THE POWER IN THE BAD PARTS OF YOUR STORY

More people purchased genetic ancestry tests last year than in the four previous years combined. To date, approximately twelve million people around the world have used this service. The jump can be partially explained by the affordability of these tests and the millions of dollars spent every year in advertising by companies like ancestry.com and 23andMe. But these sales strategies wouldn’t work if people didn’t already have an interest in learning their history. The desire to feel connected to the story of our ancestors seems like a universal phenomenon, and the Jewish people living during the time of Jesus are no exception.

 

The Loss of Meaning

It’s difficult to describe how important the Temple was for first century Palestinian Jews. The beautiful structure was located in Jerusalem high atop the pinnacle of Mount Moriah. For a 1,000 years it had been the center of religious, cultural, political, and financial life. It was the one thing that gave meaning, value, and purpose to the entire universe.

During the time of Jesus, the Roman Empire ruled Israel, and while the relationship between the native people and the occupying power waxed and waned over the years, something catastrophic happen to the Jews in the year C.E. 70. In response to a revolt around Jerusalem, Emperor Vespasian destroyed the Temple. It’s high altar was shattered into tiny pieces, scrolls of the Torah were burned, holy vessels were destroyed, and the walls of the temple were dismantled and removed from the city stone by stone until nothing was left. If this weren’t bad enough, Roman soldiers executed almost all the Temple authorities, including the priests, scribes, and their families, and also killed many innocents who were on pilgrimage. In this way, the Romans annihilated the one thing made sense of the whole world. This unimaginable loss initiated a time of massive change, requiring the rebirth of a people.

The Gospel of Matthew was written to a small group of Jews who were trying to make sense of the destruction of the Temple in the context of their belief that Jesus was the promised Jewish messiah. Given this historical background, we can understand why they would look to the past for help, why the author of Matthew would start his gospel with a genealogy.

 

What’s Up with All Those Names?

Many contemporary readers skip over the genealogy because most of the names are foreign to us, and long lists of unknown names seem boring and irrelevant. But for a first century Jew undergoing seismic changes, this genealogy would have been a source of inspiration, encouragement, and hope.

On the surface, Matthew is clearly trying to make two important points in listing all these names. First and foremost, he was giving evidence that Jesus was God’s promised Messiah, the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy and the answer to Jewish prayer. Second, the author was saying, “Take heart because this is your heritage. You came from a long line of people who endured tremendous loss and prevailed. You came from heroes like Abraham and David, and like them you are strong. You are heirs of the promised messiah and are special.” This was an important message for a people who desperately needed encouragement in the face of seismic loss and change.

However, there’s another important message.

 

What’s the Point of Breaking with Tradition?

It’s important to note that genealogies were not uncommon in the Ancient Near East. Sumerians, Egyptians, and other groups wrote genealogies to show how their people were the greatest of all time by tracing their lineage through the most admirable and powerful people in their past. When creating their genealogies, they were careful to use their highlight reel, omitting anyone that might evoke embarrassment.

What’s striking is that the author of Matthew doesn’t do this.

If you look at the list of people in Matthew 1:1-17, you’ll notice that the genealogy breaks with Ancient Near Eastern customs in important ways. Most notably, he included women in the genealogy. This is strange, because in the ancient world everyone traced their lineage through men. Men were thought to contain the seed of life, and women were thought to be human incubators. Since the person growing inside the woman was thought to come entirely from the man, genealogies didn’t typically include the names of women. So the author of Matthew broke with established custom and did something that he didn’t have to do, something that nobody would have expected him to do.

What’s even more striking is that Matthew included these names in a way that evoked scandal.

Take, for example, the mention of Tamar. There was a patriarch named Judah, the son of Jacob. Judah had three sons. The oldest, Er, was married to a woman named Tamar. But before Er and Tamar could have children, he was killed for being “wicked in the sight of God.” Since Tamar was childless at his death, she fell under the ancient custom of Levirate marriage and married Er’s brother, Onan. The expectation was for her to bear children to continue the family name. But he also did things that were “wicked in the eyes of God,” which resulted in his untimely death. Judah, her father-in-law, convinced her to remain unmarried until his youngest son, Shela, was old enough to become her husband. However, in the interim Judah came to see Tamar as a curse on his family and reneged on the deal. Heartbroken and desperate, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and seduced her father-in-law. She became pregnant, and when Judah found out he sentenced her to death until she was able to prove that he was the father of her twins, Perez and Zerah. All of this sounds like a story on the Maury Povich show!

What’s interesting is that Matthew could have avoided evoking all this scandal by simply saying, “Judah the father of Perez and Zerah,” but he intentionally continued, “by Tamar” (1:3). It seems odd that Matthew would not only break with custom by adding a female name but choose a name that would evoke such an embarrassing story.

The same is true of the unnecessary reference to Bathsheba. When listing the heroes of the Jewish faith, the author could have simply said, “David was the father of Solomon,” but he intentionally continued, “by the wife of Uriah” (1:6). Why reference Bathsheba, and why do it in a way that would intentionally evoke another scandalous story? It’s like Matthew was saying, “Hey remember when our most admired king was overcome with lust and selfishness, misused his power to force a married woman into having an affair with him, got her pregnant, and then had her husband murdered on the battlefield? Yeah, that guy!” King David was remembered for some pretty great achievements in the history of Israel, so why refer to Bathsheba and draw attention away from his accomplishments and to his biggest moral failure?

Also, in Matthew 1:5, the author directly names Rahab, a Canaanite prostitute who rescued Hebrew spies on a recognizance mission in Jericho prior to the conquest of the Holy Land. Again, why add a Canaanite prostitute to a Jewish genealogy?

 

The Power of the Bad Parts of Your Story

Perhaps one reason Matthew mentioned these women is to remind us of the power of the bad parts of our story. The primary purpose of Matthew’s genealogy was not to give a sanitized version of Israel’s history, so they could delude themselves with ethnic pride. Rather, its purpose was to remind the Messianic Jews of how God had remained faithful throughout the generations in both the good times and bad. Of how God worked in and through their people, not only when they were faithful covenant partners but also unfaithful covenant breakers. Of how God used the good and the bad choices of ordinary human beings to transform them, and through them the world.

The author of Matthew knew that the power of their ancestral stories was not in the moral perfection or nobility of their national heroes, but in God’s ability to work through success and failure to reveal truth, love, justice, and healing. Indeed, people like Abraham and David, Rahab and Ruth, did not become heroes of the faith because they always did the right thing, but because they experienced incredible suffering (which was often the result of their own bad choices) and came out on the other side stronger and wiser because they trusted God and believed in themselves.

What we see in Matthew is that the dark parts of our story are the most powerful, that when understood in the right context they have the potential of being great sources of courage, strength, and hope. Here we see that when navigating disorienting change, we needed the power of our whole story, because a story without bad parts is a story without redemption, and a story without redemption is a story that’s incapable of transforming us for the good.

 

Embracing and Sharing Your Whole Story

All of us want to see ourselves as good people, and we want others to see us as good people too. As a result, we often try to deny, minimize, or hide the bad parts, not only from others but also from ourselves. Unfortunately, this cuts us off from the most inspirational and transformative parts of our story. We need to remember the times when we were at our worst, because it is here that we see most clearly God’s love, forgiveness, and redemption manifest in our lives. Remembering the bad parts and how God used them to transform us can provide a wellspring of memories capable of renewing our courage, strength, and hope as we move through new seasons of change and loss.

And not just our personal stories, but also our family stories and the stories of our faith. Reading about our forerunners in the Bible empowers us to remember that if God helped them, then God can also help us. Reading about the saints of our own time, like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr., gives us hope that if they could navigate seismic change, then so can we. Remembering our family stories can provide wisdom as we make decisions and move into a new future.

 

Challenge

Take some time this week to remember the bad parts of your story. Some may have experienced real trauma and will need the help of a skilled therapist, but most of us can safely recall memories of things we would rather forget or hide. It can be healing to recall these dark spots and remember how God helped us get through it and taught us important lessons in the process. What happened? What was changing? Where was God? What did you learn? How did you experience redemption? How did it transform you? How can you draw from this story as a source of wisdom and strength when dealing with change and loss today? And how can you make that story available to others who also need inspiration and encouragement?

I also encourage you to surround yourself with people, poems, books, stories, music, art, and films that inspire you during times of change and loss. Let them nurture your soul and give you strength.

 

Prayer

God, help me see my whole story in the light of your redeeming love so that I can receive the receive the gifts of courage, strength, and hope that it has to offer.

 

(This post is the second in a series of thirty-seven on the Quadratos. See chapter four in Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

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The Burden of Light

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)

I recently heard these familiar words of Jesus at a clergy retreat, but in a radically new way that continues to gnaw at me.

In the past, when considering this passage, I understood Jesus to be saying, “If you stick with me, I’ll help you with your problems and make life more bearable.” Commentators explain that Jesus may have been referring to a double yoke in which two animals walk side by side, pulling the same load. The analogy seems clear: Jesus walks beside you, helping bear your burdens. This is a comforting message for people feeling burned out and worn down. Most of us need rest, and not just rest for our bodies, but also for our souls.

So, I thought I knew what this passage meant. But God has a way of breaking through familiarity and turning what we think we know upside down. Hear the words again:

“For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“. . . my burden is light.”

“In the beginning was the Word . . . . in him was life, and that life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:1, 4-5)

“You are the light of the world” (Matthew 5:14).

With a flash of insight, I heard a still small voice, “My burden is being light in a dark world.”

Followers of Jesus bear the burden of light. In a world where people can no longer distinguish the truth from a lie, we are called to honesty. In a world that venerates the arrogant, we are called to humility. In a world that worships the wealthy, we are called to love the poor. In a world where people sell their souls for power, we are called to take up a cross.

And this is exactly why Jesus was killed. Evil empires operate in darkness and Jesus is light. As the powers of this world nailed him to a cross, what they were really saying is, “Turn off that light!”

Not much has changed in this present darkness, and for those trying to follow Jesus as light in a dark world, it can feel like a heavy burden:

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves . . . . they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me . . . . you will be hated by all because of my name.” (Matthew 10:16-18, 22)

If we embrace the alternative lifestyle of radical love, we will experience ridicule, rejection, and even abuse.

However, in the presence of Jesus we are promised that this burden will become light.

The burden is light because it’s a way of life characterized by surrender. Instead of constant grasping, striving, and achieving, Jesus says, “Let go.” Let go of control. Let go of expectations. Let go of trying to be good enough. Find ways to relax into the presence of God, to just be—be who you are and where you are, knowing that you are accepted by unconditional love.

This is where we find rest for our souls. This is where the burden is made light. This is where we become light.

But, paradoxically, surrender may be the hardest thing we ever have to do.

Learning to let go, to relax into the presence of God and just be, seems to run contrary to our very nature. The shift from a willful to a willing spirit is the very heart of conversion, and it cannot be accomplished by what often passes for prayer today—words carefully crafted to convince ourselves or others of what we already believe to be true. (Or, even worse, long, syrupy, cliché monologues intended to solicit approval from other churchy people.) No, a true renovation of the heart requires the kind of prayer that goes beyond words, the kind of prayer that helps us awaken to the presence of God, so we can relax into that presence and just be—be ourselves and be with God. A kind of prayer that puts us in touch with our soul, so we can listen in stillness, solitude, and quiet. Indeed, a difficult kind of prayer for frenetic hearts navigating a frenetic world.

So, while Jesus’ yoke might be easy, insofar as he helps us carry our burdens, the burden itself—being light in a dark world—is, paradoxically, heavy and light, hard and easy. And I’m not sure exactly what to do with that right now, except let it continue to gnaw at me.