Son of Israel, Chosen People of the Old Covenant

Author: Pope John Paul II

In his General Audience on Wednesday, 4 February 1987, the Holy Father spoke of Jesus' upbringing as a son of Israel.

Of the two genealogies of Jesus mentioned in the previous reflection, that of Matthew's Gospel (cf. 1:1-17) is made out in a descending order, that is, it lists the ancestors of Jesus, son of Mary, beginning from Abraham. The other in St. Luke's Gospel, (cf. 3:23-38) is in ascending order, beginning with Jesus and going back to Adam.

While Luke's genealogy links Jesus with the whole of humanity, Matthew's genealogy makes evident the fact that he was of the offspring of Abraham. It is as a son of Israel, God's Chosen People in the old covenant, to which he directly belongs, that Jesus of Nazareth is fully a member of the great human family.

Jesus was born among this people; he grew up in their religion and culture. He was a true Israelite who thought and expressed himself in Aramaic according to the conceptual and linguistic categories of his contemporaries. He followed the customs and usages of his surroundings. As an Israelite he was a faithful heir of the old covenant.

St. Paul highlights this fact when in the Letter to the Romans he writes of his people: "They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenant, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ" (Rom 9:4-5). In the Letter to the Galatians he recalls that Christ was "born under the law" (Gal 4:4).

Shortly after his birth Jesus was circumcised according to the ritual prescriptions of the Mosaic law, thus becoming officially a member of the people of the covenant: "At the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus" (Lk 2:21).

The Infancy Gospel, however scarce in details concerning the first part of Jesus' life, mentions however that "his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover" (Lk 2:41), an indication of their fidelity to the law and tradition of Israel. "When he [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up according to custom" (Lk 2:42). "When they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, without his parents knowing it" (Lk 2:43). After searching for three days "they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions" (Lk 2:46). Superimposed on the joy of Mary and Joseph were his words which they did not understand: "How is it that you sought me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Lk 2:49).

Apart from this event, the whole period of the infancy and youth of Jesus is passed over in silence in the Gospel. It is the period of his "hidden life," summarized by Luke in two simple statements: Jesus "went down with them [Mary and Joseph] and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them" (Lk 2:51); and "He progressed steadily in wisdom and age and grace before God and men" (Lk 2:52).

We learn from the Gospels that Jesus lived in his own family, in the house of Joseph, who took the place of a father in regard to Mary's son by assisting and protecting him and gradually training him in his own trade of carpenter. The people of the town of Nazareth regarded him as "the carpenter's son" (cf. Mt 13:55). When he began to teach, his fellow citizens asked with surprise: "Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?" (Mk 6:3). Besides his mother they mentioned also his "brothers" and his "sisters," that is, those members of his kin ("cousins"), who lived at Nazareth. It was they who, as the evangelist Mark mentions, sought to dissuade Jesus from his activity of teaching (cf. Mk 3:21). Evidently they did not find in him anything to justify the beginning of a new activity. They thought that Jesus was just like any other Israelite, and should remain such.

Jesus' public ministry began at the age of thirty when he held his first discourse at Nazareth: "He went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; and there was handed to him the book of the prophet Isaiah..." (Lk 4:16-17). Jesus read the passage beginning with the words: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor..." (Lk 4:18). Jesus then turned to those present and announced: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Lk 4:21).

In his teaching, which began at Nazareth and extended to Galilee and to Judea as far as the capital, Jerusalem, Jesus made use of the rich religious tradition of Israel. He penetrated it with a new insight, revealed its key values and set out its prophetic perspectives. He did not hesitate to condemn deviations from the plan of the God of the covenant.

In this way he brought about, within the scope of the one and the same divine revelation, the transition from the "old" to the "new," not by abolishing the law but by bringing it to fulfillment (cf. Mt 5:17). It is with this thought that the Letter to the Hebrews opens: "In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son..." (Heb 1:1).

This transition from the "old" to the "new" characterizes the whole teaching of the "prophet" of Nazareth. A particularly clear example is the Sermon on the Mount recorded in Matthew's Gospel. Jesus says: "You have heard that it was said to the men of old, 'You shall not kill....' But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment" (Mt 5:21-22). "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (Mt 5:27-28). "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you..." (Mt 5:43-44).

Teaching in this way, Jesus states at the same time: "Think not that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Mt 5:17).

This "fulfillment" is a key word which refers not only to the teaching of the truth revealed by God, but also to the whole history of Israel, or of the people of which Jesus is a son. This extraordinary history, guided from the very beginning by the powerful hand of the God of the covenant, finds its fulfillment in Jesus. The plan which the God of the covenant had inscribed from the very beginning in this history, making it the history of salvation, was ordered to the "fullness of time" (cf. Gal 4:4) which is realized in Jesus Christ. The prophet of Nazareth did not hesitate to speak of it from his very first discourse delivered in the synagogue of his own town.

Jesus' words recorded in John's Gospel are particularly eloquent, when he said to his opponents: "Your father Abraham rejoiced that he was to see my day..." and in the face of their incredulity: "You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?" Jesus again more explicitly asserted: "Truly, truly, I say to you before Abraham was, I am" (cf. Jn 8:56-58). It is evident that Jesus affirmed not only that he is the fulfillment of God's salvific plan, inscribed in the history of Israel from the time of Abraham, but that his existence precedes the time of Abraham, even to the point of identifying himself with "He who is" (cf. Ex 3:14). Precisely for this reason, he, Jesus Christ, is the fulfillment of the history of Israel, because he transcends this history by his mystery. Here, however, we touch another dimension of Christology that we shall deal with later.

For the present we shall conclude with a final reflection on the two genealogies recorded by the evangelists Matthew and Luke. From them it follows that Jesus is a true son of Israel and that, as such, he belongs to the whole human family. If therefore we see the prophecies of the Old Testament fulfilled in Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, in him, as the descendant of Adam, we can discern, following the teaching of St. Paul, the principle and kernel of the "recapitulation" of all humanity (cf. Eph 1:10).