial purity evidently falling outside his concern as he writes for a Gentile reader.
4. Literary location. While Matthew's gospel begins with the genealogy, Luke places his "son of" genealogy immediately after the baptism of the adult Jesus, the final word of that account being the voice from heaven that declares, "You are my Son the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." (3:22) Further, as mentioned above, the line goes back to "Adam, son of God," which is not a common or normative means of referring to the first human "creature." One suspects Paul's influence may be discernible here, who in his Corinthian correspondence labors to contrast the first Adam with Jesus Christ, the second or last Adam (1Corinthians 15:45). Meanwhile, at the other end of Luke's genealogy, the story of Jesus the Son of God resumes directly after this reference to Adam, by which it seems Luke intends precisely this Pauline contrast when he turns his to focus again to Jesus, and explicitly states that he was "full of the Holy Spirit" (4:1).
5. Jesus' age. Since Luke inserts the genealogy at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry (after his baptism), thus rendering the family tree a flashback of sorts, he adds the detail that "Jesus was about thirty years old when he began his work" (v. 23). Matthew includes no parallel comment.
6. Acknowledgment of divine conception. Whereas Matthew suspends the phrase "the father of" when he arrives at Jesus, describing Joseph as "the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born" (1:16), Luke simply attaches the phrase "as was thought" to the statement that Jesus "was the son ... of Joseph" (3:23), thus acknowledging the role of adoptive or surrogate father that Joseph was to play.
7. Number of generations. Luke mentions seventy-seven generations (i.e., occurrences of "son of"), which can be a somewhat fluid designation. That Jesus himself is elsewhere called "Son of David" and "seed of Abraham," is a sufficiently clear example of the fact that "son" can simply mean "descendant" or "heir," and can thus be applied to grandchildren and great-grandchildren, etc., who are separated from the ancestor by several generations. The same sense of historical slippage can be applied to Matthew, who, by contrast, takes pains to mention fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile, and fourteen from the exile to Jesus (Matt 1:17), for a total of forty-two generations. Again, this excludes the pre-Abrahamic patriarchs, but in doing so highlights the Abrahamic covenant itself.
8. Variations among the ancestors named. There are those who account for the differences between the Matthean and Lukan genealogies, specifically, in the generations between Christ's birth and the exile, by asserting that Luke's account pertains to Mary's line, Matthew's to Joseph. Since neither indicates the parentage of Mary herself, I find that difficult to sustain on the immediate evidence of the genealogies themselves. Paul, too, apparently reached a point at which he found the matter receding in importance (1Tim 1:4; Titus 3:9). One possibility that should not be overlooked is the frequency with which we encounter biblical characters who are known by more than one name. Indeed, this is so common it is arguably more the rule than the exception.
It is unlikely that the number of the generations or the list of names will yield up any obvious sermonic ideas that demand to be preached, though I have worked one such figure, Cosam son of Elmadam, into an imaginative story set in the Babylonian exile, a story (better suited to Lenten themes) that probably ventures beyond what may be properly called a sermon. The purpose for including Luke's genealogy in Year D is not that it is necessarily superior to, or more revelatory than Matthew's, but from what we have seen it is certainly different, and thus offers a perspective that may indeed suggest other fresh insights.As some readers of Year D have suggested, this text might be more appropriate for reading on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, closer to Christmas Eve, with John 3:22-36 read on the Third Sunday. There is certainly a case to be made for that, and though I have endeavored to resort to canonical order wherever possible in the design of Year D, I am by no means inclined to discourage such a modification.