The Vocabulary of Faith: God
Rev. Dr. Kate Thoresen, Parish Associate, Foster/Adoptive Families Partnerships
December 30, 2018
Ex.3: 9-15; Acts 17: 22-28
Joanne Blair recently shared a story about a seminary professor who always asked, “What do you mean?” Joanne went on to say that this was one of the most important questions she heard. And it stays with her to this day. Joanne went on to say, “No matter what you’d say, this professor would respond with, ‘What do you mean by that?’ We, as seminary students, would often be left stymied at times. And yet I’m so grateful,” reported Joanne, “to be pushed to more fully articulate my own vocabulary of faith. “
Today begins a new sermon series called “The Vocabulary of Faith.” What comes to your mind when you hear the words, God? Jesus? Holy Spirit? Salvation? This First Sunday in our explorations of our Vocabularies of Faith we’ll explore ways in which God reveals God’s self. How do we begin to articulate what God means to us?
If we asked people today, “What do YOU mean when you say, ‘God,’ what do you suppose they would say?” Are we referring to a particular name? Or do we refer to a particular characteristic of God or what? If we took a poll, we’d hear many different responses. A Supreme Being? Creator? Energy Force? The life-giving Jesus as the Face of God? A Spirit? Love? Light? What would YOU say?
We also would acknowledge that God is so beyond our human comprehension that we cannot comfortably fit God into a convenient box and talk about God casually. We worship a holy God of mystery, yet a God who is closer than our breath. The God who names you. Claims you. Calls you by name and seeks to be in relationship with you. We can only sense the paradox.
Let’s look at what God revealed to Moses in the story that Katie Blair read today in Exodus 3. In this setting God is speaking to Moses through the burning bush. God gives him the mission to free the Hebrew people from Egyptian captivity. Understandably, Moses has some concerns, the main one being how he will convince his fellow Israelites that this really is a mission from (and blessed by) God. (Oxford Annotated Bible) Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” - Exodus 3:13-15
“I AM who I AM” or YHWH is here introduced as God’s personal name for the first time. This is ambiguous and points to the mysteriousness presence of Israel’s God. Scholars have puzzled for years over its meaning. It could mean “I am who I am” or it would mean “The One who causes to be.” Here we sense a timeless Presence that cannot be held in the space of our own measures of time, yet is working in human lives and history. Notice that in verse 15 God also says, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. Here God then restates God does not hesitate to identify the divine self with displaced and oppressed people. This holy name is associated with marginalized people. (The New Oxford Annotated Bible)
This revealed name of God was considered so sacred that the Hebrew people would not pronounce the name itself, but referred to God as Jehovah, Adonai, Elohim, or LORD. As we can see here, God will not be completely understood, not confined to a conceptual box. As Joanne Blair says, “God is so much bigger than any of these; if we think that we can easily begin to define God then we are probably on the wrong track. God is so much more than our human comprehension.” Yet in the story of Paul at Athens we see that Paul first uses comprehension and logic to open the minds and hearts to God as revealed in scriptures and in Jesus Christ Paul here is portrayed as the first Christian philosopher, using Stoic and Jewish arguments (Oxford Annotated Bible).
He says to them, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown God. He uses recognizable tenets from both groups and points to God as the creator, an idea common to Jews and to Greeks. That God is near to all people is a Stoic belief as well as Jewish. Then Paul quotes another Greek philosopher whom the listeners would know, “It is God in whom we live and move and have our being.” He then adds that people can know the true God through Jesus Christ.
Theologians often refer to God as a Trinity—God the Creator, God the Son, Jesus, our Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer. This Vocabulary of Faith series will explore these in greater depth. Stay tuned!
And yet even though God is so far beyond our human understanding, scripture still bears witness to God. The Bible contains almost 1000 references to God ‘s name or various characteristics of God. (www.Biblestudytools.com). Many of these point to a way that people have personally experienced God—as their Deliverer. Their Redeemer. A Light. A Shepherd who leads us beside still waters and restores our souls. The One who is with us. So what are we to say in all this? One clue comes from what the Psalmist wrote: “Be still and know that I Am God (Ps.46:10).”
This approach calls for the kind of knowing in a relationship; not necessarily based on logic or rational thought; but a deeper kind of knowing as you would know a family member or a close friend. There’s something about the essence of that person that you know that you can deeply trust. You know that they will be there for you and with you. There is respect. Love. A mutuality. People refer to this kind of knowing as those personal God moments in their lives. What was it like for you when something has turned out so well and good that you sensed that you could not have orchestrated that yourself?
A strong God moment for me happened when we were living in Florida. Our son Thomas had just been born. My father and mother had just moved to Texas from Michigan. I thought that we’d never see them—or so seldom since travelling long distances wasn’t easy with an infant. And then, Tom was transferred of all places in the United States to the Houston, Texas area. My heart and mind opened in wonder. It hit me that there truly is such a supreme benevolent force that is working for the good in ways so beyond our imagination or control.
I began to experience God as the “fount of every blessing.” And the more we sense those unmerited blessings and love in our lives, the more they want to pour out into others. What kinds of God moments have you experienced throughout the years? Something so good happening that you know you could not have caused it by yourself, yet you knew it was so right and better than what you could have possibly scripted yourself? You knew that somehow God is with you and blessing you?
So while we may not have easy definitions for God, we human beings, in our own humble ways can point to the goodness of the timeless, eternal One at work in our lives. And so, our challenge today is this: Recall a God moment in your life that has made an impression on you. Take time to wonder and relish that. Rest in it. And ask God throughout the week so open your eyes to other God moments that are happening so that you move closer to knowing the God who is. The richness and fullness of God’s perfect love await.
Let us pray: Holy God, You created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. And yet you reveal that you are mindful of us. (Ps. 8) Keep awakening us to your loving Presence so we may grow in our faith, hope and love and share that vocabulary with others. In Christ’s name. Amen.
God’s Imperfect Family: Mary the Ezer
Dr. John Judson
December 23, 2018
Luke 1:39-56; Matthew 1:1-6, 17
“One of these things is not like the other. One of these things doesn’t belong. Can you tell which of these things is not like this other by the time I finish this song?” How many of you can identify this song? Yes, it is from Sesame Street and helps children with the concepts of similarity and difference. I have to say that this is how I think about the four women in Jesus’ genealogy. Three are the same and one doesn’t belong. See if you can tell which one. Tamar, dresses like a Temple prostitute, sleeps with her father and has twins. Rahab, who is a Temple Prostitute, betrays her own people to save her family. Ruth, is a foreigner who ultimately scandalously offers herself to an older Israelite man. And finally, the blessed virgin Mary, who completely submits to the will of God to bring forth the messiah. How many of you would vote for Tamar? Rahab? Ruth? The blessed virgin Mary? Well if you voted for any of them you are wrong…because they are all the same. They are all ezers.
What is an ezer, you ask? To understand we must go back into the depths of the Old Testament. In fact, need to begin in Chapter 2 of Genesis, where God figures out that Adam can’t make it on his own and so creates for him, an ezer, who is named Eve. What is fascinating about this is that the term ezer is translated here as “helpmate”. The thought is that Adam needs someone to go around Eden picking up his leafy socks because he leaves them everywhere. This is fascinating to me because nowhere else in the Bible is ezer translated in that way. Instead, the term is translated as something like, strong deliverer or mighty warrior. It is a Hebrew military terms that is most often used to refer to God when God saves God’s own people. That’s right, in 16 of the 21 occurrences of this word, it describes God’s powerful saving work. It becomes clear that this term is not about being a helpmate, but about someone who rescues another amid danger. What I want to argue this morning is that all four of these women are ezers because they were all deliverers of their people.
Let’s begin. Tamar is the strong deliverer of her husband’s family. When her husband died before they had children, unless she acted it would be as if her husband never existed. So when justice is denied her and her husband, she acts powerfully and decisively to bring it about by sleeping with her Father-in-law, the one whom justice declares ought to father the child. Rahab understood clearly that the God of creation, the God who had led the people out of bondage in Egypt was stronger than her god, the god Jericho. So, when the Israelite spies arrive, in preparation for the attack on her hometown of Jericho, she risks her life to hide them in return for a promise to save not just her, but her entire family. She delivers then both the spies and her family. Ruth is the strong helper and protector of her mother-in-law Naomi. Because Naomi had no husband or sons, there was no one to protect or provide for her. She was completely vulnerable. Ruth, steps into the void as her ezer, her strong deliverer and protects her to the end of her days. All of which brings us to Mary, the blessed virgin, who is an ezer for the world.
One of the unfortunate things about the church is how it has sanitized Mary and turned her into an almost other-worldly saint. Images of her always depict her in blue robes, with a white head covering and a halo. You can almost hear the angelic humming in the background as she glides across the birth and death scenes in the Gospels. These images do not do justice to the ezer that she was. Here’s why. When Mary is approached by the angel on behalf of God, wondering if she would be willing to participate in this messiah birthing endeavor, Mary knows what this means. It means that the revolution has begun and that she is at the center of it. The revolution is the inbreaking of God’s kingdom which will wipe away all other earthly kingdoms. Listen to her words from Luke, “God has shown the strength of his arm (think ezer); he has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel…” This is the revolution that will turn all things upside down and inside out. Mary is an ezer because she is willing to risk everything to bring forth the one who will deliver God’s people.
All of us here this morning are called to be Ezers, which I realize can seem a bit overwhelming. It can be overwhelming because when we think of ezers we often think famous people in the Bible or of other famous people who do great things. We may think of people like Rosa Parks, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Gandhi, Harvey Milk, Mandela or Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. We see them as ezers who were “strong deliverers” of peoples and nations. They worked for justice on the macro-scale in a way most of us cannot. And this is why the stories of these four women matter. They show us that ezers also work on the micro-scale. They remind us that the only thing it takes to be an ezer is courage and a willingness to act for the right, even if it is only helping to deliver a single person. Remember that Tamar and Ruth acted as an ezer for individuals. Rahab worked as an ezer for her own family. Only Mary works as an ezer for the larger community. What this means is that when we teach a child to read in Pontiac or Detroit, we are being ezers who help to liberate them from poverty. When we feed children through shop and drop and our food pantry, we are being ezers who are liberating them from hunger. When we welcome all people into this place, we are being ezers of grace and love. You and I can be and are called to be ezers.
My challenge for each of us then this morning is for us to ask ourselves this question. For whom am I being an ezer? For whom am I being a strong deliverer or strong advocate? And if the answer is, I’m not sure, then simply ask, who around me needs an ezer and how can I be one for them?
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
December 16, 2018, 8:30 a.m.
Ruth 3:1-18; Matthew 1:1-6
Why is she here? Why is Ruth mentioned as one of only four women in Jesus’ genealogy? This might not be a question many of us have ever asked because Ruth’s story in the Old Testament is such a sweet story and parts of it are often read at weddings. “Entreat me not to leave you, but where you go I will go. Where you stay I will stay. Your family will be my family. And your God my God.” If any woman other than Mary should be in Jesus’ lineage, then perhaps Ruth is it. Yet, there is a problem here, and that problem is that Ruth is not an Israelite. She is a Moabite. She is a foreigner. She is the enemy. And in the time of Jesus, there was a visceral reaction from most Jews toward anyone whose family history was not purely Jewish. This was something that began when the Jews returned from exile in Babylon. The leadership under Ezra wanted to purge their community of all non-Jews so they could maintain a sense of religious and cultural purity. And this desire to have a pure and perfect family was alive and well in Jesus’ time. With that in mind, then why does Matthew include a foreigner into Jesus’ family when Matthew’s audience is Jewish; meaning people for whom a pure lineage would have been important? The answer I would offer is that it is intended to remind people that loving neighbor is not limited to Israelites but includes all people, which is at the heart of Jesus world-encompassing ministry. Let me explain.
In the time of Jesus, there was a great debate among the Jews in Judea about who was neighbor. There were groups like the Essenes, who were the Dead Sea Scroll folks, who believed that neighbor only extended to those in their immediate group, meaning those who lived at Qumran. Everyone else was their enemy and was to be hated. Another segment of society believed that neighbor extended only to other Jews. Gentiles then were enemies and were to be hated. Finally, there were those like Jesus who believed that all human beings were neighbors, because they too were created in the image of God. We see this in the end of Matthew when Jesus tells his disciples to go to all nations and share with them the good news of God’s love. The struggle for Matthew was that since he was writing to a Jewish audience, how could he convince them that the most expansive vision of neighbor was the right one. The answer, as I said, was to remind them of Ruth and her story; because in that story we see the scriptures offering an expansive view of neighbor. So, a quick overview of Ruth.
The book of Ruth deals with the issue of neighbor in two ways. The first is that it reminds us that those who are not part of God’s people, are good people; that God’s people don’t have a monopoly on loving neighbor. A quick overview. Once upon a time, a woman named Naomi, with her husband and two sons, moved to Moab because of a famine in Israel. While they were there the sons married Moabite women, one of whom was Ruth. All the men in the family died, leaving Naomi alone with her two daughters-in-law. Naomi decided to return home and told her daughters-in-law to stay in Moab because she knew they will not be accepted in Israel. Ruth refused to stay and demanded to go because she did not want Naomi to be alone. Once they returned to Israel, Ruth risked both her personal safety to provide for Naomi and her future, because what Israelite would marry a foreigner? In other words, Ruth had become the poster child for what it means to love neighbor, even though she was not an Israelite.
The second way in which the book of Ruth offers us a glimpse of what it means to love neighbor is in how Naomi and a man named Boaz treat Ruth. Naomi guides Ruth through the adjustments of being a stranger in a strange land. She tells her how to act, where to gather grain and how to be careful. Ultimately, she will also direct her toward finding a husband to protect her. Boaz, is a wealthy man. When he sees Ruth and then discovers who she is, a foreigner who knows what it means to love neighbor, he shows love of neighbor to this Moabite woman in several ways. First, he tells his reapers to leave wheat for Ruth to gather. Second, he tells his reapers not to harass her, which would have been a natural thing for them to do. Third, he invites her to eat with his workers. Fourth, he insures that extra amounts of grain are placed in her sack, so Ruth and Naomi will have enough to eat. Finally, at the climax of the story, he marries her. Yes, an Israelite marries a Moabite…and their great grandson becomes king of Israel. This, the writers of the book of Ruth say, is how we are to understand what it means to love neighbor; to see them as God’s good people and to treat them with the love that God offers to us. This is what Ruth is in Jesus’ lineage; to show that loving neighbor is expansive and not restrictive.
Human beings have always been suspicious of those who are not like themselves; of those who speak different languages, whose skin color is different, who have different habits and traditions. Our tendency is to exclude them from being neighbors so that we do not have to love them like we love those who are like us. Yet by including Ruth in Jesus’s genealogy, Matthew wants to remind his readers, that neighbors are all human beings, near and far. This is how we are called to live as followers of Jesus Christ. We are to live as those with an expansive vision of neighbor. And so that is my challenge to you on this Sunday, to ask yourselves, how am I treating all of those around me as neighbor, understanding there may be among them another “Ruth’ in need of our care?
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
December 9, 2018
Joshua 2:1-14; Luke 1:68-79
This advent we are looking at the women in Jesus’ genealogy as recorded in Matthew’s gospel. But in Matthews recording of Jesus’ heritage he mentions only a couple women. There are lines and lines of men, this guy is the father of that guy who is the father of that guy. In the midst of all these male names there are only a few women. But why choose these women? They must be prime examples of something. Matthew breaks up his rhythm of father and son to bring attention to these mothers, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Mary. They are held up as women worthy of being connected to Jesus. Worthy to be mentioned as branches on his family tree.
Last week we heard how Tamar held on to hope, showing that Jesus’ family tradition was to believe in the power of hope. This week we are looking at Rahab. A woman we know only a few verses worth about but is for some reason important enough to make the cut for Jesus’ genealogy. To know about Rahab we have to dig a little deeper and open our net wider. It has been a journey to piece together her life this week, through historical records and writings about similar women of the time period. What we can be sure of is what scripture records. Rahab lived in Jericho before the Israelites invaded. In any introduction of her she is linked to the profession of prostitution. We also know her home sits on the outside wall of the city, and that she has family that she cares deeply for. The rest of the details we must piece together.
Tradition holds that Rahab was beautiful. Jewish communities speak of Rahab’s beauty much like the beauty of Queen Esther. But if she is living on the outside wall of the city beauty was the only thing she was rich in. The community along the wall was a slum. It was the most dangerous part of the city, because if anyone attacked, they would be the first to die. The rich lived in the center, the poor along the wall. The fate of a beautiful poor girl is not hard to guess. The word we translate as prostitute more closely describes a temple sex worker. The Canaanite gods accepted sex offerings, so girls would serve in their temples for worshipers to give these offerings. Necessity must have driven Rahab into this profession too.
Some scholars believe her beauty attracted the attention of the King of Jericho and his gifts to her at the temple allowed her to buy a home and start a business. The business was similar to our wild west saloons. An Inn, bar, and brothel in one convenient location. It was also a hot bed of information, which men in authority would also pay well for.
So Rahab has earned her way into a little bit of power and money. Her hard work and smart planning has put her in the position to learn things from travelers and pass along the information to the city guard and even the King. Tales are told at her Inn. Tall tales of a group of slaves who escaped Egypt. The God they serve bringing horrific plagues on their enemy, even drying a path in the red sea for them to escape safety from their slavers. These are old tales and they have grown more fanciful over time. Then Rahab begins to hear new tales. Stories of great battles. Of the Israelites defeating great powers in Sihon and Og. Travelers are saying these are the same people in the stories about Egypt. The slaves that escaped. The God who scared pharaoh. Travelers begin to show up who say they have seen these battles with their own eyes and Rahab begins to wonder if the old tales are true. The battles they have seen had outrageous odds against the Israelites but somehow, they keep winning. The battles are getting closer to Jericho, so Rahab alerts the guard and the King. Tries to tell them these Israelites have a great God and Jericho must be prepared to offer peace or they will all die.
Her warnings are ignored. She is poor, and a sex worker, she is an outcast. A slave to the system she was born into. A thought grows in her mind, the Israelites made it out, their God does not ignore outcasts, their God listens and sets slaves free. As her allegiances are being tested she looks out her window in the outer wall and sees the Israelites set up camp on the other side of the river. They are here.
SO Rahab is poor, scrapping together a living. But her profession means she is well connected with the men in authority, and it allows her to know things before they are well known in the city. The spies know this too. Brothels and poor inns are a great place to gather intel. Buy a few rounds and you can get people talking about anything. Poor brothel owners are easily paid off if needed, so Joshua’s spies head to Rahab’s place to gather information. While they are there the word gets out that some Israelites have been spotted at her place. When the knock comes to her door Rahab thinks fast. She hides the spies under the barley she is letting someone dry on her roof and calmly answers the door. She knows the men and she knows how to lie to them. The guards know Rahab has always been a reliable source of information, so they believe her words and move on. The spies are shocked, this Canaanite woman helped them without even taking a bribe. They are thankful but skeptical. That is when Rahab reveals her intentions.
“I am an outcast in this country” She says “but I heard your God does not turn away from outcasts. All I want is peace. Peace for myself and for my family. All I ask in return for helping you is that you do not bring this battle to my house. And if your God will have me I will become a follower of the God of Israel.” That is who Rahab is, a woman committed to peace. Peace was not an easy choice for Rahab. She had to betray the people she grew up with. The only culture and country she had never known. That is a hard thing to do. To look at the only world you know and see that it is corrupt, to recognize the other side is the good side. That is the hardest part of peace, realizing we are not always the good guys. Every one of us has been the bad guy in someone’s narrative. We have cut someone off on the road, we have broken someone’s heart, we have betrayed someone’s trust. We have used harsh words when we talk to ourselves and to others. Our commitment to peace wans.
When the dust had settled on Jericho Rahab and her family joined the Israelites. Salmon, one of the spies, marries Rahab. It was probably the first time any man did right by her. This offering of love inspires her to repent and give her life to God. The Talmud, Jewish oral tradition, that recounts a prayer Rahab said soon after joining the Israelites. She is believed to have prayed: “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 barley. Pardon me for engaging in harlotry because I endangered myself when I lowered the rope for the spies from the window in the wall.” Her prayer recognizes that she is a sinner in need of God’s grace. A sinner who upon recognizing their fault did all they could to turn towards God’s peace and do what was right. She prays this prayer to shed all guilt and shame over her past and begin anew with a new life, a new community, and a new God.
She gives birth to Boaz, the man who is able to look past the fallen nature of Ruth and redeem her. When I realized Boaz’s mother was Rahab, a fallen woman, it made so much more sense why he loves Ruth. Rahab must have raised her son to respect all women because Rahab was so disrespected by men. She must have instilled in Boaz an esteem for the laws of the Israelites because that was the community that showed her mercy. She must have raised Boaz to honor God in everything, because the God of Israel had finally brought her peace.
Rahab’s inclusion in Jesus’ genealogy shows that Jesus is just as committed to peace as she was. It’s a family tradition. Pasted on from generation to generation. It shows that Jesus will be committed to bringing peace to this world, a peace that passes all understanding.
Our verses from Luke today are a prayer Zechariah prays over his son John. We know John as John the Baptist. Zechariah says that John will “go before the lord to prepare the way, to give knowledge of salvation to the people.” He prays for God to turn our feet towards peace. The Hebrew understanding of peace means more than just freedom from trouble it means wanting everything that leads to the highest good. And because we are sinners that means facing the bad in ourselves and repenting. John the Baptist’s job was to help people repent so they were ready for the peace Jesus was bringing. God can turn our feet toward peace but there is a mirror in that direction. A mirror that will force us to see things in ourselves we would rather ignore. SO we turn away, and stumble as we try to walk towards peace without facing peace. John was the one to hold up the mirror to the world. To show us where their lives were not aligned with God’s peace. We can pray for wars to end, for our family to heal, but until we examine our role in those competitions, we are only guessing at the direction we should be walking.
John encouraged people to look in the mirror, Rahab’s example tells us to look in the mirror. To clearly see when we are not on the side of peace and do all we can to change that. Looking in the mirror is hard but trying to walk in the opposite direction we are facing is harder, and frankly makes us look ridiculous. Face peace so you can walk in the way God has guided your feet.
God’s Imperfect Family: Tamar and Hope
Dr. John Judson
December 2, 2018
Genesis 38:12-19; Matthew 1:1-6
John Wesley Hodge. It is not a name any of you would be familiar with, but he is my great, great grandfather. He was an itinerant Methodist minister in Louisiana in the early to mid-1800s. I suppose his occupation ought to make me want to claim him as an ancestor, but I wish he was not in my family tree. I wish he was not because he not only volunteered to fight for the Confederacy, but he raised his own company to fight for the rights of Louisianans to enslave and debase people of color. I am not sure if he was a slave owner but having met some of his descendants, it is clear he passed on to many of them a deep hatred for blacks with racism a mile wide. It may be that all of us, given enough searching could find someone we would not want in our family tree; someone who reminds us that we are part of imperfect families. If we believe religious writers across the centuries, Jesus has those same kind of people in his family tree; people who make his family seem as imperfect as mine. Now, interestingly enough, the people who make his family tree seem imperfect are three out of the four women who are mentioned in his lineage: Tamar, Rahab and Ruth. They are portrayed as making his family imperfect because each of them have scandalous personal stories. What we are going to be doing over the next four weeks before Christmas is dig a bit deeper into the stories of these women to see what we can find, and to discover if they really make Jesus’ family imperfect or if there is something else we ought to see.
We begin with Tamar and the traditional telling of the tale. This tradition makes it clear that as my grandmother would say, Tamar was a hussy. The retelling begins with Tamar being childless and desperate to have a child. She was so desperate that she would go to any lengths to conceive, including seducing her father-in-law. We know this because when Tamar heard that Judah, her father-in-law, who was just over mourning for his deceased wife, was headed for Timnah to shear sheep so she laid a trap for him. She dressed like a prostitute, lay in wait for him and used her feminine wiles to seduce him. Her scheme worked, and she became pregnant. As my grandmother would say, what a hussy. She was, in other words, a sinful woman who crossed the bounds of decency and ought not to be mentioned in Jesus’ lineage at all. All of this poses a problem for this traditional reading. It poses a problem because King David named one of his daughters after her. It poses a problem because later in this story Judah will proclaim that she is more righteous than he is. And finally, it poses a problem, because the writer of Matthew, undoubtedly a good Jew, makes sure to mention her in Jesus’ genealogy. So, what gives?
What gives, is that Tamar was a woman who hoped in the justice of God and worked to make that justice a reality. Let me say that again. Tamar was a woman who hoped in the justice of God and worked to make that justice a reality. Now the backstory that is often left out. Tamar was married to Judah’s eldest son. The son died before they could have a child. The law, and the justice of God in this case, was that the next son would marry her and have a child in order that the older brother’s memory would remain alive. Son number two married her but refused to do his husbandly duty with her. He too died. This left the third son who was to marry her, but at the time of son number two’s death he was too young to marry. Judah told Tamar to go live with her parents until son number three was old enough to marry, implying that he would send for her and she could have a son to keep her husband’s, and remember, Judah’s son’s memory alive. Well, when the youngest son was old enough, he “forgot” to send Tamar an email or text letting her know it was time to come home. When she discovered this, she put her plan into action. And this is where hope comes in. Tamar could not force Judah to proposition her and sleep with her. This is something only God could do…so she hoped. Tamar could not force herself to become pregnant. This is something only God could do…so she hoped. Tamar believed that God was a God of justice, and so lived into the hope that God would act. The conclusion of the story is that God did act, she became pregnant and justice for her and her deceased husband was served. This is the reason Judah calls her righteous and David names his daughter after her.
This past Thursday I was having breakfast with David Paterson and he commented that the saying we often use, “It is what it is” he said defeats hope. It makes hope irrelevant. I have been pondering this for the last couple of days and realized that what we should say, is not, “it is what it is”, but instead “what ought to be, will be.” In other words, what God desires for this world is what we ought to be working for and doing so with hope that God will bless our actions.
This is what Tamar showed us. She showed us that what is, is not necessarily what ought to be, but that what ought to be, will be if we are willing to hope and act on that hope. This is also the message of her descendant whose birth we will celebrate in a few weeks. God did not look at the world and say, “It is what is” or “they are who they are”, but what ought to be, will be. And so, God sent God’s only son to teach, preach, heal and die for the world so that justice might live. Jesus is born into this world not to say, it is what it is, but to say what ought to be, ought to be.
The challenge before us then is to be Tamars. It is to be those who say what ought to be, will be and then act in hope of that reality. My challenge to you then this week, is this, to ask yourselves how am I being a Tamar in this world, hoping in God and working for justice?