Posted by: Fr Chris | December 20, 2022

What’s with the genealogy in Matthew?

Why does the first page of the first gospel of the New Testament start with a bunch of names and generations? Who cares?

Seminary joke: if you want to read about sex and violence, go to the Old Testament. On the Sunday before Christmas, the Byzantine Rite presents the witness of the faithfulness of the Jews from chapter 11 of the letter to the Hebrews while waiting for the promised Messiah, and then this genealogy from Saint Matthew. In the genealogies of the Old Testament, no woman is recorded, but in this genealogy of Christ five women are mentioned. Only one of these five was a chaste virgin—Mary. The genealogy makes a point of saying that of her, Christ was born (v. 16), not Joseph.

This is the first page of the first gospel of the first book of the New Testament – and what a way to start the life of the Son of God on earth! Among the rest—Tamar – conceives sons through her father-in-law; but does so to fulfill the Jewish law that a man must be survived by children to pray for his soul;

Rahab was a prostitute from Jericho, who hid the Israelite spies and so saved her entire family and household when the city fell to the invaders; because she believes in God;

Ruth came from Moab, a country cursed by Jewish law because it was founded in incest, but she converted to Judaism to worship the true God;

Bathsheba committed adultery with King David, (and her crime was such that her name isn’t even given in the list!) and her husband Uriah the Hittite was killed by David as a result; but her son will be Solomon, the wisest king of Israel. It all tells us that Christ is related not only to the Jews but also to the Gentiles, even to the sinful people, and is the kingly Savior of typical sinners, who end up fulfilling God’s law and His will in odd ways.

David repented of his sin with Bathsheba, and founded his dynasty on their son. But it’s not a perfect family – though God gave him great wisdom, Solomon made serious errors, and a number of the kings ended up as moral and spiritual wrecks, so much so that God allows the destruction of the kingdom and the Babylonian exile. So the family tree of Saint Joseph, as a descendant of David, and of Jesus, who is Joseph’s legal son, is filled with adultery, Gentile outsiders, prostitution, murder, worship of pagan gods, abandoning the covenant – along with holy people who sought to lead good lives, ordinary farmers and shepherds, younger sons being chosen by God over the traditional older sons, and stalwart women who took initiatives that resulted in the line continuing and fulfilling God’s rules. Good things came out of tough or even bad situations, just like in any human family.

Isaiah 11:1 prophesied that Christ would be “a little stem out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch…out of his roots.” Jesse’s family was one which brought forth Christ, one who branched out Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, the Eternal Word of God who looks down on us from the ceiling of this church, by being rooted in Christ. God uses the messy family tree, and Matthew does not hide it by claiming mythical heroes or supermen. The whole thing is balanced out into three sets of seven generations each, like the good accountant and bookkeeper that Matthew was.

The heart of it all is Saint Joseph. Like Joseph who ruled in Egypt, this Joseph is good, loving, compassionate. He’s ready to put the blame for the surprise pregnancy on himself, and so divorce Our Lady quietly, because he loves her so much and doesn’t want to see her punished. He listens when God speaks to him in dreams, like Joseph the patriarch. Each time Joseph has a dream, he gets up immediately and does what God asks of him. He follows through with his marriage to Mary – immediately. On the eighth day after Jesus’ birth, he gives to the baby the name Yeshua, Jesus, He who takes away sins, fulfilling what the angel told him to do, even though nobody in the previous 21 generations had that name. He gets up and takes Mary and the baby Jesus off to Egypt, immediately, and stays there. Even though they make a life for themselves there, probably a good life since he is described as a tekton, a real craftsman, when he has a dream that Herod is dead, he gets up and brings the Holy Family back to Palestine. He does everything God asks of him, in complete trust, complete obedience, as a truly faithful servant of the Lord. 

Everybody comes from other people. All of us have ancestors. We may know a lot of them, we may know a few, we may be adopted and so not know our genetic ancestors but know our adopted family’s line. Americans love to do genealogy, digging up interesting facts and tidbits, some good, some embarrassing. We have people who struggled, people who prospered, people who were led by their faith, people who might have coasted spiritually. But the actions of all of those people, how they responded to God, to love, to challenges, combined to create a family that is still going on.

We are all part of one large family, within the embrace of the Catholic faith. We are all part of one family that has its faults and errors, loves and joys. We are all part of the human family redeemed by the precious blood of Jesus Christ on the cross. We are each offered the opportunity to know Jesus well, intimately, through the privilege of being Catholic, through the mercy of the sacrament of Confession, through the gift of Holy Communion, through the power of our individual prayers. Like Saint Joseph, we are each invited to listen to the Holy Spirit and to respond. Remember that the preparation for Christmas does not end on December 25. It leads us not just to the birth in Bethlehem, but to the visit of the Magi, which heralds the mission to the Gentiles, and to the baptism of the Lord on January  6, which opens Jesus’ public ministry of preaching. With the baptism, and the beginning of house blessings, we are supposed to carry the good news of Christ to the world around us.

There is always fear, or anxiety, or discomfort about being a witness of Christ in a world that has unfortunately gotten more hostile to him, a world plagued with both violence and self-righteousness. But this is the time to turn to Our Lady, who confidently answered Gabriel with “Let it be done unto me according to thy word”, this is the time to invoke the help of Saint Joseph who got up and did what God asked of him, and to remember that in this genealogy today, God worked with saints, sinners, Jews, and Gentiles so as to bring about the salvation of the world. May we turn to him with confidence, with trust, with hope, and ask the Holy Spirit to empower us as he did Saint Joseph with obedience and faith, to get up and do what we know God asks of us, through the revelation in the Catholic faith, to go forward, and to follow through with confidence in Saint Joseph and the Virgin Mary. Christ is among us.

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