Lectionary commentary: Holy Family Sunday
Slightly delayed in its publication, this is Fr. O'Hanlon's commentary on the Sunday in the eight-day octave of Christmas (that is, the first Sunday after Christmas), which is given over to celebrating the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
A reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, 3:2-6. 12-14
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 128:1-5. R/. cf.v.1
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians, 3:12-21
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 2:13-15. 19-23
This is an extraordinary feastday. It confines the family living in Nazareth to three of its members. The evidence in our Gospels suggests otherwise. The people in the tiny and insignificant village of Nazareth know their neighbours. Mark, the earliest of our four Gospels, reports that, when Jesus came to his home village,
on the Sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astonished, saying, “Where did this man get these things? What is the wisdom given to him? How are such mighty works done by his hands?
The neighbours knew the family well:
Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mariam and brother of Jacob and Joses and Judah and Simon? And are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him.
There is no mention of Mary’s husband and this might suggest that he was already dead. But the neighbours are quite clear: this household consists of the mother Mary, five sons, and two sisters at least. So whatever the relationship of those named was to each other, it is perfectly obvious that there were at least eight people under the same roof in the village of Nazareth. What is clear, too, is that it was a very devout and traditional family. Mother and children all have names of saintly people we meet in the Scriptures of God’s holy people. Miriam, the sister of Moses, Jacob, the great patriarchal ancestor, Joseph, the son of Jacob and the owner of a spectacular coat, Judah, a son of Jacob, and Simon, one of Maccabee family that delivered Israel from Greek colonial tyranny—surely this was a very devout Jewish family? Matthew, who used Mark’s Gospel as a basic source, produces a word-for-word copy Mark’s text:
And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter's son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?
One detail in Matthew’s account is suggestive (in an exact translation of his Greek text):
and the sisters of him—are they not all with us?
The translation is awkward but there is a hint that perhaps there were more than two sisters.
A second incident in Mark’s Gospel (and omitted by Matthew and Luke) is quite disturbing:
Then he went home, and the crowd gathered again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind”.
The translation of the second sentence is difficult. Literally translated, the Greek means “those who were from him” or “those beside him”. The phrase elsewhere in the Book of Maccabees and in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible indicate that what is meant here is “his family”, or “his friends”, even “people close to him”.
These folk, “hearing“ that Jesus had gone to “his home”, went out to seize him. The verb used here is quite strong. It is used of the arrest of John the Baptist in Mark 6:17. It occurs again when the chief priests and the scribes contemplate seizing Jesus but were afraid to do so because of the crowds who greatly admired the man from Galilee. There is a sense of violence in these sentences. Judas warns the crowds (that came out with swords and clubs) to “seize him” (the same verb as in 3:20). It is used again in the arrest of Jesus (14:46).
Those of his family or friends came to seize him because “they were saying that he is mad”. There are two questions here: Who are they”? Does the word refer to a general opinion among those who heard Jesus preach? Or does it refer to his family, convinced that Jesus was out of his mind? The second option is to be preferred for in the very next sentence the scribes who came down from Jerusalem “were saying” that Jesus was possessed by a demon. The phrase “out of his mind” indicates that those of his family who come to seize Jesus believed him to be mad.
This incident is not recorded in any of the three other Gospels. But it may throw some light on the rejection of Jesus that occurred when he returned to his home village of Nazareth.
The Gospel of St. John, at the conclusion of the account of the wedding feast at Cana, records this:
After this he went down to Capernaum, with his mother and his brothers and his disciples, and they stayed there for a few days.
As the Letters of Paul and many other New Testament writings show, our earliest Christian ancestors were given to address each other as brothers and sisters. This was to express their understanding that baptism in Christ created a bond between Christian disciples.
But in the text quoted above, brothers and disciples were different people. The brothers are clearly the family brothers of Jesus. These brothers appear again in John 7:1-10 and again a distinction is made between brothers and disciples:
After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” For not even his brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.
This rather awkward story is intended to emphasise that Jesus fulfils the will of his heavenly Father and not that of any earthly authority. While his brothers do not believe in him, he himself is totally dedicated to the Father, not beholden to family or friends.
Paul’s letter to Galatian Christians mentions James (Jacob), the brother of the Lord (1:19). This man was the leader of the first communities of Christians in Jerusalem following the descent of the Hoy Spirit on Pentecost Day. In I Corinthians where Paul is defending his apostleship, he claims that he has the same rights as others who are apostles, including Cephas (Peter):
Do we not have the right to take along a sister
[a woman who is a Christian] as wife,
as do the other apostles and
the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?
I Corinthians 9:5
A Holy Family?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares that “Jesus is Mary’s only son, but her spiritual motherhood extends to all men whom indeed he came to save”. It is not my intention to discuss what is here asserted as of our Catholic faith.
What concerns me is that it is wrong to exclude from the family of Jesus all those children reared by Joseph and Mary. Our Gospels are abundantly clear that there were many feet of boys and girls running around that Nazareth home. The brothers and sisters of Jesus, whatever their parentage in the Nazareth household, should be hallowed on this blessed day. None of the children became disciples in the lifetime of Jesus. None of them followed on the way to Jerusalem. None of them fled from Jesus as the Eleven who sat at supper did. None of them were at the foot of the cross.
Only James (Jacob), the brother of the Lord, came to faith in the days following Pentecost and quickly rose to leadership of the first Christian communities in Jerusalem. In other words, as far as God’s purpose in giving his Son to the world is concerned, the family in Nazareth was a family of children that, for the most part, as far as we know, did not become disciples of Jesus. That does not mean they did not share in the holiness of that home, schooled by that just man called Joseph and lovingly cared for by Mary the mother of Jesus.
Holiness is not a moral issue. It is an ontological issue. Holiness is not a matter of “doing”. Holiness is a matter of “being”. Holiness is of the essence; it is not a mere ingredient in the recipe of human existence.
Holiness is what God is. God is holy. Into this holiness the whole of humanity is created, even the whole of creation. God demands of holy humanity to be as God is, the God who is,
Steadfast love Righteousness Compassion, Mercy Forgiveness and PEACE.
The Holy Family is Humanity. The vocation of humanity is to be on earth as it is in heaven, that is, as it were, to be on earth what God is in heaven. We are created to be the kingdom of God or, as St. Matthew tellingly insists, to be the kingdom of heaven.
A Meditation for a New Year
After the Psalms and the Prophets, the Book of Deuteronomy is the most quoted and referred to book in the New Testament. It contains the most important commandment given to the people of Israel:
From the clouds of heaven, from God, those who walk the way of Jesus, we have received the same command:
Listen to him!
God spoke to the people around Moses:
Listen, Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart.
Read God’s tutorial on what follows from that revelation of God’s very being (Deuteronomy 6:6-25). To read and understand is to become want we are:
It will be righteousness for us.
A reading from the Book of Ecclesiasticus, 3:2-6. 12-14
For the Lord honoured the father above the children,
and he confirmed the judgement of the mother over her sons.
Whoever honours his father atones for sins,
and whoever glorifies his mother
is like one who lays up treasure.
Whoever honours his father
will have long life,
and whoever obeys the Lord will refresh his mother.
O son, help your father in his old age
And do not grieve him as long as he lives;
Even if he is lacking in understanding,
in all your strength do not despise him.
For kindness to father will not be forgotten.
The word of the Lord.
The Book of Leviticus is adamant. The Lord God insisted that Moses must teach “all the congregation of Israel” that,
You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.
The holiness that God’s people must attain is to be expressed in many commandments governing the offering sacrifices, the observance of the Sabbath, and much besides. A particular command was this:
You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
The sentence containing this commandment has a stern reminder:
I am the Lord.
Just in case anyone forgets. Loving one’s neighbour is a sine qua non of all holiness. But when we read the Ten Commandments, the ten holiest of words, given in the Book of Exodus 20:1-17 and repeated in Deuteronomy 5:21, we are in for a surprise:
Honour your father and your mother.
In Deuteronomy the command is the same:
Honour your father and your mother.
Nowhere in the Bible are we told to love our father or our mother.
If it is imperative to love our neighbour in order to be close to the Lord who is our God, why are we never commanded to love those who brought us into God’s world, who nourished us, and were the first to speak to us of God’s love? Jesus himself identifies the greatest of the commandments to an inquiring scribe:
And one of the scribes came, and heard them questioning together, and knowing that he had answered them well, asked him, What commandment is the first of all? Jesus answered, “The first is,
Hear, O Israel! The Lord our God, the Lord is one: and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.
The second is this, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”
No mention of loving your father and mother. Then there is this:
… his mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you.” And he answered them, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.
Not a word from Jesus about loving, even of the mother who bore him.
Today’s reading is from the Book of Ecclesiasticus (otherwise known as The Wisdom of ben Sirach), much given to insist on duties toward God and toward parents. But when it comes to parents, there is no mention of love. What is demanded, as in the Ten Commandments, is honour, not love.
Can any parents among you explain why we are commanded to love our neighbour but not our parents? Can any children among you explain why you are bidden to honour but not to love?
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 128:1-5. R/. cf.v.1
A SONG OF ASCENTS
R/. Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways!
Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord,You shall eat the fruit of the labour of your hands;
who walks in his ways!
you shall be blessed, and it shall be well with you. R/.
Your wife will be like a fruitful vine
within your house;
your children will be like olive shoots around your table. R/.
Behold, thus shall the man be blessed
who fears the Lord.The Lord bless you from Zion!
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem
all the days of your life! R/.
There are a number of psalms that are inspired by the understanding of faith we find in the Wisdom Books of the Hebrew Bible. It is among these books that the Book of Psalms finds its place in every Bible. It is interesting that Israel’s Book of Prayers should be placed on the shelf that contains the repository of Israel’s wisdom. In Jewish tradition the three books that always take precedence among the 13 books in this section of the Bible are Psalms, Proverbs, and Job. Sometimes Job is listed before Proverbs but in all the ancient listings the Psalms is always first. In Luke’s Gospel, when the Risen Lord appeared to a room full of his disciples he opened to them the meaning of,
… the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms. Luke 24:44
So important were the Psalms that, in both Jewish and Christian traditions, the Book of Psalms can stand for all the Books of Wisdom. The point is, I think, that the first step on the way to wisdom is prayer.
The fear of the Lord is mentioned, in various phrases, 53 times in the Book of Psalms. Indeed Psalm 111:10 tells us that the fear of Lord is the beginning of wisdom. If we are to stand before God in fear and trembling, we may prefer to stand before someone else.
The Hebrew word for “beginning” means “the chief part” or “the best part”. In Proverbs 1:7 we read,
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.
Psalm 111 urges those who pray its words to continue into the next prayer that begins with this line:
Blessed is the man who fears the Lord,
who greatly delights in his commandments.
The second line explains the first. To delight greatly in God’s commandments, to walk in the way of the Lord, is to be blest. Knowing the commandments, the way of the Lord, is to be blessed. Humanity is the work of God’s hands and, says Psalm 111:7, the work of God’s hands is faithful and is just. Men and women are created to be on earth as God is in heaven. They are called to be ever gracious, merciful, and righteous (Psalm 112:4), to be a light dawning in the darkness. Blest are those who trust in God, whose heart is staunch in the face of adversity, and, above all, that gives freely to those in need.
In other words, to fear the Lord does not mean to creep and cringe before God. It means to realise the responsibility of doing as God does in the world and to understand, as St. Paul did, that we carry this responsibility in vessels of clay.
To fear God is to remember, never to forget what God does in our regard:
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits,
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.
The God who calls humanity to do on earth what is done in heaven, that is, what is done by God, is not a God who demands trembling submission. This is the Lord who blesses those who fear him, who blesses those who walk in his ways. To meditate of these words, verse by verse, is to understand where we stand before God:
The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust.
trembling in fear of the Lord, as if God were a threat to our well-being. The heart of the matter is this:
… the Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
What we must fear is that faith falters, hope fades, and we begin to forget that we are embraced by God’s love every minute of our existence in this world and in the next.
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Colossians, 3:12-21
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
The word of the Lord.
The letters that follow on the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament are not arranged according to the date that they were written. This would be impossible for we are not certain of the precise date of even one of the 27 books that make up the New Testament.
All 14 of the letters wrongly attributed to St. Paul by the Council of Trent in 1546 come first in order of their length, beginning with Romans (the longest) and going down to the shortest, Philemon. Because there has always been doubt that Paul wrote the Letter to Hebrew Christians, it is placed last in the Pauline list.
It is well nigh impossible to date any of the writings in the New Testament. This makes it exceptionally difficult to trace developments in, for example, St. Paul’s thinking, or in the development of Christian thought and practice as Christian faith spread through the Roman Empire to the east of Rome. Indeed, we know little or nothing of when Christianity came to Rome itself.
These observations are of particular concern when we set out to understand the Letter to Colossian Christians. In the first place, in our Bible the Letter to Ephesian Christians comes before that of Philippians and Colossians. But it is quite clear that Colossians was written before Ephesians because that letter quotes from Colossians. To take one example, there are 155 verses in Colossians and one third of these turn up in Ephesians in similar passages and in the same sequence.
Two matters are of especial interest. First, while the teaching of each letter has significance for Christian living everywhere and at all times, the term “church” (ekklēsia) is used throughout Ephesians to refer to the universal Church. In Colossians the word is used of both the local congregation and of the Church worldwide. It would be helpful if we were able to map out the development from the local little community to an understanding that all these little communities were in fact one body in Christ.
However we may be certain that the words offered us today’s in the reading from the letter to Colossians Christians is addressed to the universal Church, to all Christian people. Whoever wrote Colossians was well versed in Paul’s understanding of the meaning of Christ Jesus and how those who follow the man from Nazareth must live so that the world may see the glory of life in his name.
The unique style of Colossians expresses a rich theology. While there was a single issue (and its consequences) that dominated Paul’s letter to Galatians, the challenge in Colossians is not between those who align themselves with the Torah and Jewish practices. Rather in Colossians the overriding matter of concern is the living of the Christian life in the world. While the opening of the letter resembles that of Paul’s remarks at the beginning of I Thessalonians, here the concern is for “the whole world” and the place of Christian witness in that world:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant [fellow slave]. He is a faithful minister [Greek: diákonos] of Christ on your behalf and has made known to us your love in the Spirit.
While Paul praised Thessalonian Christians for their faith, hope, and love, the author of Colossians emphasises that the whole world is the stage on which these virtues are to be lived. Colossian Christians are enjoined to,
… continue in faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister [Greek: diákonos].
The metaphor of dressing anew and of wearing unsoiled clothing explained why before baptism one took off the old garments and on rising from the waters was clothed in a white garment. Those who first read or heard Colossians are reminded that that white garment is not for folding and putting away in a drawer. The baptismal garment must be worn every day:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
Look what humanity is baptised to be. Look what must adorn our baptismal shawl: compassion, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and especially love (which binds everything together). Since the Church is “one body”, it is called live “in perfect harmony, ruled by the peace of Christ” - a consummation devoutly to be wished in our Church in our time and in our place.
The gospel word delivered to these Christians is not to be lodged in a book and have incense thrown at it. It is to live in those who hear the word, and to be shared in teaching and admonishing each other, and the joy of it is to be sung in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, coming from hearts thankful for what God has given them in our Lord Jesus Christ.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew, 2:13-15. 19-23
Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,
Out of Egypt I called my son.
But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child's life are dead.” And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.
The Gospel of the Lord.
Today we are confronted with a frequent sin committed by those who created our Lectionary, namely, skipping bits. Apart from the fact that it confuses hearers and readers alike, it breaks the thread of the narrative. Understanding today’s Gospel reading is seriously hampered by the omission of the massacre of the children in Bethlehem.
The fact is that Matthew’s second chapter recounts a succession of events woven together by the thread of the threats to Joseph, Mary, and the child, emanating from the family of Herod. The family of Herod is modelled on the Pharaoh of Egypt who sought to exterminate the Hebrew people and to kill Moses, the leader appointed by God to deliver them safely to the land flowing with milk and honey.
Matthew’s Chapter 2 begins with the interview the Magi have with Herod the King. The Magi are dispatched to Bethlehem when the royal advisers counsel Herod with words from the prophet Micah. Led by the star, they find the house where the child was with Mary his mother (Matthew 2:11). Gifts are given and then the dream motif that began with Joseph (1:20) returns and they are warned to depart “by another way”.
The dream sequence reveals the divine direction of events. Joseph’s part in the story began with a dream (Matthew 1:20) and in a dream he is warned by an angel of the Lord to take the child and his mother into Egypt.
The machinations of Herod attempt to kill the child are thwarted by timely dreams but the little ones in the little town of Bethlehem are killed.
This is where readers and listeners must pause. How is it that God can save Joseph, the child, and his mother and not attempt to save the kids in the little town of Bethlehem? There can’t have been many of them because Bethlehem was a tiny hamlet but that is hardly a reason to neglect to save them. Yet Bethlehem’s little ones seem to be of little concern to the God who is pulling all necessary strings to keep the holy family safe from all harm.
The trouble is that, once we start asking seemingly sensible historical questions, we are led to the inevitable conclusion that the behaviour of God is not very God-like. We must beware of asking the wrong questions.
The fact is that what concerns Matthew is not the human story of the birth of a child in Bethlehem. He is interpreting the meaning of this child through events that are recorded in the Hebrew Bible. Stories from Genesis and Exodus are invoked to show that God cared for this family as he cared for the people of Israel. God saw the plight of his people and brought them safely home. God arranged the flight of the little family and, in God’s good time, God saw them safely home.
First, the family of Jacob were forced to go to Egypt in order to avoid death by famine and there they received protection and sustenance from Joseph the dreamer. But Joseph’s people were eventually enslaved. When their number grew, their infant sons were killed. Step forward Moses who is rescued from the Nile and lodged in Pharaoh’s household. It is this Moses who, under God’s good guidance, takes the people out of Egypt and eventually to the land flowing with milk and honey.
Notice how the hand of God is everywhere in the story of the conception, birth, and the safe arrival “in a city called Nazareth” (Matthew 2:23). A review of the Scripture quotations from the prophets that pepper these two opening chapters of Matthew’s story will make it clear that God is sitting in the director’s chair in this heavenly production:
All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).
And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.
Out of Egypt I called my son!
A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted,
because they are no more.
He shall be called a Nazarene.
[At the outset there is a problem that need not detain us long. Matthew relates that the Nazarene quotation “was spoken by the prophets”. Three of the other four quotations have ” spoken by the prophet” and Jeremiah is named as the source of the Rachel prophecy. The Nazarene sentence is not to be found in the Hebrew Bible or any other Jewish writing of the time that might have been available to Matthew. Some scholars suggest that Matthew is punning on the similarity between the name Nazareth and the Hebrew word nēser (branch, shoot). The word appears in Isaiah:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.
If there is anything in this suggestion, then Matthew may be hinting, in a very poor pun, that Jesus comes from the family of David, since Jesse was the father of David. David is mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy five times, so he placed great store by the royal descent of Jesus.]
Past, Present, Future
That Matthew has chosen to present his story of the conception, birth, and earliest days of Jesus in a complex narrative woven from the threads of the past means that Chapters 1 and 2 of Matthew have more to do with theology than history. His genealogy is itself an artificial construct. He leaves out little bits and shapes the names into three groups of 14 each. Strictly speaking the third group has only 12 names. Jesus makes the number up to 13. We can count 14 if we allow for the fact that Jechoniah is named twice.
The important thing is to realise is that Matthew artificially organises his story to emphasise that the Christ, the Messiah (1:17) emerges from a “history” carefully organised by God, generation by generation. The child to be born will live according to the pattern of the story of the people of Israel. He will be descended from Abraham, the father of the nation, called by God to be the father of peoples more numerous that the sands on the seashore. He will experience the threats of kings and potentates, as did Moses, the man appointed to lead God’s people from slavery to freedom. Jesus will save his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
To read today’s Gospel is to read that the life and vocation of Jesus is to take on his shoulders the story of his people and to live it for all people. He will meet death at the hands of priests and politicians. He will be delivered from that death by God and begin to create a community whose mission it is to make Israel a light to the nations, the very thing that God had always determined. To only eleven doubting but worshipping Jews Jesus gave the command to go and baptise the world:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Dr Joseph O’Hanlon
Happy New Year to all!