“He who is the issue of an illicit union [ממזר, mamzer] will not enter the assembly of the Lord, even his tenth generation will in no way enter the assembly of the Lord” -Deuteronomy 23:2
His glory was that he laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respactablilty and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts.” -Charles Spurgeon
Last year the Huffington Post ran one of my new favorite Christmas montages. It was a collection of short Nativity Pageants that had started off with such high hopes, but had crashed spectacularly. My favorite is the camel falling into the audience. I’ve worked with animals in front of a live audience before. I know it can go bad in a hurry, but this is way worse than anything I’ve ever worried about.
I imagine the people involved trying to shake that off. Maybe they’re at a nice restaurant after church trying to explain to their friends why they have camel hair all over them and smell like Egypt.
But what I loved the most about these compilation of videos is that reality comes shining through despite our best efforts at glossing over it. The world, for most of the people in it, isn’t primary shiny and sparkly and clean and happy. Maybe if you are young and fit and have enough money you can avoid this fact for a while, but eventually each of us have to face the messy bits of reality.
Sometimes Mary falls off her donkey and no matter how hard they practice, 8 year old kids discover that the 12 days of Christmas are really, really hard to memorize.
Christmas is Messy, and it has been from the beginning.
Jesus The Mamzer
In the Hebrew language, the word Mamzer is the word for a child that comes out of a forbidden relationship. The word is flexible, it can mean anything from a child born from incest to a child who was born from a Mamzer. But almost every single time the word is used it refers to a child born from parents who weren’t married.
John Ortberg points out that every culture has a word for their mamzers, and none of them are nice.
If Joseph has been Roman, Jesus would probably not have even survived. In the Roman culture, children like that were usually abandoned in a dump, or on a hill made of dung. To this day, in many places, they still are.
This is not just an incidental detail of Jesus’ life, it is something that comes up often in the Gospels.
One time in the Gospel of John, the religious leaders of the day are arguing with Jesus and apparently they aren’t doing so well so they bring it up:
“We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.”
John writes in Greek, so the word he uses isn’t Mamzer, it’s Porneia…as in the word we get pornography from. When push comes to shove, they bring up that Jesus entered the world with disgrace.
The New Testament Scholar Scot McKnight says it this way:
“Jesus was labeled by his contemporaries as a mamzer. And such a label would have carried with it socio-religious implications with a powerful significance for Jesus.”
It was a label that would have, from the very beginning made Jesus more than just a peasant carpenter, it would have made him an outcast, excluded from social circles, religious assemblies and any opportunity to marry into a “good family.”
That’s the world Jesus was born into, and the way he was born into it.
The Gospel According to Jesus
Now revisit the Gospel. Think about all those times that Jesus interacts with labeled condemned people, and the way He does it. If you’re paying attention you begin to realize that this is the trajectory of Christmas.
Jesus seems rather indifferent to grading the kind of sin that people are dealing with, only with getting them to admit it, bring it out in the open to be dealt with.
The inner rings of the elite, seem to hold no appeal for Jesus. In fact, he seems to think that with his life and ministry he maybe able to redraw the lines of who’s considered in and who is out.
Take for example, the story of Mark 5. Jesus is approached by Jarius, the Synagogue Ruler who has a dying daughter. The Synagogue ruler is a prestigious role in 1st century Judaism, and to be able to put “friends with Jarius” on a resume is good for any Rabbi. A dying daughter might be the only reason that Jarius would approach a Mamzer, Jesus ministry hasn’t really taken off yet, and this is a risky move by a prominent community leader.
But along the way, Jesus is interrupted by a woman with a bleeding disease. As far as the social scale, Jarius and this woman couldn’t be further apart. They actually had created rules and commandments to keep the apart. She couldn’t go to synagogue, she could legally even be in public. But here she was, throwing a Hail Mary, asking Jesus if He would do for her what he was planning to do for the prestigious man’s daughter…give her back a life.
And here’s the most breathtaking, yet subtle thing in the whole story. It’s a glimpse of Christmas and the messy glory of it all.
Jesus heals the bleeding woman publicly, and he heals the prestigious young daughter in secret.
And publicly, in front of the whole community, Jesus calls this woman the only word that could heal her heart, “Daughter.”
Jesus knows a mamzer when he sees one, and takes care to let everyone know that she belongs in God’s good world too.
She’s belongs, because God didn’t just become a baby, He became a Mamzer. So that the world would finally know a community of God’s people where everyone has a place, just as God intended.