A Case Study in Unrestrained Emotions (A Sermon on Genesis 38:13-19)

A few months ago I had no idea whatsoever what "catfishing" was. That is, unless we're talking about what is normally described as the actual act of, well, catching fish named for their protruding barbels, which resemble a cat's whiskers.[1] But, thanks to a program on MTV, I now know better. Catfishing is the process of fraudulently presenting oneself online, usually through employing phony profiles, photos, and other related information. As best as I can tell, it's all the rage! I recently began watching Catfish: The TV Show, which chronicles real-life stories of people who think that they have found love online only to discover -- upon meeting their supposed love in person -- that they have been sorely deceived. There's the all-American college sweetheart who blabs on and on about her relationship with a dreamy male model who turns out to be a teenage girl seeking revenge online for being teased in school for her sexuality. Or, there's the confused fella in Mississippi whose online romance with a transgendered male is not that at all, since the he is really a she. And not only that, she is a bonafide woman (not transgendered at all), a lesbian woman who doesn't want him after all.

Call me old-school, but this business of being in a relationship with someone you have never met in the flesh seems silly. But, nevertheless, this is all very interesting, in a spooky, twisted, sad sort of way because almost no one is who they claim to be online where anonymity and deception are just a mouse click or keyboard stroke away. The phenomenon of catfishing has gained traction in the national media lately with coverage of Notre Dame football standout and Heisman Trophy finalist, Manti Te'o's story. Supposedly, for almost a year Te'o considered himself to be in a relationship with a woman he'd never met in person, having only spoken on the phone and communicated via Facebook. Yet, it turned out to be a man hiding behind a fake profile and masked falsetto voice to sound feminine. More details are perhaps forthcoming about the incident, but it appears that Te'o, presumably fueled by loneliness, went looking for love in one of the worst places possible: the Internet. And, whether with evil or platonic intentions, the young man doing the deceiving was struggling with confusion and shame, which he says originated from an incident of childhood molestation.

Most of us know at least a thing or two about poor decision making involving matters of the heart. And, if not, the prophet Jeremiah has timely insight on the matter: "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?"[2] Looking for validation, friendship, revenge, or love in unedifying or deceitful ways only highlights the notion that, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun."[3] Though not every emotion is appropriate or helpful, you and I are always responsible for how we respond to our emotions. So, being the biblical soap opera that it often is, let's review this case study of Judah and Tamar from the Old Testament.

Er and Onan, Judah's first two sons died one right after the other. Er because he was wicked and Onan because he used and then neglected Tamar, Er's widow, by refusing to carry on his brother's bloodline with her, which was the Levirate custom. Shelah, Judah's last son, per the custom should've taken Tamar as his wife or otherwise carried on his brother's bloodline by producing a son with her. But, Judah had problems with that plan. Scared out of his mind that Tamar might be cursed and would literally be the death of his last son, thus signaling the end of his own bloodline, Judah told Tamar, "Remain a widow in your father's house, til Shelah my son grows up." (v. 11) Like a nice daughter-in-law and with no recourse for objection anyhow, Tamar complied. But, eventually Judah's wife dies and when Tamar hears that he's heading up to Timnah on an agricultural road trip she hits the roof because she realized in that moment that despite his promise, Judah has no intention of sending his son Shelah to make an honest, honorable woman out of her again. And so, as if things weren't convoluted enough already, now the real drama begins.

Feeling manipulated and forsaken, Tamar concocts an intricate plan of revenge with a built-in safety mechanism to protect her from reprisal. Judah meanwhile, at least we assume, is mourning the death of his wife, and in that grief, fueled by a desire to experience the female frame again, he decides to solicit a prostitute. To him, this seems like a good enough plan since he could get his needs met, and no one would be the wiser about his wicked late-night shenanigans. Or, so he thought. Judah cuts a deal with this mysterious woman of the night, agreeing (v. 17) to give her one young goat as payment. Being a savvy negotiator, however, she goes one step farther, requesting that Judah leave his signet, cord, and staff with her, as collateral, (v. 18) until he delivers on his end of the transaction. And, so to this he agrees. In relinquishing these items, albeit temporary, Judah was essentially giving this prostitute his social DNA, you might say today's equivalent of his social security card and driver's license. This was a wise move on the part of the prostitute because she would now have undeniable proof that Judah had slept with her, as bargaining chips in the event that he reneged on delivering payment. But, alas, that would never come to pass, for the woman Judah thought was a prostitute was Tamar impersonating one in order to reveal his hypocrisy and disgrace in unashamedly disregarding the Levirate custom, and therefore dishonoring her. To that degree, her plan worked splendidly.

In the end (which unfolds in the remainder of Genesis 38), upon hearing through the grapevine that his daughter-in-law, the same one he's been deceiving and neglecting all along, is pregnant out-of-wedlock, Judah goes off the deep end, and begins yelling about burning Tamar for this grievous moral offense only to be set straight when Tamar reveals his dirty laundry that has culminated in her being pregnant with twins, his children. It's quite the sordid situation. One commentator writes: "The story of Tamar and Judah is aimed at those who seek safety by violating moral principles."[4] But, both their plans to violate moral principles stemmed from unaddressed, and then ultimately unrestrained emotions. Tamar had every right to feel the way that she felt and then some, but that doesn't justify her actions. Judah feared losing his bloodline if his last son, Shelah, were to meet the fate of his two older brothers in dealing with Tamar. And, we presume that Judah's loneliness after having lost his wife is what led him to seek out a prostitute, but the ends don't justify the means.

Both Judah and Tamar's feelings were right, but both Judah and Tamar's actions were wrong, the product of unrestrained emotions. Whether you choose to be someone you are not in order to get something that you want or you choose to be yourself in pursuing that which is immoral, it all amounts to a choice to be at odds with the Lord. This is where a healthy support system can be helpful in avoiding calamity. It's imperative that these supporters themselves be healthy because anyone encouraging you to run wild with your emotions is incapable of guiding you to emotional maturity. You need people in your life who will look you in the face and acknowledge your pain, but who will also tell you when your proposed responses to certain emotions are utterly incompatible with God's holy decrees. Take a quick look at Judah's friend, Hiram the Adullamite. In the text he is silent in saying anything to challenge Judah's behavior. All Hiram does is co-sign Judah's wickedness by returning to Timnah looking for the prostitute in order to exchange the young goat for Judah's belongings. Friends don't let friends drive drunk on unrestrained emotions.

While I have your attention, let me just say that if you feel compulsive or otherwise incapable of controlling how your respond to the emotions welling up inside of you, then please seek professional help in the form of a licensed mental health counselor or therapist. Rev. Hill and I are called to and have been trained for the humbling task of caring for God's sheep as pastoral leaders. And, there is no shame in seeking assistance from those who God has likewise called and who have been appropriately trained to care for people's emotional and mental needs. When working together -- mental health professionals, pastors, and healthy friends -- what you find is accountability, and the learned wisdom needed to properly process and restrain your emotions.

This morning women and men awakened somewhere in a cramped, cold cell, yet another reminder of their incarceration, all which may stem from just one incident of emotional recklessness. This morning there may be husbands and wives wrestling with the impact of infidelity, and all types of other emotions that have the potential to draw them nearer or farther apart. There are likely single adults here supremely frustrated with their singleness, or equally exasperated with the stigma of discontent often associated with their singleness. Exhausted from cliques, popularity contests, and prom politics, there are middle and high school students overwhelmed by the complex maze of achievement and acceptance called adolescence, which in about 15 years they will more accurately just call life. In a society where cronyism and incompetence often equal workplace success, having resisted for so long, maybe like so many others you feel the time is finally right to get your hands and heart dirty. Perhaps on the way to church parents experienced an emotional outburst of epic proportions from their children, or children experienced an emotional outburst of epic proportions from their parents. It goes both ways!

Maybe most of us here this morning struggle at one time or another with feelings of loss, loneliness, abandonment, jealousy, or anger. Well, God wants you to know that it is not healthy to suppress your emotions, but that it is also unhealthy to let unrestrained emotions guide your life because the ride will always be rockier and more costly than you ever thought. Don't believe me? Just ask Judah and Tamar.

[1] This sermon was preached by yours truly, the Rev. James Ellis III, on February 10, 2013 at University Christian Church in Hyattsville, MD where the Rev. Nathan Hill is senior minister.

[2] Jeremiah 17:9.

[3] Ecclesiastes 1:9.

[4] Aaron Wildavsky, Survival Must not be Gained through Sin: The Moral of the Joseph Stories Prefigured through Judah and Tamar," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 62 (June 1994): 43.