Saturday, December 20, 2014

Scandals in the Family Tree: Homily for the Sunday Before the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; St. Matthew 1:1-25
              During the season of Christmas, many of us will see family members whom we may not visit often.  I hope that most of us truly enjoy our family celebrations, but unfortunately they can be difficult for many people because of strained relationships, old resentments, and the fact that no one is perfect, including those to whom we are related by birth or marriage. In the world as we know it, family can be a struggle.   
            Our gospel reading today does not shy away from such difficulties, even in the genealogy of Jesus Christ, Who had the right heritage to be the Messiah, the anointed One in Whom all God’s promises to Abraham are fulfilled for the entire world.  What family would not be strained by remembrance of scandalous stories involving figures such as Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, Gentile women who were disreputable in one way or another, precisely the sort of women Jewish men were told time and again not to bring into the family.  For example, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and bore twins by her father-in-law.  Rahab actually was a prostitute.  King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband.   Ruth was King David’s great-grandmother and a Moabite woman.  The Old Testament is full of warnings to Jewish men against marrying Gentile women like Ruth.  Just think for a moment how amazing it is that St. Matthew began his gospel by reminding us of these embarrassing stories. Their presence in the genealogy is a sign that God worked through generations of families not unlike our own to bring salvation to the world.  They are a reminder that His blessings are not only for the proper and upstanding with perfect reputations, but for everyone with faith in the Lord, no matter their memorable failings or roles in embarrassing situations that we would rather forget.  Through this shockingly honest family tree, St. Matthew prepares us for the unique Messiah we encounter in Jesus Christ Who came to save sinners, to heal the sick, to exalt the humble, and make those who are dead last in the eyes of the world the very first in the Kingdom of God. 
            This family tree does not stop with unlikely characters from the Old Testament, for it culminates in the shocking and unconventional event of the Most Holy Theotokos’s conception of Christ.  That is the kind of news that would shake up any family even today.  When we remember that this is the story of the union in Jesus Christ of God and humanity for the salvation of the world, the story becomes even more shocking.  For we like to think that God’s ways are like our ways, that He favors those who are living the dream, who appear healthy, wealthy, and wise by our culture’s standards.  But when we do so, we simply make God in our own image and ultimately let ourselves off the hook as though holiness were not really for us because our lives are not perfect in every way. We forget, however, that many of the Saints we know best were once outrageous sinners, and that even those who were not faced difficult struggles that were embarrassing, unconventional, or inconvenient. Just think of the suspicions people had about the Theotokos and St. Joseph the Betrothed.   
Though not many people noticed it at the time, God’s promises in the Old Testament extended to all who believed, including Gentiles and sinners. Think for a moment of all the sufferings and struggles of the righteous people of the Hebrews. As our epistle reading states, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  As astounding as it sounds, the promises to them awaited their fulfillment until the coming of Christ in Whom we may all become part of this family tree.  
For Jews and Gentiles, for the upright and the scandalous alike, He is the vine and we are the branches.  True, we are all unworthy and unlikely members of such a family.  Like those who prepared for the coming of Christ and have served Him since, we are also sinners whose lives in many ways fall short and wide of the mark. Perhaps that is why the Son of God chose a human heritage full of imperfect people who often stumbled themselves;  perhaps that is why He was born in circumstances that at least outwardly commanded the respect of no one.
Yes, the good news that we will celebrate at Christmas is that there is hope for us all in Him.  And if we want to have hope in Christ for ourselves, then we must also not give up hope for other people.  Whether family members, friends, coworkers, or whoever, our Savior calls everyone to become part of the current generation of this blessed family tree.  Perhaps there are those we think are just too broken, who have made such messes of their lives that they appear as better candidates for condemnation than for salvation.  When we start thinking that way about particular people, we should immediately turn our thoughts to the humble repentance of the Jesus Prayer, for not one of us deserves a place in the Kingdom on the basis of our accomplishments.  The Lord’s human ancestors include notorious sinners; tax-collectors and prostitutes were among His first followers; St. Peter denied Him three times; and St. Paul had been a persecutor of Christians.  If His healing mercy extended even to them and if we want that same grace for ourselves, we simply cannot write anyone off as a hopeless case.  Much less are we ever justified in speaking or acting in self-righteous, judgmental ways toward anyone.  
Of course, there are broken and severely strained relationships that we do not have the power to heal.  But to the extent that it depends on us, we are to be at peace with everyone.  That may mean keeping our mouths shut when we would like to remind someone of their failings or otherwise to criticize them or to slander them behind their back.  It may mean small gestures to let others know that, despite a painful history, we do not judge or abandon them.  It may mean simply praying in silence for God’s mercy on those who have lost their way and for strength to treat others as we would like to be treated.  We must show others the same mercy that we have received as undeserving members of His most blessed family. Above all, we must remember that God knows people’s hearts—including our own—in ways that we do not.  Christ was born to save sinners, not to condemn them.        

So as we conclude our preparation for Christmas, let us fast not only from rich food and drink, but also from words, thoughts, and deeds that would discourage anyone from finding their place in the ongoing story of Christ’s salvation.  Let us ask for forgiveness of those whom we have offended and otherwise take the steps that we can to bring health to strained relationships.  Let us refuse to see other people with eyes blinded by our own passions or the conventional standards of our society.  Who knows whether God will make great saints out of some whose lives are scandalous?  It should not surprise us if He does, of course, for Christ’s family tree included many such people.  His birth continues to be good news for them, for you and me, and for all who so desperately need the healing and transformation that the Savior was born to bring.      

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