Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Scepter Shall Not Depart From Judah.

Reading 1               Genesis 49:2, 8-10

Jacob called his sons and said to them:
“Assemble and listen, sons of Jacob,
listen to Israel, your father.
“You, Judah, shall your brothers praise
–your hand on the neck of your enemies;
the sons of your father shall bow down to you.

Judah, like a lion’s whelp,
you have grown up on prey, my son.
He crouches like a lion recumbent,
the king of beasts–who would dare rouse him?
The scepter shall never depart from Judah,
or the mace from between his legs,
While tribute is brought to him,
and he receives the people’s homage.”

Jacob is on his death bed and he is making his last statement to his family. It is the longest poem in Genesis. Today’s reading is part of what is known as the ‘Blessings of Jacob’, although they are more like prophecies than blessings. This is especially true of the section in today’s reading. And it is directed not so much to the sons of Jacob but more to the tribes who bore their name.

Although it ostensibly refers to Jacob’s immediate descendants, in fact, the final writing dates from the time of David much later, with possibly some earlier elements contained in it. Its contents really concern the time of the Judges and the Kings. It was at this later time that it would have been inserted into the Genesis narrative. Put together from pre-existing songs and sayings, it looks at the tribes of Israel in their early days in Canaan. It is put here to signify the closing of a historical period, that covered by the Book of Genesis.

Two of the tribes stand out - Judah and Joseph. Judah is seen as coming to dominate all the others until the coming of “the one who will be in charge”, a reference to the Messiah. Judah will be the one through whom the promises made to Abraham and Jacob will be fulfilled. He was the fourth born to Jacob’s wife Leah and also the fourth son born to Jacob, but his three older brothers, for various reasons, lost their right to family leadership.

He is shown as pre-eminent over his brothers. “Your brothers shall praise you… your father’s sons [his brothers, in other words] will do you homage.” From the time of the second journey of Jacob’s sons to Joseph in Egypt, Judah acted as their spokesman. Judah, under the name of Ephraim, did in fact become the most influential of the northern tribes and would form the nucleus of the future kingdom of Israel. And, through his descendant David, he would be an ancestor of Jesus. And hence the purpose of today’s reading.

He is called a “lion’s cub” as a symbol of power, strength and courage. In later times he is often pictured as a lion and, in Revelation (5:5), Jesus himself is called the “Lion of Judah”.

The meaning of the closing prophecy is obscure but it is often read in a Messianic sense, fulfilled first of all in David and ultimately in Christ, the Messiah. It is to Jesus Christ that the ‘scepter’, the ruling power ultimately belongs.

Both the First Reading and the Gospel, which contains Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, emphasize Jesus’ roots going back to the very beginnings of Israel. Jesus was a Jew through and through and linked with many of the most significant characters in Israel’s turbulent history.

As we prepare to celebrate the birth of the Child Jesus in Bethlehem, we need to remember that the content of today’s readings is an important aspect of the Incarnation. Jesus did not just appear as an isolated human being. He came from God but he is also is intimately and crucially linked with the history of his own people. And, because of that, so are we.

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Gospel                  Matthew 1:1-17

The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ,
The son of David, the son of Abraham.

Abaham became the father of Isaac,
Isaac the  father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah,
whose mother was Tamar.
Perez became the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
Ram the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab became the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
Salmon the father of Boaz,
whose mother was Rahab.
Boaz became the father of Obed,
whose mother was Ruth.
Obed became the father of Jesse,
Jesse the father of David the king.

David became the father of Solomon,
whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.
Solomon became the father of Rehoboam,
Rehoboam the father of Abijah,
Abijah the father of Asaph.
Asaph became the father of Jehoshaphat,
Jehoshaphat the father of Joram,
Joram the father of Uzziah.
Uzziah became the father of Jotham,
Jotham the father of Ahaz,
Ahaz the father of Hezekiah.
Hezekiah became the father of Manasseh,
Manasseh the father of Amos,
Amos the father of Josiah.
Josiah became the father of Jechoniah and his brothers
at the time of the Babylonian exile.

After the Babylonian exile,
Jechoniah became the father of Shealtiel,
Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel,
Zerubbabel the father of Abiud.
Abiud became the father of Eliakim,
Eliakim the father of Azor,
Azor the father of Zadok.
Zadok became the father of Achim,
Achim the father of Eliud,
Eliud the father of Eleazar.
Eliazar became the father of Matthan,
Matthan the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
Of her was born Jesus who is called the Christ.

Thus the total number of generations
from Abraham to David
is fourteen generations;
from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations;
from the Babylonian exile to the Christ,
fourteen generations.


Perhaps this is regarded as one of the dullest Gospel readings of the year! It consists of a long list of names, many of which mean very little to most Christians. But it has one resounding message: Jesus fully entered our human condition, with all its virtues and vices.

One of the main purposes of Matthew’s Gospel, which was written for Jewish Christians by Jewish Christians, is to show the continuity of Jesus in the history and tradition of Israel. Jesus was no upstart. Still less was he a rebel or a traitor. On the contrary, he was the natural development of the long process of God’s relationship with his people. Not only was he the natural development, he was the long-awaited climax. He was no less than the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed King of Israel.

Today’s passage from Matthew is the opening of his Gospel. It is introduced with the words: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.” These two names are the most significant in the family line. Jesus as the Christ will be a King in the line of David. And he is descended from Abraham to whom God had said: “…in your descendants all the nations of the earth shall find blessing” (Genesis 22:18).

The genealogy is divided into three significant parts, each with fourteen generations. This is probably because the numerical value of the Hebrew letters in David’s name amounts to 14. The third and last list actually only contains 13 names. Perhaps Matthew meant Jesus’ name to be part of the list. After all, the genealogy of Jesus continues beyond him to his followers. Or perhaps a scribe somewhere along the line got his numbers mixed up.

The first part is from Abraham down to David, the second from David to the deportation to Babylon, and the third from the deportation to Joseph and Mary.

Of course, it is not a complete genealogy. The names mentioned all appear one way or another in the Hebrew Testament. There are four women mentioned - Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Mary. Each one of them interesting characters in their own right. There are also a number of scoundrels in the list. Even David, one of the most outstanding servants of God, was an adulterer and a murderer (apart from those he killed in war).

When the Son of God became a human being, he really did become one of us. The Gospel makes no effort to “sanitize” his origins, or the members of his immediate family. There is no shortage of skeletons in Jesus’ cupboard. When John says, “The Word became a human being and lived among us”, he said no less than the truth.

And, if Jesus was totally incarnated in the world so that he could communicate the message of God’s love to the world and for the world, then we, too, must be totally incarnated. We are not true to our calling if we think that, in order to be true to Jesus, we have to separate ourselves from a material and sinful world. We cannot be the “salt” of the earth, unless we are fully inserted into it. But only when we also fully identify with the values and concerns of the Kingdom. Otherwise we are salt without savor.

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