Reflection ~ Rev Dr Phil Wall
An Upside-Down Kingdom
In the midweek reflection on Wednesday, I mentioned how it’s a great time for TV. You’ve got your reality shows – Bake Off, Strictly and I’m A Celebrity; for comedy, you’ve got Taskmaster, Gogglebox and Have I Got News For You; the quiz fans amongst us might be reveling in a bit of Pointless, University Challenge and Only Connect; whilst the drama buffs might be all about The Undoing, Harlots and, of course, The Crown. Now let me reassure you, I’m not watching all of the above right now…but I’m giving it a good go! And I genuinely do think that this year would have been much tougher for so many of us without the television. Far from being ‘the devil’s box’, as some of our forebears called it, for many people around the world, the television has been a source of news, entertainment, connection…even worship and solace this year.
And if you are a TV fan such as me, you may have some knowledge of ‘bottle episodes’. For those of us who haven’t heard of the term, a bottle episode is a one-off restricted in scope episode within a larger episodic story. They’re usually cheaply produced, have little impact on the wider drama and their limited cast often means the writers can explore the characters more deeply and at a slower pace. Think ‘Midnight’ in Dr Who; ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ in The West Wing; or ‘Train Station’ in This Country – if any of those mean anything to you!
Well, our reading today – which introduces us to our third woman from Jesus’ genealogy in the gospel of Matthew – is very much a bottle episode. It appears within the larger story of Joseph – though you’ll soon understand why Lloyd-Webber didn’t put it to music! The story is sandwiched between Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers and his introduction to Potiphar, and it focuses on Joe’s brother – Judah – and his messy family dynamics…which is something of an understatement. I know that Viviane drew a family tree when she first read this passage and you might well want to do the same for it gets a little complicated but don’t fear, we’ll have a recap afterwards. For now – gird your hats, hold on to your loins…or the other way round…and give the bottle episode of Genesis chapter 38 a read –
Reading: Genesis 38
I did warn you! So the episode opens with Judah – Abraham’s great-grandson – committing the cardinal sin of the patriarchs by marrying a Canaanite – those whom a hungover Noah cursed a few generations earlier. Shua, the Canaanite woman, gives birth first to Er; then Onan; then Shelah – three boys who would not grow up to win a Pride of Canaan award. These boys were so horrible, so odious that God killed them! Different times! But whilst we might want to contextualize the ancient explanation for their deaths, it is clear that Er and Onan were men behaving very badly. And one of the main victims of such behaviour would have been a woman named Tamar.
Tamar was first married to Er and when he died, she was married off to Onan; then when he died, her father-in-law, Judah, sent her away to live a precarious existence as a widow. We don’t know the details of how her two husbands treated her, nor the age in which she was married off, but if the men were really as horrible as the passage suggests, then we can only imagine the abuses that Tamar would have suffered before she was discarded as if spoiled goods; outcast as a widow – which meant having no legal, economic or social status.
Tamar, however, is no puppet and no fool. She devises a way to regain financial security and social status. She knows the kind of man her father-in-law is so when she hears that he is in the area, she uses the one thing that she herself owns – her sexuality – and, disguising herself as a prostitute, she sleeps with Judah. Crucially, however, she doesn’t take food or cash as payment. Instead, she demands his own unique seal, cord and staff…which he gives and she returns home. A few months later, Judah hears that Tamar had prostituted herself and is now pregnant. Judah, confirming his hypocrisy and disregard for the lives of others, demands that Tamar and her unborn child…or children as we are later told…should be burned to death. So Tamar is grabbed, dragged out in front of everyone, and is about to be killed when she drops that incredible line to Judah –
I’m pregnant by the man who owns these things. Identify them, please
Who’s the owner of the seal-and-cord and the staff?
If this story was pure fiction, Tamar’s line and Judah’s subsequent revelation here would make for an iconic scene but if we are to believe that this bottle episode is based on truth, Tamar’s words form the desperate plea of an abused and outcast woman, hoping beyond hope that a man who has brought her such distress, will, for once, do what is right and admit ownership of his possessions, and thus, paternity of the unborn children.
Thankfully, Judah does, and he admits that Tamar is more righteous than he is to boot. And I like the suggestion that Judah learnt from Tamar, examined his behaviour and repented, turning his life around so that the next time we see him, he is saving his starving family and offering to take the place of his innocent half-brother in prison (Genesis 42-44). Perhaps. But what of Tamar? Well, Tamar lives, her twins are born and it’s a happy ending of sorts – though it’s hard to believe that Tamar lived happily ever after. In the narrative, her name is never spoken again and in reality, her actions and reputation certainly would not have endeared her to friends or family. Rather, it’s a slightly upbeat ending to a rather grim chapter in the story of the family through whom God chose to bless the world!
What, then, can we learn from the story of Tamar – the strong, clever and brave foremother of Jesus?
Perhaps we should start with a confession. For a faith which is founded on an unusually celibate man who spent much of his time with socially outcast women; whose earliest converts included a foreign eunuch; and whose family tree includes strong, clever and brave women such as Rahab and Tamar, the Church has too often upheld false distinctions of the sacred and profane. Too often we have upheld heterosexual marriage as the Christian ideal, denying the experiences of women just like Tamar who do not find love, respect and joy within marriage, whilst treating the divorced as failures and the unmarried or gay as sexually impure. Too often we have behaved like Judah, violently demanding that others meet our expectations of behaviour whilst falling short of the standards ourselves. On this Christ the King Sunday, let us re-examine our tightly held categories of purity and impurity as we hear Jesus saying to us, ‘Truly, the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you’. (Matthew 21:31).
Perhaps we don’t want to hear it but the truth is that, just as Tamar found misery in marriage, possible starvation in widowhood, and financial security through her act of prostitution, many women across the world turn to sex work as a way to survive today. From women in India who choose sex work because it is easier to insist on condoms with their clients than it is with their husbands, to LGBTQ+ teenagers in New York who turn to sex work after the breakdown of family relationships – and lest we try to pretend that all is well on these shores, just this week there was a report that suggested that many women in the UK – most of whom are single mothers – are risking catching Covid-19 through sex work because they are having to choose ‘between risking their health by working or seeing their family go hungry’. If we ever catch ourselves saying that we want life to get back to normal as quickly as possible, we might want to reflect on that some more.
Yet, what can we do about the unjust systems which force women around the world to choose between sex work and starvation? Well, I was struck by Aled’s suggestion last week that we can’t always make things right but we can make things better and when it comes to the issue on hand, I wonder if that starts with us losing any judgment of sex workers. I wonder if it starts with us speaking of, and speaking up, for sex workers as a church; with us praying for them and for the Christian charities such as Azalea, Restore and One25 who support them. I wonder if it starts with us engaging in the debate about decriminalization or by giving to local charities which provide food and financial help to vulnerable women who might otherwise be forced to choose sex work to survive. We’ll certainly have a chance to do that through our support of Women’s Aid RCT – one of the charities we’re supporting this Christmas.
Which brings us back to Jesus. On this Christ the King Sunday, there’ll be many sermons given, many images offered of Christ as a pious and probably white figure sitting on a golden throne, surrounded by seraphim and looking down upon us with a serene gaze. Well the Jesus we encounter in the Bible has far more in common with the women in his genealogy than he does with these false idols. He has far more in common with the women who were condemned by religious leaders and outcast by society. With women who knew too well the injustice of their world and who sought to overcome it. With women whose lives were ever at risk and whose bodies even enabled some redemption.
If we speak of Christ the King, we must remember that his kingdom might well bear more resemblance to Harlots than The Crown. Unlike in our society, in which the wealthy have first access to the table – and riches, opportunities and vaccines for that matter – in God’s kingdom, things are turned upside down for it is the poor who will be blessed, the meek who will inherit the Earth and those who are well fed now who may go hungry. In God’s kingdom, those at the front of the queue aren’t the powerful, pure or privileged but the overlooked, outcast and ostracized. This might make us feel a little uncomfortable…and it perhaps it should. But it should also make us feel hopeful. For we can make things better but only God can make things right.
As we look to advent and the season of hopeful expectation, we can look forward to God’s coming kingdom, where oppressive systems of injustice will fall; where peace and righteousness shall kiss; where we will all be forever known and loved – not dependent on our reputation or marital status; and not in spite of our work or sexuality – but because of who we are as cherished children of a God whose love is radical, reckless and redemptive. To God ever be the glory. Amen.
 Marika Rose, Holy mothers of God: sex work, inheritance, and the women of
Jesus’ genealogy, 2019, Department of Theology, Religion and Philosophy, University of Winchester, Winchester, UK. This sermon series was partly inspired by Marika’s outstanding work and inspiring talks at Greenbelt 2019.
 English Collective of Prostitutes – https://prostitutescollective.net/bbc-news-covid-second-lockdown-will-deepen-sex-work-crisis/
Prayers of intercession – written by Revd John Henson
There are lots of women called prostitutes in the Bible, and they are highly honoured. So God we pray today for those who get called prostitutes, because we are all prostitutes. We have all received money in exchange for services rendered, with our hands, our bodies or our minds. Sometimes we enjoyed or experienced satisfaction from the work that we rendered, sometimes we did not. We did it all the same because we needed the money for ourselves and our families.
Most of us have made contracts with a friend or a marriage partner or a colleague. We have not always enjoyed the company of the friend we truly love, but we have made the contract because it saves us from being unloved, lonely or bored. Sometimes we give ourselves body mind and soul to somebody; but it is not roses all the way. There is a price to be paid, both ways probably. If not in money, then in time, effort and energy.
So why, God, do we call sex-workers ‘prostitutes’ God, meaning that we are not? They provide a particular service which some want but others do not. That is the same as the help we seek to provide in our churches. Some need the comfort and support we try to give them, others seek comfort and support elsewhere. Do we blame them? We are aware of how inadequate we are in helping others at times. Sometimes we help readily and eagerly and get satisfaction from our labours. Sometimes we feel weary and useless.
In days long gone, when you walked with men and women God, sex workers were often honoured and lived in the temples. There they had security and support, food, clothing, perfumes and lotions. They also had the dignity of being regarded as holy. They were certainly precious in your sight. At least two of the ancestors of your presence in Jesus were sex-workers. Jewish men in the days of Jesus were proud to claim Rahab as one of their ancestors. Some Jews still use the name today. Jesus went about with prostitutes and caused many a raised eye-brow. He said they were going to be citizens in God’s New World before the religious and pious. So why do we hardly mention them in church? And why are there so few among us? Well, as far as we know!
God of all history, we know that concubines were the companions and advisers of Kings and Queens. We only have to think of Louis XIV, Henry VIII, and Charles II, not to mention those who had same sex partners like King James I who translated some of the Psalms in the 1611 version of the Bible revered by Fundamentalists; then there was Queen Anne, and Frederick the Great of Prussia – all have honoured places in history, and professed to be devout Christians. So why are we so squeamish today? Why do we think that celibate priests are more holy than others, when they may be sexually frustrated, or even having a secret lifestyle? Where, God, in your name, do we think our hypocrisy gets us? You are not impressed!
So we need God to ask for your forgiveness big time – because we have neglected our sinful self-righteousness so long. We pray for all sex workers, those who take a pride in their work and more especially for those who are not happy with their lot, but have no other option. We pray for those who are victims of the slave trade and for those who abuse them. We pray, as always, for wrongs to be righted. We pray for those who are struggling with their sexuality at the present time and cannot feel any way out. We pray for all who are in any kind of danger. We pray for those whose only response to sexual variety is condemnation, hateful speech and action.
And, because words fall so short, in a time of stillness, we bring to you the people and situations which are on our hearts and minds today…
May the blessing of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary the Mother of Jesus be upon us now, and redeem our souls. Amen.
We Go, in the power of the Spirit.
Go, not to escape, but to engage with God’s world.
Go, to live hopefully, as people of resurrection.
As we do so, wherever you may be, pray the words of grace over our community –
May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Evermore. Amen.
O Lord all the world belongs to you.