Baggage is bearable

baggage

As a child growing up I used to dread times when we talked about family history, ancestry, the whole ‘where-do-we-come-from’ bit.

I used to dread it because I couldn’t trace my family line further back than my Dad. My Gran had fallen pregnant as a 16 year old and she had had my Dad out of wedlock – an enormous scandal in the late 30s.

It was a bit of a family ‘skeleton’, something that everyone knew but no-one talked about.

Such things can be very destructive, for they convey a sense of shame that is deeply felt, but can’t be remedied.

I hadn’t thought about this for many years, but it struck me today as I was reading Matthew chapter one.

For there, in the genealogy of Jesus, I saw similar family ‘skeletons’ being listed for all to see.

In Matthew’s genealogy he traces the line of Joseph – Jesus’ legal father – back to Abraham, the starting point of the People of God.

In this list there were five women mentioned – each of which have some shadow over them.

Mary, Jesus Mother is the most well known and, although entirely innocent, the supernatural nature of her pregnancy out of wedlock cast a shadow over her socially.

The other four women were Gentiles. Tamar was a Canaanite; Rahab was of Jericho, and was a Gentile; Ruth was a Moabitess; and “the wife of Uriah” (Bathsheba) was a Hittite.

Reading their stories is deeply enlightening.

Tamar’s Story:

Tamar was a widow. Her husband Er had been killed by God because of his wickedness[1]. This wickedness is unspecified but Jewish sources identify it as a sexual sin. The brothers Er and Onan are named together and accused of avoiding their duty under the Levirate law.

They effectively practiced rhythm-method birth control. Er’s motivation seems either to have been that he did not love Tamar and had not wanted her as his wife; he had wanted a Canaanite wife (his Mother’s kinfolk)[2]; other Jewish sources say that he didn’t want Tamar to fall pregnant because he wanted to preserve her beauty for as long as possible[3].

When God kills Er for his sin, his brother Onan then has the Levirate obligation of providing Tamar with children. But poor Tamar finds that Onan just continues in the same way as Er had. Having sex with her but keeping her from getting pregnant. So God kills Onan for his sin too.

The obligation to give Tamar a child then passes up the line to her Father-in-Law Judah. Judah, avoids his obligation by sending her back to her Father’s house to live as a widow but with the promise that he will give his son to her when he comes of the age to marry (a promise he has no intention of honouring). The years pass and the son grows up, but Judah refuses to marry him to Tamar[4].

Eventually Tamar uses deception to force Judah to give her a child. She disguises herself as a prostitute and then Judah has sex with her without knowing her identity (prostitutes wore a veil). In this way she forces her Father in Law to fulfill his duty under the Levitical Law and give her a child as her inheritance.

Ruth’s Story:

Ruth was a Moabitess and had grown up worshipping foreign gods. Moab was a people who were under God’s curse (Deuteronomy 23:3). Doesn’t seem like a promising start. Ruth also experiences family disaster she is widowed before she has any children and her brother-in-law and Father-in-Law also die.

What a mess, and yet she attaches herself to her Mother-in-Law, Naomi – a Jewess – and specifically to Naomi’s people[5] and she accompanies Naomi as she returns to her kinsfolk, but in despair and with no anticipation of anything but a future of misery.

Against hope and expectation Ruth, with Naomi’s wise guidance and counsel, ends up finding a righteous man who will take her as his wife; it is possible that Boaz has been recently widowed himself[6].

Indeed, some Jewish traditions are highly interesting;

The BT (Bava Batra 91a) identifies Boaz with the judge Ibzan mentioned in Judges 12. The latter had thirty sons and thirty daughters, and Bava Batra asserts that they all died in his lifetime. This fact creates an analogy between Boaz and Naomi—a widow who lost her sons—and between him and Ruth—both have experienced loss of a spouse. Their second marriage and the birth of their son therefore constitute a healing for both, not only for Ruth.[7]

Ruth and Boaz are blessed with a child, and her great-grandson is none other than David, the great King of Israel. Even more amazingly, through David’s line, she becomes part of Jesus’ human ancestry.

Rahab’s Story:

Rahab was a Gentile, a worshipper of pagan gods, and also a prostitute. We encounter her in the story of the People of Israel’s conquest of the Promised Land[8].

Jewish legends say that Rahab had become a prostitute (probably sold into it) at the age of 10 and that she was very beautiful.

The midrash includes Rahab among the four most beautiful women the world has ever known: Sarah, Rahab, Abigail and Esther. Anyone who mentioned her name, saying, “Rahab, Rahab,” immediately lusted after her.” (BT Megillah 15a)[9]

If her background and occupation were not promising spiritually, neither was her location, for Jericho was one of the strongholds of idol worship, being devoted to Ashtaroth, the moon goddess. Whose cult included the most degrading sexual practices.

Jericho is the main stronghold in Canaan, and Joshua, the leader of Israel sends two spies on a mission of reconnaissance.

However, the king of Jericho gets word of these spies in his city and sends out the guards. Rahab, in whose brothel the spies were staying , (Jewish legends say that her premises, being built into the city wall itself, enabled her to receive clients from outside as well as inside the city), protects them by hiding them on her roof.

She tells the spies that the citizens of Jericho had been fearful of the Israelites ever since they defeated the Egyptians in the Red Sea miracle (some 40 years previous). She agrees to help them escape, in return for protection. The spies agree, but with three conditions:

1) she must make her house clearly identifiable by hanging a scarlet cord out of the window

2) her family must be inside the house

3) she must not later change her allegiance.

Rahab, is in fact, the first recorded Gentile convert. Theologians have seen many ways in which Rahab is a prefiguration of the church.

First, she was part of a pagan world system, a prostitute, who by her conversion become a legitimate bride. In like fashion the Gentiles have been brought into the kingdom of God, and as such are now a part of the bride of Christ[10].

Second, Rahab, was saved because of her faith in “God in heaven above and on the earth below”[11]

So after 40 years of life as a prostitute Rahab turns her life around. She sides with God and with His Chosen People and she repents of her sinfulness.

Master of the Universe! I have sinned with three things [with my eye, my thigh, and my stomach].

By the merit of three things pardon me: the rope, the window, and the wall [pardon me for engaging in harlotry because I endangered myself when I lowered the rope for the spies from the window in the wall] [12].

In Jewish legends Rahab is said to have married Joshua after her conversion to Judaism and she became the ancestress of eight prophets and priests among, two of which were the prophet Jeremiah and the prophetess Huldah[13].

That a proselyte and former prostitute could become such a significant person in the story of God’s Chosen People is seen as proof of the scope and possibility of repentance and salvation, no matter how great our sins.

Rahab thus became seen as a model of repentance within Jewish culture,

Rahab symbolizes proper behavior, in contrast to the sinning Israelites. The Rabbis apply to Jeremiah, who was descended from Rahab, the proverb: “The son of the corrupted one who mended her ways will come and reproach the son of the fit one who had gone astray”—the son of Rahab, who was a prostitute who had mended her ways, shall rebuke the Israelites, of proper lineage, who had degenerated (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, op cit., 13:4). This exposition accents the power a person has to determine whether his/her deeds will be good or bad, regardless of his/her origins.[14]

This connection with Jeremiah – her grandson – has another interesting element. When Jeremiah is thrown into a pit for having dared prophesy God’s uncomfortable word to the people of Israel, the foreign eunuch-slave, Ebed-Melech defends him to the king and is then sent to rescue him.

A midrash has Jeremiah asking God for a ladder, to which God replies,

“You want a ladder? Your grandmother Rahab used a rope,

as it is written: ‘She let them down by a rope through the window,’

and you, too, shall be saved by a rope (Joshua 2:15)’[15].

Which is exactly what comes to pass, when Ebed-Melech turns up with ropes and cloths to pull Jeremiah out of the pit[16].

Bathsheba’s Story:

Bathsheba was a foreigner, a Hittite, who committed adultery with King David while her husband was away fighting in David’s army.

She is presented as the innocent party in Jewish writings. David was the all-powerful king and Bathsheba was merely the wife of one of his army commanders; she was therefore in little position to resist his advances.

When Bathsheba falls pregnant David seeks to cover it up by recalling Uriah from the battlefield and getting him to have sexual relations with Bathsheba. In this way the coming baby might be assumed to be Uriah’s offspring.

However, Uriah will not enjoy the pleasures of home life whilst his men are in peril of their lives on the battlefield. David tries to get him drunk in the hope that his principles will be forgotten, but he is unsuccessful.

Finally, David sends Uriah back to his duties, but gets another of his military commanders to set up a scenario in which Uriah will almost certainly be killed. The strategy is successful and Uriah dies. David then marries Bathsheba.

God sends the prophet Nathan to David with a message that exposes David’s sin. David is struck to the core and confesses his guilt before God. He repents and does penance and receives God’s forgiveness.

However, although God pardoned David for his sin with Bathsheba, there are still consequences.

The child is born but then becomes sick and, in spite of all David’s prayers for his healing, dies.

Neither did the people forget about the incident; it continues to come back to haunt David, Bathsheba and their son Solomon throughout their lives.

As Solomon himself was to write,

Can a man walk on hot coals without scorching his feet?

 It is the same with one who sleeps with his fellow’s wife; none who touches her will go unpunished.[17]

From his own bitter family experience Solomon compares adultery to a burn, something whose marks are visible forever.

Bathsheba was also the subject of slander. When she and David fled to Jerusalem in the wake of his son Absalom’s revolt, Bathsheba’s carriage went before David’s. The Bible records that Shimei son of Gera witnessed this and poured out insults upon them[18].

The Rabbis see an indication of the nature of the curses from the word used for ‘outrageously’ (nimrezet). Which they interpret as an acrostic;

no’ef (adulterer, for having taken Bathsheba);

Moavi (Moabite, as a descendant of Ruth, a Gentile);

rozeah (murderer, for killing Uriah);

zorer (oppressor, for causing the deaths of Israelites);

to’evah (abomination).

A large portion of these curses describe the sins David committed in his taking of Bathsheba[19]

Solomon too, knew the fall-out from his parent’s sin. After Solomon had completed the Temple[20] 11 months passed with the doors still locked[21]. The Rabbis say that tongues began to wag;

Everyone slandered Solomon, saying: “Is he not the son of Bathsheba? How can God have His Shekhinah rest within his handiwork?”[22].

Bathsheba seems to have continued to be of influence after her husband David’s death. The midrashic account of Solomon’s judgment of the prostitutes has Bathsheba sat to Solomon’s left, and Ruth to his right.[23]

Indeed there are rabbinic suppositions that Solomon’s wisdom was partly due to Bathsheba’s influence[24].

So Bathsheba is also a model of redemption – she was the Gentile wife of a hired soldier yet became a Jewish queen who lived and acted with nobility and honour.

Now what does the inclusion of these women in the family tree of Jesus teach us?

Firstly, we need to note the highly unusual inclusion of women in a genealogy. This almost never happened, therefore these women are mentioned for a reason, something big is being communicated by their inclusion.

Secondly, these women reveal the mess of the Messiah’s own family tree. These women all exemplified great faith at crucial moments in their lives; however there were also some less praiseworthy elements in there too. If God Himself is not embarrassed by having these women in His human ancestry, then we should be encouraged to come to terms with our own family ‘skeletons’.

In Christ it is not the failings of the past (our own or our families) that counts, but rather Christ’s own achievement on the cross – through which He redeemed, ransomed, forgave and cleansed us.

Thirdly, these women point us forwards to the climax of the Gospel, where Jesus will send out the disciples to all the nations of the world[25]. The Family of God is no longer restricted to one people group, rather it is opened up to the whole world – something that was promised in the initial Call of Abraham[26], where God told him that all nations would be blessed through him, and is expressed in concrete terms by the inclusion of these foreign women in the Messiah’s own family line.

Fourthly, the four foreign women in the genealogy show us that the People of God is not solely a matter of genetics and bloodlines, but of faith. These four women embraced, by faith, God’s Promise of salvation – the Messianic Hope of Israel. On the basis of that faith they were therefore included in the People of God, even though they were ‘biological’ outsiders to Israel. Their inclusion is so complete that they become a part of the bloodline that will eventually lead to the Messiah.

I’ve got baggage, you’ve got baggage. But so what!? Jesus had baggage too. He had ‘skeletons’ in His family cupboard. These skeletons are not a cause of shame, but a cause of rejoicing. As we have seen each one of them points to the wonderful grace and mercy of God; who includes failures, outcasts and sinners in His family tree.

Our baggage is bearable.

[1] Genesis 38:7

[2] Jubilees 41:1-3

[3] Bavli Yevamot 34b

[4] Genesis 38 :11, 14, 26

[5] Ruth 1 :16

[6] BT Bava Batra 91a; Ruth Rabbah 3:5; JT Ketubot 1:1, 25a

[7] Tamar Meir, ‘Ruth: Midrash and Aggadah’, accessed online at  http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/ruth-midrash-and-aggadah on 17/09/15

[8] Joshua 2–6

[9] Tamar Kadari, ‘Rahab: Midrash and Aggadah’, accessed online at http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rahab-midrash-and-aggadah on 17/09/15

[10] See Romans 11 and Ephesians 5:25-27

[11] Joshua 2 :11

[12] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Masekhta de-Amalek, Yitro 1

[13] Meg. 14b; Ginzberg, Legends, 4 (1954), 5–8

[14] Tamar Kadari, ibid.

[15] Midrash Samuel [ed. Buber] 9:7

[16] Jeremiah 38:13

[17] Proverbs 6:28–29

[18] 1 Kings 2 :8

[19] Midrash Tehillim 3:3

[20] 1 Kings 6 :38

[21] 1 Kings 8 :2

[22] Pesikta Rabbati [ed. Friedmann (Ish-Shalom)], para. 6

[23] Sifrei Zuta on Numbers , 10:29

[24] Tanhuma, Shemot 1

[25] Matthew 28 :19

[26] Genesis 12 :1-3

Advertisements

Only Say the Word

Word with scrabble blocks

As the Priest invites us to go forward to take communion the liturgy of the Mass includes the response of the people;

“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed.”

This quote comes from the gospel story of Jesus and the Roman Centurion.

“When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help.

‘Lord,’ he said, ‘my servant lies at home paralysed, suffering terribly.’

Jesus said to him, ‘Shall I come and heal him?’

The centurion replied, ‘Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I myself am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. I tell this one, “Go,” and he goes; and that one, “Come,” and he comes. I say to my servant, “Do this,” and he does it.’

When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, ‘Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith …. Then Jesus said to the centurion, ‘Go! Let it be done just as you believed it would.’ And his servant was healed at that moment.” (Matt 8:5-13 NIVUK)

This Roman Centurion, a non-Jew, is congratulated on his faith; a faith which surpasses any Jesus has found amongst his own people, the Jews.

This soldier understands two things:

Firstly, and perhaps unsurprisingly, he understands about authority. He understands that when authority is invested in someone whatever they say, goes; there is no argument, no discussion, no debate. The one is authority speaks his will and others run to carry it out.

Secondly, this unnamed soldier has come to understand that Jesus has authority over sickness and disease.

His faith is proved to be well founded as Jesus does “speak the word of command” and the sickness leaves his servant’s body.

All of which is rather wonderful, but we need to understand that, wonderful as it is, this authority to heal is merely a tiny part of the universal authority of Jesus.

“Then Jesus came to them and said,

‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” (Matthew 28:18 NIVUK)

Do you get this?! ALL AUTHORITY!!

There is NOTHING in the created universe that is not under Jesus’ direct command.

No situation, no power, no world leader, no nation, no plague, no pestilence.

EVERYTHING is under his command.

“Only say the word”

This phrase then becomes for the Christian a wonderful summing up of the limitless possibility of God. He has only to say the word.

By a wonderful fluke, in the English Bible the words of the Centurion are found in Luke 7:7 (and Matthew 8:8). Those with some background knowledge of Jewish culture will know that 7 is the known as the number of perfection, of completeness.

Our faith will be perfect, will be complete, when we can hold onto the fact, in each and every situation, that no outcome is definite, no possibility excluded, until God has spoken. He has only to say the word, the word of limitless possibility, and everything can change. He has the authority to do so. And we need to remember it.

I am reminded of the reaction of the crowd in the synagogue when Jesus cast a demon out of a man.

“And they were all amazed, and spake among themselves, saying, ‘What a word is this! for with authority and power he commandeth the unclean spirits, and they come out.’” (Luke 4:36 AKJV)

“What a word is this!”

Perhaps we need to live more with this kind of expectation. All we need is for Jesus to speak a word, and everything can change.

Indeed, it is only because Jesus wields such unlimited power and authority, that he was able to continue his discourse as he did;

“Then Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20 NIVUK)