Summary: God took those pottery shards and put together, in the end, a beautiful mosaic, our Gospel tells us, of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.
December 17 of the 3rd Week in Advent 2020
Today’s Gospel makes no sense unless we know something about the history of God’s relationship with the chosen people, Israel. Genealogies in Scripture always mean more than we modern Americans understand. They always point in some way to the Lord, and the Lord’s choice. Today’s passage from Genesis is an excerpt from the patriarch Jacob’s blessing of his son, Judah. It anticipates leadership of the family to rest with Judah’s clan, even though Judah is not the first-born son. That did not happen until his descendant, David, became king. His reign over Israel became known as a golden age, and he became famous as the greatest of their leaders. Moreover, by prophecy David learned that God would preserve his dynasty to rule forever.
So when Matthew, writing in a Jewish environment, begins his Gospel of Jesus, he traces the ancestry of Jesus back to the patriarchs, and focuses on David, the only one in this list who is called “king.” Of David’s descendants, all but three were total disappointments, many of them worshiping false gods. The three that were considered adequate were Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah. I think we can learn a good lesson from Hezekiah, about politicians and about prayer.
Hezekiah was ruler of Judah during the time the northern kingdom of Israel was overwhelmed by Assyria, the plague of the ancient near East. Hezekiah strengthened Jerusalem because he didn’t trust Assyria, even though he paid annual tribute to those monsters. Still, during the Assyrian invasion, Hezekiah contracted a grave illness, and when he called Isaiah in for prophecy, the prophet told him to arrange affairs; he was going to die! Thanks, Isaiah. The king did not want to die, of course, perhaps because it appears he had no son. So he turned to the wall–a Jewish custom at the time–and prayed, “Lord, you know how faithfully and wholeheartedly I conducted myself in your presence, doing what was pleasing to you.” And he wept. That’s his prayer.
Behold! Isaiah came back before he could even get out of the central courtyard, and told the king that God had heard the prayer, is healing him and in three days he would go to give thanks in the Temple. He promised Hezekiah fifteen more years of life. Well, that was enough time for the king to welcome the son of the king of Babylon, a rising power in the Near East, and to show off his treasury and all his other wonderful assets. It was also enough time to marry Hephzibah, who is called Isaiah’s daughter in the Talmud, and beget a son, Manasseh. This king, despite having a pious father and mother, ended up himself misruling Judah for over a half century. Manasseh adopted all the evil practices of his predecessors, worshiped the stars of heaven, offered his own firstborn to one of the gods in human sacrifice, and, according to the Talmud, murdered Isaiah his grandfather for standing up for what is right. Manasseh was promised by other prophets “such evil on Jerusalem and Judah that when people hear of it their ears will ring.”
So what lessons can we learn from this short piece of Hebrew history? First, about politicians. The psalms tell us not to trust in princes, but in God. If you lived in Jerusalem under Hezekiah, you might have forgotten. Also, politicians tend to think too much of themselves, tend to boast and show off, just as Hezekiah did. That evidences hubris, pretending to be as great as God. Babylon kept good records, and a couple of generations later invaded and took away all the treasures of Israel. Seeking humility, and keeping our mouths shut, is the best asceticism.
Second, about prayer. Notice that Hezekiah was bragging to God how faithful he was. Listen, over the years I’ve learned that the Lord doesn’t owe me anything because of what I have done. Jesus told us, once we’ve done everything we should, we say “we are unprofitable servants; we’ve just done what was expected.” So when we pray, we should remember what God has done for us, make our petitions, and then say, “but Thy will be done.” God’s will is always for our good, whatever that may be. King Hezekiah didn’t do that, and started a chain of events that ended in the whole kingdom being shattered like a jar. But God took those pottery shards and put together, in the end, a beautiful mosaic, our Gospel tells us, of Joseph, Mary and Jesus.