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August 16, 2020 is Pentecost 11A/Proper 15A/Ordinary 21A

Genesis 45:1-15 – Joseph reveals himself to his brothers after weeping bitterly. The brothers return to their father with gifts from Joseph.


Isaiah 56:1, 6-8
– And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord… these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer… for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.

Psalm 133 – How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity.


Psalm 67
– The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, has blessed us. May God continue to bless us; let all the ends of the earth revere him.

Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
– For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Just as you were once disobedient to God but have now received mercy because of their disobedience, so they have now been disobedient in order that, by the mercy shown to you, they too may now receive mercy. For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.

Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28
– What defiles a person… The faith of the Canaanite woman.

Genesis 45: Joseph Provides for his Brothers and is Reunited with His Father

Dr. Beth Tanner, Professor of Old Testament at New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey asks, “Does good eventually come from evil acts?” I certainly hope so, because this seems to me to be the message of the cross. This also seems to be the message of the Joseph story.

It is hard to imagine anything much more despicable than selling someone into slavery, for life, especially your own brother. If Joseph had not been sold into slavery, would his family have survived the famine? Last week I suggested this story could be told in one or two Sundays, but it need a full treatment. Hardly any part of it makes sense without the whole.

Today’s text begins with Joseph weeping so loudly, the Egyptians outside his room can hear. “Send everyone away from me!” “Is my father still alive?” A gut-wrenching question. The drama of this story is palpable. Preach it.

They are in year two of the famine. Remember Pharaoh’s dream of seven fat cows and seven lean cows? Joseph interpreted it to mean seven years of a plentiful harvest followed by seven years of famine? They are now in year two of the second seven years. Joseph sends for his father. Go get him. Bring him here. I will provide for him. Then he kissed them and sent them off with donkeys laden with gifts, grain and bread. Even Pharaoh was pleased, telling Joseph to give his father the best land in Egypt.

In following chapter (Genesis 46), Joseph is reunited with his father in a dramatic scene that brings tears to the eyes. In chapter 47 Joseph presents Jacob (renamed Israel by the angel with whom he wrestled) to Pharaoh. In chapter 48, Jacob/Israel meets his grandchildren, a fulfillment of the promise made to him by God in his ladder to heaven dream many years ago. (See Stairway to Heaven.)

In chapter 49, Jacob predicts the life outcomes of his children, then says, “I am about to be gathered to my people. Bury me with my ancestors—in the cave in the field of Ephron the Hittite, the cave in the field at Machpelah, near Mamre, in the land of Canaan, in the field that Abraham bought from Ephron the Hittite as a burial site.” There is a mosque at this burial site, with the graves of the Patriarchs and their wives.

“When Jacob ended his charge to his sons, he drew up his feet into the bed, breathed his last, and was gathered to his people.”

In chapter 50 Joseph weeps bitterly for his father, then has him embalmed and buried. The brothers are concerned that Joseph, in his grief, will hold a grudge against his brothers, who have not yet been verbally forgiven. They remind Joseph that their father wanted him to forgive them. After a moment of dramatic pause, Joseph says,

“Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.”

The Book of Genesis ends telling Joseph lives to be 100 years old, remaining in Egypt for the rest of his life. When he died, he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. The stage is set for Exodus, but this 15-chapter story of hatred, betrayal, redemption and forgiveness stands on its own. It has been told for 3,000 years and will probably be told for 3,000 more.

Isaiah 56: Even Foreigners

The theme that ties all this text from Isaiah with the epistle and gospel readings is the welcoming of outsiders. This is an important topic the world today, and for the church. The most read post on my blog in the last 13 years was an article entitled Insiders and Outsiders.

In Isaiah 56 Yahweh says that even the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord will be welcome on the holy mountain. Salvation is not reserved for any one group or ethnicity. Romans 9-11, and to some extent all of Romans, and much of Paul’s other letters, deal with the spread of the gospel to the Gentiles, begging the question of who is “in” and who is “out.” And who decides… Finally, in Matthew it is a Canaanite woman who shows faith. Faith is the key, not ancestry, ethnicity or even religious affiliation.

Isaiah 56 begins Trito-Isaiah and the assumed context is that some remnant has returned to Jerusalem from Babylon. It makes perfect sense that the question of “insiders” and “outsiders” is a post exilic question or concern. Who are these returned refugees?  There had been some “benefits” to the exile and, while not being “home”, the Jews were well treated and some became quite wealthy. Being with foreigners had not been a complete disaster. Nevertheless, many interpreted the exile as punishment for their infidelity to Yahweh; an infidelity that was linked to foreigners and foreign deities.

So Trito-Isaiah begins with affirming and accepting references to foreigners. “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’” As we heard in last week’s lesson from Romans, “All that call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” So it is from the beginning to the end of the Scriptures. Bottom line, “us-ness” is defined by Yahweh and by one’s relationship to Yahweh, not by one’s ethnicity or nationality.

This is the portion of scripture that Jesus quotes while cleaning the temple in Matthew 21: “My house shall be called a house of prayer…” Mark’s gospel completes the line from Isaiah: “…a house of prayer for all people.” The temple, which was supposed to be a welcome place of prayer for all people has become a place of exclusion to foreigners, eunuchs, handicapped and others. People are being ripped off; an especially egregious lack of hospitality to foreigners that had traveled long distances.

What would Isaiah or Jesus say about the church today? Is it a house of prayer for all people, or is it reserved for a small, elite group?

Romans 11: Merciful to All

As with last week’s reading, this too is from the unity of Christians and Jews section of Romans; Chapters 9-11. And, here again, Paul underscores – in much the same way he did pointing to the unity shared by Jews and Gentiles in the 3rd Chapter – the fact that in Jesus Christ, God’s mercy includes all: “For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all.” All means all, y’all. This could be a worthy sermon title. All of the world’s categories for who are insiders and outsiders – which usually involve categories of “righteousness” or “rightness” – count for nothing!

And yet, when people start yammering on about “America getting back to being a Christian nation” once again (assuming for a moment that it ever was), they are usually talking about categories of righteousness/rightness. They are usually talking about who ought be in and who ought be out.  They may even be talking about foreigners and foreign religions. They are seldom talking about a God that is merciful to all.

One may recall Portia’s soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice.

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest. It becomes
The thronèd monarch better than his crown.
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings,
But mercy is above this sceptered sway.
It is enthronèd in the hearts of kings.
It is an attribute to God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
When mercy seasons justice. Therefore, Jew,
Though justice be thy plea, consider this—
That in the course of justice none of us
Should see salvation. We do pray for mercy,
And that same prayer doth teach us all to render
The deeds of mercy…

One may also recall a line from the hymn “Lead On, O King Eternal:“

For not with swords loud clashing,

nor roll of stirring drums;

with deeds of love and mercy

the heavenly kingdom comes.

Matthew: The faith of the Canaanite Outsider

In this coming Sunday’s Gospel, we find Jesus in the region of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon today, just South of Beirut where the recent explosion was. Sayda is about 60 from Nazareth, as the crow flies. Tyre is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. In Sunday’s gospel, Jesus was a bit outside his comfort zone. Back then it was called Canaan. The Greeks called it Phoenicia, after their word for purple, as it was a center for that purple dye that you get from mollusks.

“The city of Tyre was originally an island which Alexander the Great later joined to the mainland by a causeway. In time the causeway was enlarged by rubble and sand deposits washed up by waves. This 1873 map shows Tyre as it was in 322 BC, and later as a peninsula stretching out into the Mediterranean Sea.”

— Quoted from Biblical Archaeology Review, Fall 2002 issue of Bible and Spade, vol. 15, no. 4.

Artistic renderings of Biblical stories can be curious; and one of the more bemusing is by Sebastiano Ricci, where the woman has one breast seductively exposed and is holding her little dog in her arms. It may say more about Ricci than about the encounter of Jesus with the Canaanite woman, however, we must recognize how very different are the people who come to Christ across the world. They bring their cultural, familial and religious sensibilities with them.

It is important to read the optional verses, 10-28, and not just verses 21-28. Verses 10-20 set up the story. The encounter with the Canaanite woman “acts out” exactly what is “spelled out” in Jesus’ interaction with the Scribes and Pharisees.

Righteousness or cleanliness is not about “outside-in”; it’s about “inside-out”; and that’s what gets recognized and approved in Jesus granting her request. Her status as a Gentile counts for nothing. What’s critical is her faith. It’s all inside-out.

Some other thoughts…

The word “fair” in verse 27, “it is not fair to take the children’s food,” is not the best translation.  The King James Version got closest when it translated kalon as “meet.”  “For it is not meet to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Today we would say, “It is not appropriate…”  But then, what does it mean?

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman is a 1971 novel by Ernest J. Gains. Made into a movie in 1974 starring Cicely Tyson, it is the story of an African-American woman, born into slavery, who lives to be about 100.  In the closing scene, and with everyone watching (including the local sheriff), she does the one thing she has to do before she dies: slow and stooped with age, she makes her way up the sidewalk to the courthouse and drinks from the fountain marked “White”. Whether what she did was “meet” or not would depend upon whom you asked.

Driving Miss Daisy is a 1989 film starring Jessica Tandy and Morgan Freeman. Based on the play of the same name, the story is of an aging white woman who cannot drive and so she has a black man – a long time “friend” of the family – as her chauffeur.  The movie is a study of how in some ways they got very close over the years; and yet, in some ways they always had to keep their emotional distance. It simply would not have been “meet.”

Pastor Don Carlson, who did a lot of the research and prep for these notes, recalls being a Bible camp counselor.  After camp was over one summer a few of the Minnesota counselors went south for a week to stay with fellow counselors from the South, and get a taste of Texas. One  day at the home of Colonel George and his wife in San Angelo, Jennifer had to pull her Minnesota friends aside and tell them that, if they wanted to make a good impression, they had better start using “Ma’am” or “Sir” when they addressed an adult.  Their speech wasn’t “meet.”

So, you have the sense.  “Meet” as an adjective means: proper or acceptable.  Or to use a good Southernism: “fittin’,” as in: “It ain’t kalos!” – “It ain’t fittin’.”

But note that what is “meet” or not is often a social construct. It depends upon whom you ask.  Is it “kalon” to drink from the fountain?  Is it “meet” to befriend Miss Daisy?  Is it “fittin’” to not use Ma’am or Sir? Social patterns differ from time to time, place-to-place, person-to-person, and people to people.

In this story Jesus is way out of bounds.  He’s not coloring “inside the lines” in Galilee.  He’s way up around Tyre in Phoenicia; modern day Lebanon.  And he’s talking to a woman – a woman who is Canaanite.  Jesus is bending social convention.

Of course, the Pharisees had said to Jesus, “Your disciples don’t follow the traditions of the elders, for they eat with defiled (ritually unwashed) hands.  It ain’t fittin’!  That ain’t right!”  In response to them, Jesus had said that it wasn’t what went into people that made them unclean; but what came out of them from their heart.

Of course, the issue never was unclean hands or food. The issue was unclean people!  Not following the rules, the social/religious constructs, those things, they had agreed, made people unclean!  Unacceptable!  Unfit!  Foul!

It’s not right to take the children’s food and give it to the dogs. He calls her a dog. Matthew, who is all about making disciples of “all nations,” certainly must relate this story tongue-in-cheek. Is she a dog because she is a Canaanite? Or is she a dog because she is demon-possessed? Or is she a dog because she is a woman? Did Jesus just call her a witch with a capital B?

She says, “Even dogs eat the crumbs from the master’s table.” A crumb is a small thing, like a mustard seed or a pinch of yeast. She doesn’t need much. She recognizes the power of the gospel. “Woman, how great is your faith! Let it be done as you wish.” Perhaps Jesus got an attitude adjustment. Maybe he begins to expand his mission.

Jesus said, 

It ain’t fittin’ to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs is it?”

Jesus, you got that right. In fact, you shouldn’t even be there. You shouldn’t be there talking to her!  And, for God’s sake, you shouldn’t be doing anything for her!  It wouldn’t be kalon; meet!

Yes, Jesus, but even the dogs under the table get the children’s crumbs!  Even the dogs know when something’s fit to eat, even if the children are unwilling to eat it! 

Jesus said,

For speaking this truth it shall be as you have said!”

James wrote,

If you say to the one who is poor, ‘Stand there,’ or to the person in dirty clothes, ‘Sit at my feet,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves?

Well, duh!  Of course we’ve made distinctions!  That’s how the game is played!  Life is about distinctions; otherwise, how would we know where the lines are?  How will we know who’s distinguished if we don’t make distinctions?  It is meet, right, and salutary!

But, as usual, it depends upon whom you ask. 

Do you, with your acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?

We live in a culture, nation, and world where the lines are being ever more clearly drawn.  Polarization!  It doesn’t matter if it’s nations, religions, genders, political parties, races, orientations, nationalities, classes, or whatever. Someone is always saying to or about someone else, “It ain’t right to take the bread and throw it to the likes of them.” Some people even say the words in Jesus’ name.

But those words weren’t Jesus’ last word. “For this, go – what you ask is yours.” Jesus broke the rules.  But then, maybe not.  After all, Lords can do that.  Rulers make new rules. “Do we, with our acts of favoritism, really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?”

Do we believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  Maybe the answer depends upon whom we ask, and how we treat those around us.

We have a God who does not make distinctions. Human divisions are irrelevant. All who call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.