FROM ARCHBISHOP ANTHONY
December 3, A. D. 2017
To the Most Reverend and Right Reverend Hierarchs, Very Reverend and Reverend Clergy, Monastics,
and Faithful of The Orthodox Archdiocese of America (New York)
Dearly Beloved Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The story of the origin of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1)
When you open your Bible to the first page of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, the first book of the New Testament, those are the first words you read. Most of us glance at what follows, and skip to the 18th verse. Here goes. This is the Revised English Bible translation:
The story of the origin of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham:
Abraham was the father of Isaac;
Isaac was the father of Jacob;
Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers;
Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, by Tamar;
Perez was the father of Hezron;
Hezron was the father of Aram;
Aram was the father of Amminadab;
Amminadab was the father of Nahshon;
Nahshon was the father of Salmon;
Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab;
Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth;
Obed was the father of Jesse;
Jesse was the father of David the King.
David was the father of Solomon by Uriah’s wife;
Solomon was the father of Rehoboam;
Rehoboam was the father of Abijah;
Abijah was the father of Asaph;
Asaph was the father of Jehoshaphat;
Jehoshaphat was the father of Joram;
Joram was the father of Uzziah;
Uzziah was the father of Jotham;
Jotham was the father of Ahaz;
Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah;
Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh;
Manasseh was the father of Amos;
Amos was the father of Josiah;
Josiah was the father of Jechoniah and his brothers
at the time of the Babylonian Exile.
After the Babylonian Exile,
Jechoniah was the father of Shealtiel;
Shealtiel was the father of Zerubbabel;
Zerubbabel was the father of Abiud;
Abiud was the father of Eliakim;
Eliakin was the father of Azor;
Azor was the father of Zadok;
Zadok was the father of Achim;
Achim was the father of Eliud;
Eliud was the father of Eleazar;
Eleazar was the father of Matthan;
Matthan was the father of Jacob;
Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary;
of her was begotten Jesus, called the Messiah.
Thus the total of the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations; and from David to the Babylonian Exile were fourteen more generations; and finally from the Babylonian Exile to the Messiah fourteen more generations. (Matthew 1:1-17, REB)
If someone asked you, “Tell me about Jesus Christ; who is he, where did he come from?” Would you start there, where Matthew does? And note further that when the Church assembled the New Testament, Matthew’s Gospel was placed first, in the position of greatest dignity. So the first thing anyone will read when opening the New Testament is this list of names. I suspect, however, that not only have most of us never heard this Lesson read in Church, but we have never even read it by ourselves.
We also forget that for nearly 200 years after the resurrection, there was no New Testament. O yes, the letters of Paul were read here and there, along with other letters from apostles and other bishops such as Ignatius, Polycarp and Clement. Indeed, there were ‘Gospels’ of Thomas, of Pilate, of the Hebrews, and others, that didn’t make it into the New Testament, when the Church finally decided to put it together. But that is not the subject today. The important thing for us to remember is that the first Christians had what we call the Old Testament as their only Bible. It was from reading and hearing the Old Testament read, and from hearing sermons and teachings and interpretations of what we call the Old Testament, that people made that momentous decision to “Repent and believe the Gospel,” and so became Christians. So, on the strength of what we call the Old Testament, as interpreted by various apostolic teachers, they became what we now call Christians. That you and I rarely, if ever, begin to talk about Jesus by referring to the Old Testament, is a reflection on the state of our own religion.
There is an immense amount of material that could be commented on from this lesson above. We do not have the couple of hours we need to talk about it all. However, if you were reading carefully, you noted that after each fourteen names, Matthew made a little summary. In fact, there are three divisions in this long list. First are what we might call the Patriarchs; second, the Kings; and finally, the unknown and unexpected.
Matthew begins the story of the “Origin, or Genesis, or Advent” (the Greek word can be translated by any of these English words) of Jesus Christ with Abraham. By doing so Matthew firmly associates Jesus with the history of the Jewish people. The story of Jesus cannot be understood apart from that history. And the history of the Jewish people as a distinct entity on the world stage begins with Abraham. Although Abraham became a man of wealth and influence, he began as an immigrant to the land to which God had called him. Abraham’s strongest point was his complete faith in God. The implication is that Abraham’s wealth was the result of his faith. And Paul spends much time and energy making this specific point. Now, although Abraham had what we would call an illegitimate child, it was through his son Isaac that the line continued. Then Isaac became the father of Jacob. Now there is no way to describe Jacob except to say that he was a complete scoundrel: a liar, a cheat, a thief: a crook in many ways. Yet it was Jacob who became the father of the Twelve Patriarchs. And they were the origin of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, Jacob’s other name. Yet Matthew mentions only Judah not the better known Joseph.
Matthew is faithful to the great understanding of the Jews, that God cannot be controlled by human beings in any way. God’s love comes to humanity because God chooses to bring God’s love to us, not because we can do anything at all to deserve it or to earn it. We are saved by grace, not by anything we do or say or think.
Matthew wants us to be perfectly clear that the ancestors of Jesus include not only the holy and righteous, but also the sinners and the needy and, indeed the immoral. This is THE fitting introduction to Jesus. For Jesus seeks out the poor and needy; Jesus preaches to the sinners and not the religious people; Jesus will die for us and for our salvation.
Yet, as we go through the list of the first fourteen, we seem to go onward and upward from the Abraham who started out with no land (we could say Abraham had no kingdom): he only had a promise; a promise that came from a vision. The history seems to reach a climax, a pinnacle, in David. David is the great king who rules over all the land that God has prepared for the People of God, since the promise to Abraham. David is also the sole owner of the city of Jerusalem. This can be and indeed often was and even still is seen as the high point of God’s promise to his people Israel. It is this that many then and now expected to be restored! Matthew carries this through in his description of the first Palm Sunday: Hosanna to the son of David!
But when we come to the second list of fourteen names, it is clear that the kings are not a high point of history. They are the prime example of how we can misconstrue God’s intentions by trying to make them conform to our own desires. The Hebrews wanted to be a significant world power, and that was their understanding of the kingdom promised to David. From this kingdom they were going to dominate the world. Yet, except for two, the story of their kings is the story of decadence, deterioration and disaster. Ultimately, their kingdom is destroyed at the time of the Babylonian Exile. Matthew is careful to point this out.
The last set of names contains only four who made it into the books. All of the others are unknown to history. They are a collection of unknown people who never did anything of significance, either good or bad. We know no more about them than their names.
Yet it is from this list of unknown people, this list of insignificant people that the disaster of the Babylonian Exile is to be undone. But, it involves another way of understanding the action of God in God’s world. God’s will cannot be thwarted. The high and mighty, the kings and princes, the rich and powerful, the important ancestral names, these are not the ones God uses to accomplish God’s will. God uses those whom the world considers to be insignificant and unimportant to minister God’s grace and love.
One more thing needs to be noted. Matthew includes in his lists the names of several women, besides Mary, the mother of Jesus. Some people will say that it is because of Mary’s name that Matthew’s gospel comes first she is the climax of this whole introduction. But look at the names! It is not the well known, the highly revered women like Sarah and Rebekah and Rachel who are listed. The first woman is Tamar. Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and seduces her father-in-law, Judah, to father a child on behalf of his two dead sons and so to carry on their line. The second woman is Rahab, who is a professional prostitute. She protected her Israelite-spy clients, caught in an off duty moment during the conquest of Jericho. Ruth was a foreigner who showed faithfulness and love when her Hebrew relatives would not do so. She was David’s grandmother, and so Matthew reminds us that David was not even a full Jew! Bathsheba’s name is not even mentioned: she is called Uriah’s wife, to emphasize the sin of David. You remember that David had her husband killed so he could marry her and satisfy his lust. Again, Matthew shows that God has chosen the unusual, the weak and the strange (not to mention that they all are foreigners): yet they are to bring God’s love to humanity.
These strange women in fact provide a proper introduction to Mary the mother of Jesus. For hers too was a different from normal situation. She is betrothed to be married, but she has not had any sexual relations with her husband, and look! Here she is pregnant! What a scandal! Joseph shows his kindness and care and love by not having her stoned to death, as was the Law of the time. He was simply going to give her a quiet divorce.
So you see that Matthew’s Gospel begins by showing us that God works in God’s own way. God intends that God’s love be brought to all humanity. To do that, God has chosen what the world sees as a second or third rate nation, who, in the world’s eyes, stole the very land they lived on. God used strange and unusual people, according to the world’s view. An immigrant, a scoundrel, people who paid no attention to God’s action, people who misunderstood God’s love, people whom the world calls weak, foolish and immoral; God even used women! God uses the ordinary, the unknown, the unusual and the unexpected.
That is the message that Matthew wants us to see. If God could use THIS motley crowd of people to be the ancestors of Jesus, then God also can use people like you and me. And so Matthew ends with the obvious conclusion: Go [you] therefore to all nations and make them my disciples. . .
Rejoice, my friends, rejoice! God has chosen YOU!!!
Affectionately in Christ,
Archbishop of New York
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Over the years, some have asked to have a copy of Archbishop Anthony’s Prayer. Here it is: