My grandmother was doing some genealogical research on her maternal ancestors. This was quite some time after her mother had passed away. When she asked for the record of births for the year that her mother was born she saw something that, frankly, offended her. Next to her mother’s name, strung between parentheses of shame, was the phrase “bastard child.”
My grandmother was in her 70s when she beheld those words, brazenly displayed in public records for all to see. It was shameful, she thought, to point such things out in a public document. My great grandma’s illegitimate birth was a truth which had been kept from her children until after she had died. In the small Missouri farming community where great-grandma was born, a dirty little secret like this was a scarlet letter, hanging not only over the head of the mother, but over the head of her “bastard child.”
The shame of conception outside of marriage would have been magnified in a first century Middle Eastern village. The Hebrew law sanctioned the stoning of a woman who was found to be with child before marriage. If they kept public records in the way they kept them in nineteenth century America, “bastard child,” or its equivalent, would have dangled in parentheses next to Jesus’ birth record.
Mary, the unwed pregnant teenager of Nazareth, was spared public execution, but her reputation very likely was not spared. Historian and gospel writer, Luke, puts his own questionable parentheses in his record of Jesus’ birth: “being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph,” (Luke 3:23 KJV). Those three little words, “as was supposed,” were the kinder and gentler restatement of what the townsfolk would have been saying. Likely the label around town for Jesus was the first century equivalent of “bastard child,” hinting at the accusation of wrongdoing, wrongdoing which neither Mary nor Jesus deserved, but a reputation with the power to cling like poverty around the necks of the accused.
Knowing full well the shame which would follow, knowing the hushed whispers of the village gossips, the scornful glances flashed upon the young, impoverished girl holding her illicit child – these things did not catch God off guard. Stepping into the perception of illegitimacy was a choice, and offers us a glimpse into the character of a holy God who willfully chooses to stand with women and men of if ill-repute. While we rightly celebrate Christ our Victor, and Christ our King, naming our churches after these truths, we must not forget Christ our Bastard, taking upon himself our shame, our derision, our marred reputations. This is one who accepted the disgrace of public execution “thinking nothing of its shame,” (Heb. 12:2 JB Phillips).
When we observe people who have been swept up in public humiliation, whether rightfully or wrongfully, when we encounter men and women who have been labeled and rejected by the respected of our world, we ought to think, “these are the ones Christ chooses to be counted among.”
People like the Lady Boys of Bangkok
Celeste relocated from Texas to Bangkok, Thailand. God has drawn her into community with Bangkok’s Lady Boys. Many of these men, at a very young age – sometimes birth, were assigned the female gender by a parent or family member. In many ways Celeste has sacrificed her reputation to plant herself within this community. Her church in Texas, as well as many churches in Bangkok, are suspicious or concerned about Celeste’s association with Lady Boys. Some of her Lady Boy friends have come to embrace the grace of Jesus as their savior and have begun a journey of following him. However, not many have re-embraced their male birth-identity. These believers may spend the rest of their lives as Lady Boy followers of Jesus.
What will this mean for Celeste and the handful of believers who love, serve and walk alongside Lady Boys? What will visitors to churches who welcome Lady Boys think? Will people see beyond their make-up and high heels and witness the Creator's image inside them?
When we choose to come under the authority of a savior who was considered a bastard, to serve under someone who gathered to himself sex workers, tax collectors (a first century version of Mafioso?), and uneducated working class stiffs, we choose to follow him wherever he leads, no matter the cost to our reputations.
If we want to stand near to Christ our Bastard, we must die to ourselves. This includes being ready to follow his example and toss aside our respectable reputations.