Sunday, January 9, 2011

Matthew 1: The Jewish Gospel

The Sunday readings at Catholic liturgies follow a three year cycle (and the daily readings, a two year cycle). Each year of that three-year cycle draws primarily during Ordinary Time from one of the three synoptic gospels -- Matthew, Mark and Luke.  (John can be found during special seasons like Lent, Easter or Advent, as well as sprinkled throughout the liturgical year.)

"Synoptic" -- "Seen together".  Luke and Matthew both use Mark as a source for their narrative.  (Yes, Matthew is the first gospel in New Testament, but not the earliest.  Funny, isn't it?)  Since the two build from Mark, we can look at all three together, i.e. side by side, to compare and contrast.  And so, synoptic -- able to be seen together.   

For the liturgical year beginning with Advent 2010 and going until Advent 2011, the main gospel is Matthew. (Note: Not Luke, as I wrote last week.)  So, for the coming months, I'm going to take a little blog space a couple days a week walking through the gospel offering some reflections.  Sometimes, they'll be a little historical; other times, just what the reading kindles in me. 

 The Inspiration of St. Matthew, by Caravaggio
(You have to click on this; an extraordinary work)

Matthew begins with a long genealogy, starting with Abraham and going all the way to Jesus.  It's a little daunting to read; so few of the names are familiar, they all blur together.  Often you hear this reading around Christmas, and the point made by homilists is that, if you dig into this list of names, you'll find kings and criminals, adulterers and Gentiles and prostitutes.  That is to say, though he is the Messiah, Matthew doesn't imagine Jesus coming from some sort of "perfect" stock.  His lineage is as crooked and broken as any of the rest of us.

In fact, one scripture scholar, Dan Harrington, points out that the inclusion of Rahab the prostitute was the mother of Boaz is unattested elsewhere in the Old Testament. Which is to say, rather than hide what would seem an embarrassing ancestor for the son of God,  Matthew might have actually chosen to add that detail!

At a number of different points, sort of like chapter breaks, the book of Genesis presents similar genealogies. And that's important to know, too, because it helps us see right away what Matthew might be intending with this gospel.  More than any of the other gospels, Matthew is interested in presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish history, Jewish prophesy, Jewish law.  So we'll see lots of Old Testament readings referenced, with note that now, in Jesus, these things are fulfilled.  And we'll see Jesus the teacher, interpreting the Hebrew scriptures and law with authority. Having a genealogy at the start is a sort of literary version of the same. It says this book that you're reading now, it's part of the same  text you already know.

It's fun to try and learn about some of those names mentioned in the genealogy of Matthew.  Each of them has a story, many of them at least referenced in the Old Testament.  If you want to read one of the more strange and interesting of them, check out the story of Tamar, one of only a few women mentioned in the genealogy (Genesis 38).  I suspect you'll be surprised to find the story in the scriptures....  

One artist's take on the story of Tamar...

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