A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Family Tree of Jesus

Fr Kevin Head SM

Unlike the Gospels of Mark and John, Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels bring long family trees into their accounts of Jesus’ life. They include genealogies that indicate Our Lord’s origins and locate him in salvation history. We tend to use the short form of the Gospel reading when the lineages turn up in the lectionary or our regular reading of scripture. There are too many hard-to-pronounce names, and we don’t know much about ninety per cent of them.
What can we learn from these seemingly interminable lists of names? Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac, the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, (their mother was Tamar).
The genealogies point to the ancestors of Jesus in such a way that we come to recognise that his real story has a background in sin and weakness. His family tree has in it as many sinners as saints. There were liars, murderers, adulterers, power-crazy men, devious women, corrupt rulers, shady temple priests, idolaters – in short, criminals, evil-doers and stupid people of every kind.
The lesson of the genealogies is that Our Lord’s ancestors were a mixture of sin and grace, selfishness and selflessness, of limitless greed and unlimited generosity. It was from this setting that Jesus emerged. As Fr Ronald Rolheiser put it, not everything that gave birth to Christmas was immaculately conceived. The same holds true of what followed after Jesus’ birth. His earthly ministry was also partially shaped and furthered by the self-interest of the religious authorities of his time, the resistance of secular powers of his time, and the fear and infidelity of his own disciples. And this has continued through the two thousand years of history since. Jesus’ family tree subsequent to his birth is also a long list of saints and sinners.
Christmas springs from questionable ancestors and dubious progress: Jacob stole his brother’s inheritance; Judah slept with his daughter-in-law, Tamar; King David committed adultery and murdered Uriah the Hittite to try to hide his sin. And, under God’s grace, these characters came right and selflessly served God and God’s people.
The institution of the Church, the Body of Christ, has a chequered history too. The Church established the Inquisition, for example, and killed more of her members than were martyred in the early persecutions. Some popes and bishops were a disgrace, and sexual abuse scandals continue to be exposed.
Realising what has gone before may upset us, but need not destroy our faith and hope. Jesus is still true, and the Church is still holy, even though the people and religious institutions which were part of Our Lord’s genealogy were beset by sinfulness, unfaithfulness and downright idiocy. As members of his family, we have perhaps been guilty of all these failures and more, and still, there is goodness in us and in our Church.
Despite all of the tragedies that are the sour fruit of human stupidity and sinfulness, “the pure mystery of Jesus, of Christ, and of the Church somehow shine through.” God’s grace works, in God’s good time, through ordinary good people like us and in local churches like ours. Despite our shortcomings and failures, the divine light shines forth.
Because of Christmas. Because God-is-with-us, constantly calling us out of the tomb of our sinfulness into the light of his love.
May your Christmas be peaceful, holy, and filled with love and joy.

References: Ronald Rolheiser OMI
Raymond E Brown SS, A Coming Christ in Advent

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