A Tunic of Distinctions

I’ve been doing a little research for a long essay on rape in the Bible (yes, you read that right — I do not shy away from difficult, painful, or even horrible subjects) when I came across something very interesting.

In 2 Samuel 13 begins to horrific story of Amnon’s rape of his half-sister Tamar, and his half-brother Absolom’s decision to avenge that rape. David is king at the time, Absalom basically leads a coup — which eventually fails — against his father (and Amnon’s father, and Tamar’s father too) because he is very angry over David’s refusal to defend Tamar’s honor.

After Amnon abandons his half-sister (remember, half-sister marriage is against the law, but Deuteronomy 22 deals with how rape is to be settled), the Bible describes Tamar this way:

Now she was wearing a long robe with sleeves [כּתֹנֶת פַּסּים], for thus were the virgin daughters of the king dressed. So his servant put her out and bolted the door after her.  And Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the long robe that she wore. And she laid her hand on her head and went away, crying aloud as she went. (2 Samuel 13:18-19 ESV)

A “robe with long sleeves,” כּתֹנֶת פַּסּים kthuneth fasim, literally a “tunic of distinctions.” (Think flair?) Otherwise known as a robe of many colors. Remember who else wears such a garment in scripture?

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors [כּתֹנֶת פַּסּים]. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. (Genesis 37:3-4 ESV)

My computer is not behaving properly today, and is doing some weird formatting things with Hebrew. But the coat Jacob makes for his son Joseph is a כְּתֹ֥נֶת פַּסִּֽים, the same kind of garment that Tamar is said to wear in 2 Samuel.

I find it interesting here that the garment in question — a tunic of dinstinctions — is described in 2 Samuel as being the kinds of garment worn by the “virgin daughters of the king.” She tears that garment, in mourning (garments in the Bible are frequently torn in mourning, guilt, and anguish) but also probably in protest of her situation. She has been violated — there is no mistake about that.

Granted, many centuries have passed between when Joseph wore his tunic of distinctions and Tamar wore hers, and so they may have had very different meanings. But what would readers and listeners at the time of the Bible’s compilation have understood? The words are the same.

Consider. Joseph doesn’t work in the field with his brothers. The garment his father made for him likely makes that impossible — if it’s anything like a Saudi thaub, then it’s very difficult to do anything resembling manual labor in such a garment. If keeping the sheep is man’s work, Joseph isn’t doing it. It is clear that God loves Joseph with a “steadfast love” (Gen. 39:31), and that is manifest by the jailer elevating Joseph to the position of trustee, “in charge of all the prisoners who were in the prison.” (Gen. 39:22) But Joseph isn’t the kind of son a lot of fathers might be proud of.

Yes, God loves and favors and propsers Joseph. But he sounds like a whiny little know-it-all and apple polisher to me. Not someone I would ever trust. Or even like. Because he’s entirely too comfortable with people in power and cozies up to them too easily. I’d constantly be afraid he’d tattle on me for something, deserved or not.

So what does it mean that this man is wearing a coat, made by his father, that will later in scripture be the kind of garment that specifically denotes “the virgin daughters” of King David? And that in this, he is his father’s favorite son?

I suspect it means that Joseph is something of a sissy. He’s one of those men who are not particularly comfortable in the world of men, doing the things men are supposed to do, in the rough and tumble way men often do things. I’m not making any suggestions about Joseph’s sexual preferences or orientation — scripture doesn’t, and he eventually marries an Egyptian woman and fathers two children. But he is different, a misfit, not quite what someone who will save the world from famine ought to look like.

And that’s the point of scripture. So many youngest sons, men who would otherwise be ignored or consigned to ignominy, from Jacob to Judah to David, end up being significant figures in scripture. I beleive the Bible understands our societies and our nature as human beings — oldest sons inherit, are the heroes, and we look to strong, virtuous, and decisive men to save us from our enemies and even ourselves. We cannot help being that way.

But God is not bound by our schemes. God uses the liars, the cheaters, the sissies, the misfits, the sinners, to do the essential work of saving God’s people and building God’s kingdom. Almost none of the men of scripture are heroes in the way we might understand them, as “action figures” who do mighty deeds, have no weaknesses, and never sin. I don’t want to be like Joseph, and I really don’t want to know anyone like him, either. But he saves the world. He saves Israel.

So, we live in tension with the narrative. I’m no fan of natural law, but perhaps that “law” which is written on human hearts, and guides so many of our thoughts, feelings, and deeds, is supposed to rest next to the revelation of scripture and they are to sit together, unresolved and unresolvable. Our desire for a well-ordered world alongside our understanding in revelation that God works with whatever we have at hand. Our faith in power and hope for justice and vengeance alongside the story that tells us that weakness is frequently more powerful — and a lot more righteous — than strength.

Mostly, I think, it is our desire to live in accordance with what we understand as the laws and order of God, and God’s willingness to meet us in our sinfulness and disorder, and remake the world with us. Even if we aren’t entirely right with God.

This means that one is not mutually exclusive of the other. I am a partisan of grace, as opposed to order, because the order that so many envision for the world — whether it is a conservative or progressive or even revolutionary order — simply does not include me. No matter how that order is constituted, it wounds and breaks so many people, accidentally and carelessly, and frequently on purpose. And because my gift is to meet those wounded and broken by the order of the world (however that order is constituted), and show them that love — God’s real, self-giving love — remakes them in their brokenness, binds up their wounds, and allows them to witness to that very same love.

Culture and the Church

I’m not very good at self-promotion. In fact, I’m quite bad at it. Last week, on September 11, I had a piece on Internetmonk which you can read here. I suppose I should have posted it that day. I need a manager and a keeper, but I suppose to have those things, I’d need something a little more interesting to a few more people than come here.

At any rate, I think and write a lot about belonging. I suppose a person’s focus is frequently the problem they have to deal with, or feel they have to deal with. I have a very pronounced desire to belong and that has always met what I have discerned as the world’s deep and hostile unwlecome. I’ve never known entirely what to do with it, especially since I found welcome among Muslims but eventually was yanked out of Islam by a very powerful encounter with Jesus. And I wrote the following about the church and the culture:

It all really comes back to how culturally determined Christianity is in America. Something I’ve concluded — American Christians do not really know how to welcome converts. None of them do. They do not know how to to do the work of showing people how to live as Christians. (This is not the same as telling people do’s and don’ts.) Nowhere in the church have I come across anything as welcoming and understanding of that as what Muslims showed me. Half of what sunk me with the Lutherans, I think, was the fact that I simply did not understand Lutheran culture in America, not enough to function pastorally for the comfort of most typical Lutherans. The seminary understood this, and thought I opened the ELCA to ministry prospects it might not otherwise have (I led an ad hoc worship service one afternoon with a Chicago street gang mourning the loss of a member in a drive-by shooting, because they were neighbors and I felt the call of the Spirit to be in their midst). But the ELCA opted for caution and safety, and I’m honestly not sure I can blame them.

But the church is so tied to culture in this country, and it has no idea what to do with outsiders and non-conformists. The American church still expects the culture to do almost all of the heavy lifting, still thinks the skills that make someone a good citizen ought to make them a good christian too. I’ve done a miserable job at looking for church work, but then most of the churches I’ve applied to have been Baptist or heavily influenced by whatever corporate ideals demand “leadership” that there’s no way in hell I’m getting past anyone’s board of elders. (A couple have been kind in responding, but it’s all been a resounding if very polite and even apologetic no.) The American church wants the comfortable and familiar, thinking it can reach the lost and lonely that way. And maybe it can reach some, I don’t know. All I know is that it didn’t really reach me, at least not on purpose, and that I don’t belong. Not anywhere.

So, I was rather pleasantly surprised when Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention wrote at First Things about the American church’s inability to fely on culture in the future:

For nearly the past two centuries, Evangelicals, especially in the South and Midwest, could count on the culture to do a kind of pre-evangelism. The culture encouraged people to aspire to a kind of God-and-country citizenship, to marriage, and to stable family life. Even when people didn’t live up to those ideals, they knew what they were walking away from. Evangelicals, then, could use “traditional ­family values” to build a bridge to people for the Gospel. Churches could plan on crowds to hear counsel for a better marriage, or how to put the sizzle back in a sex life, or how to discipline toddlers or maintain a good relationship with one’s teenagers. One could trust that the culture shared the “values.” People just needed practical tips on how to achieve those values, starting with “a personal relationship with Jesus.”

We can no longer assume, even in the Bible Belt, that people aspire to, or even understand, our “values” on marriage and family. These parts of our witness that were the least controversial—and could be played up while playing down hellfire and brimstone, for those churches wanting a softer edge—are now controversial. Churches that reject the sexual revolution are judged as bigoted. Churches that don’t won’t fare much better, for in a secularizing culture, churches that embrace the revolution are unnecessary—just as the churches that rejected the miraculous in favor of scientific naturalism were in the twentieth century.

(While I agree wholeheartedly with Moore about his understanding of the sexual revolution, I am much more ambivalent about homosexuals in the church. Scripture is clear about what constitutes sin, but scripture is also clear about all sorts of sinful practices that not only go unpunished but actually contribute the foundation of the people of God. And more than anything, scripture is also clear about welcoming, and the New Testament in particular is clear about welcoming those the Torah excluded them from the assembly.)

The American church has forgotten how to welcome people because it has forgotten how to be anything other than an appendage of American culture, which already assumes both welcoming and assimilation. Some on the Christian right, including Moore, have been lecturing conservative Christians on their support for donald Trump, but I suspect leaders like Moore are only beginning to grasp that Christianity — and confessional identity — is far more a cultural force than a religious one in America. It is really a tribal identity, not a serious encounter with the call of God.

This is inescapable. A religious faith is always going to meet us enfleshed and embodied, and that’s what cultures do. And so how a people incarnate their encounter with God is an important way they live out their encounter with the holy and the sacred. Jesus himself lived in a time and a place, spoke to people in a language they understood, and told stories that would make some kind of sense to them. But this very cultural incarnation also poses great risks, since it can become the focus itself, rather than the lens that helps people focus on God. And the American church doesn’t know, right now, how to get past its reliance on the culture to produce the kinds of people who, with a little extra tweaking, can also be good Christians.

Like Moore, I hope the church’s new status allows us as Christians to figure out how to follow Jesus absent the sense that this is just how normal, well-adjusted people — good citizens — ought to live. I don’t think a lot of American Christianity will survive this, if for no other reason than this Christianity is so comfortable and so easy. I’ve always found the “God-and-country citizenship” Moore refers to puts country first, with God a kind-of distant second, a great national cheer leader. I’m not confident about that — a lot of conservative politics, including the appeal of Donald Trump, is about fighting hard to reclaim that “God-and-Country” tribal identity.

And when they fail at reclaiming that easy faith, I think a lot of American Christians will give up being even nominally Christian. Like the northern kingdom of Israel, which gave itself wholly and completely over to idolatry almost from its founding, they will become lost amidst the conquering Assyrians.

The good news in this is that those lost tribes became the Samaritans, a people Jesus had much good to say. And came to save.

How Kids Are Different

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote something of an addendum to my long essays on what the story of scripture, and not just the law, have to teach us about sexual relations (Here, here, here, and here.) called “How Sex is Different.”

Israel faces a lot of penalties for failing to keep the covenant — disease, pestilence, famine, conquest, exile, slavery. But those are all externally imposed. They come from outside the land of Israel, in the form of Assyrians and Babylonians. Only in the case of these sexual sins does the land itself threaten to grow sick and expel Israel.

That’s what makes sex different, and what makes these acts unique. (The passage does not say why sex is different. We are free to speculate, but any conclusions we come to are just that — speculation.) They poison the very land, which grows so ill that it will expel Israel, just as God expelled the Canaanites so that Israel may take possession of the land.

The passage in Leviticus 20 that contains some of the strongest admonitions against unlawful sexual relations — that is, sex with close relations — is also bundled with strong condemnations of anyone who “turns to mediums and wizards, whoring after them” (Lev. 20:6) and anyone who “curses his father or his mother” (Lev. 20:9). Death awaits the latter, and a cutting off from the people await the former.

But Leviticus 20 begins with this warning:

1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2 “Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones. 3 I myself will set my face against that man and will cut him off from among his people, because he has given one of his children to Molech, to make my sanctuary unclean and to profane my holy name. 4 And if the people of the land do at all close their eyes to that man when he gives one of his children to Molech, and do not put him to death, 5 then I will set my face against that man and against his clan and will cut them off from among their people, him and all who follow him in whoring after Molech. (Leviticus 20:1-5 ESV)

Leviticus 18 contains a much smaller version of the same warning, right before it condemns men lying with men “as with woman”

You shall not give any of your children to offer them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God:I am the Lord. (Leviticus 18:21 ESV)

Molech — מֹּלֶך — comes from the very same Hebrew root “king” does, and it implies sovereingty and rule. We have few references in Molech in the Bible (Stephen mentions Molech in his final witness before the high priest), but all the references we have describe a god to whom children are sacrificed. Specifically, they are burned alive.

This burning alive, ushered in by Solomon’s wives (1 Kings 11:1-8) and performed by kings Ahaz (2 Kings 16:3) and Manasseh (2 Kings 21:6) of Judah, is one of the indictments Jeremiah hands to the Kingdom of Judah during the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem:

34 They set up their abominations in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. 35 They built the high places of Baal in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to offer up their sons and daughters to Molech, though I did not command them, nor did it enter into my mind, that they should do this abomination, to cause Judah to sin. (Jeremiah 32:34-35 ESV)

This is a special sin, this sacrificing of children, on par with illicit and unlawful sex (as outlined by Leviticus). And it pollutes the land.

Scripture doesn’t say much about what Molech demands or why anyone would sacrifice a child in a roaring fire. It is simply portrayed as a repugnant act — even as scripture also tells the story of God demanding (and then rescinding the demand) that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, slitting his throat and setting him alight atop a large pile of wood. And as God takes the lives of the firstborn of Egypt in the horrible night of the Passover as Israel waited in terror for its redemption.

It is a horrible thing, this sacrifice of children. A detestable thing. It defiles and sickens the land. And Israel, despite the command, tosses it’s children into the fire to appease a god who isn’t even real.

Some evengalical protestant groups have used this bit of scripture to describe abortion. But it’s not a mainstream view (no one with an angelfire website has been mainstream since 1996). And not why I’m writing about this today.

I have, in the last couple of months, come face to face with a foster care system that has, for want of a better term, gladly and happily sacrificed at least some of its charges to Molech. Living, breathing, thinking, feeling, beautiful, amazing, smart, sweet, wonderful kids, bound and tossed into a fire. Kids no one cares about, except maybe for profit and/or for sadistic pleasure. Kids given up, and given up on.

Kids, faithful and persistent, who — despite the suffering and horror they have endured — have not given up on themselves.

And it makes me angry. Like nothing else has ever made me angry before. Because how we treat our children matters.

I cannot say much more about this right now. Except that I’ve gotten a sense, through all my whining about not having work and my book not selling, what my real calling and my real ministry is. To these kids. Who persist, and live, and hope, and love, like plants growing out of the side of a brick wall.

There’s a story in thge Qur’an that also happens to be a Jewish legend. Young Abraham has already become a devoted follower of The One God, and he asks his father about the idols his people worship. “We found our father’s worshiping them,” Abu Ibrahim said, as if that settles the matter. Abraham then tells his father they are all wrong to worship these things made by human hands, and during the night he sneaks in and smashes all the idols except one — the largest of them.

When the people come and find all their gods broken to pieces, they accuse Abraham. “Did you do this?” they ask.

“Nope,” he replies. “The biggest one did it. They are your gods, ask him!”

“You know very well these things cannot speak!”

“Then why do you worship them?” Abraham responds.

At which point they tie Abraham up and toss him into a fire — a fire God commands to be cool and safe for Abraham. (Quran 21:51-70) Such is the fate of those who challenge what “we found our fathers doing.”

I want to break some idols and rescue some kids. Because those idols need to be broken.

And those kids need to be rescued.

Lost Sheep

A couple of events in the last few days (sorry, no details) have left me thinking hard about one of my favorite stories Jesus tells in the Luke’s gospel:

1 Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. 2 And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”

3 So he told them this parable: 4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost. ’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:1-7 ESV)

The first thing that occurs to me is while we often time think of Jesus hanging out with sinners, we don’t really have many narrative descriptions of Jesus supping with sinners. A few passages (I’ve not done an exhaustive study, and I promise I will). Mostly, what we have is Jesus supping with Pharisees and scribes, who then accuse him of spending too much time with sinners. Which is not quite the same thing.

But mostly I’ve thought about lost sheep.

Virtually everyone in the English-speaking world knows the first verse of “Amazing Grace,” and that marvellous line which says

I once was lost,
But now am found,
Was blind,
But now, I see.

Jesus speaks of a man who has a hundred sheep — a shepherd — and one wanders away. And he leaves the 99 behind, leaves them to fend for themselves (because they can, because together they are safe), to go find the sheep who has wandered off.

We use the world lost, as in missing or misplaced or we don’t know where it is. But the sheep isn’t so much missing as it was disconnected. Maybe the shepherd doesn’t know where it is, even as he searches to find his lost charge. But perhas the shepherd knows exactly where the sheep is.

(Because there are only so many places sheep can wander off to…)

Which means it isn’t lost at all. Instead, what you have is a frightened, anxious sheep that has no idea where it is. That feels like lost to the sheep, as it bleets and howls and its terror and panic, but it isn’t the same as being lost. It isn’t the same thing at all.

To be lost like this is to feel disconnected from the herd, from the community of people God cares for and has gathered. The community we know in our bones we belong to. The gathering we need to feel safe and secure, to know we are tended and cared for. The sheep isn’t lost — it’s alone, separated, and frightend. That’s a terror that can wrap us up tight, and it feels like we’re lost when we look around and see nothing familiar and no one we know and the darkness looms and we fear we’ll never make home alive, that we’ll die here, alone, in the wilderness, abandoned and lost.

But … The shepherd knows where we are. Even when we do not. The sheperd goes to find us. Because the shepherd knows we belong to him. And when we are found, when we no longer have cause to be anxious and afraid, then we can all celebrate. Because we are found.

Because we are found.

On Bearing The Cross

This last week’s Gospel reading from the revised common lectionary contains what I suspect for many is a familiar passage about what it means to follow Jesus:

34 And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? 37 For what can a man give in return for his soul? 38 For whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him will the Son of Man also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38 ESV)

The whole passage read for the sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost began with Jesus asking his disciples, as they were visting Caesarea Philippi, “Who do people say that I am,” and a whole clutch of answers. Jesus, of course, asks who people — οἱ ἄνθρωποι — think Jesus is. And it’s funny, given all Jesus has done, none of the disciples report that anyone thinks Jesus is ὁ χριστός / המשׁיח. Instead, they think he is Elijah, returned from heaven, or some resurrected version of John the Baptist. Or even a prophet. But only the disciples seem to know that Jesus is God’s anointed one, come to deliver and redeem his people.

Jesus then tells the disciples what that means — that he must suffer and be rejected and then be killed, only to rise against three days later. This does make Peter happy, who pulls him aside, and decides to tell the boss off. This is bad news, Peter says, and you should be giving us good news. Jesus then rebukes Peter, and tells him in no uncertain terms — what he described, about suffering and dying and rising, is good news. Because it is the work of God.

The work of God.

And then to make is clear, Jesus gathers not only the disciples, but the crowd who follows as well. And tells them what it means to come after him, to follow him — it means carrying a cross, it means suffering, it means dying. It means focusing on the glory of God, as opposed to the glory of the world, and running toward that glory.

But here’s the question. What does it mean to deny ourselves, to take up his cross, and follow Jesus?

As long as I can remember, fairly conservative Christians in the United States — especially fundamentalists and those who have called themselves evangelicals — have told themselves a story of imminent persecution. The narrative, stitched together from bits and pieces of prophetic and apocalyptic scripture, predicts a time when a single world government will abolish true faith in Jesus Christ, and real belivers — if they haven’t already been snatched away — will suffer terribly for their faith.

And for a number of conservative Christians, the notion of being persecuted has an appeal. Being hated in the name of Jesus means they really truly follow Jesus. It means their faith and their following is both sincere and genuine in one of the few ways the gospels actually measure faith. I remember, if not quite a yearning to be persecuted, at least a kind of envy of those who truly suffered for their profession of Christ.

At the same time, while anticipating and predicting this series of events (they pre-date Left Behind by many decades, and came into their own in the years immediately following the Six Day War in 1967), conservative American Christians have also always claimed the cultural high ground. They see America as their country, and their society, one in which they get to set the rules and determine the meaning. In effect, they have always seen themselves a persecuted majority, with all the perks of both majority power and the claim to powerlessness that persecution endows.

So, you will see rapture beleiving Christians on the one hand claiming current events means the end is nigh, and yet vociferously and enthusiastically supporting U.S. government policies and actions that will effectively delay or postpone the end. Saddam Hussein might be the antichrist, but the United States still needs to fight him. The end will be ushered by an attack on the State of Israel, and the coming end is a glorious thing in which Jesus comes back, but the United States should, at the same time, protect Israel from attack, thus delaying the end. Perhaps indefinitely.

(In my time, I’ve only found one conservative rapture preacher who would even consider that the United States might not be on the right side of God and history in the last times.)

I’ve always found this to be something of a paradox. It certainly isn’t really denying one’s self.

I suspect some of this paradox is at work with Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who temporarily went to jail rather than issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. For some conservative Christians, I suspect the long-awaited (and hoped for and feared) persecution has finally come. And yet, they still can’t square that with the belief both in righteousness and their own status as the majority.

And no doubt some believe Davis, in taking her stand, is denying herself and taking up her cross.

We speak of crosses to bear as our own suffering. I’ve heard a few things in my days described as crosses — health problems, troublesome spouses, ungrateful children, a difficult job. Crosses to bear.

And no doubt now some are calling Davis’s kind of standing up for Jesus a “cross to bear.” It is losing life for the sake of Jesus, for the sake of the Gospel.

I think we miss the point of what Jesus is saying here when we focus on our suffering as a cross to bear. Jesus didn’t come to bear his own suffering, he came to bear the suffering of the world. He bore my suffering, and your suffering, on that cross.

13 And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, 14 by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13-15 ESV)

Remember, this isn’t about a self-righteous proclamation on our part. This is about following Jesus, and he is in front, leading us. And so, this isn’t about our suffering (even as it is), but it is about a full-on encounter with the suffering of others, of the world — meeting it without flinching, without fear, without turning back, and bearing it with those who suffer.

We who suffer stand with a suffering world, telling the world that suffering is how God meets the world.  Suffering is how God most loves the world. By suffering and dying with us, Jesus shows us what it means to love, to be loved, and to bear a cross with him.

Jesus would not be standing in a county clerk’s officer forbidding the issuing of marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But he wouldn’t be handing them out either. I’m not sure Jesus would care much either way. He had little to say about the governance of the world except that, in the end, it didn’t matter. Because the truth he proclaims is not the kind of abstract right and wrong that seeks to order the world or have us get right with God, but it is a truth about God’s presence in the suffering of the world. And our calling to be part of that presence of God.

To show the world what that means, we who follow Jesus — both the disciples whom Jesus calls and the crowds who choose of their own free will to follow Jesus — are called to join Jesus on that long journey to Golgotha, facing and meeting the world in its fear and loneliness and suffering and telling it the most important thing we can say — that God so loves the world that Jesus came to tell the world, to show the world that it has not been abandoned to despair, to sin, and to death.

Genealogies Matter

Today, at mass in the chapel of the Catholic Church in Chatham, New York, where we are staying with a good friend and seminary colleague (that was a hell of a sentence, and I’m not proud of it), we got the genealogy of Jesus Christ from Matthew.

We weren’t supposed to, apparently, but the priest decided to read it as part of the daily reading, Matthew 1:18-25.

It’s a different genealogy that Matthew relates. Luke’s genealogy doesn’t begin his account of Christ’s life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and Luke goes backwards all the way to Adam, “the son of God” (Ἀδὰμ τοῦ θεοῦ, with “son of” understood from verse 23 onward here).

Matthew doesn’t send Jesus back that far. He begins his genealogy with Abraham, and then works his way forward. The two accounts differ in some essential aspects, but they converge in some important places — Zerubbabel, Shealtiel, David, Perez, Judah, Abraham.

A couple of things are important here about Matthew’s genealogy.

First, Jesus stands solidly in the lineage of Abraham and David. This is true of Luke’s genealogy as well, but Jesus stands more solidly in the kingly line in Matthew’s account. He is not just a descendant of David here, but a descendant of Solomon as well. Jesus is the legitimate king of Israel here, and is legitimate from the main line of David, and not just some cadet line through a son we only know of because he’s mentioned briefly in Chronicles. In fact, the lineage here in Matthew’s line includes most of the kings of Judah, while aside from David, the Luke account includes none of the kings of Judah.

Second, the Matthew account includes some women: Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, who tricks her father-in-law into getting her pregnant; Rahab, the prostitute who betrays her own people and allows Israel to defeat Jericho; and Ruth, the “Plucky Little Moabite Girl”™ who seduces Boaz on his threshing room floor, thus finding a redeemer. Most of what these women do can be said to be scandalous. Not something respectable folks would be likely to include in a family tree.

And Mary, the mother of Jesus, the bearer of God, whose lineage we don’t actually know, though the Qur’an calls her “daughter of Imran” (66:12, Ex. 6:20) and the “sister of Aaron” (19:28), which, if taken metaphorically, means she is a Levite (and stands in relationship to Moses). But the Bible doesn’t tell us much about Mary, her people, or where she is from.

This is a family Jesus is effectively adopted into. We have, in this, the first announcement of Jesus’ adoption — the second coming when he is baptized in the Joran by John in 3:13-17.

Something else interesting in Matthew’s account, It specifically includes the exile in verses 11 and 12. Luke’s does not. Now, Matthew may mention this in order to frame the genealogy properly — 14 generations from Abraham to David, and then 14 more from David to the exile (Jeconiah), and then 14 generations from Jeconiah to Jesus.

But the exile is also an important event for Israel. And it may be that even with all the history that comes after, Matthew believes that the exile has not ended, and that — as both Ezra and Nehemiah pray — God’s people are now slaves in their own land.

Finally, I think the Matthew genealogy makes a very subtle point that Luke doesn’t — Jesus is Israel. While both Luke and Matthew clearly state Joseph is the father of Jesus (sic), Matthew takes it one step back by noting Joseph’s father was Jacob. (In Luke it was Heli.) Jacob was Israel, Joseph was his second-youngest and most beloved son, who was the father of Ephraim and Manasseh — the two half tribes, of which Ephraim would become one way of referring to the northern kingdom of Israel.

Jacob had twelve sons. But in reality, only four of them matter — Judah, Levi, Benjamin, and Joseph. Of them, Judah and Levi share Leah as a mother (Judah also includes Simeon). Benjamin is Rachel’s son, as is Joseph, and Ephraim is Joseph’s son through his Egyptian wife Asenath. Effectively, the northern kingdom is Joseph/Benjamin, and the southern kingdom is Judah/Levi. (Or, rather, the northern kingdom is Rachel, and the southern kingdom is Leah.) Leah was the younger daughter of Laban, and not Jacob’s first choice for a wife. He was tricked into taking her. And Judah was the youngest and last son of Leah, who inherits the birthright because the firstborn Reuben relinquishes it when he cavorts (ahem) with one of his father Jacob’s concubines, and then when Simeon and Levi are disinherited after they exact brutal vengeance on Schechem for defiling their sister Dinah.

Judah, the most important son, is the youngest son of the unwanted wife. That’s a stunning fact.

But back to Jesus being Israel. He is both north and south, being tied to Judah but also tied to Joseph as a kind of metaphor for Ephraim, the grandson of Jacob (whom Jacob blesses in his old age in exile in Egypt).

Jesus becomes both north and south, reuniting but also completely embodying Israel in himself. He is born in Bethlehem, the home of David, and yet he also lives and grows up in Nazareth, far in the north. He does much of his ministry in the north, but wanders south, to Jerusalem — David’s purpose-built capital right on the dividing line between North and South — where he cleanses the temple, is betrayed, and then crucified. In his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus embodies, he becomes, the history of Israel, showing the purpose of God’s promise not in glory and conquest but in suffering, death, and resurrection. He is God’s promise for a regathering of God’s people, he is the land, the patrimony, the blessing, and all of God’s descendants. He is both promise and fulfillment. He is both God and Israel incarnate.

I’ve not really formed this idea past just considering it, but I’ve had it rumbling around my head for a few years. I’m basically trying it on for size here, seeing what anyone thinks.

But this is why the genealogies, as eye watering as they are, matter. Because even amidst all of the “son of” stuff which bores us no end (“that was a waste of time!” one worshiper muttered this morning after the priest finished the reading), there’s an important story being told — of who God is, and what God does.

And even what that all means.

Nothing But Flowers

I’m angry this morning.

I can’t really say why. There’s some ministry I’ve been doing that I would really like to talk about, but right now, don’t feel I can. It’s a ministry I’ve stumbled on to, an accident, the result of pure and utter chance. An act of God, something I’ve been led to.

And it feeds me. Deeply.

But I’m also angry. Not at anyone, not really at anything. I’m just … mad. At the circumstances of the world.

When I was at Georgetown University, working on my masters of Arab Studies in the School of Foreign Service, I noticed how well landscaped that little campus was. Gardens everywhere. In fact, after I graduated, I returned one day and noticed some small fish and duck ponds had been put in, and had been well landscaped. They looked so natural, so beautiful, so accidental. Like they’d been made by nature itself.

They hadn’t of course, since those little ponds – with their fish, and their frogs, and their water lillies and cattails – hadn’t been there the year before. I do remember a backhoe digging one of those pond sites out, actually.

Georgetown is a well cared for little campus.

But on a brick bridge leading from the courtyard of Red Square into the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, I noticed something on the shady side – a scrubby little plant growing straight out of the brick. There were several of them, all hanging on for dear life, shooting tendrils out and hanging on hard.

It’s easy to focus on the gardens, where beautiful flowers bloom. Where the plants are arranged artfully and carefully and cared for with love and devotion. But those flowers, they have to be planted and tended and watered and weeded and fertilized. We easily forget, as those flowers open and bloom to the sun, just how much work goes into making and keeping that garden. The planning, labor, and devotion needed.

Yes, blooming flowers may be the work of God, but it takes a lot of human hands to prepare that soil.

But those little plants growing straight out of brick, there’s the true tenacity and persistence of life! No hand tended those little plants. What little nourishment they found they extracted from cold, hard brick. They caught what water they could from the rain.

And they grew. In a place without soil, without care, without love, they grew.

There are people like this. People no one loves. People no one cares for. They struggle to grow in the most inhospitable places, with no direct light, water when it comes, and nothing resembling soil. And they grow. They can even flourish.

When Jesus says in Matthew 5 (and echoing Psalm 37), “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth,” I think he is referring to the people who aren’t given the kind of care and love and attention that we too often think is necessary to succeed. I think he means a hardscrabble people who struggle, and who frequently fail in their struggles, but struggle all the same.

The earth is theirs. They don’t need to conquer it. Because they grow and flourish almost anywhere without any obvious care.

I remember, long ago, in San Francisco, planting some sunflowers in the very sandy soil in the backyard of the apartment where we lived. One managed to struggle up, grew two who inches tall, and even blossomed – a tiny and pathetic attempt at being a sunflower. But it bloomed. Against all of the odds, it bloomed.

We like flowers. We ooh and ahh over them, impressed with their form, pleased with their beauty. We rip out the weeds. And, I sadly suspect that some maintenance crew was, at some point, ordered to rip out those plants sprouting from of that brick wall. After all, they probably distracted from the aesthetic appeal of clean, straight brick.

And that’s what makes me angry. We don’t look at those those plants and see the gritty, determined, amazing persistence of life. We don’t generally admire that. They are nature’s chaotic intrusion in the otherwise beautiful and well-ordered work of our hands. They are the mess in our well-sculpted and manicured world. So, we pull them out. We’d rather have the flowers, and nothing but flowers, in all their engineered and cared for and costly beauty.

Because flowers are all we seem to value.