Thirty-two years ago I took over teaching Religion to the top grades in our parish school. In choosing the essentials to teach, I decided on having the Seventh Grade do a close reading of one of the Gospels. I had secretly decided on using Luke, but as a show of democracy, I asked the kids which Gospel to take up. Unfortunately, they called for Matthew, a Gospel I knew nothing about.
However, after studying it, and teaching it for twenty-four years, I have come to understand Matthew’s quite different approach.
The Jewish religion had been altogether centered on worship in Jerusalem’s temple, so after the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 A.D., the Pharisees had to find the one thing that could still separate Jews from non-Jews. They decided that a true Jew was one who honored his ancestors by observing kosher and not mixing with Gentiles.
That had them telling the Jews who had become Christians, and who ate with Gentiles, that they could no longer call themselves Jews. Then, they began saying Jesus was not a true Jew because he had broken away from the traditions dear to his ancestors.
To prove that Jesus honored his Jewish ancestors, Matthew began his Gospel with this genealogy that showed Jesus to be the descendent of Abraham and David. You can’t be more Jewish than that.
Jewish genealogies were never expected to be accurate, and this one certainly was not. While eight hundred years elapsed between Abraham and David, just four hundred elapsed between David and the Babylonian captivity, and six hundred elapsed between that captivity and St. Joseph. And yet this account tells us there were fourteen generations in that eight hundred year span, in that four hundred year span, and in that six hundred year span.
Matthew knew the very tricky way Oriental minds worked. He knew they would mentally break the three groupings of fourteen generations into six sets of seven generations. With that, Jesus would fit in as the first of the seventh set. It sounds crazy, but For Jews back then that position marked one as God’s beloved.
Such genealogies never included the names of women, but Matthew purposely included three women in the ancestry of King David. They were Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth. They were all Gentile women. Since those Gentiles were good enough for David, they should have been good enough for the Pharisees.