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Roots, thorns and joy: Navigating complex family history during the holidays (December 17, 2023)

How do we make sense of complicated family dynamics in our lives and in our faith history? Chris Burton reflects on the women present in Jesus' genealogy.

Outlook Standard Lesson for December 17, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Matthew 1:1-17 

The end of the year can be a time of deep reflection. I remember one holiday, in my pre-vegan days, when I wanted to make ribs. I had all the right seasonings, cooked them to what seemed like perfection, and, even though my family said they were great, I still did not enjoy them. I sat in that kitchen, alone for a moment, with a plate full of ribs and regret.

Reflection is difficult, especially in a season that is celebratory and commercialized to the point of being saccharine. It’s no wonder that the holidays are a time of peak isolation when the fight against loneliness and depression is at its height. Family, unfortunately, can be a source of isolation. I am not sure which is worse or feels more insurmountable: being alone or having a family only in the nominal sense, people who should know you better but are not doing the work of getting to know you continually. Somewhere along the journey, their understanding of you crystallized, your memory frozen in time even though you kept living.

It is good to be rooted, to know that you came from folks, but roots come with thorns. Maybe you have folks in your genealogy who don’t inspire pride. Or maybe some names bring you shame but cannot be erased without erasing yourself.

We try to comfort ourselves with adages like “choosing our family” or celebrating “Friendsgiving,” but we know that family, even when we don’t communicate, cannot be fully severed. It shows up in our details, our features and our mannerisms. We cannot undo ourselves.

Every person in our lineage, villains and heroes alike, is a part of our story. Of course, people do not always fall into easy archetypes. Life is complex and people are even more so. The loving parent described by one child is the parent who withheld love from another. The child beloved by one sibling is misunderstood by another. With all this difficulty, how are we supposed to have a happy holiday?

I no longer believe that happiness is a chief aim. Happiness is an emotion we get to visit, some of us more frequently than others, but it is not a place where we live. Joy, conversely, is what we need to keep going. Joy builds our endurance; it allows us to say that despite where we started, we believe in where God is taking us.

I no longer believe that happiness is a chief aim. … Joy, conversely, builds our endurance; it allows us to say that despite where we started, we believe in where God is taking us.

Consider the genealogy laid out in Matthew 1. Several points of pain are woven into this family tree. Chief among them is the exploitation of women. Tamar gives birth to Perez and Zerah who are fathered by her father-in-law, Judah (Genesis 38). Bathsheba is taken advantage of by King David (2 Samuel 11). It is easy to be compelled by internalized misogyny and somehow blame the women in these stories for what happened to them, but we know that Scripture does not portray them as antagonists worthy of blame.

Genesis 38 tells us that Tamar was initially married to Er, but the “Lord put him to death” because of his wickedness (v. 7). Tamar’s in-laws refused to do their part and continue the family line so eventually Tamar posed as a sex worker and was impregnated by Judah. At the end of their story, Judah says, “She is more right than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah,” (v. 26). King David is the one whom the Lord sends the prophet Nathan to say, “Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what is evil in his sight?” (2 Samuel 12).

Both of these women experienced unspoken – at least unrecorded –  pain. We have to surmise the sense of isolation Tamar must have felt in seeing her husband’s family and their unwillingness to support her. We have to surmise the powerlessness Bathsheba must have felt knowing that the most powerful man in the kingdom – the king! – wanted her and would even kill her husband to have her. These are not the roots anyone would choose!

It makes me wonder what God is doing with our pain, with the undesired aspects of our own stories.

While this is not the most desirous story, it is the story that leads to Jesus. It makes me wonder what God is doing with our pain, with the undesired aspects of our own stories. These women have stories beyond victimhood, they are key components of the greatest story ever told. A story of joy that transcends circumstances. The sort of joy that does not erase heartache but deepens the appreciation of triumph because one remembers more arduous times.

The difficulties in our lives are opportunities to grow in our empathy. We are not junk, and we are not only here to be exploited. God is not done with us.

Questions for discussion

  1. What do you do with the stories in your family that you don’t like? Do you hide from them or address them?
  2. How do you respond to the stories of exploited people?
  3. How can we see people beyond what has happened to them and see them for their full selves?

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