I always wonder what the priest is going to do at Mass on the third Tuesday of Advent.
On this day, every priest is faced with a most daunting Advent task: to preach on the long genealogy of Jesus at the opening of Matthew’s Gospel (1:1-17).
This is the marathon of all biblical genealogies, at least as far as the liturgical readings are concerned: a long list of 42 names!
“Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob …”
How boring! Why didn’t Matthew choose a more captivating way to start his Gospel?
As one New Testament scholar put it, “Let’s face it: Other people’s family trees are about as interesting as other people’s holiday videos” (N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship).
So what is a priest to do for his homily on this day? Can he really make a dreary list of 42 names come alive in an inspiring and practical way for people today?
Every Name Tells a Story
For Jews in Jesus’ day, however, this genealogy would have had more attention-grabbing power than the most popular video trending on social media today. It would have summed up all their hopes about what God had promised to do for their people. And it would have joyously announced that God’s plan was coming to completion right now, in their own lifetime!
Indeed, if there were modern media outlets in first-century Judaism, this little genealogy would have made the top story.
Let’s look at Jesus’ genealogy with the eyes of first-century Jews who would have found their “hopes and fears of all the years” summed up in this family tree, for it is this story of Israel’s longings that we are called to enter every Advent.
The Glory Days of Israel
For the ancient Jews, a genealogy is not just a long list of names. Every name tells a story. And the name that stands out most in Jesus’ genealogy is David, the great king of Israel.
David would bring to mind the glory days of Israel’s history, when the kingdom reached its peak in terms of influence in the world. But that’s not all. God promised David and his descendants an everlasting dynasty (2 Samuel 7:16). And this kingdom would have worldwide influence: The Davidic king would rule over all the earth, nations would bow down before him, and in him all peoples would find blessing (Psalm 2:8; 72:8-17; 110:6).
Most of all, God promised that, one day, a new son of David would come — someone who would rescue God’s people from their enemies, restore the kingdom and extend its reign to all nations (Isaiah 11:1-10; Amos 9:11-2).
Think about the excitement an ancient Jew would have felt in reading about the great King David in Jesus’ genealogy. Jesus is introduced as a “son of David” (1:1). Then the genealogy traces the descendants of Abraham down to “David the king” (Matthew 1:6) and goes on to list the kings of Judah flowing from David’s line (Matthew 1:7-10). We can imagine people wondering, “Could this Jesus be the son of David — the one for whom we’ve all been waiting, the one who will bring back the kingdom and free us from our enemies?”
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