The genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David
Reflections on the Nativity Gospels (2)
We begin with the begats: Abraham begot Isaac, and so on. When we read the Gospel of Matthew, we often stumble over these names, or skip them entirely. Nothing seems more foreign to modern readers than the genealogical lists that seem such a part of Scripture.
Yet our popular prejudice sells short the significance of Matthew’s opening lists, which are read in the Church on the Sunday before Christmas. These lists are not haphazard, nor are they simply of historical interest. The pattern of three lists of fourteen generations are meant to articulate two important themes.
First, Matthew tells us that this is the lineage of Jesus ‘the messiah.’ Messiah means ‘anointed one,’ that is, one blessed with the sacred oil that marks the enthronement of a king. The word for messiah in Greek is Christ, making it clear that this designation is so important as to be virtually a last name for Jesus.
The purpose of the middle and last set of 14 generations is to explain how Jesus became the Messiah by linking him directly to David, the king to whom the prophet Nathan made this promise.
He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. (2 Sam. 7:13-14)
Yet, while it is essential that the messiah be an heir to David, the regal line had to go through a long period of suffering and trial, including weak and even apostate kings, until the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and deported the Israelites. Here the second list ends.
The third list tells of God’s providence in preserving the royal line when Israel returned from captivity. The catalogue continues until ‘Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.’The list thus ends as it began, yet with a key change in wording; Joseph does not ‘beget’ Jesus, for as Matthew will reveal, David’s son is also David’s Lord.
So then, while Jesus was messiah by virtue of being the consummation of the anointed kings of the lines of David, Matthew signals that much more needs to be said about Him. Here, however, the title should remind us of the divine rule of Christ, ‘whose kingdom shall have no end.’ It also tells us of the role of Jesus as ‘shepherd of the people,’ as David himself was, both in his youth and as Israel’s king. As king and shepherd, Jesus fulfills his calling by gathering and tending the flock of God. He rules as a servant and the physician of our souls and bodies.
In our next reflection, we will discuss Matthew’s second theme, Jesus as son of Abraham.