Prostitutes and Pharisees: enough of contempt

A sermon for the second Sunday after the Epiphany, January 17th 2021


In the genealogy of Jesus according to Matthew (Matthew 1:1-17), five women are mentioned, four of them by their names. Apart from Mary, his mother, there is Ruth, who was the grandmother of Jesse, the father of King David. The story of her “courtship” with Boaz makes for interesting reading (Ruth 2-4), but the writer makes no more of it than necessary.

The most ancient woman named in Jesus’ line of ancestors is Tamar (Genesis 38). Now Tamar was married to the son of Judah, son of Jacob; but he died. Following the tradition of levirate marriage, she was married to her husband’s brother, but he, too, died. Fearing that this was becoming a pattern, Judah withheld his younger son from Tamar, and left her to live as a widow. But Tamar tricked Judah. He met her on the road and thought that she was a prostitute, and hired her. He promised to pay her a goat, and she made him leave her his signet ring for surety. But when he sent back to claim it, the alleged “prostitute” was nowhere to be found.

A couple of months later, the townspeople complained to Judah that his daughter-in-law was pregnant. “She has been playing the whore,” they accused (forgive my language; it’s biblical). And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” That is when Tamar presented him with the signet, cord, and staff that he had left in her possession, when he used her in such a way that he did not even recognize her. Tamar gave birth to twins, Perez and Zerah. When Zerah reached his hand from the birth canal, the midwife tied it with a crimson cord; but Perez pushed his way past and became the firstborn. Perez, the son of Judah’s dereliction of duty and Tamar’s deception, was the ancestor of King David, eventually of Jesus himself.

A few generations later, after Egypt and the Exodus, the crimson cord and other themes resurface in the story of Rahab (Joshua 2). Rahab, who would become Boaz’s mother, therefore Ruth’s mother-in-law, in her younger days was the prostitute who protected and abetted Joshua and his spies in capturing Jericho. They told her to hang a crimson cord in her window so that they would be able to find and rescue her during the fall of Jericho that she had helped to bring about, and she lived forever afterward with the Israelites, becoming the great-great-grandmother of David, in the line of the accession of Jesus.

All of which is to say that when Jesus tells the priests and elders of the people that the tax collectors and the prostitutes will enter the kingdom of God ahead of them (Matthew 21:32), he has some family stories to inform him. When that old Pharisee Paul goes off on one about prostitutes in his letter to the church of Corinth, remember Tamar. Remember Rahab.

The exploitation of another human being for sex or power or any other form of selfish greed is heinous. We know that we have an ongoing problem with human trafficking, and it is the sin and the gluttony and the inhumanity of those who victimize others for profit that is the evil in that realm, not the bodies of the women, men, or young people who are enslaved by the wickedness of others.

The sin which Paul calls out in his letter to the Corinthians, which quivers with his personal distaste, is the sin of the one who pursues his own gratification without consideration to right relationship, mutual respect and love, faithfulness, continence, and grace. The prostitute does not defile the purchaser; he defiles himself.

Any time that we use another human being for our own gratification, without due respect to the full image of God, the full image of Christ within them, we commit the kind of blasphemy to which Paul refers. When we exploit one another for economic gain, or put someone down to bolster our own ego; when we use another to vent our frustration, of any kind, to vent our anger, to be our scapegoat or our escape; when we label the other with our own sin and blame; when we treat any other person as less than as gloriously full of the image of the divine as we are, then we are subject to the kind of judgement we normally reserve for those we consider sinners.

Perhaps that is why the mob was so quick to drop its stones when Jesus invited the one without sin to throw the first one at the woman allegedly caught in fornication, and why the elders, those who had lived the longest and learned the most, and sinned the most, the descendants of Judah were the first to drift away. And perhaps Jesus was thinking of his great-great-great-grandmother when he looked at the woman and, finding them to be alone together, said, “Where are they? Has no one condemned you? … Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and do not sin any more.” (John 8:1-11)

It is easy to condemn the other. It is easy to separate ourselves into “us” and “them”. It gets even easier when we use labels and group people together: black and white, right and left, sinners and saints, gay, straight, cis- or transgender, prostitutes and Pharisees.

But Jesus looked at Nathaneal and saw him for who he truly was, with no deceit. And Jesus looked at the woman, caught in sin and violently scorned by the crowd, and saw her as a woman, fully human, and made in the image of the divine. He saw their common ancestry, their shared humanity, and the mercy of God that filled the divide between them.

Almost everyone’s story is more complicated in its roots and its backwoods than it first appears. We are not as adept as Jesus at seeing through to the core at first glance. But we are his spiritual descendants, and his ancestors are our ancestors. We can practice, removing labels and resisting prejudice, remembering where we have come from, the skeletons in our closets, the memories behind the mirror, resisting the temptation to use or abuse others to feel better about ourselves, and wondering instead how we can be of service, to help and to heal the world, following in the way of Jesus, in whom the image of the God was made perfectly, fully, and compassionately human.

Let me close with a prayer penned by one of those who strove to follow in Jesus’ way of love, Martin Luther King, Jr:

O thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being. We humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds and we have not loved our neighbors as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our own selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive, we love our friends and hate our enemies, we go the first mile but dare not travel the second, we forgive but dare not forget. And so as we look within ourselves we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against thee. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know thy will. Give us the courage to do thy will. Give us the devotion to love thy will. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. Amen.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/prayers

Featured image: Jacopo Tintoretto (1519-11594), The Meeting of Tamar and Judah (detail), via wikimedia commons

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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