Godtalk: Jesus' Family Tree

Published on 02 Jan 2014

The story of Christ and the meaning of Christmas can only be properly understood by looking at Jesus’ family tree, and by looking at how his story continues today. Why is his family tree, this long list of names in Matthew and Luke so important?

Among other things, the genealogies trace Jesus' origins in a way that tells us his real story will not be grasped by anyone who thinks that Christ Jesus’ human origins contained no sin or weakness.

Christ’s ancestors weren’t all saintly. Rather, his family tree contains sinners of every sort. The same holds true for the religious institutions that figured in his birth. The religious history of Judaism, out of which Christ was born, was also a mixture of grace and sin, religious institutions serving both God and their own human interests.

Both the persons and the institutions that gave birth to Jesus were also a mixture that mediated God's favour and also rationalized it for its own benefit. But, out of that mélange, the Christ was born.

It can be a scandal to piety to accept this, and 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 the secular powers of his time, and the fear and infidelity of his own disciples.

This has continued through the two millennia since then. Christ continues to be incarnated in Christians throughout the centuries - all of us called to become Christlike in the way we think, the way we speak, the way we live. And this is thanks not only to saintly individuals and virtuous Churches. Christ Jesus' family tree subsequent to his birth is also a long list of saints and sinners, of selfless martyrs and selfish schemers, of virtue and betrayal.

We should not doubt the truth of Christ or the legitimacy of his Church because of the lies, sin, infidelity, and often stupidity of those human persons and religious institutions who originally made up Jesus' family-tree and who have constituted his family since. Faith can accommodate the recognition of sin and infidelity. So can Christmas.

Christmas has a checkered origin and a checkered sequence: Jacob did steal his brother's birthright; David did commit adultery and did commit murder to cover it up. The Church did set up the Inquisition and kill more of its own than were martyred in the early Church. It did give us popes who sold ecclesial favours and were licentious.

The Church, despite its catholicity and holiness, has perennially been narrow and elitist and never been fully free of self-interest. But the mystery of Jesus, of Christ, and of his Church somehow shines through in spite of this and indeed, because of this.

Like a hidden seed, God's grace works, even through people like us and a Church like ours, revealing divinity despite everything. And the God who wrote the original Christmas with crooked lines also writes the sequence with crooked lines. And some of those lines are our own lives. We must leave it to God to sort out the wheat from the weeds. cf Matt 13.24f

Peter Knott SJ