Tree of Jesse

This Sunday’s Gospel reading, from the first chapter of Matthew, has always been one of my absolute favorites. First of all, I love reading the Hebrew names (that’s the philologist in me!). I also like to see St. Matthew organizing world history so that it nicely leads up to the birth of Christ in regular 14 generational units.

But, above all, I like to see the family that our Lord was born into. St. Matthew is establishing our Lord’s legal claim to be the descendant of David, and therefore had a rightful claim to the throne of Israel. But it is also a simple statement of the wonder, and truth, of the Incarnation.

If you look at the pedigree of the Greek heroes, they are always from the best stock, usually descended from gods, and are the most handsome, the strongest, the wisest, the founders of cities and the bringers of civilization. Only the best ancestors for the great heroes. If a person were to invent the lineage of the Messiah, he would certainly emphasize the virtue and stength of character, how all of his ancestors were pious and kept the Law of God strictly. Instead, we find adulters and murderers (David himself, Manasseh), idolators (Solomon, Manasseh, Amos), and generally immoral men. There were also good and holy men as well (David again, Hezekiah, Josiah). Pretty much like everyone else’s families! When God became a human being, he entered into a normal human family with normal human ancestors.

The most interesting aspect of this Gospel, however, are the five women mentioned in the geneology. The last, of course, is the Theotokos. But, besides her, three of the women are women of questionable virtue and the fourth is a foreigner.

The first is Tamar, the mother of Judah’s sons Perez and Zerah. Her story is told in Genesis 38. She was married to Judah’s son Er who died young because of his evil. She was then given to Judah’s son Onan for him to raise up children for his brother. He refused and died. Judah was afraid to give her his last son Shelah, so he sent her back to her father’s house as a widow. Later on, when she heard that Judah was coming, she disguised herself as a prostitute and sat by the road. Judah made a rendevouz and gave his ring and staff as a pledge that he would send the payment later. Tamar became pregnant from the encounter and was accused to Judah of immoral actions as a widow. Judah ordered her burned, but she sent him the ring and the staff as a sign of the one who got her pregnant. Judah relented and saw that she was in the right, since he had not given her his last son as he should have.

The second is Rahab, the wife of Salmon and the mother of Boaz. Her story can be found in Joshua 2; 6:22-25. She was a prostitute in Jericho and saved the Israelite spies when they came to see the vulnerability of the city. She did so because she believed that God had worked wonders for Israel and was giving them the land.

The third is Ruth, a Moabite. The story of her loyalty to and love for her mother-in-law Naomi is told in the Book of Ruth. Although she was a foreigner and a pagan, her love her for mother-in-law, after her husband died, caused her to adopt her mother-in-law’s nation and God.

Where you go, I will go, where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God.

Finally there is Bathsheba, the wife of David and the mother of Solomon. Her story can be found in 2 Kings (2 Samuel) 11-12:25. Interestingly, she is not named, but only called the wife of Uriah, in order to emphasize David’s double sin of adultery and murder. David fell in love with Bathsheba;  they had a liason and she became pregnnt. David then had Uriah placed in the front of the battle where he was certainly going to be killed. After Uriah died, David married Bathsheba. However, God was not pleased, and allowed their first child to die.

The character of these women, all ancestors of God-become-man, emphasize the mixture of virtue and vice in God’s family. They also show how God uses the instruments that he has, no matter how unworthy, to bring about his plan for salvation. This fact certainly should give us hope in our own families. Despite our own failings and sins, God can still use us to lead our families to salvation, to a union with God who became part of a very human, fairly dysfunctional family in order to sanctify our own very human, fairly dysfunctional families.

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