February 22, 2016

Both Matthew's and Luke's Gospels provide genealogies for Jesus, a matter which fills with trepidation those who have to proclaim the Gospel at the liturgy, but which otherwise is of close to zero interest for contemporary Christians.

Who really cares that Jesus descended from ". . . Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat . . ." (Matthew 1.7-8)? What difference does this make to our faith and to our understanding of Jesus?

Well, it does tell us one important thing - that for people of Jesus' time, a person gained their identity from their family. One's family tree defined, in no small part, who they were.

So it is important that Matthew includes in his genealogy of Jesus the mention of four women who either came from outside the Jewish fold or who, in the case of "the wife of Uriah," conceived Jesus' ancestor Solomon through adultery.

It is also important that while Matthew traces Jesus' origins back to Abraham, Luke takes the family tree all the way back to Adam. Matthew emphasizes Jesus' Jewish connection, a prelude to presenting Jesus as a staunch defender of the Mosaic Law. Luke, in contrast, portrays Jesus as the New Adam, the Jewish messiah with a universal mission.

For people of Jesus' time, the family tree was important because the family connection was everything. One's extended family was the source of one's identity as well as one's future hopes. For a peasant to lose one's connection with his extended family meant losing his right to inherit land. Losing that family connection meant becoming a nobody.

In that light, Jesus' attitude toward his own family was shocking, and people were duly shocked.

In Mark's Gospel, after Jesus began healing people, casting out demons and then appointing 12 apostles, his family went out to restrain him because people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind" (3.21). Jesus' actions were perceived not only as crazy, but as bringing shame upon his family.

Shortly thereafter, Jesus' mother and brothers came to see him. Informed of this, Jesus looked around at the crowd before him and declared, "Here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother" (3.31-35).

Although blessed by being raised by Mary and Joseph, Jesus nevertheless taught that faith must be rooted in a personal commitment.


Although blessed by being raised by Mary and Joseph, Jesus nevertheless taught that faith must be rooted in a personal commitment.

It is surely noteworthy that Mark is the only evangelist who relates the incident about people saying that Jesus has gone out of his mind. But both Matthew and Luke do include the later incident in which Jesus changes the nature of his family from his blood relatives to those who do the will of God.

Luke does go on and include another episode in which Jesus turns to the large crowds following him and says, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple" (14.26).


It is reasonable to conclude that Jesus really did say these things, and that his words caused consternation among his followers and the evangelists.

The simple interpretation is that Jesus implies that membership in the Church is more important than one's family connections. That is true enough, but the source of consternation is that he has relativized the family connection, the bedrock of ancient Jewish society.

More than supposed rudeness to his family, Jesus is challenging the basis of society's social structure. He does not say the family should be abolished. Far from it.

He holds that marriage is indissoluble (Mark 10.2-12), and the Church teaches that the family is the basic unit of society. But Jesus does reject anything, even the family, that prevents one from following the will of God.

Luke astutely sees the consequence of this. The faith to which Jesus calls his followers is a universal faith, not a faith embedded in a particular culture. Jesus is not merely the New Abraham, but also the New Adam.

Previously, faith and Jewish culture had been one fabric, totally embedded in each other. No one would have distinguished faith from culture.

The universal faith to which Jesus calls all humanity stands outside and above any culture. For nearly 2,000 years, making that separation was a huge struggle, one that defined much of Church history. Often, Christian faith was made subservient to the whims of political rulers.


The blessing of secularism - if one dare call it a blessing - is that it sundered the subservience of faith to culture. Christianity, to be sure, did influence the development of culture. But the response of faith was often something imposed from above - whether by a prince, a family or an ethnic tradition.

In the Western world, we are now into No Man's Land. Culture no longer determines faith; faith must be a personal commitment. There is a great peril in this situation in that moral laws and cultural norms are being set aside in the name of the primacy of the individual.

There is also light. A new evangelization can lead us into an era when faith is rooted in personal commitment, not in conformity to family expectations.

Should the new evangelization take hold, humanity will finally grow into the New Adam; faith in Jesus may begin to determine the shape of culture rather than being determined by it.