An R-Rated Epiphany Story

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Many Christians celebrate Epiphany starting every January 6—the date traditionally assigned to the magi’s visit to young Jesus. “Epiphany” means a kind of recognition and revelation.

The names in Matthew 1:1-17 give a thumbnail sketch of Jesus’ family. Don’t skip them; look up their names and stories in the Bible. All in some way point to or reveal Jesus, who redeems people and the world from sin. But some point very crookedly.

As the saying goes, “You can pick your friends, but not your relatives.” My late uncle often said that we descend from a long line of irascible scoundrels. My 85 year-old great-uncle ranted at a townhall meeting in The Netherlands, cursing planners who were to widen the street in front of his house; four hours later he suffered a fatal stroke. One cousin was long suspected of being a Nazi collaborator. My family—loved ones, but not very likeable.

Like some of Jesus’ family. Read Genesis 38. If it were a movie today, this sordid story would be rated “R.” Judah, one of Jacob’s sons, marries a Canaanite woman—a taboo. He reminds me of Woody Allen. After abandoning Mia Farrow and marrying her adopted daughter, he said, “The heart wants what it wants. There’s no logic to those things. You meet someone, you fall in love and that’s that.”

“That’s that” for more than Judah and Woody. If we’re dead honest, probably we’d all admit we’re self-absorbed, without logic or concern for anything but what the heart wants. That’s why everybody needs to be in Jesus’ family.

Back to Judah. His wife bears three sons. The eldest marries Tamar and he soon dies. Judah’s second son marries Tamar to uphold the law protecting widows. He dies too. Tamar seems like bad luck.

Judah promises his youngest son to Tamar, but doesn’t come through. Would you want Tamar in your family? Judah sends Tamar to live as a widow in her parents’ home.

Years pass. Meanwhile, Judah’s wife dies. He forgets Tamar, but she doesn’t forget his promise. She tracks him down when he’s shearing sheep.

Desperate for a child, Tamar plays a prostitute and lures Judah, who gets her pregnant. She negotiates a goat in exchange for her body. Goats are ancient symbols of lust, fertility. Lusty old goat Judah promises a goat for sex. How fitting!

Since Judah has reneged on one promise, shrewd Tamar demands a pledge until the goat arrives. Judah gives her his personal seal tied on a cord. Giving up a seal is like trusting someone with your credit card.

When Judah tries to deliver the goat, the prostitute is gone. Later someone tells Judah that Tamar has resorted to prostitution. He self-righteously condemns her to death. Then clever Tamar exposes Judah by presenting his cord and seal.

Humbled, Judah declares his Tamar “righteous” for holding him to his promise. Tamar delivers twins. Judah has a new family, conceived and born in sin, even born OF sin. But everyone needs a family.

How is Jesus revealed in this seamy story?

Jesus is revealed here by people who are broken jars of clay whom God mysteriously leads to do what must be done. God’s family members still today often break promises, or compromise ourselves. In our deepest hearts we can somehow identify with Judah, Tamar, Woody Allen. We’re all family.

Paul says nobody should sin so grace may abound, but we should know our own self-absorbed hearts and desires. Then we should fall in awe before God and his mysterious forgiveness.

I’m glad I can’t pick my relatives. I am thankful that God picked loved ones whom I might not like to be part of Jesus’ family. In the merciful power of forgiveness, strive to live in forgiveness, without trickery, deceit, envy, lust; with trust, hope, joy, gentleness, peace, joy, self-control, and love.

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