Today’s Hebrew Scripture lesson from the scribe Ezra describes the decrees of good King Darius and the search for documentary evidence concerning the First Temple and its records. The Third Temple, built by Herod and in its final construction stages in Jesus’ time, is said to have contained tens of thousands of genealogical records. After the Babylonian exile, there was an almost obsessive preoccupation with proving the purity of one’s family bloodlines. Many of Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries searched these records in their effort to demonstrate their good standing in the post-Exilic community. Galilean families, living in a mixed Gentile- Jewish area and often marginalized by the Judean elite centered in Jerusalem seemed to have been particularly intent in proving their connection to this community and as we know, Jesus was a Galilean.
Most modern biblical scholars tell us that Jesus’ genealogies as presented in both Matthew and Luke’s gospels are most probably tacit acknowledgements of Jewish literary convention proposing to establish both his messianic credibility and his bona fide connection to the Jewish community that reestablished itself after the period of the Babylonian exile. Luke’s genealogy takes these steps even further tracing Jesus’ birth record clear back to Adam But even if Luke’s genealogy from the period of Jesus’ biblical ancestor, King David, through “the intervening generations are a series of otherwise unknown generations, the number of generations is chronologically quite plausible.”1 And Luke’s ancestry of David agrees completely with the Greek Septuagint text of the Hebrew Bible.2
I am saying all of this to make the point that family and its genealogy where extremely important touch-posts in the cultural and religious context in which Jesus found himself immersed. Attempting, as it were, to drive home the point for us that family indeed was, in some sense, everything for Jesus’ community.
Family also had a larger context for Jesus. And, I think, this larger context is what made the nuclear family so important. Because the whole body of Jewish nuclear families formed themselves into their respective tribes and the tribes formed the nation. And for Jesus’ contemporaries it was that nation, and that nation alone, which was the only legitimate inheritor of the promise and covenant of Abraham, God’s chosen. In a sense, knowing where you came from was necessary to claim the divine favor which was said to rest exclusively on the children of Abraham.
So for Jesus to say something like, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it”3 would necessarily raise some very serious issues in the minds of those who heard those words. In this short provocative statement Jesus is undoing many of the assumptions that undergird his society and the various social constructs that held it together. It raised the whole issue of group belonging and thorny religious questions of group identity, inclusivity and exclusivity, and who could lay claim to the Abrahamic covenant, not to mention who would serve as scapegoat, the essential social glue that held these groups together.
I am more and more convinced through my own prayer, living, reading and study that Jesus came preaching a gospel that challenges all of these constructs. Inviting us to move to a place that allows us to begin to live and breathe within a way of seeing that embraces truths that are not just limited to our particular group or identity but to something capable of embracing more universal patterns of seeing and believing.2
I came of age during the Vietnam War. And I was raised by parents who had lived through the horrors of the Second World War. Unlike many previous wars and later wars, World War II seemed to epitomize a clear battle of the forces of good versus evil. Like most Americans of their generation, my parents were convinced of the goodness of America and its government, the rightness of the American way and their identities in their respective ethnic and religious groups.
My parents and my upbringing were not unique. Most Americans followed this pattern after the twentieth century’s two world wars. Although there were huge cultural shifts during the decade of the sixties, those shifts seem only to have fixed a longing to return to something that probably never actually was. I think we can see that in many of the cultural wars and religion-based conflicts that rage between groups that running the gamut from right to left.
Now we all need social groups and their social identities to establish us and fix us in the world we live in. But there is a problem when we find ourselves stuck in that identity and unable to move on to the next stage. We find ourselves confusing the larger, universal truths with either the nation and its interests or our group’s mores or social preferences. Or even worse when we limit our vision of the Truth to our particular way of viewing God’s nature or our group’s preferred ways of praying and worshipping.
All communities need symbols, practices, sacred song, and places: our community’s black habit, our daily rising at an early hour to chant the monastic office together in this place, our sacrosanct hour of meditative prayer, our common rule of life. We need things that demand something of a sacrificial element to give us a sense of sharing with others in our group. Muslim women in a sense defining their womanhood in donning black veils. God probably could have cared less but in my early Catholic roots it made a real difference to us that we didn’t eat meat on Friday. It was something we did with other Catholics because we were Catholic.
Lots of these things work really well and are valuable. They can make us feel really good except that Jesus went to great pains to warn us about such things. Because they can almost feel like God except that they often reduce religion into a group-belonging or a social system rather than an ever-deepening search for greater and greater intimacy with the Divine. Jesus seemed to be able to think and act outside of the cultural, social and tribal context that he inhabited. That he did so is a testament to his own deep life of prayer and service placing him ever more deeply into the universal truth that is God.
Jesus did pay lip service to many social conventions. But it would seem that the fact that he did so had more to do with his understanding that this was something that his followers needed more than he did. The gospels tell us that though he could become quite impatient and exasperated with their “hardness of heart” he realized that they needed these things to hold them up even as he inexorably moved them into realms with fewer and fewer social and conventional props to hold them up.
God likely doesn’t care a whit about many of the things that seem so important to us whether they be family, language, worship style, economic status, forms of address, past accomplishments or future prospects, pedigree, community, political leanings, sexual orientation, gender, and so on and on. What God and Jesus do seem to understand is that we need these things “so the soul can be settled and trustful.”3 To serve as a place from which we are launched out onto the limitless sea of existence. Groups can provide our need for encouragement and support as we set sail.
It really is as though we have to take some first steps. Buy into some of our own groups myths before we can launch out into the depths into which Jesus invites us to go. We need to develop the practical disciplines that constitute so much of religion. Those religion-based disciplines such as prayer and self-sacrifice that make it possible for us to discover the seemingly infinite capacity of the mind and heart4 to imagine things bigger and far more important and life-giving than all the limitations our own and whatever groups’ agendas might seek to place on us.
- “Genealogy of Jesus,” Wikipedia on-line encyclopedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genealogy_of_Jesus.
- Armstrong, Karen. The Case for God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009, p. xiii.
- Rohr, Richard. Hope Against Darkness. Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2001, p. 91.
I have borrowed Richard Rohr’s ideas about groups and how they can negatively impact our openness to God’s revelation and particularly limit our ability to move into greater Truth.
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