Isaiah 11:1-3 / Matthew 1:1-17
Well, I managed to get through that long Gospel reading! Why on earth did Matthew start his Gospel with a long, tedious list of names? Because for Matthew the gospel, (the Good News he was proclaiming), was entirely dependent on who Jesus is. The identity of Jesus is everything. And central to his identity is that he is a branch, stemming from the root of Jesse. O root, O radix Jesse, as today’s Advent antiphon puts it.
Identity is central to the whole prophetic tradition in the Old Testament. That tradition became more and more focused on the hope that one day, God would save his people by sending them a Savior – an anointed one—a Messiah. But who would he be? How will we know who it is? People were always asking “who are you?” “Where are you from?” Well, Isaiah tells us in our reading today: “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him….” He will be the one. We will recognize the Messiah when he comes, because he will come from the root of Jesse.
Well, the long genealogical list at the beginning of Matthew is pretty dreary – but the image of a tree, a family tree, is much more appealing to the imagination. And that was certainly true for the medieval imagination. So over the centuries, artists have created some of the most beautiful and imaginative trees to teach and to celebrate Jesus’ genealogical identity. They are called Jesse Trees. We see them in stained glass windows. (The oldest piece of stained glass in England is the Jesse Tree at York Minster.) We see them in stone casings (like the wonderful Jesse Tree greeting pilgrims at the entrance to the cathedral of St. James Santiago de Compostela.) And we see them in illuminated manuscripts, such as the one you have before you. It is taken from the famous Winchester Psalter from the 12th century.
To some of us, this tongue-twisting genealogy that Matthew gives at the very outset of his gospel account may elicit a smile or the slight rolling of the eyes. But the list is not accidental. Matthew, a Jew, is trying to be convincing. His first-century hearers would be fascinated in genealogy, and Jesus’ pedigree to be the Messiah, the King, would need to trace a lineage back to King David, son of Abraham. In Matthew’s memory, there are 3 sets of 14 names in his genealogy. Fourteen is 2 times 7; 7 is the perfect number; 14 is twice as perfect as 7, and 3 is a complete number. Those looking for proof of Jesus’ lineage through numerology will be satisfied. To some people, the numbers mattered. Also, remember, Matthew writes his gospel account before there are books, and before there is widespread literacy, so having 3 sets of 14 names is a helpful mnemonic device for remembering and repeating an oral history… and Matthew’s listeners and Jewish generations to come would indeed need to hear this genealogy repeated aloud. Throughout the New Testament, we hear of Jesus’ Davidic pedigree as a litmus test for his authority as Messiah. (1)