17 December 2010

Matthew 1:1-17

"An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac ..." (vv.1-2)


The BBC genealogy series - Who do you think you are? - takes famous people and delves into their past to discover the stories and scandals hidden away in their family tree. Actor Kevin Whately uncovered an 18th century ancestor who was a turkey trader, and chef Rick Stein travelled to China in the footsteps of his great grandfather - a 19th century Methodist missionary. 

This can all make for very compelling TV, but does where we come from really have anything to do with who we are today? With this long list of Jesus' ancestors, the author of Matthew's Gospel seems to think so. 

But how many of us are really interested in reading long lists of names that may or may not be familiar to us? When I get to any part of the Bible that features a list, I tend to either skip right over it, or just skim the words - not really taking anything spiritual from it at all. So why does Matthew choose to open his Gospel with just such a list? 

Most scholars agree that the author was Jewish, and was writing for a predominantly Jewish audience. In order for this audience to be persuaded that Jesus was the Messiah, they had to be reassured that he was descended from David, with the royal blood of King Solomon. 

But the list of names that we recognise as real people from the biblical text also emphasises Jesus' full humanity - he was a flesh and blood person, born to a real family, with all the complexity that being part of a human family brings. 

It is in this context that Matthew wanted people to read the rest of the Gospel knowing that Jesus was both the Messiah (the one sent from God, for whom they had been waiting) and a full human being, born of a great long line of interesting people. 

Out of the four women included in the family tree, three are Gentiles (non-Jews), something that a 1st century Jewish reader can't have expected. Perhaps in this gentle way Matthew hints at the inclusion of Gentiles in the kingdom of heaven, as well as the fact that the working out of God's purpose doesn't always fit with what we might expect. This inclusion of gentiles in Jesus' genealogy means that we can all be a part of this holy family. 

To Ponder

Matthew's account of Jesus' geneaology is different from the one that can be found in Luke's Gospel. Do you think this matters?

To what extent is Jesus' family tree still relevant to us today?

Does where we come from - our family connections and home territories - really matter? Why, or why not?

Bible notes author

Anna Drew

Anna Drew is Director of Communications for the Diocese of Canterbury. She is a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4's Daily Service and Prayer for the Day and a freelance writer on faith issues.