When it comes up in the lectionary at Mass, the priest tends to make jokes about it because the genealogy at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel is very long, very repetitive and very full of confusing names. The most skilled reader in the world could not make names like “Zerubbabel” sound normal. So it may be partly my stubborn streak and my desire to be different, but I have come to love that Gospel passage, and I have found it to be a source of deep inspiration.
It’s partly because it sets the coming of Christ and the scandal of the Incarnation firmly in the concrete details of human history. Setting the stage with a sweeping saga of the generations before, it reminds us of how long the world had waited for the promised Savior, and also that he chose a specific time, a specific place to become fully human. There is something beautiful about the parade of unfamiliar names suddenly resolving into “Joseph, the husband of Mary. Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah.”
But what really gets me is that this genealogy specifically highlights for us the fact that the place Christ chose to come is all the way into our brokenness. His lineage is full of people with broken and even scandalous stories, but the place where the Gospel writer makes it the most startlingly blatant is in the line: “David became the father of Solomon, whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.” For those who don’t know or maybe just forgot, the episode this references is when King David not only had an affair with a married woman but also, when she became pregnant, actually had her husband killed to cover up his own sin and be with her. If that doesn’t seem incredibly problematic, you probably need to read those details (or the full Bible passage) again.
What makes this whole thing so mysterious is that this episode does not change David’s status as “a man after God’s own heart.” It’s important to know that David did repent — quickly and profoundly. It’s also important to know that he did suffer repercussions for his sin in the loss of the first child they conceived. However, when that is passed, God seems to truly forget his sin. Not only does he spend the rest of his life with the wife of Uriah, he remains sort of the favorite child of the Old Testament. He is held up as the good king, the standard by which most others fall short; he is at the center of Christ’s symbol-rich lineage, both in this Gospel passage and through many prophecies. David’s poetry and praise (the Psalms) remain a central part of our prayer as a Church today and (remains) an astonishing fact that God calls David, “a man after my own heart.”
So what does this mean for us?
What it does not mean is that sin is not real or that it does not matter what we do in our lives. David’s sin was very real — it caused ripple effects of suffering for him and those around him.
What his example does mean is that it is God who transforms us, and what matters is not so much our moral rap sheet as the degree to which we remain open to God and whole-hearted in our relationship with him.
And if we look a little deeper, David’s example is surprisingly similar to Mary’s. One of them was completely freed from sin and the other was clearly not. Nevertheless, David was, like Mary, radically open to the Lord — completely reliant on God’s love, mercy, and providence, and whole-hearted in his devotion and love. Mary was prepared as the exalted vessel for our incarnate God, and her yes was the instrument by which he became man and walked among us. But David’s yes also allowed God to come. He, like us, was burdened by sin. He, like us, did not physically give birth to God. But because of David’s yes, God was more present to his people. David built up the kingdom, gave the world extraordinary prayers, and made the goodness and love of the kingship of God more present to Israel. He became a living image, even in his imperfections, of the love of God. And that is what we are also called to be.
And if God can work through a murdering adulterer and make him into an extraordinary and beloved king, he certainly can work wonders both in and through us.
My favorite prayer of Advent is the simple, “be born in me.” Because, like Dorothy Day, like David, like the saints before me, my heart is a stable — broken, dingy, sad. But if I open it as a place for Christ to dwell in, he can transform me, build me up into the full measure of who he created me to be.
David became part of the genealogy of Jesus. That exalted role is not the role God is asking of us. But his plan is always life-giving, extraordinary and beautiful. If we remain open and whole-hearted in our love, he will make us holy. He will make us saints who transform the world around us.