Matthew’s Genealogy of Jesus

Today’s Gospel, on this day on which we begin the octave before Christmas, is the begining of St. Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew begins his account of the life of Jesus with “the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

You know the passage to which I refer. We Catholic hear the reading of “begats” every year on this day. I suspect that more often than not, people listen to the reading with half an ear, without excitement, as the presider stumbles over a lot of names, many of which we never hear except in this reading. And rarely do we hear a sermon that really unpacks the reading…which is too bad.

The theologian Raymond Brown, who has written extensively about the Matthean genealogy, suggests that this one reading in itself contains the essential theology of the Old and the New Testaments that the whole Church (Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant) should proclaim. Brown, in a slim volume called An Adult Christ as Christmas, has a wonderful chapter exploring the meaning of the genealogy, which I highly recommend.

The basic thrust of his message can be summed up in this: God has a place for all in his plan – for sinners as well as saints, for the unknown as well as the famous, for the marginalized as well as those at the center of power. And that was true not just of the historical period leading up to the birth of Christ, but continued throughout Christ’s life as well. And that, says Brown, has tremendous significance for all of us. He writes:

If the beginning of the story involved as many sinners as saints, so has the sequence. This means not simply a Peter who denied Jesus or a Paul who persecuted him, but sinners and saints among those who would bear his name throughout the ages. If we realize that human beings have been empowered to preserve, proclaim, and convey the salvation brought by Jesus Christ throughout ongoing history, the genealogy of the sequence of Jesus contains as peculiar an assortment of people as did the genealogy of the beginnings. The God who wrote the beginnings with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines, and some of those lines are our own lives and witness. A God who did not hesitate to use the scheming as well as the noble, the impure as well as the pure, men to whom the world hearkened and women upon whom the world frowned – this God continue to work through the same mélange. If it was a challenge to recognize in the last part of Matthew’s genealogy that totally unknown people were part of the story of Jesus Christ, it may be a greater challenge to recognize that the unknown characters of today are an essential part of the sequence. A sense of being unimportant and too insignificant to contribute to the continuation of the story of Jesus Christ in the world is belied by the genealogy.

Thus, the proclamation of the beginning of the book of Matthew as we move through our final days of Advent is designed to give us hope about our destiny and our importance to God’s plan. It is as much an invitation as anything else.

Note: During the 2008 Advent retreat I gave at UST, I gave a talk on Matthew’s genealogy, based on Brown’s essay, which you can listen to here.