The New Testament begins in a way that would put most people off reading further if it were a novel. Matthew presents us with a long list of the ancestors of Jesus, unpronouceable names of people long dead, many of whom we have never heard of. Why would he do that? Did he want to send his readers to sleep? Looking deeper, there is more to it than that. An apparently boring list has a lot to tell us.
The readings on Thursday were Genesis 49:2, 8-10, Psalm 72:1-5, 18-19, Matthew 1:1-17. The reflection I gave is reproduced below.
Having listened to that long list of names in the Gospel for today, you may be wondering, ‘So what?’ I have to say, that would be my normal response. If I’m reading the Gospel for myself I would normally glance down the page and skim over this part, anticipating better to come. That’s not an option when it’s necessary to read it out loud or when a reflection needs to be written, so I had to dig deeper.
It’s generally accepted that the writer of this Gospel was Matthew, also known as Levi, the tax collector who became a disciple, although some modern scholars disagree. Matthew was called to discipleship in the area of Capernaum. In Chapter 9 of Matthew’s Gospel the story is focussed on Capernaum and it is in Chapter 9 verse 9 that Matthew is called. He could well have been by the Sea of Galilee in order to collect taxes from fishermen for Herod Antipas. To be a tax collector, Matthew had to be able to write and in writing his Gospel, he was interpreting Jesus in the light of the Old Testament expectation of a Messiah.
Matthew acts as a bridge between the Old and New Testaments.Throughout his Gospel, Matthew worked to show that Jesus is the Messiah whom the Jews had anticipated, fulfilling their hopes and the many Old Testament prophecies. He had arrived on earth to usher in the Kingdom of God which was good news for Jew and Gentile alike. Matthew is particularly reaching out to his fellow Jews and this accounts for the structure of his Gospel and particularly the beginning of it.
While we might find a list of names to be a very boring way to begin a book, it would have been very interesting for the Jews. The family line of an individual was the way to prove someone’s standing as a Jew, one of God’s chosen people. As well as proving a person’s legitimacy, the extensive Jewish genealogies established someone’s heritage and rights. These lists were very important indeed.
The very first words of the Gospel, ‘The book of genealogy’, create an echo of the first book of the Old Testament and give a symmetry to the two testaments. Genesis in Greek is the title of that first book, meaning ‘beginning, origin, birth, genealogy’. Genesis is a book of beginnings and Matthew is a book of a new beginning as Jesus the Messiah arrives on earth.
The first verse alone is full of deep meaning for the Jews with every word counting, as Matthew gives Jesus several names. ‘Jesus’, his every day name, given by the angel, means ‘Yahweh saves’. ‘Christ’, from the Greek ‘Christos’ and from the Hebrew meaning ‘anointed’. The people were looking for another anointed king like David to rule over Israel with justice. ‘Son of David’ paints the picture of the Messiah who has royal ancestry and who would re-establish David’s throne in Jerusalem and restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory, rather than as a small outpost in the massive Roman empire. ‘Son of Abraham’ shows that Jesus was fulfilling God’s covenant with Abraham which established Israel as the chosen people. God promised that through Abraham’s descendants the whole world was to be blessed.
Having made these sweeping claims for Jesus in just one sentence, Matthew sets out to substantiate them with a detailed genealogy. He does this by drawing on the Old Testament genealogies, probably from 1 Chronicles 3:10-14 as both lists omit several kings. The four generations between Perez and Aminadab cover 450 years and the six generations from Nahshon to David account for around 400 years, suggesting significant telescoping of the list.
It was not unusual to omit names in genealogies. It helped with memorisation at times. It also highlighted the important ancestors by omitting the less significant ones. In this context, ‘father’ would mean ‘forefather’ rather than always indicating a direct father son relationship. Another reason for skipping generations was to create multiples of 7, the number of completeness. Matthew creates groups of 14 generations by making his choices, twice 7. Fourteen is also significant because it is the numeric value of David’s name according to the Jewish custom of giving a value to the consonants in a word, and David is 14th in the list. Matthew’s choices also allow him to list kings who were alternately godly or ungodly.
Having given his genealogy, Matthew has given the official throne succession list for Jesus. Although he does not claim that Jesus is Joseph’s physical son, he is his legal son and so a descendant of David through Joseph. Jesus’ legal claim to David’s throne and to the title of ‘King of the Jews’ is thus established as well as his position as legal heir to the covenant promises made by God with Abraham.
In the process of establishing Jesus’ credentials, Matthew shows the rich variety of people who were Jesus’ ancestors as he lists 46 people whose lives spanned something like 2000 years. There were heroes like Abraham, Isaac and David. There were some people of questionable character – Rahab and Tamar. Some were not just questionable, but evil – Manasseh and Abijah. There were Gentiles – Ruth and Rahab. Many were ordinary like Hezron, Aram, Nahshon and Achim. It’s interesting that five women were listed, as descent was usually traced through men. The lineage of Jesus lists men, women, adulterers, prostitutes, heroes and Gentiles and Jesus comes as Saviour of all.
What can we learn from this list that Matthew gives us? He shows us that the Gospel needs to be presented in a way that is right for the context. He wrote his Gospel to make sense to the Jews. Missionaries have for years had to translate the Gospel not just into different languages but into different contexts, where customs are very different from their own country of origin. Sometimes they have done this well and sometimes not so well. We here in SL have to present the Gospel in a way that works for our context. Strangely enough, the ancient monastic practice of saying the offices seems to work in this most modern of contexts. Alongside that we use modern means such as YouTube videos. Who knows what we may use next.
We also learn that God can use very ordinary people to bring about his plan for the world. Jesus’ ancestors were of all types, not all were special, not all were what the world would call ‘good’ but God could use them all. God used these people to fulfil the first coming of Jesus. Despite our failures and weaknesses he will use ordinary people like us to be part of the preparation for Jesus’ second coming.
Matthew’s Gospel, his ‘Good News’, is good news indeed for us, even if it does start with an apparently boring list!
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor